New Dog, Old Tricks

Photo: Markus Esser

“Don’t worry, I’m easy,” I lied. I was going through the tumult and joy of organizing some of the technical details of my performance in the coming days to be included in the Dreizig Festival at Agora Collective in Neukölln, to take place 24 November.

The festival was a one-night-only performance consisting of 15 artists of different genres who were invited to present work that represented bold statements about the artistic experience of our generation, hence the title “Dreizig…”. The event doubled as a birthday party for the organizer, performing artist Alex Carrillo.

I submitted my application for this piece fully knowing that I would be under the guise of myself, in a solo performance, completely putting my soul on stage, but then – my biggest fear showed itself: the absence of the stage itself. No stranger to Narcissism, I was compelled by this festival because of the intent of artist Alex Carrillo to have the participants explain “How life changing events commonly experienced in this decade are reflected in their work: having children, getting married, leaving academia, and immigrating…” – and so talking about myself (a common theme in my work) was an opportunity for me to relinquish my obsession with my “Self = Portraits” video work and move on to working with other dancers and artists that I have been collecting over the past year in Berlin.

Still, with a map (the traditional form of a GPS, again showing my age), I had a very difficult time finding this Agora Collective place, and when it arrived in eyeshot in full bloom, it looked a lot like Mecca, after driving my bike around aimlessly but with a purpose, and almost at the last moment wanting to give up. I was immediately fascinated with the outside space. Once I was in the courtyard that was full of benches and led to a housing complex behind it, I felt like I was silly to have missed it in the first place as the whole building had a strong presence.

I had most of my talk about technical details with Jessica, another host and organizer of the event who was probably the calmest and most sincere person I have ever met in my life. I loved the gallery space but was eager to see where the performances would take place, so she led me downstairs to another room that doubled as office space (Agora Collective is an artist collective space where workshops and showings happen with a café/restaurant on the entrance level).

The second room on the first floor had a much better vibe for me. Whenever you do a site visit as an artist, there is a certain feeling you get as to whether or not you feel as though you can accomplish the goals of your piece. I was immediately drawn to this small sitting room that housed a few pieces of furniture and had a voyeuristic/exhibitionistic feel to it. I WANTED my piece to go there.

Someone else already claimed it.

I let out a big sigh, but it was okay. The floor would work with dance shoes and/or bare feet. There was access to the window that led out the courtyard outside that piqued my initial interest. The space was intimate, and there wasn’t a distraction from the art on the walls. But I wanted that room. I held back the Diva some more, and my mild mannered Jessica led me back upstairs, those fucking stairs, and explained to me all the details of the rules and regulations regarding renting the space, and I kept my mouth shut as much as I could, like a good non-Diva artist should.

By the time I left the the site visit I was hellbent on using the downstairs space, as mentioned, I did not want my piece to compete with the art on the walls in the gallery space on the top floor, and when I was there, there was generally too much distraction and I actually ran into one of the structural beams in the room, so it was a no-go for me Though the organizers suggested that I do my piece in the gallery space, I humbly refused.

Ideas began to cascade into me and I was ready to piece together the components of this tanztheater work, mostly excited except the fact that once again I was presenting something in an unorthodox space for theater/dance, but at the same time the thrill of doing something site- specific was an absolute challenge for me. I’ve been given little to no notice of some of my performance venues, and I have worked from huge theaters to dirt floors to small smoky bar stages that were no bigger than a bread box – so I thought that whatever the night presented me with, I would deal with it, and it would become part of the piece itself.

After several emails, it became clear to me that the space I would be performing in would not be determined until about an hour before I went on to perform. This was not because this is what I was told, it was my instinct and experience that led me to this fact. During my visit to what should have been  a technical rehearsal for me turned out to be a virtual run-around with the space coordinator and the event manager and I stood back taking note of that precious relationship : the compromise, the standoff, the yes, the no.

I was envious in a way of Alex, missing the painful glory of getting exactly what I want, how I want it, and when I want it, but I knew for more reasons than one that because of the sheer magnitude of the amount of different people involved, everything would have to wait for the in-house trial and error, without any encompassing organization of the structure of the event itself.

The space itself was almost a nemesis to the event, and as the remarkably beautiful host of Agora smiled a pretty smiled while saying “no” to most of the requests but offering viable but lackluster options regarding beverage service, ticket sales, etcetera, I wondered why that space was chosen in the first place and why the organizers decided to pay so much money to rent the space and have so many problems with organizing times and getting clear answers about where and when they (we) could set up.

