Sept 27 – Sept 28
New York City
In the raunchy political comedies of ancient Greece, it was perfectly acceptable to talk back to your critics onstage. There was even a dramaturgical device that made it possible: parabasis, the section of a play where the chorus cheerfully harangued the audience about everything they were doing wrong. In one famous instance, Aristophanes’s The Wasps, the author took his critics to task for insufficiently appreciating his plays and awarding them too few prizes at the dramatic competitions. This was their fault, he explained—speaking through a chorus of actors portraying wasps—not his.
These days, it’s not just considered bad manners to respond to negative reviews. It’s pretty much forbidden. In fact, comedian and performance artist Adrienne Truscott says, most artists operate on the assumption that they have no business responding to reviews at all—no matter how glowing, how scathing, or how inaccurate the critic may have been. “Who wrote that rule and who does that serve?” she asks in an interview with the Rail. “The only person who really loses are the makers. If the response is that the art should speak for itself—well, correct, but if it’s speaking to someone who has earplugs in, I’m gonna pull the earplugs out.” Truscott does exactly that—pulls the earplugs out figuratively, that is—in an adventurous new performance piece, Wild Bore, created in collaboration with fellow artists Ursula Martinez and Zoë Coombs Marr, which makes its U.S. premiere this month at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Wild Bore doesn’t just address critics. It compiles the texts of negative, confused, and poorly-written critical reviews into a script for performance: a performance that, at times, takes the form of mooning the audience at great length. (Or, as the artists have said, demonstrating that they’re not afraid to talk out of their asses.)
Inspiration for Wild Bore began with Truscott’s, Martinez’s, and Coombs Marr’s own reviews. All three make solo pieces spanning the genres of standup comedy, theater, burlesque, and performance art; and all three use their own bodies and often nudity in their work. They ask provocative questions about gender and sexuality, and their work has tended to test the implicit rules of theater and performance. Though based in geographically disparate places—Truscott in New York, Martinez in the UK, and Coombs Marr in Australia—they all perform in international festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, where they became fascinated by the effect of reviewers on the artistic ecosystem. At crowded festivals, competition for audiences is intense, and the number of stars a show receives can have an outsized effect on its fate. Performers may also find their work reviewed by critics with little context for the artistic or political questions at stake.
Meanwhile, in their home cities, these three artists had all developed a history of transforming the reception of their own work into artistic fuel. For Truscott, this took shape in the aftermath of her well-known and widely-respected piece Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy, which she has regularly revised and restaged since its premiere in 2013. (This month, in fact, the piece will re-open at Joe’s Pub under the title Adrienne Truscott’s (Still) Asking For It, featuring a rotating cast of other performers alongside Truscott.) Although Asking For It earned rave reviews and introduced Truscott’s work to new audiences, it also shaped perceptions of her as an artist in ways that she, in fact, hadn’t asked for. Because Asking For It bluntly addressed rape culture and misogyny, Truscott was often received—especially by those unfamiliar with her work as part of the burlesque duo the Wau Wau Sisters—as a (rageful) feminist performance artist. Even though Truscott herself had framed Asking For It as a standup comedy set, not a work of confrontational feminist art. If she’d been a man, she wondered, would she have been taken at her word, received as a comedian, and booked in comedy clubs? Wasn’t “angry feminist performance art” tantamount to a form of sidelining her work? (Or was it?) Her next piece, Adrienne Truscott’s A One-Trick Pony (Or Andy Kaufman is a Feminist Performance Artist and I’m a Comedian) (2015) considered exactly these questions.
Martinez had been addressing her own audiences for even longer. In 2006, her magic-show-slash-striptease act “Hanky Panky” was, without her permission, recorded on video and uploaded to the internet, where it circulated online and reached a wide audience that had not seen her perform live. As she’s described the experience, this not only changed the politics of the piece, as she was not present to agree to being viewed; it also dramatically changed her experience of audience response, because thousands of viewers felt free to send her (sometimes very explicit) emails after viewing: everything from fan letters to dick pics. In 2010 Martinez responded to the responses by creating My Stories, Your Emails, which paired stories from her own life with the contents of the emails she’d received. “It felt like a reclamation,” one critic noted, of Martinez’s thoughtful, intelligent approach to framing the torrent of personal and explicit messaging she’d been subjected to without consent.
