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Performance Cabaret: In Conversation with Erin Markey

In Conversation with Erin Markey
Interviewed by Sara Lyons

The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is organized by Contemporary Performance Network. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “What is  Mixed Reality Performance?” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts. 

Recently named one of “Brooklyn’s 50 Funniest People” (Brooklyn Magazine), Erin Markey makes music, shows and videos. She has shown work at Under the Radar Festival, A.R.T., New Museum, PS 122, New York City Comedy Festival, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, UCBeast, Bard Spiegeltent, Tasmania’s Festival of Voices, San Francisco Film Society and frequently at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater.  She is the recipient of a Franklin Furnace Grant, a NYFA Cutting Edge Artist Award, an Eliot Norton Award for Outstanding Performance and is frequently recognized by Time Out New York as a Top Ten Cabaret Artist. She was listed in Artforum’s Top Ten Best Music of 2016.  Her musical, A Ride On The Irish Cream, co-composed with Emily Bate and Kenny Mellman, premiered at Abrons Arts Center in January 2016 and was co-presented by Abrons and American Realness Festival. Irish Cream just completed its first tour and recently released an album available here. Her new show Erin Markey: Boner Killer premiered at Joe’s Pub for Under The Radar Festival in January 2017 and began touring in June 2017. She is currently creating a new surf-rock driven show to premiere at the Bushwick Starr in 2018 called Little Surfer.

She recently co-composed music for and performed in Ghost Rings (New York Live Arts) as a company member of Obie award winning Half Straddle.

As an actress, she has appeared in several web series including Paula Pell’s and James Anderson’s Hudson Valley Ballers (Above Average), Monica (The Mini Series), Rods and Cones (Wifey TV), Your Main Thing, The 3 Bits, and the upcoming New York is Dead (Tribeca Film Festival).  She was also featured in the LOGO television show Jeffery and Cole Casserole.  Film credits include Valencia (The Movie/s), Junkie Doctors, The Joanne Holiday Show (NoBudge) and Fits and Starts (SXSW) directed by Laura Terruso.

Sara Lyons: Thank you for taking the time to talk. So, when I talk about performance cabaret, I mean work that builds off of cabaret traditions, but also engages a more rigorous theatrical dramaturgy, and moves fluidly—or is a hybrid—between comedy, musical theatre, theatre, music, performance art, burlesque, etc. I also think there is a common foundation among most performance cabaret artists in queer and feminist performance practices, inspired by queer and feminist performance art from the 80s and 90s, but that has moved away from that really direct activist work, or tell-all storytelling, into work that is more ironic, or fluid. Do you see yourself and your work as fitting this description? In your own work, have you thought about moving into a particular genre of work, or is it project-by-project?

Erin Markey: I definitely see myself in your description. I feel like I’ve played around with trying to allow different containers to inform the work that I do. Like, I was performing a lot more in stand-up comedy nights for the last year—more stand-up comedy than I had ever done before, for sure. And just doing the work that I do but in that world—that was exciting to me for a little bit, but it’s not exciting to me right now because I don’t love the premise of “this will be funny.” I just like to surprise people with comedy. But, I think that it is sort of becoming process-by-process because as much as I love surprising the audience and working outside of their expectations, the key to that is surprising myself. And the best way to do that is to get to know other forms. So, right now I’m learning Ableton Live, an audio software program. So that’s really intimidating and fun and a whole new world, and I’m sort of recontextualizing my work in more of a music/band sort of way—but not completely. It’s just letting that be one of the many filters that can lay on top of what I’m doing. But I think really that style is the anchor, and I’m less concerned about obeying the rules of any one genre.

SL: Are there genres that you had really strong relationships with growing up? Like, were you a musical theatre kid, or a dancer?

EM: I watched a lot of TV. I had the TV guide memorized. I could tell you everything that was on at any given hour during the summer. I also loved specific musical theatre things. Our dad was obsessed with Phantom of the Opera, so that meant our entire family had to be obsessed with Phantom of the Opera. He was so himself about the way that he loved it—he would blast it out of the windows of our house on Halloween every year, and it would scare a lot of children away, which really delighted my dad, even though he’s really sensitive, kind, like, child-loving dude. I guess I was more, like, watching other people have their relationships to things, and kind of living through them. I’m a younger sister to my very dominant older sister. And I just feel like that’s how I learned to look at the world—through the eyes of somebody else.

SL: How many years between you and your sister?

