The Rhubarb Festival, Buddies in Bad Times theatre’s annual mad and merry festival of new outside-the-box performance, begins tonight, the first under festival director Laura Nanni. As always, there are lots of interesting Toronto companies and artists involved in presenting short shows or snippets thereof, including Small Wooden Shoe, Ravi Jain, Johnnie Walker and Praxis Theatre (more than just a blog).
Of A Monstrous Child: a gaga musical, Saturday night’s one-off performance from the Ecce Homo theatre company, caught my eye for several reasons: It's about chart-topper Lady Gaga, it stars Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Bruce Dow and, provocatively, Michael Alig, the convicted murderer who was the subject of the 2003 movie Party Monster, is listed as a co-writer. Over email, I conducted a Q&A with writer and director Alistair Newton to find out more.
Tell me a little bit about Of a Monstrous Child. Is this a Lady Gaga jukebox musical?
I think of it as a musical polemic or a theatrical dissertation. Of a Monstrous Child represents the apotheosis of my goal to attract audience members from different backgrounds and experiences by marrying high culture to low art; the club kids have as much to teach the grad students as they have to learn from them. One of my intellectual heroines Susan Sontag talks about the “good taste of bad taste” in her essay “Notes on Camp” but I think Gene Simmons put it better when he said, "It doesn’t have to have good taste, it just has to taste good."
You originally were not a fan about Her Gaganess. What changed your mind and got you interested in her work?
I stumbled across a snippet of an essay that Gaga wrote while she was a student at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. In it she explores transgressive sexuality, deformity and the social body, and the socio-political implications of nudity in North American culture - fascinating stuff, and much better than I could have managed when I was seventeen... or, on an off-day, now for that matter. After researching Gaga’s oeuvre, I realized two things: she is an appropriation artist in the tradition of Jasper Johns, firmly rooted in postmodern theorem, and she has positioned herself as a kind of Messianic liberator to her fans.
Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Bruce Dow plays performance artist Leigh Bowery in the show. How did you get him on board, and what role does Bowery play in the proceedings?
I saw Bruce play the Emcee in the most recent Stratford production of Cabaret and fell in love with his ability to be heartwarming and emotionally rooted while at the same time subversive and savage - Brecht himself couldn’t have dreamed up a more effective Brechtian player. Actor and director David Ferry suggested I approach Bruce to take on the role of Leigh and once his name was mentioned, I couldn’t imagine anyone else. Bruce has been an amazingly generous and open collaborator and I consider it an honour, a privilege, and an utter pleasure to work with him. Leigh Bowery is a massive influence on Lady Gaga - just as he is on me - and he serves as the evenings electronic master of ceremonies.
Who is your Lady Gaga?
Our Gaga is played by two performers: Kimberly Persona, a fabulous up-and-coming musical theatre performer, and Tyson James, a performer, artist and Gaga super fan who performs drag as his alter ego, Cassandra Moore. The piece deals with Gaga’s symbiotic relationship with her fans and I conducted a series of interviews with Tyson which form the spine of the show.
What songs are featured in Of a Monstrous Child?
You’ll hear deconstructions and mash-ups from some of the artists who have had an influence on Gaga. I will promise a genuinely moving acoustic duet of Pokerface as sung by Lady Gaga and Michael Alig. I have been corresponding with Michael in upstate New York where he is serving out the end of a lengthy prison sentence for murder and he has been an invaluable source of insight on the world of liberation and excess that gave birth to Gaga.
Do you have any reservations about artistically collaborating with a convicted murderer?
Firstly, I believe in the justice system, and I also believe in an innate human solidarity which leads me to have faith that people can be rehabilitated. Moreover, the most important thing I learned from studying Brecht is how to think dialectically and it informs all of my creative outputs. Consider it dialectically: I made a show about Mother Teresa in 2009 which explored a woman whose fanatical Catholic crusade against contraception, abortion and divorce indirectly caused countless deaths in India and around the world. Michael Alig, on the other hand, directly caused the death of one person in a drug-fuelled rage. Alig’s crime is grizzly and horrifying, surely, but why is it that Mother T is on the fast track to sainthood and Michael is condemned for all time?
In your show, you talk about appropriation and authenticity. What's your perspective on the controversy over Lady Gaga's new single "Born This Way" and its similarities to Madonna's "Express Yourself"?
I found something interesting during the course of my research: whenever someone would criticize Lady Gaga the phrasing would always be some form of, “Oh, she thinks she’s so original” - which looking at any interview Gaga has ever given proves false. Lady Gaga is totally open about what Michael Alig calls her “aesthetic sampling”. I almost never hear her detractors say, “She is so unoriginal.” This leads me to believe that our culture values “authenticity” over originality. I’m trying to use Of a Monstrous Child as a way to wrestle back the concept of irony from insipid hipster culture that seems to have somehow managed to confuse it with nihilism. Lady Gaga offers a very welcomed if rather extreme earnestness and passion. In the face of banal hipster ‘authenticity’ and icy detachment, I salute her for it.
But is “Born this Way” a good song?
The fact that she got the word “transgendered” into a mainstream pop hit that is currently going number one all over the world makes up for some of the other dodgy lyrics and lame appropriation of Madonna... Camille Paglia be damned.
Saturday night is a one-off sneak preview. What are your plans for the show after this?
We will be showing just under half of a larger piece and my goal is to find support to stage a full production in the very near future. Lady Gaga is playing Toronto in March and I am trying to find a way to get a film of the show into her hands. Gaga, if you’re reading this, there is a ticket under your name at the Buddies box office in case your show in Jersey happens to finish early.
The Rhubarb Festival runs until February 27. This interview has been condensed and edited.