It’s a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in Durham. As a group of artists filter into Duke University’s modest Branson Theater facility at the edge of its East Campus, I’m talking with Tony Hughes, artistic director of Very Normal Productions and founder of PERFORMANCE ART NIGHT, about the series he’s curated over the past three years, and its “10th anniversary”—the 10th collection of works—that will be presented over two nights this weekend at Common Ground Theater. (For a lineup of performances and info on an affiliated Saturday class in slapstick and clowning, go to the series’ web site.)
Hughes and regional actor/director Dana Marks are presenting their new work, Eden Is Dancing, on Friday night. She enters the conversation midway.
HUGHES: Let’s hope it is by Friday. (laughs)
How would you describe it?
The emphasis came from a couple of influences in the last year. One was the [Steven Tukel Mills] book, Next of Kin: My Conversation with Chimpanzees. It’s about how related we are to them, how some of their development mirrored some of our development, and how scientists are realizing that their consciousness is not extremely different from our consciousness.
I also took a trip to Italy, where I ended up seeing a lot of Renaissance art. I ended up seeing a lot of the same imagery by different masters. One image kept coming up in particular; I must have seen 20 to 30 versions by different people of “The Expulsion from Eden.”
These sort of rolled together into an idea: that human consciousness came into fruition at the moment when we were expelled from Eden. Before that we were more animal-like. But then comes this defining, first event—and, as a result, we have a past, present and future in relation to it. We then have the ability to manipulate the concepts of past, present and future.
In Genesis, the fall is associated with the characters eating from a tree of “knowledge of good and evil.” One wonders what knowledge or sentience was, at least for humans, before that acquisition.
I had this idea that consciousness just exploded on them at the moment they were expelled or ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After that, they begin to have the ability to manipulate symbols, manipulate words, and, ultimately, abstract ideologies and philosophy.
I was trying to think of modern analogies in which our consciousness is irreversibly altered in an immediate sense. I started thinking of car wrecks.
I mean, suddenly something occurs and you go from one place—in safety and warmth, listening to NPR—and then that world is shattered and there are these external forces moving, pushing you around, and you have to get out and deal with it.
I am also interested in dance theater and people like Doug Varone and Pina Bausch, who begin to combine abstract movement with narrative or semi-narrative.
So I began to conceive of a dance piece that incorporated the three stages of that world.
There’s “Eden,” in which we end up dancing; the beauty of animal consciousness and sentience which is terribly present and without much of the burdens that we bring to our consciousness.
Then there’s the moment where that consciousness is forever altered.
And then there’s “post-Eden,” and our human attempts to deal with this slice of divinity that we’ve acquired, this knowledge of good and evil—and how modern humanity copes with that pressure.
This was all contingent on working with Dana. If Dana wasn’t available, I would have done some completely different.
DANA MARKS: Wow.
HUGHES: Well, I need an Eve, right? I mean, I’m willing to be naked and run around and do some craziness. I just couldn’t think of anybody else who might be willing to do that who’s sharp and I trust and respect who could plug into that level. So if anyone was available…
…who could handle whatever’s coming out of that line of inquiry…
…it was her. I roughed out a script with some basic ideas based on the three parts I just mentioned and some images that were interesting to me—most of which have actually changed or fallen away by now.
Dana and I started getting together and rehearsing, taking those images she brought and combining them into the piece, which we’ve been cutting down for a little while now. At this point the work is about 30 minutes long. (Tony leaves the room to take a cell phone call.)
MARKS: I was ecstatic when Tony called me about making the piece. It was a huge compliment. I’ve always admired his artistry on stage.
What is it specifically about what he does that made you want to work with him?
There’s no shame. There’s no shame. It’s all truth, to me, whenever I watch him. There’s no pretense; no “actors’ stuff,” if you know what I mean.
He’s extremely mysterious. (laughs)
Which you do; you have to keep something for yourself; you can’t give too much away. He just commands the entire space and the attention of the people in the space.
I’d share that opinion. Tony has a way of charging a space emotionally; its one of the things that has struck me from his first work.
MARKS: He makes you want to say “I want to work with that guy.” I want to work with people who don’t have hang-ups and make it easy for you to work… And I’ve always been very interested in dance theater myself.
[[After we’ve spoken with several other artists, Tony summarizes his thoughts about performance art.]]
HUGHES: One of the overriding ideas and dreams that I have is to create a space where the spiritual experience of presence can occur. Both of those words are extremely important. Dylan [Grewen] spoke of the origins of theater. I lean toward the ritualist and spiritualist aspects of community—and the distance between self and other being bridged by this thing that we engage in.
Then there’s the idea of presence which encompasses pieces like Rus [Hames’] which on their surface are staunchly not about spiritual matters.
But I think that if you can bring an audience this presence, you can bridge that gap between the self and other, and when you do that, you have engaged the idea of spirituality. You have become more than yourself and less than yourself at the same time.
That is something I don’t think I see a lot of in a lot of theater I go see. In the best theater it’s there, but in a lot of theater I don’t see it. I think performance art offers artists a venue for that. That’s one thing I think is really important.
I have been really proud of these performers. They’re all different. They include artists and people who have never performed before, people who are bringing a different sense of what they can try and achieve with an audience.
I have left Performance Art Night every time feeling much bigger than when I started.
That’s important. That’s a beautiful thing.
