“If we have not struggled / as hard as we can / at our strongest / how will we sense / the shape of our losses / or know what sustains / us longest or name / what change costs us, / saying how strange / it is that one sector / of the self can step in / for another in trouble, / how loss activates / a latent double, how / we can feed / as upon nectar / upon need?”
The only thing the patriarchy is selling that I ever wanted to buy was “genius.”
Doing The Greek Cycle made me realize that the received idea that art being a way to survive—of art-as-therapy—is somehow less serious, less legitimate, and therefore less good, is patriarchal bullshit. Never underestimate the power of catharsis.
The Greek Cycle is a series of four plays, based on Ancient Greek texts, that I wrote and directed, which served as a four-year-long cathartic thrash that also instantiated myself to myself as the kind of genius I want to be.
The Cycle is: Motherload, based on Hecuba by Euripides, performed March 5-9, 2012, in the L-Shape gallery at CalArts; Odyssey Odyssey, based on The Odyssey by Homer, performed July 10-22, 2013, in the Machine Project Field Guide to L.A. Architecture, for Getty Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.; There’s Time, based on Alcestis by Euripides, performed August 22 and 23, 2014, at PAM; and She Work, based on Medea by Euripides, performed July 11-26, 2015, at d e e p s l e e e p.
I wrote each play by adapting an Ancient Greek text through a feminist and queer perspective, relocating it into contemporary Los Angeles. The venues were not at all like the amphitheatre in Ancient Athens for which the originals were written; they were the hallway of an art school, a Honda Odyssey being driven around the freeways near Echo Park, a performance art space painted blue, and a studio apartment in MacArthur Park.
What I needed to make The Greek Cycle (an inconclusive list): Hell, chaos, chance, luck, visions, nightmares, the sublime, Los Angeles.
Artists talk a lot about “space” and what they want to do to it: activate it, respond to it, make it, occupy it, fill it, work with it, use it, choreograph it, read it, explore it. The word is regularly used in titles for works and exhibitions, and as part of the names of collectives, preceded by various adjectives: inner, minus, deep, private, public, infinite.
I don’t like the term “space” because it implies something empty, neutral, and a-historic—I don’t think such a thing exists. I prefer the word “place.” “Place” comes with an address, a neighborhood, furniture, the cost of rent, rules, previous owners, street noise, cracks in the wall, ghosts.
I also don’t like the term “site-specific” because it implies that there are moments when something is not that.
I like “site-responsive”: that a site is there doing its thing, and one can respond to it. It implies conversation. The responses pile up, are different from each other, cling, and haunt.
“Respond” comes from the Latin respondere: re meaning “back” and spondere meaning “to pledge.”
Like the site has pledged something to you, which you are now promising to return.
The Greek Cycle was site-responsive and place-specific. It was full of histories, kinks, and revenants.
Perhaps the entire thing was trying to get a ghost out of my place.
In 2011—before The Greek Cycle—I wrote a (kind of) manifesto about performance art, where I defined performance as being “a bit of willful existence.” When I started the Cycle in 2012, my existence felt entirely un-willed, and so I had to have myself tested.
There were visions of strange bodies poised and moving around in rooms, contorted into physical metaphors, they existed like sex dreams, full of desire and fantasy that disobeyed the physical laws of reality. When I arrived at CalArts for the MFA in Art and had to do a first show, I did Motherload with such hubris, but also familiarity—this material would work, I knew, because I’d seen it in visions.
The Greek Cycle is also how I came to mysticism—to think of an art practice as a life in mysticism. The attenuation between self and Nothingness that mystics feel is (and if not, ought to be) similar to an artist’s relationship to her audience, a director’s relationship to her performers, a writer’s relationship to her worlds writ in words.
What I needed to make Motherload (an inconclusive list): Tragedy, Euripides, Anne Carson, the nōh theater, lots and lots of paper, being involuntarily hospitalized by a boyfriend, flowers, the history of Western civilization,
Motherload is based on the Euripides tragedy Hecuba, which is the story of an old queen who’s had 50 children who are all killed in the Trojan War. The only things that happen in Euripides’ play are that Hecuba’s last two children still alive are killed, and she beseeches and supplicates the men around her for mercy, pity, and explanations—but finds none. She is told, at the end, by a seer, that she’ll turn into a dog.
