While in Chicago at Links Hall, with Fudgie’s Death, I also narrated an excerpt from Susan Simpson‘s Exhibit A. Exhibit A, was an object theatre piece rooted in the utopian visions of early gay organizing and in the language and aesthetics of science fiction. Performances were the final weekend of the Banners and Cranks Festival of Cantrastoria May 7th through May 9th, 2010.
More about Exhibit A from Simpson’s website:
Exhibit A is a multimedia performance inspired by the ephemera in the archives of Jim Kepner. It is rooted in the utopian visions of early gay organizing and in the language and aesthetics of science fiction. Jim Kepner was a writer and activist in the early years of the gay rights movement in Los Angeles. He was also an avid science fiction fan and occasional sci-fi writer. His archives are full of artifacts from both of these thriving subcultures. The overlapping rhetoric of the two communities speaks to the fantastical forward thinking that fueled both worlds.
This piece tells the story of a dry summer of 1948 in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The reservoir is drained for repairs, Harry Hay and Rudi Gernrich are convening the first meetings of the Matachine society. John Lautner is surveying the site for a space age palace. Amidst the manifesto writing, initiation rights and walks around the dry reservoir, restless aliens wander modernist boxes and cottages of the hills exciting and disturbing inhabitants with unsettling acts of liberation. The Alien presence is met with a rush of pleasure and terror. Cataclysmic shifts in consciousness follow.
Also on the program were Meredith Miller, Ramshackle Enterprises, and Shoddy Puppet Company.
From the Dave Buchen and Clare Dolan’s Curator’s Note in the Banners and Cranks – Weekend 3 Program:
Cantastoria is the Italian word for a performance form originating in 6th Century India involving the display of representational paintings accompanied by sung narration. It travelled the world and has taken on many forms, from Indian religious Par scrolls to the Indonesian Wayang-Beber, to Persian Parda-dar entertainers, to itinerant European street performers selling broadsides, to the German banklesanger in Weimar cabarets to the present day revival.
Banners and Cranks is the first ever festival and exhibition of Cantastoria art in the US. It brings performers from around the country together for three weeks of shows and art work from all over the world together for an exhibition at the Packer Schopf Gallery.
What is so exciting about this festival and exhibit is that it showcases this unique form in its many permutations, revealing how an ancient performance practice has inspired contemporary young artists, activists, and performers.
From EXHIBIT A and the Incremental Power of Puppet Theater to Animate Hidden Histories by Sylvia Sukop:
Myths are made in increments, and their durability depends on a powerful alchemy of fact and fiction.
Imagined Spaces, Imagined Lives, an experiment in hyper-local mythmaking, began as collaboration among a group of Silver Lake-based theater artists, architects, and designers, with no fixed outcome in mind. It evolved into a complex, multi-site, multi-media exploration of embedded narratives permeating this Los Angeles neighborhood’s built environment—its streets and sidewalks, parks and bridges, and the reservoir for which it is named. The resulting six performances, spread over two weekends in June 2009, are based on real and imagined characters linked by the local geography they’ve shared over time.
In its density and dynamism, L.A. does not readily offer up its histories; they need to be mined, excavated from beneath the surface. That notion of an underground L.A. is literalized in Imagined Spaces’ opening performance, Exhibit A. For this show the seats have been removed from The Manual Archives, a single-car-garage-sized theater, and the audience stands, a dozen at a time, in a tight cluster behind the proscenium where the stage would normally be. Filling the rest of the space is a scaled-down, 3-D topographical map of Silver Lake complete with undulating cardboard hills and a model of the famous “spaceship” house designed by John Lautner.
This landscape sets the stage for imaginary encounters between two historical movements with roots in this neighborhood in the 1950s: gay liberation and futuristic architecture. Evoking low-tech sci-fi fantasy, the cardboard hillsides open up at key moments in the drama to reveal hidden characters with utopian visions—puppet incarnations of Harry Hay (founder of the Mattachine Society) and Jim Kepner (founder of the country’s first gay magazine and later of the ONE Archives), brought to life by three hard-working puppeteers in dark blue jumpsuits. Fragility is everywhere, in the rickety sets with their tiny electronic switches and blinking blue lights; in the puppets who depend on human operators to move and to speak and the slender threads (actual physical threads) pulled through the space to connect them; and in the stories that this web of words, objects and performers collectively attempts to capture before they vanish.
At the heart of this labor-intensive enterprise is a simple intention: getting people to pay more attention to their world. By shrinking what it is they represent, puppets—like architectural models—paradoxically magnify the details and gestures that help us to see and understand our own humanity and our relationships with everyone and everything around us.
In an age of sit-back entertainment, puppet theater is a physically and perceptually arduous form of story-telling, for creators and audiences alike. It is an incremental art whose force depends on the accretion of small elements, the way raindrops—with human assistance—might eventually form a reservoir.
Silver Lake’s own reservoir is slated to be replaced by one located underground in Griffith Park, and The Manual Archives theater has moved on from its original home on Sunset Boulevard. Places may be buried, vacated, transitory—but stories have a way of surviving. And the hardy souls who made Imagined Spaces, Imagined Lives happen (for it was decidedly a Happening) are now among the keepers, the living archives, of those stories.
Founded in 1978 by three experimental choreographers, Links Hall serves as an artistic incubator and launch pad in Chicago.