Our Voice To Voice conversation series brings together members of the LGBT community to discuss issues, events, topics, and projects they're presenting, developing, interested in, or perhaps even outraged by.
The following Voice To Voice conversation is between actor and writer Michael Cavadias and director, performer, and visual artist Rob Roth, who have collaborated on "The Mystery of Claywoman."
Blending live performance and film, the show is the story of Claywoman, a 500-million year old enigma who, legend has it, can cure anyone of their deepest pain. She, along with her canine musical traveling companion "Craig," travels the universe searching for souls to heal and planets to save.
Written and performed by Michael Cavadias and directed and performed by Rob Roth, "The Mystery of Claywoman" begins with a "found, unfinished, severely damaged and restored" documentary film that introduces the theories and mythology surrounding the Claywoman character. This mockumentary raises questions concerning our need for faith, ritual and validation through interviews with characters played by such performers as Alan Cumming, Edgar Oliver, Amy Poehler, Justin Bond, Debbie Harry, and Ruth Maleczech. Full info and ticket info is available here.
Below Cavadias and Roth discuss "The Mystery of Claywoman," how ideas of "community" and "ritual" affect their work, and more.
Rob Roth: Every time we stage "The Mystery of Claywoman," the underlying battle between my ever present existential nihilism and sympathetic humanism goes into overdrive and I have a difficult time being the referee between those two voices. At this point I'm used to it I suppose, but I was thinking about religion as theater and how much better the world would be if we all accepted it as such. It's not an insult either to call religious practice theater in my opinion, it elevates it. Theater is one of the greatest forms of art.
Michael Cavadias: It's interesting you put it that way because I think that's exactly the tension in the piece but I've never been able to articulate it so clearly. There's this sadness about our predicament as humans but also a great love for humanity and the potential for solidarity in the midst of our predicament. I think that is what both theatre and religion do as versions of each other. Putting aside the supernatural claims of the latter, they are both rituals we use to grapple with the unknown and to comfort each other or challenge each other to look deeper into it. The difference, in my view is that theater usually acknowledges that it is simply asking questions while religion tends to claim it knows the answers.
Rob Roth: I think ritual is important. Genesis P Orridge defines ritual as "the concrete expression of experience." I've always felt that theater was one form of it. As a child I was fascinated with all the pageantry of the Sunday Mass, its grand architecture, costuming, incense, and overall theatrics within the ritual. This has always been an influence in my work. I believed in the expression, but never the doctrine. I wish we all threw certainty out the window and would keep the concrete expressions in all forms as performance. I was on a plane once and a Muslim man left his seat to kneel down on the isle and pray toward Mecca, my first instinct was to do something similar -- to go into a handstand or some other pose in response with the intention of other people following. I imagined all the passengers holding different poses almost in communication with each other, not caring why they were doing it but celebrating the fact that we all could, like you said, in solidarity of the predicament. I still see that image in my head 1,000's of miles up in the sky. Certainty in belief systems is what I can't get behind, but the beauty in the practice I can appreciate.
Michael Cavadias: I grew up Catholic, and while I don't believe in any of the metaphysical claims anymore, you can't deny that it is beautiful imagery. The buildings alone can make you catch your breath.
Rob Roth: I was browsing a Tumblr site last week and found a graphic image of the quote "To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong" by Joseph Chilton Pearce. That really struck me -- no human wants to be wrong, especially after a lifetime of believing. I believe it's easier for artists to question everything with the courage to be wrong. I think it's the job really and comes more naturally -- not that it makes it any easier to struggle with, we are just forced to.
Michael Cavadias: Exactly, the more we do this piece the less certain I am about anything. It's exciting to embody certainty in a piece of theater but to be filled with doubt yourself, to explore a viewpoint by laying it out as someone else. I think when we work on these things, I get worried about committing to believing a specific thing but then I remember that you can't really be wrong when you're just throwing concepts out there. My favorite thing is when someone sees the show and tells me it's about something completely different than anything I'd thought of, which I think is amazing. It's just created a space for someone else to have their own experience with it.
Rob Roth: That's what art does in all its forms -- it creates spaces for others to interpret. It also depends on so many other factors when observing art, what emotional place the observer is standing in, what their influences were growing up, what they had for breakfast [laughs] and more. It's always in flux. I love when I see a film once and then again years later to find I completely have a new found interpretation of its meaning or find something in it I was incapable of seeing years before. When I was younger I used to think being gay was the reason I thought differently from most other people and then I realized it was the artist in me that had a much different way of thinking. It might have been the combination of the two that really made me feel like an outsider. Do you find that to be true?