Anne Carson, whose translation I used, said about Hecuba in an interview, “She dies and dies and dies and dies but never dies,” which, when I heard it, filled me with a deep, reverberating sound.
My Motherload script is 166 pages, all of which were tacked to the walls of the gallery, visible at all times, for the 30-hour performance and a total of 160 hours as an installation—in a hallway at CalArts. To read the 166 pages out loud took six hours: the play was performed six hours a day, for five days in a row, with the entire script read each day. The performers, of which there were twelve including me, were asked not to memorize their lines but instead to read them out loud and note any changes they made to the text by marking the script on the walls. So that the marks of thinking would be shown.
I gave the direction that, over the course of the week’s performance, the performers could read any words, lines, or role, begin and end anywhere, and do with their bodies whatever they wanted. My direction to one particular performer was: “You’re trying to read with your body.”
After seeing it, someone asked me why everyone in Motherload seemed like they were sleepwalkers in a mental hospital.
Oh good, it worked.
and Claire Kohne as Lamenter in Motherload.
I’d wanted to make a world separate from our world but still embedded in it, which depicted suffering and grieving as a ritualistic but unknowable kind of working: A doing that had to be done. “Nothing has more strength than dire necessity,” Euripides wrote. 1 It had to take place in an un-thought-about corner of an institution—I’ve always wanted to do Motherload in a bank—so as to stress it’s laboring all-the-time-ness that is also ignored. The stunned silence and somnambulistic madness emerged because I don’t believe in capital-T Truth, but rather that each of us has a reality that we face but cannot communicate, and which must look mad from the outside world.
Because I’m writing an essay about some plays I made in art spaces, I probably have to write about my opinion on the difference between theater and performance art. But do I?
It was a joke, a cheap trick, to make Homer’s Odyssey in a Honda Odyssey.
What I needed to make Odyssey Odyssey (an inconclusive list): Homer, Kleist, Justin Timberlake, Van Morrison, masculinity, drag, a divorce, 0.5mg of Klonopin per performance for me and one of the performers, Echo Park, a photo of a wide-open pussy.
For each 30-minute show (there were 22 total), the ratio was four performers to two audience members: Parking Lot Kalypso screamed and beat on the van as it pulled out of the Vons parking lot on Alvarado, Hermes drove the Honda, Odysseus, in either a trance or tantrum, was in the back seat, and the real Kalypso hid in the rear, to pop out two-thirds of the way through, as a Diamanda Galas-inspired drag queen. One audience member sat in the passenger seat, one behind the driver’s seat.
Machine Project rented the van through RelayRides. Still in rehearsal, Odysseus broke the passenger seat by shaking it too ferociously during the scene where we accelerate onto the 2 Freeway while Hermes screams at Kalypso on the phone (on the screen: the photo of the wide-open pussy) and Odysseus loses his shit.
in the Honda Odyssey minivan of his macho bro Hermes (played by Brian Doose), in Odyssey Odyssey.
All of the performers playing men that I’ve worked with will tell you that I cite Basketball Diaries– and Gilbert Grape-era Leo as a reference for their characters (probably an unhealthy fetish), but it was never more true than for Joey Cannizzaro’s golden, waifish, spastic, queer, tank-top- and short-shorts-wearing, drug-addled Odysseus for Odyssey Odyssey.
The diegetic soundtrack of Odyssey Odyssey is “Extrem” by the German deathcore band We Butter the Bread, “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrisson, and “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake.
The ending of Odyssey Odyssey is Odysseus and Hermes paraphrasing Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theater,” which addresses the question of how we as an audience can believe in theater when we know it’s only a representation. Kleist thinks grace is the answer: “Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.” The essay ends, as the play did, with a statement about having to eat from the tree of knowledge over and over again: “That’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”
In those days, I was still laboring under the tyrannical regime of The Geniuses of Western Literature, which was born and incubated by the Greeks. I tried to implant myself in their stable. As though we were show horses. Trying to win
Odyssey Odyssey starts out as an escape—Hermes is rescuing Odysseus from the sorceress Kalypso, who has kept him under a spell, as her sex slave, for seven years—but reveals itself to be a figurative eternal return, when Kalypso’s magic pulls the Honda back to the Vons parking lot where we started (cue “SexyBack”), and then I, as “The Director,” pop out of the rear where I’ve been hiding, yell “Cut!” and say we need to perform it again. We kick the audience out and drive away.
