Interview with Jennie MaryTai Liu, pt. 1

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Jennie MaryTai Liu is a multimedia artist, choreographer, and experimental performer originally from Hong Kong. Her most recent multimedia work, Actress Fury, premiered in the 2013 New Original Works Fest (N.O.W. Fest) at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre (RedCat.) Actress Fury, which stars Ms. Liu, Hannah Heller, and Alexa Weir, will have an extended world premiere at The Bushwick Starr on January 29, 2014. In addition, the multihyphenate debuted in 2012 as director, editor, and performer in Scout Hut, a short film commissioned by Chez Bushwick Presents. Click here to support Jennie MaryTai Liu’s fundraising efforts for the World Premiere of Actress Fury on Hatchfund. Ms. Liu took time from her busy preparation schedule to speak with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about what her artistic identities entail, the value of expanding a work’s breadth, and what direction her film career is heading towards. This interview, part one of two, has been edited and compressed from e-mail for publication.

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SM: Your piece for N.O.W. Fest, Actress Fury, featured two other central performers besides you. Can you talk a bit about the audition or selection process for the actors?

JMTL: I don’t hold auditions, but I’m not opposed to them. If I needed twenty people, auditions would probably be necessary, but generally I work with people that I have met over the years working in performance and also new people I meet that I think are smart, and beautiful, and am drawn to in some way. I met one of the performers, Hannah Heller, at the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU, and we’ve worked together on six projects over the last eight years. She has an undeniable energy and fierce, loving attention; she’s brought a lot to the sensibility and tone of my work. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve worked together because [Ms. Heller] was studying in Paris with master Phillipe Gaulier – Sacha Baron Cohen and Roberto Benigni’s teacher. So now that we are working together again she is bringing this new practical knowledge and philosophy about what it means to perform and be in front of an audience.

Alexa Weir is a dance artist and somatic movement educator in the LA dance community, and I met her through another choreographer. She gave me a ride to rehearsal when I was new to LA and didn’t have a car. She also went to NYU to study dance, so we share a language about what it is to live in NY and about what is happening in performance there. Besides being an exquisite dancer, she’s also got a quiet, dark, swampy quality which I find appealing. I had a feeling she could take a process seriously because she’s into mysterious things like tarot and body-reading.

SM: The actors in the work are all required to get quite physical with one another – touching breasts and genitals, rolling around in a netted ball together, yelling in one another’s faces. Was everyone involved in the production immediately on board with such behavior or were there comfort issues?

JMTL: There’s a lot of close contact, but no nudity or violent aggression. No one has to pee or get penetrated with a dildo on stage or anything – I’ve seen a lot of work like that. I am very concerned with physical safety; I don’t ever want anyone to get hurt. We also come to choices together – there is complicity in every action. The part that you bring up where I touch Hannah’s clothed crotch came about after several conversations. We figured that one way to create a sense of shame in that moment would be for me to molest her physically, and I just did it, and then it became part of the choreography. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable because it’s formal. But then again, we’ve worked together for eight years now. I probably wouldn’t have gone there with [Ms. Weir,] who I only met last year.

SM: On stage at the RedCat performance were two people without “performer” billing. They must have required direction, preparation for what to expect from a live audience, and costuming. Should we classify and judge their work as performance?

JMTL: Once you put anybody on stage or in the frame, they become a performer. At some point in the process, Julia Bembenek and Mark Nieto, the composers/sound designers of Actress Fury, voiced their interest in performing live. I warned them it would involve more work to be part of the composition and live energy of the piece, and they were willing. [Ms. Bembenek] has experience performing live with her music, but she hadn’t been on stage since high school. She became the omnipotent and manipulative God character and has a few lines. We figured out some gestural choreography and floor patterns to distract her from self-consciousness. Part of her direction was to just ask [Mr. Nieto,] who had the script in front of him, for a line if she forgot any. This is nothing new in experimental theater: breaking the fourth wall, making the process visible. It’s part of the aesthetic lineage I come from.

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I asked Mark to be the ‘straight man’: I liked the idea of him being the only man on stage and the only one in street clothes. I think being inside the performance, literally in the middle of the stage, sitting down with his computer, surrounded by histrionics, and being watched by an audience was an interesting phenomenological experience for him. He was so present and honest in his reactions and gave a very pure performance.

SM: When writing and choreographing a performance piece, do you ever consider removing yourself from the performance for any reason(s)?

JMTL: I love performing, but generally speaking I prefer not to perform in my work. It’s easier when you can look at it from the outside, watch new movement, a scene, or a situation in all of its messy glory; it’s more efficient; and I want to hone my directorial eye. [That being said,] I perform in Actress Fury for a few reasons. First of all, it’s practical. Using myself means that there is one less person to schedule. Secondly, when you are part of the group, you are participating in the making of material from the inside, particularly in a dance piece where there is so much body-to-body transfer. Learning and sharing movement is an ancient mode of connecting with other people. You get to know the work as a subject going through it, and it becomes first person, like playing a video game. That’s exciting, and it can lead to more intuitive and organic discoveries. Lastly, being in the work heightens the camaraderie and feelings of mutuality between the director and the performers.

SM: Describe – if you can – why and from where you chose some of these characters. Why Ajax, for example?

JMTL: I’d never worked with a classical text before, and I knew I wanted to with this show. I read through a lot of Greek and Roman plays, and was drawn to Sophocles’ Ajax. He was a Greek warrior of colossal strength and fame, and the play tells of his tragic demise. He is turned mad by Athena and commits an act that is so dishonorable, he cannot stand the shame and kills himself. The play strikes me as a classic tale of ruin and disaster. I was at a low moment when I read it and it spoke to me: Ajax goes mad, and then reawakens from madness. At the time I was also reading about the creation of multiple personality disorder by therapists and the media, and started to think about how acting can play into madness and vice-versa, the intersection of the two psycho-physical experiences…

SM: Do the multiple “actress” characters have their geneses in your real-life interests, or did you select any of them simply for dramaturgical value?

JMTL: I acted a lot in experimental performance in New York, but when I moved to Los Angeles, money became more of a consideration. I started to think more about the prospects of commercial and television acting. Then I began talking to friends out here, reading about the “master teachers,” and was struck for the first time that women almost always describe themselves as ‘actors’ and not ‘actresses.’ This had never occurred to me before [moving here] as being indicative of a really basic kind of gender shame. The actress is probably the most venerated yet degraded figure in our culture. We worship their images, yet very few women have been able to exert agency in their choice of roles and performances. When they do, they call themselves actors. Their jobs are to express feeling, and yet girls and women are taught in all kinds of passive and active ways not to show how they really feel. This is Feminism 101.

SM: So in choosing these characters, why Joan Crawford and not Bette Davis or Marlene Dietrich, for example?

JMTL: Joan Crawford is luscious material, first because she was so damn good, but then because of Mommie Dearest (1981) and her posthumous downfall. Her ‘hag movies’ like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Strait Jacket (1964), also raise issues about self-image, agency and madness. However, the ‘actress’ in the piece is actually not just Joan Crawford, but a mix of many different sources including Vaslav Nijinsky, the famous turn of the century Russian dancer-turned-schizophrenic, and Frances Farmer, a beautiful starlet who was tragically committed to the madhouse again and again by her mother. Ultimately, “the actress” is one that is seeking personal agency and freedom to represent herself in anyway she chooses.

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