When I got the news that I could actually perform on the first floor with that special room that I couldn’t use, I was happy. I had already planned and almost finished my film component of the piece that I wanted to have displayed as a reflection off of the glass in the larger room where I “might” be performing. The event was scheduled for the uncanny time of 18h on a Saturday evening, and I requested that my friends show up at least an hour after that to ensure that they show up on time. Instinct.

I was told the space would be available at 12h, so I showed up at 1630h, also, because of instinct. Sure enough, when I arrived the space with the little special room that I loved was full of people, sitting at these big long tables (that we didn’t know if we could move out of the way or not) and engaging in a workshop, a workshop that the host of the space neglected to tell us about.

Sweet, calm Jessica apologized to me over and over again, and I told her everything was fine, and to myself I mumbled “I knew this was going to happen,” which set off the beginning of my personal disaster in preparing to present my work, my debut tanztheater piece, my dream come true.

All technical issues aside, everyone was very helpful. I am plagued with this ghetto laptop that I love more than life. It is an old (original?) MacBook Pro whose battery exploded because it is my husband and I make love to it all day long, because it is the only thing that is always there for me. It is big, beautiful, powerful – but one day, the battery exploded and fell out of it and I can no longer use it without keeping it plugged in.

Naturally, I explained this to everyone (one of my first Diva moments) and holding back the rage, I went out for a cigarette and came back to the little special room (where I was storing my belongings) to notice that my beautiful silver boy with the apple light face had been unplugged.

I needed two questions answered in order to relieve my stress:

1) Where am I performing?
2) What kind of file do I need for the projection?

Both of these questions were never answered, thus I had to answer them myself.

The workshop ended around 18h and fortunately, most of the participants were aware of the fact that they needed to vacate the premises immediately and many of them were extremely respectful in this regard. All but one.

The inspiration for what was to become my mostly improvisational contemporary dance piece, was this man. This blond man with shoulder length hair who became the bane of my happiness for the evening.

I knew better than to say something to That Man, as hard as it was not to. The night before I witnessed Alex (the event organizer) telling one of the participating artists not to confront the space host in any regards regarding all the mishaps and miscommunications they afforded everyone involved, which to me was performance event 101 – but at that moment, as I was outside, smoking furiously and bitching to my good friend and assistant producer Lindsay, it was getting harder and harder to keep my mouth shut. I was glad she came as I specifically requested her presence to tame the beast that is my innate desire to control and to be in charge, and after I gave her the technical details of the piece, I knew it would be thrown right out of the window because of That Man.

I went back upstairs, all of those stairs, and That Man was still sitting there. At this point in time, his silent arsenal of attacking my nerves (what was left of them) was met with vehement eye rolling and little hints of things that were smart remarks said just loud enough so he could hear them, but he was quite the match for my bitchiness and gave me dirty looks in return as he clicked at and squinted at his empty calendar. That Man.

So my other friend Tristan and I were ripping up porno magazines that were not part of the initial idea of the piece but I asked him before the show to bring them along because the whole mood of the piece was changing in my mind. I struggle with OCD, especially when it comes to my art, so when there is less and less of a plan, the more crazy and neurotic I get. I was still having technical issues, trying to re-format the file of my film, organizing my props, figuring out how to play the music on the speakers – all done in English, Broken Spanish, Sporadic German and some Denglish. I was over it.

The scene of the crime where That Man resided for much longer than was necessary. Photo : DeVo Nelson.

Finally when That Man left, The Diva entered and I was in full-tilt Diana Ross mode and no one or nothing could get in my way and when I was finally defeated, technically, I let my artistic instinct let go of all of the issues with the space, the projector, the people – and my horrible stage fright took over. I was shaking and hyperventilating, and the piece was affected yet again. It would be darker than I wanted it to be.

One thing I have tried to avoid is performing in gallery spaces. I have done this before, with chairs and the audience being very close to me, but this time, I actually had about 3 square meters of space to perform in and I had to move people out of the way (who were not happy about it). I was just glad that That Man was gone and the whole experience was almost over.

I ended up displaying my film on my broken, old, but faithful laptop and it became a prop in the performance. This is nothing new, and it worked well, as I have many times included technological devices in my work as a statement about communication, technology and social media as it pertains to our daily culture.

“Start the music when I turn off the alarm clock…”, was my final plea, and my final hope that something might have actually gone right that night. I noticed that my request to have “as much light as possible” was ignored, knowing from instinct that any attempt to have photos to document the event (another relevant and important part of my work) should not be completely disregarded, but I went on with the show, as it must always go on.

My very best Contemporary Dance face. Photo : Lindsay Pond.