There is something about repetition that needs to be reckoned with by everyone making performances that happen more than once. While waist-deep in the Cycle, I told Leslie Dick that I hated the chore of washing my hair, and she said she didn’t, because she “loves repetition.” This quote changed everything.
Up there, I wanted to write “my Hermes,” “my Odysseus,” and “my Kalypso.” Throughout the Cycle, I’ve often caught myself insisting on the mine-ness: “in my Odyssey it’s different,” “what happens with my Kalypso is that she doesn’t acquiesce to the man.”
“The key,” Kate Zambreno wrote, “is to convince ourselves, as Fitzgerald and Flaubert and Eliot and Ezra did, of our eventual genius.” 2
I think theater needs to be arresting—that is, it ought to get you arrested.
A few months after Odyssey Odyssey, I had a psychic reading by Asher Hartman, in which he told me that the next play I was going to do would be Alcestis. When he said this, I didn’t know what it was. Then I went home and looked it up and knew he was right.
What I needed to make my adaptation of Alcestis, which I called There’s Time (an inconclusive list): a psychic reading from Asher Hartman, a lifelong paralyzing fear of death, a nightmare of a whale that recurred for 20 years, Chelsea Manning, the dynamic witchery of Claire Kohne and Dara Sneddon.
Even though, or perhaps because of the fact, it was only 20 minutes long and took place in a proper performance art space, There’s Time was the most difficult of all the plays, both to write and to watch. It was what I’d wanted to make for a long time: a woman talking quietly in a room.
Alcestis is about a young queen who goes to her death, willingly, so that her beloved King-Husband doesn’t have to die. In the Euripides version, Alcestis is the epitome of a wife’s sacrifice; she gets a few lines to justify herself before she is dead halfway through, and the rest of the play consists of men talking about their immortality.
In my Alcestis, there is only a young queer woman preparing to die for her girlfriend whom she calls “The Kingdom,” while Death, also a young queer woman, waits for her on the side of the stage. (I wrote The Queen to be played by Claire Kohne and Death by Dara Sneddon, two women in their early 20s who are also close friends.) Death watches The Queen sing her a love song—“this song is dedicated to Death herself”—and throughout the play, Death gives The Queen more and more clothes to put on in accumulating layers. But only The Queen speaks. Finally, for the last minute, they stand pressed against each other and speak at the same time. The Queen says a dirge for herself. Death talks about how good she feels finally. Spotlight off. End.
I’ve noticed that all the people who didn’t like There’s Time disliked it for the same reason: they didn’t believe The Queen was feeling, or capable of feeling, tragic feelings. They said it was because she was “too young,” or a “bad actress.”
I’ve also noticed that all who said this were men two generations older than The Queen.
Several people in the audience wept during the show—a first for the Cycle. One woman, a mother who has the same birthday as me, cried the entire time.
Someone was supposed to write a review of There’s Time; she came to rehearsal and the show, and we spoke a few times about it. She titled her review “39 Names for an Open Wound.” She said it was the hardest piece she’d ever had to write and, as of the end of 2015, hasn’t finished it yet.
I should say something about capitalism in relationship to the Cycle, but all I can say is that it was the most anti-capitalist that I could make it.
After one of the performances of There’s Time, Nickels Sunshine approached me and asked if we could work together. She said, “Because I want to be a queen.” And I said, “I know exactly which one.”
We started working on She Work, my adaptation of Medea, in that moment in August 2014, and it premiered July 2015, the fourth and final of my Greek plays.
What I needed to make She Work (an inconclusive list): Trauma, Nickels Sunshine, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Judith Butler, anti-inflammatories, being confined to the bed during the Black Lives Matter protests, anti-psychotic medication, phalaenopsis orchids, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Nickels and I rehearsed She Work for nearly a year, more than a hundred hours, the most intimate and committed of all the Cycle’s collaborations so far. Some of the rehearsals took place in bars, others in the hospital, and most in my apartment, where the work was shown. Both of us had had mental breakdowns, chronic illness episodes, and debilitating physical injuries that year. Nickels is also a mystic, and she is perhaps the most joyously embodied person I’ve ever known. This is no small feat: To be joyous within a genderfluid body that is socially and politically illegible is one of the most radical acts of resistance.