MARKS: I first encountered—I never saw him live, but I saw the videotapes of Spalding Gray. Then I got interested in the work of Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and Laurie Anderson. I was captivated by them because to me they had the audacity to go up on stage alone and just talk about something, or do something on their own. And say what they had to say.
And I didn’t.
And you didn’t?
I had no idea at the time. They were so compelled to speak or act because this need in them was so strong. And I thought, “I don’t have anything like — what do I have to say that would be so important for me to get up and talk about it or present it metaphorically?”
To manifest it publicly.
And at that time you were already acting, right?
At N.C. State, in the mid-nineties.
So Hughes, Finley, Anderson would all be well into their careers by the time you’re finding out about them.
What compelled me was this. They were crossing all these boundaries, breaking the rules, while I was first starting out in this very collegiate, very normal theater.
But my heart and my body were telling me to do something else, you know? I was interested in dance theater as well, the work of Pina Bausch.
So I wanted to do that stuff—but I felt like I had nothing to say. It’s like I was asking, “How do I do that?” That what attracted me to performance art. They were people who have the courage, the audacity and the shamelessness: “I have something to say, listen to this.” Or “I want to show you something about this,” without being embarrassed about it.
With performance art, it’s “the same but different,” as Gertrude Stein said. Telling stories we’ve heard before but in a very different way; that’s what attracts me to people like Laurie Anderson and Holly Hughes.
The question is, “How can I get people’s attention but without the art being self-indulgent and for its own sake?” I saw Blue Valentines at the Carolina, and it completely kicked my head in. What [Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling] were doing . It seemed so easy and just…true. It got my attention.
It’s basically, “How do I tell stories in a different way, that still has the common denominator of true and identity at the core of it.” I mean, smearing chocolate all over your naked body in the effort to get people to understand this concept or this thing we’re facing…
Like Finley’s We Keep Our Victims Ready — what does it take to get through to you guys what it means about what’s been done in the last—oh, 25, 50, 100 years—and keep going—in this part of the civilization? What does it take just to interrupt the programming, or to ask, “Can we please get real about this for a minute?”
…and if you happen to do a more conventional or traditional piece, how do you take that into the work you’re doing? How do you tell that truth in both places? That’s what interests me.
Here is your dilemma: Your brother, who became a born-again Christian as an adult, died while working in Haiti. You are an atheist, and you live in a family that hasn’t reconciled itself to your brother’s beliefs. How do you honor the dead when you don’t share the dead’s beliefs?
As we speak, Hames’ solution sounds like a contradiction in terms: an atheist requiem. He describes his experience in performance art—and a change the new work presents…
HAMES: I saw a lot of the stuff coming out of performance art in the 1980s. I know about the NEA Four [the name given the group of artists whose controversial work was opposed by conservative politicians including N.C’s Jesse Helms, a move which sparked the culture wars of 30 years ago] and Karen Finley.
I’m, by nature, not a person who just pours out the emotion and exposes everything. When I was watching performance art that’s what it was, it was people saying, “Here’s my life, its horrible pain, blaaaaaaaaaaa, enjoy.”
Since I’m not naturally inclined to it, this all was something of a shock to me. In a structural sense, shock seemed to me a very big part of performance art and a big tool in it. I’d say my journey with it begins with shock.
It affects people. If you smack them in the face with a shock, then you can actually tell them something that isn’t easy to take all of a sudden. If you smash them so hard in the face—and then tell them something that would normally be hard to deal with—what you’ve got to share suddenly isn’t so hard.
I’ve played Jesus a couple of times, combining my actual atheism with whatever shock I could come up with. The first time was kind of a stand-up routine, sort of making funny jokes that are just sitting there… because nobody will make them.
The second time I took it further. I came out with my Nike Cross-trainers… (laughter, groans in the room)…and again looked for shocking things. It was called Jesus: The Second Coming, it had sort of a lap dance for Jesus, and it was largely shock.
But when I started putting together Jesus 3, it just wasn’t there. And I realized where it came from.
My brother became a born-again Christian, and we would always get into these discussions. He died in Haiti at the Hotel Montana a year ago.
He’d be talking about all his born-again Christian stuff and it would just drive me insane. We’d get into these big long discussions, and I would just be so amazed that 98 percent of the world believes in God. And that’s just a crazy place to put me.
So, when it came time to try to do Jesus again, I realized I wasn’t passionate about it. Because I hadn’t been talking to [my brother] Randy about it.
What I’m doing is a memorial, or an homage. I’m going to sing some songs for my brother and talk about him.
The first song I’m doing? I don’t know if this was just after he died or while we still didn’t know. But I was dealing with all of his friends on Facebook, who were what I’d consider these crazy Christians from this superchurch. Mom was all distraught because she doesn’t even exist as far as coming to church.
I was trying to find something to bridge that gap. I think Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, has plenty of Biblical references. But to me it does not seem completely secular. It speaks to me as well.
The last song is the one that he and I did, forever—The House of the Rising Sun. Literally, I’ve been singing that song for 30 years. I’m 38 years old. Me and my brother would sing it almost every time there was some family function.
We’d sing it—work on the harmony—and we ended up turning it into such this funeral dirge. It was just so friggin’ slow: “There izzzzzzz a houuuuuuuuuuuse…” (laughs)
So there’s the first and last song. The middle song is “And It Stoned Me,” by Van Morrison.
It just feels very much like my brother and me.