Michael Cavadias: It rings true in the sense that at different times in my life, different aspects of who I am are more prominent or what I end up identifying with more. When I first came out at 19, being gay was one of the most important things because it had been such a struggle and there had been so much shame about it. I definitely divided the world up into gay and straight for a bit as a way of trying to feel safe, but I soon realized that these divisions are limiting. Connections with people or solidarity can come through so many avenues. I think Angela Davis said something about how opposing Clarance Thomas for the Supreme Court made her rethink her ideas about what her community was.
Rob Roth: I've never really been sure what my "community" was. This was the only advantage of the horrible coming out process when I was young, the rug is pulled out from under you and suddenly you are alone and wonder where your place is. It makes you question everything. It's a terrible and painful process, but I think in the long run, if you survive you have this constant questioning of authority and a skill for adapting to different situations for the rest of your life. I know this is what religion brings to people -- a sense of belonging and reassurance -- but when that is taken away from you in every aspect of your life so early on, you basically are given the gift of sight. Suddenly the emperor is naked and has the leading role in the "theater of the absurd."
Michael Cavadias: I think "community" changes and hopefully grows as time goes on. I think about the beautiful ending to Charlie Kaufman's film "Synechode" when Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character is playing the character that Diane Weist's character had been playing in the play that took over everything. He's being directed through the end of her life by her and you see how when it comes right down to it, we are all really going through the same thing. It just blew me away honestly. He could have been directed through anyone's death, but it was through this character who was initially so peripheral, which is the point because ultimately, no one is peripheral. The finality of life doesn't change depending on what community you are a part of. Every being on the planet has to deal with it.
Rob Roth: Well, that's the one thing that can be agreed on because it's proven every day. We die. It's the great equalizer. I always remember one of my favorite lines from Kiki and Herb is when Kiki delivers the line, "People die. That's all you need to know." This is why I wish we could have ceremony and ritual that reflects our experience and wonderment of existence without any set doctrine or fear based laws to control. The closest I have found is within certain Pagan celebrations -- I prefer to give thanks to nature and its order. I can get my mind around that concept and then embellish it with as much splendor as possible! It makes more sense than eating a wafer that is supposed to be someones body...
Michael Cavadias: Kiki was always great for delivering the great truths in as succinct and hilarious a way as possible. I loved those shows because we'd all be screaming with laughter but at the same time having our guts ripped out by Justin Bond's ability to weave in the most upsetting things while making everyone howl. Those shows were very much a community event -- as his new ones are -- and kind of a ritual as well.
Apart from Theater, how do you feel these things come into your other work in film, video art and the other mediums you use?
Rob Roth: I always said going to a Kiki and Herb show was like going to a church for the rest of us. Mx Justin Vivian Bond can really deliver a sermon.
As far as other mediums, I've always approached every medium as a painter, essentially that is still how I see myself, though I have not touched a painting in years. I see images in my mind, I'm not entirely sure where they come from, visions from my childhood or something older and deeper, more of a collective unconscious thing I suppose. Some visions that manifest on stage or in video or photography make no sense to me in the moment I'm making them, but as they birth and grow its starts making sense. Sometimes it's years later when I look back that I start to really understand it. You can't help but wonder where did these ideas come from? Obviously in collaboration like our work it starts with text -- that's a more structured way for me to work. It helps the process start faster, but from there it can go anywhere really, performance, video, photography, music, or all. I have never been one to just do one thing and they can all be made within one project. My biggest struggle within the process is just the funds to create these visions. It's always such a challenge and it's why it takes me longer to finish some projects.
Michael Cavadias: The visual component of your work is huge. I can see why you would liken it to painting. It's fascinating how different people access their creative spark. I tend to think more in language I suppose, but it changes all the time and it's difficult to pin that kind of thing down. The great thing about film and theater is that you can use so many different mediums like music, text, movement, and visuals to say something. One of the most rewarding things about working on "Claywoman: has been getting to train in a bit of Bhutto dance with Vangeline. I was online watching videos of her all night on YouTube the other night after we worked with her.