The space was so small and confined, and my irrevocable obsession with the rudeness of That Man came through in my work. It started and ended with me in an exhausted state laying on a makeshift bed whose duvet cover I danced in and out of and I walked around blindfolded, painted my face in black face, simulated erotic stimulation, did some of my movement isolations, attacked the laptop computer, and threw porno magazines out the window; it was typical DeVo motif.

The best seat in the house, under a table. Photo : Tristan Rehbold.

After the performance I vowed to myself, “Never Again.” I hate contemporary dance and I long for some place in this dance world where the audience is seperate from the performance, but I must keep challenging myself with the plight of these innovative techniques. I feel so old, and so old-fashioned, wanting to go back to the training of so many other ways of experiencing dance that actually has dance in it.

While I am confident that what I did was memorable, intense albeit completely obnoxious, the entire experience for me was a true test of my tolerance for contemporary dance. It is a constant war between my love of organization and the power of the organic. Guess who’s winning?

Another perspective of the performance as seen from the outside window. Photo : Tristan Rehbold.

The Pain of Joy

“…None of the characters in this play are based on anyone in this room – the characters in this play are based on everyone in this room,” started my first not-so-staged reading of the first play that I wrote (and finished) in Berlin.

I finished Joie on September 13, just two days after I started it, and two months later I had a cast of ten reading the play before an audience in a quaint,  Jewish owned, English bookstore in _______ Prenzlauer Berg on a breezy but not too cold or quiet Tuesday evening.

Joie was one of the least planned plays in my writing repertoire, and more than any other one of my plays was a complete departure from my usual pigeonhole but at the same time a complete compilation of my varying styles.

I am no stranger to long bouts of playwriting as I am prone to suffering from the opposite of writer’s block: instead of not being able to write, I have too many things to write, so therefore I don’t write at all (it has its own logic). This time, having suffered through the atrocity that many writers are fortunate enough to succumb to but not always lucky to take advantage of, I had several plays and projects that I started but never finished. Why not put them all together in one piece, rather than abort them suddenly or birth them prematurely?

If school has taught me anything (besides how to beat the system), it is that I must really learn how to throw out the rule book but only after having read it and memorized it thoroughly. This may be the inspiration of a certain Spanish turned French painter I know, well not know or knew, but we all know.

My plays have been critiqued in several regards for not conforming to those orthodox techniques of theater while not straying far enough towards the annals of the avant garde, and though I grimace at the thought of seeing some of my stillborn wonders being flushed down the proverbial toilet due to the demands of commercial (read: Capitalistic) success, I’ve never really given in to what has been asked of me. I will not mold my structure or my intention unless it is a mild edit or two, in the hopes that the production value is worth the expense.

So then came Joie, that in a way was something completely new and different for me in its execution and a triumphant return to my unbridled and unabashed writing talent. I cut out the chore of mapping out my play, from rising action to denouement etcetera, there was no outline, there was no question to be asked or answered, I did not worry about the number of characters or the possible production costs involved with the set, scenery and lighting – I just started writing.

I stopped thinking about what people were going to think – the audience, the producers, the actors, or even myself. I took away all the confines of adhering to what “should” be and I just became myself, again, but in a new different way, my two middle fingers striking the keys more diligently than the others.

I made a test tube baby out of these other embryos: a play about two writers fighting over the prize of being published, a play about a gaggle of gay men who hire an escort that dies at a sex party, a play about the thin walls of hastily constructed Berlin apartments.

The underlying theme of Joie is entirely based on good vs. evil – but with it came a lot of other issues, one of which is exposing the evil things that gay men do to each other to get ahead in life and in certain social circles, and also in love and romance.

I came up with the theme of Berlin being this rabbit hole like experience, and the correlation to some of the characters in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland was a natural further progression in the theme because I wanted to talk a lot about these glossy, picturesque worlds that can turn into something otherworldly horrible in a way…and the layers kept getting thicker and thicker.

On September 11, 2012 I was exhausted from spending an entire month in another acting job where I was playing a stereotype and I was exhausted from the dark side of Berlin and I was exhausted from having so much to say (too much really) and nowhere to really say it. I had spent just over a year speaking for all of these other artists, with a pocket full of half-finished poetic dramas with copious amounts of pointless yet pithy dialog – so I sat down and did what I do best – I just started writing.

It hurt, putting this all together – this reading – and I loved every minute of it.

When you are starving artistically, you will stop at nothing to show your hunger in whatever capacity you can, and when I sat down in front of my old MacBook Pro with the European PC keyboard that is programmed as an American one (damn Y’s and Z’s), I forced myself into nonexistence until it was finished.