With her, I had the epiphany that the opposite of tragedy is not comedy: it’s luck.
If nothing else is gleaned from The Greek Cycle, I hope that its audience felt, even as a wordless tremor, the cruel totality of the heteronormative gender binary that traumatizes every one of us.
You can substitute the word “Greek” for “Patriarchy” and the meaning of The Greek Cycle won’t change.
(The joke of this piece’s title: I don’t think anyone ever called Euripides a genius.)
In an interview about She Work, Carol Cheh noted that trauma was a strong theme in all the plays. I hadn’t realized that trauma is not just a “strong” theme, but the theme, until she said that.
People, women especially, can be wary of using the word trauma because it implies victimhood. It also comes entangled in the neoliberal-capitalist narrative of “healing,” as does sickness in general, and then you’ve got to watch out for people talking to you about your “journey.” I can’t stand the concept of healing if you don’t also talk about hopelessness, hemorrhaging, the medical-insurance industrial complex, panic, poverty, and boredom. I prefer the term “coping” because it acknowledges that the struggle is real.
As I was leaving my birthday party this year, stuck in the wheelchair that fucked up all my outfits, Dez’Mon Omega Fair said, “Keep healing,” as we said goodbye.
This is one thousand times better than that infernal “Be well” because it implies that you’re already healing. Which you are.
The Monday after the opening night of She Work, I had my twice-yearly reiki and tarot session with the Altadena witch Abhayada Dwan, who told me that I still had some “old pain” attached to me, though it was at that point just the dregs. I’d started seeing her a few months after Motherload, during my second breakdown, when I’d stopped speaking and lost words and worn earplugs in the bed for two months (learning how to be a mystic). She gave me a special oil to rub on my lower stomach, over the womb, that would get rid of the rest of the ghosts, and she said, “You’ve done a lot of work.”
It wasn’t until The Greek Cycle was over, and I’d started writing this, that I realized I’d been misspelling Euripides’ name for four years.
A minor triumph.
When I started The Greek Cycle, I was just divorced, fresh out of the psych ward, and bleeding black dust from a diseased uterus that had killed the only child I’ll ever have. The only weapon I had was this incorrigible thing called art.
Three days after the last show of She Work that completed The Greek Cycle, I adopted a kitten who’d been born in a New Orleans gutter and found by Claire Kohne/The Queen. I named her Penelope. Penelope is, of course, the wife who waits for Odysseus to return. She waits for 20 years.
My Penelope was two-and-a-half months old when The Greek Cycle ended: she knew nothing about the history of Western civilization and never will.
The only person who saw all 30 hours of Motherload besides me is Wojciech Kosma.
The only person who’s been in the audience of each play of The Greek Cycle is Mark Allen.
The only performer who’s appeared in all four of the plays is Claire Kohne.
The people (performers and crew) who made The Greek Cycle with me, in alphabetical order, are: Anna Jandt, Anna Reutinger, Anthony Okopnik, Asher Hartman, Bennett Williamson, Brian Doose, Brian Getnick, Camila Sobral, Claire Kohne, Clay Gibson, Dara Sneddon, Dez’Mon Omega Fair, Elizabeth Sonenberg, Emily Lacy, Erik Nieto, Fernando Munoz, Fernando Sanchez, Gabriel Noguez, Ian Byers-Gamber, Jasmine Albuquerque Croissant, Jessica Wen-di Tan, Jocelynn Suarez, Joey Cannizzaro, Johannes Beck, Jovanna Tosello, Katie Rediger, Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, Mark Allen, Mattia Casalegno, Melissanthi Saliba, Miles Hartfelder, Myrrhia Rodriguez, Nickels Sunshine, Páll Haukur, Salvatore Salamone, Sarah Shoemaker, Willem Henri Lucas, Wojciech Kosma, and Yiannis Christofides. (If I could list all the audience members here, I would. They made it too.)
The institutions that hosted and supported it are: the Art Program at CalArts, Machine Project, the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Festival, Headlands Center for the Arts, PAM, and the donors to She Work’s fundraiser, who allowed us to do it independently at d e e p s l e e e p.
The Greek Cycle is dedicated to Giunone—named for the Ancient Roman goddess of war—the child I lost on February 18, 2011, which was also my sister’s 20th birthday.