Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Q-and-A with Alexandra Tatarsky

Alexandra Tatarsky called Alexandra Tatarsky's BEAST OF FESTIVE SKIN "endlessly entertaining" when it played at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. The solo show, in which Tatarsky plays a series of characters at an open mic nite in hell, comes off like is an absurdist vaudeville about the agony of creation. Below Tatarsky discusses her influences, her "dad" and performing for two Belgians. BEAST OF FESTIVE SKIN will be featured in the 2014 Dallas Solo Fest.

Q: Where you are from and how you did you start solo performing?

A: I owe my early interest in solo performance to the vast amount of individuals in my neighborhood walking around talking to themselves, often with tutus on their heads or in gowns made of beer cans and trash bags.  As a youth in New York City, I recall thinking to myself: Oh, if only one day I could grow up to be just like them!

Q: What brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: One day, a dear friend and musician Hazel Ra asked me to perform in her vaudeville show.  During my research into travelling sideshows, quacks, healers and the lost art of the theatrical science lecture, I discovered Dippel, a 17th century alchemist and inventor of the color Prussian blue.  His story was so tender, so ridiculous, so full of failure that I knew I had to share it with the world.  And so I began performing as Dippel.  And that is how I entered the world of solo performance.

Q: Could you tell us about some of your recent solo work?

A: I continue to perform around town under many different names—Dippel, SELENA and The Mound, to name a few.  I have in the past couple years gathered these creatures together into a full-length solo show called Beast of Festive Skin, in which they all meet at an open mic night in Hell.  The show changes depending on the venue, the crowd and my state of mind.  I am also forcing myself to write some entirely new material, most recently SIGN FELT! (a show about nothingness).  And of course I also enjoy wandering around town getting into compromising situations, which often prove to be the most intimate of solo performances.  Most recently, I was famous on the internet for a couple of days as Andy Kaufman’s daughter. As my dad used to say, “They laugh at us.  We laugh at them.  Everybody laugh!”

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?

A: Elementary school talent contest, travelling medicine show, absurdist vaudeville, bar mitzvah party.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: Solo performance is the scariest thing I can think of to do.  I keep going so I don’t feel like a coward.  John Wayne said something along the lines of, “Courage is being terrified, strapping on your guns, and getting on the horse anyway.”  I try to remember this.

I stay motivated by drinking coffee in the morning, doing gibberish meditation (talking to myself for a long time in gibberish), and reminding myself that if I stopped performing, I would be too bitter to ever go out.

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting a solo project together? Do you create a ton of material on stage with improvisation? Get it down on paper first? Tape or video record it? Hold readings for feedback? Go up to a mountaintop?

A: I begin by thinking too hard and for far too long.  I read many books, I take many notes, and I bounce between many ideas.  At the final hour, when I have thoroughly exhausted my brain, I abandon all of this and walk around in a crowded place so no one pays attention to me and I begin talking out loud to myself without stopping. Eventually, thank heavens, I find myself returning to particular phrases and I stretch them out and cut them down until I have something of a story.  Then I book a show somewhere so that I am forced to complete the tale or else face public humiliation—sometimes both!  In that case, I simply remind myself that there is a long and venerable tradition of public humiliation.

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden you?

A: This street preacher I saw in the summer one time who was yelling at her congregation of bums, “I would rather be at the beach right now!  But I’m not!  I’m here with you!  Cuz I wanna bring you da light of Gawd!”

A poet on my block named Donald.  Grandmas with excellent comedic timing.  Homeless people who plug a TV into the streetlamp to watch football.  My parents (they are both psychologists).  The Puerto Rican Day parade.  The Mitzvah Tank in New York City that dances for the coming of Moshiach.  Speaking in tongues.  Experiments that didn’t quite work out. 

The street performers I saw growing up.  Master Lee, who neatly chops a cucumber on the groins of unsuspecting audience volunteers.  Tic and Tac, the acrobatic twins.  This couple from England who threw cream and sugar in the air and caught them in teacups balanced on their heads.

Also, Peter Schumann.  Al Giordano.  Free Schools.  Ventriloquism.  Sock puppets.  Abner Jay.  Storefront psychics.  Euripides.  Daniil Kharms.  Spoonbill and Sugartown Booksellers.  Elizabeth Cotton.

Tatarsky as The Mound
Q: How do you bridge the gap of the business side of theatre?

A: I try not to.  I make different days for business and for theatre.  And I try not to do any business until I actually do some theatre. 

Regarding business: I try not to say No to opportunities for performance, regardless of pay. At the same time, I also try to spread the gospel of: Hey person/curator/bar/festival, I really think you have a responsibility to pay your performers! 

And if you really can’t afford to pay me because you don’t have a job, are about to get evicted from your apartment, and kindly invited me to perform in your stairwell to raise money for an organization to stop the destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia, then maybe at the very least we can all contribute something to a big pot of soup and share that for dinner?

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artists just starting out in solo performance?

A: When I ask the cranky older artists in my life for advice about being an artist, they say: don’t be an artist.  And when I say: but I wanna be an artist!  They say: OK, so be an artist! 

I have found this to be very helpful.

Recently, I was in a class with the great director and teacher Ed Sherin.  He asked us all why we were there.  An older fellow in the room said, “Well, I tried a lot of things in life and being onstage is really the only thing that makes me happy.”  Ed said to the fellow, “Oh you poor, poor bastard.”

I also found this very helpful.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.

A: I was sitting on a bench on Grand Street.  An older man with rowdy red and grey curls poking out from under a large hat said to me in a voice thick with Yiddish and allergies, “Excuse me, do you have the time?”  I said no.  He went on, “Oh wait.  I just remembered. I do have the time.  I have the best time!!!”

Q: What are the largest and smallest audiences you've ever played to?

A: I played to an audience of 2 very sweet Belgian fellows who may or may not have understood anything.  For some reason, nobody else came that night.  Passerby peeked in through the windows.  At one point, the cops showed up because a neighbor had complained about something or other.  The show had the quality of a dream where nothing makes any sense but you enjoy it very much. 

I have also played to audiences of several hundred.  This is great fun because several hundred people laughing at you is much louder than two people laughing at you.  And the vibration of it gives you lots of energy. 

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist? 

A: Real live humans breathing together in small dark rooms will only become more powerful in this age of so many screens!  I certainly plan to force many more live humans to gather together in small dark rooms and other strange places.   

Q: Links?

You are also welcome to send me a message at

Alexandra Tatarsky's BEAST OF FESTIVE SKIN will play at the 2014 Dallas Solo Fest. Info... HERE.

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