Rob Roth: Vangeline is an authentic genius. She possesses something extraordinary and has a unique gift not only as a performer but as a teacher. She can articulate so much in just a few movements and knows how to excavate these deep visceral emotions within. I'm always amazed what she can bring out just by teaching you how to breathe. She pulls out the pathos like no one else. I love working with her because she really understands what I'm trying to do and is not afraid of humor, that is key to me, the balance between humor and pathos, the fine line. I'm thrilled that she will be getting even more attention with this James Franco movie called "The Stare" she recently worked on. I can't think of anyone more deserving.
Michael Cavadias: I didn't know about the movie, that's amazing. Perhaps our readers would like a little example of what we’re talking about. Here’s one of Vangeline’s pieces called fittingly “Ritual." I remember when I was in school with Antony [of Antony and the Johnsons], we had this amazing Butoh instructor, Maureen Fleming. We were just kids and her classes blew me away. I’m certainly not a dancer by any means but there's something so deep about Butoh that studying it can affect every other thing you do. It was such a treat to come back to it when we started working on this piece.
Rob Roth: I love the moments of collaboration, that's where I get really excited. When people are bringing their strengths and it all starts taking shape and flows. It's not easy getting to that place, but when its happening its a great feeling. I think NYC has really been a bit more exciting these last few years. So many great and varied performers are breaking through like Narcissister, Lady Rizo, and Cole Escola. As hard as it is to survive here financially now, it has not kept the talent away.
Michael Cavadias: Yes, I agree, in the past couple years there has been so much new talent which has re-energized the downtown scene. Cole and Rizo are amazing. Amber Martin is truly inspired, as well as Taylor Mac and Murray Hill. It's great to see outsider performance is still thriving even in these economic times with so many financial impediments to making art. I loved when we took "Claywoman" to Provincetown for the Afterglow festival and got to spend a weekend with many of the people we just mentioned as well as geniuses Penny Arcade and John Kelly. It was such a buzz to hang out with everyone and realize there really is a community here that supports each others work.
Rob Roth: I love John Kelly -- he inspires and gives hope to us all. It's so vital to have presenters and festivals who take interest in this kind of work. Jay Wegman at Abrons Art Center basically changed the map for underground / downtown performance here in NYC in the last few years. He has given so many of us a home to present and develop our work. It's a rare situation and should be applauded. Especially his support of queer/trans artists. The notion of "downtown" and what that meant in the past here really disappeared, and for good reason with what happened to the landscape of what was downtown, but I'd like to think it's coming around again, at least the sensibility seems to be thriving.
Michael Cavadias: The Abrons Art Center has been critical to keeping the performance scene alive for sure. I performed there first with The Citizens Band and it's always been a great experience. Speaking of downtown performance, one of my favorite shows of the last few years was Karen Finley's "Make Love," where she performs as Lisa Minelli in a post 9-11 tour of middle America and she keeps saying the line "I know you know God, better than me." At least that's the way I remember it. Did you see that show?
Rob Roth: No, unfortunately I missed that one. I saw her read once at Rapture Cafe, which is another place that is gone now. That's the thing, I don't really have a "hub" or gathering place at this moment in New York. I miss that. I was thinking about the places that you could not only dance, but where you could have conversations, real conversations between other artists or some eccentric character that had an opinion of value. It's when those worlds of music, fashion, art and performance collide equally that something special happens. I try not to dwell in nostalgia and keep forging ahead to the next place that will provide that need. Usually I fill this void out of town at different gatherings/festivals around the globe.
Michael Cavadias: I think these things are happening now, just in different places. There aren't these nighttime hubs per se, but I think we've come up with different ways to gather perhaps. Sometimes I do miss having that kind of place that functions as a creative "hub" but they do seem to be popping up just not in the same way as before. The House of Yes seems to be making a space for artists in Brooklyn. It's not the same as the free floating type of hub like Jackie 60 or Rapture Cafe but then that's good, it shouldn't be the same.
Rob Roth: Yes, those House of Yes kids are so great. I love their energy, it's infectious. They are so crazy in the best way, it's positive and uplifting. I find it inspiring that there are other new places popping up in Brooklyn like The Spectrum, a queer art/performance/event space that will be another alternative for artists to use. Like I said before, as difficult as it is to survive here these days, it does not seem to stop us. Which reminds me... Go learn your lines!
OK, OK, stop yelling at me [laughs]
"The Mystery of Claywoman" runs January 28 and 29 and February 4 and 5 at 8pm at the Abrons Art Center in NYC. For more info and to buy tickets, click here.