I went back home – just writing dialog with only a vague sketch of the characters, but as each popped up into the script, it was a welcome treat as if they were introducing themselves to me but at the same time they were long time friends that maybe I had forgotten about or rather they were those aforementioned fetuses that were somehow being given a second chance.

When it was finished (though no art is ever finished), I took a big sigh of relief, not because I could stop pissing in the wine bottles I was drinking out of, or because I could go for a bike ride, or because I could eat a decent meal again; because I had done it. I had finished my apotheosis.

A play about a mad French Madam of an all gay male brothel in Berlin. That wasn’t the part that shocked me.

I was most surprised by my discovery of this supernatural writing that I have touched upon before, but was an homage of sentiment from my early years as a young eager learner, fascinated by the big crazy books of Stephen King, the first idol I ever had.

The scary bits seemed relevant to the story and while my attempt to write a murder mystery did not seem prudent, and my attempt to write a psychological thriller was a botched attempt at best, all the nerdy antics of Joie fit perfectly in a way.

I knew I would need a reading for it. I was struggling with how I felt about all of the things that have troubled me in the past as far as my audiences have concerned – much of which include quips about my pointless dialog and lack of plot development and expository shit. Also, I needed to adjust my filters for the burgeoning English-speaking population in Berlin and Europe.

I am not a pioneer of theater because what I write isn’t really theater. It is a bridge between a few genres, but I have never doubted my dialog, I know that I am an expert at it because never in life do I hear people speaking for over two minutes at a time about themselves without a single person interrupting them, never in my life do I hear complete sentences over and over again without someone asking someone to repeat what they said, and never in my life do people wait for their turn to say something in order to say it. So maybe these devices aren’t theater, and maybe they are not intrinsically part of the vocabulary of trained actors, dramturg, directors and producers, but for me – it is a device that I use because it is inherent in me.

The reading went perfect.

The biggest struggle was finding people to do it for free – but I was more than fortunate enough to find people that did more than exactly what I needed them do to without a lot of time or rehearsal, and absolutely no compensation.

Some of the people who read for the reading were friends, actors and other artists that I worked with before or met through other circles. Two of the roles were read by good friends of mine, and two of the roles were read by complete strangers who got the script about two hours before the show.

I had an audition where I found two of the actors and I worked with a few of them at my home/office in Kreuzberg where I went over the motivation of the characters and had little quasi rehearsals.

My home office during a production.

All that shit that drives me crazy about managing expectations and nurturing “unique personalities”  reminded me of why I do all of this in the first place. The love of the job is what I endure and the price that I pay is extremely emotionally and physically expensive, but more than anything, I love the people that bring my work to life, like Picasso’s syphilis whore models – oh wait, ridiculously bad analogy, but you know what I mean, right? I’m horrible.  Ha.

Anyway, long story less long, most of the audience was split between “not understanding” and/or “not loving” the first act as much as they loved the second act and vice versa*. Initially I thought that I would have to change and nix much of the witty banter in the first act and rearrange some of the “secrets” that are revealed in the second act, but good for me, the reading threw that all out of the water, so I am back to another stage in the evolution of this work, and because so much of it is a visual piece, I want to make sure that the dialog is solid before I carry on.

I came back to the same issues of not enough expository writing – really developing the characters, but I thought to myself, I am not a journalist or a biographer, although much of Joie deals with caricature of people who exist in their own worlds – a world that they create for everyone else to see, and who ever wants everyone to see everything?

Another thing I have to focus on with editing is making sure that the cultural clash does not cause too many problems. Many of these issues were brought up with the cast and have already been amended, things like semantics.

I am currently un-obsessing over this piece while letting people take their time filling in the survey that I sent out afterwards. I love that play, and I can’t wait to see it on stage, and I hope I can give it the love and attention it deserves, no matter if anyone thinks I’ve produced a crooked, unruly, illegitimate child. I’m already pregnant again anyway.

© Melissa Pond

*note: Many many many good things were said about the play but per usual I am unable to focus on them as much as the bad things.

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Staged Reading: Joie – A Horror Play in Two Acts

Shakespeare and Sons is proud to present a new series from Berlin’s exciting and increasingly prolific English-language scene. First in the series is JOIE – a Horror Play In Two Acts, a play written and directed by myself and produced by Rebecca Sunshine. The objective is to create a space where authors are invited to present their new work to an audience in an atmosphere of ”work in progress”. The Musical guest of the night will be Stereochemistry.

Tuesday, 13 November 20h
Shakespeare and Sons Bookstore
Raummerstr 36
10437 Berlin
U2 Eberswalderstr
Admission: FREE
More Info: Facebook Event