According to the artists, both One-Trick Pony and My Stories, Your Emails were critical disappointments. Oedipus Schmoedipus, a piece Coombs Marr created with post (her performance collective) was also panned. In developing Wild Bore the three artists began by thinking deeply about their own negative reviews, but then quickly began reading more widely, taking particular note of critical responses to the work of female, trans, and gender-nonconforming artists and artists of color. They began to see a pattern. Not only, they report, do these artists often receive less critical generosity than white, male, and cis-gendered artists; in fact, they noted widespread critical reluctance to even ascribe intelligent intentionality to work by these artists. Writing from Australia, Coombs Marr explains, “It’s amazing how often things that are clearly intentional are dismissed as silly, incompetent, baffling, or nonsensical.” Truscott describes the pattern as “a whole-hearted macro-level of total unwillingness to give the creators the benefit of the doubt that they meant to do what you’re watching,” adding, “It’s not like we burped onstage and gave it a title.” In the work of female or trans/gender-nonconforming artists and artists of color, the trio continues, positive reviews often assume that artistically compelling choices were arrived at by accident rather than conceived and rehearsed deliberately. And when critics don’t like the work, the artistic choices are often received as mistakes rather than choices. “So it’s like we weren’t even given the respect that we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it intentionally,” says Martinez. “Whether you as a critic like our intention and what it has achieved is another matter, but don’t fail to understand that it has at least been intentional.”
Taking critics to task, the artists decided, would mean operating with the same level of entitlement they saw in reviews. “We have to make work that makes new space for us because the form wasn’t meant for women and queer people,” says Truscott. Perhaps staging a panel discussion would put them on equal footing with their critics—but they didn’t want to actually bore anyone. So: a panel discussion in which the panelists moon their spectators.
As they compiled critical reviews into a text for performance, Truscott, Martinez, and Coombs Marr also found humor and pleasure in the strange and suggestive language of reviews themselves. Venturing farther afield from their own work and that of close contemporaries, they began to seek out reviews whose language would be enticing to stage. In a 2015 pan of David Mamet’s Broadway flop China Doll, for instance, critic Rex Reed asserted that Al Pacino, who starred in the show, “walks like an anchovy and looks like an unmade bunk bed.” How on earth, Truscott wondered, would a performer go about taking Reed at his word (for starters: how does an anchovy walk)? Truscott, Martinez, and Coombs Marr decided to find out.
This playfulness combines, in Wild Bore, with the urgent need to find a way of engaging in a dialogue with critics. In many cases, Truscott points out, a given review not only mischaracterizes the work but also displays a confusion or reluctance to engage with the work in the first place. “If [the work] is not getting across, it’s not getting across,” says Truscott, “but I am also here to tell you it’s an experiment you don’t understand. Some critics out themselves as no longer conversant with the form they’re supposed to be conversing for.” (Program materials for the Melbourne presentation of Wild Bore cite, for instance, one review that downtown New York audiences might remember: Charles Isherwood’s infamous 2016 pan of Erin Markey’s A Ride on the Irish Cream. The first line of that review was “Huh?”) For these artists, critical confusion and rage becomes fodder for what can, ideally, become a more complex form of dialogue. “I think that there is a wave of fury that you can ride, and going to the heights of that fury is scary, and taboo, but anarchic and cathartic. And on the other side of that wave, I find it often free falls into a space of hysterical playfulness,” says Coombs Marr. “It’s just about being intuitive and brave enough to ride that wave. It does help if you’re surfing alongside topnotch pros like Adrienne and Ursula.”
When it comes to the reception of Wild Bore, the artists are proudly incorporating their responses into the piece. They happily display one-star pans alongside five-star raves, as both provide evidence of the observations they are making onstage. When Wild Bore was performed at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, the artists recall, some critics recognized their own writing among the performance text. (In some cases, says Truscott, critics were even disappointed that their language hadn’t been vivid and adventurous enough to make the cut.) Some critics have echoed the artists’ provocations in their reviews: Martinez recalls a reviewer who wrote a scathing critique of Wild Bore, then assigned it a glowing five stars... Even so, Martinez points out, there have been critics who shocked them with their ability to miss the point. And, just possibly, it has all come down to the playful decision to pull down their pants onstage. “Asses are very gender neutral,” Martinez says, “And yet a critic managed to objectify us and classify us, saying: the tanned one, the spotty one, and the good old-fashioned fleshy white. Even with our asses on a table, we were sort of weirdly objectified—the critic aesthetically judging the state of the flesh on those bottoms. It was quite extraordinary, like: You really haven’t got it, this feminist piece that’s having a dig at the rules of patriarchy.”
Wild Bore, with Adrienne Truscott, Zoe Coombs Marr and Ursula Martinez, will play Friday, September 27 and Saturday, September 28 at 7:30 pm. Tickets begin at $35 and can be purchased online at www.nyuskirball.org, by phone at 212.998.4941, or in person at the Box Office, 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square. Wild Bore is presented in cooperation with Malthouse Theatre Melbourne, Australia.