EM: Three. I felt sort of competitive but like in a very sly way. Like, in stupid ways, where I could win, that weren’t developmentally related. Like we would be eating pudding as a dessert, and I would be like: let’s have a contest to see who can eat their pudding the fastest. And then I would deliberately lose, because in my mind, really the winner is whoever can be sitting there with pudding, when the other one doesn’t have any pudding left.

SL: That’s genius. You have to make your own rules up from the beginning, and you have to rely on surprise or some kind of self-invented intellectual superiority.

EM: And it’s a power thing. I mean you can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.

SL: So clearly this is, like, the first instance of queer performance in your life. This is pure queer failure. From the very beginning you identified rules of the universe that are not inviting for you, and you figured out how to use what you want out of the them without being tied down to them.

EM: None of that being conscious, of course. These were just impulses that I was following through on. I mean, it’s so first world—but that’s what I am.

SL: So I’m wondering how discovering a queer identity as you got older played into all of that, and if you feel like that part of yourself has driven the stylistic choices that you’ve made in your work. Of course the content is what the content is, but I wonder how your formal choices might interact with your queer identity.

EM: Well, I feel like I have no choice but to always be commenting on the form that I perceive I’m working inside of in any given space. Like, if I’m doing a short piece in like a live setting, or even if I’m making a funny Instagram video. I kind of feel like I have no choice—it’s my inner, I don’t know, like integrity meter for how my taste will manifest itself. And I think that that’s just what I’ve actually been doing for a long time. Making more full-lengths, big projects like A Ride on the Irish Cream, and revising Boner Killer, and then I have a piece coming up next year called Little Surfer—that stuff can exist in and outside of that realm a little bit, because I can workshop them in lots of different environments, and it’s more building its own universe that isn’t relative to anything else. But if you’re on a bill for like a nightlife situation, you kind of have to situate yourself relative to everyone else, otherwise you’re not being present, or live. That’s how my performance chops were built, in nightlife. And that’s how my performance chops were built growing up—basically performance on a shared sibling bill.

SL: In conventional theatre, so much of that early education is based on deep sincerity and earnestness, you know, psychology—all these things that our society takes as normalized universal truth about being a human being. So you started out in nightlife, but have also worked in TV, theater, comedy and all these other forms—is it hard for you to reach outside of the nightlife commentary norm? Is it protective?

EM: Yeah, I think it’s a little protective. I don’t think it’s work for me—it’s not any more work for me than it is to be commenting. If I can sort of give in to it—and maybe that’s the work—there’s an extreme ease, I can let go of my clenched stomach a little bit, you know what I mean?

SL: Yeah.

EM: So, no, now that I have the muscle to know that I can build my own worlds, and that there’s a place of support, and resources, and a group of human beings who want to be there for it, watching it or being a part of it, then it’s really great and awesome to let it flow naturally. The way that I figure out the smaller problems inside of those [full-length] projects is to force myself to go back into a nightlife, live audience place, and I can take that larger project universe/feeling with me, to make it less relative to everybody else on the bill. But you still keep a little bit of that, cause you know, it’s cool to acknowledge that you’re there with other people.

SL: Totally. And that feels really important for whatever this form is too. It’s an interesting problem of a full-length show in this form—you’re world-building inside the show but you’re not putting up a fourth wall between yourself and the audience. I feel like for you in particular, you play tons of characters but you’re always also Erin Markey, and the audience always understands you as Erin Markey. And you’re able to hold all those things at the same time and have them all available to you.

EM: The intention is to demonstrate that a self can contain multiple voices and narratives at the same time. Not can contain, but does, and should, and it is not that big of a deal to hold them all to be true at once.

SL: It changes the demands on an audience, then, than in a traditional theatrical environment. It sounds like it can be undue work on an audience to not have it be super clear to them exactly who you are and exactly what they’re supposed to believe in any moment, but actually the heart of the work is that fluidity, and creating a space where we can all sit around and hold lots of contradictions together and enjoy them and enjoy the virtuosity of being able to move between them.

EM: Yeah!

SL: So you said you were working on re-working Boner Killer right now?

EM: Yeah. We made it, in some ways it felt really fast. I was playing an instrument, which I never do, and learning it really fast. And so that felt like a huge risk, and it felt really scary to do that, and also, you know, this feels like an especially personal, like, raw story. It’s definitely a show that I’m more scared of than any other show I’ve made. It’s like pulling teeth to get me to touch the keyboard. Which is interesting to me, because what is it about show that’s like that? What we came up with by January was about an hour-and-thirty-five-minute-long show. Which is too long in my book for a solo show—it’s not actually a solo show, it’s more like a two-person band-driven show where I’m doing all the talking. The goal with this time around is to convert some of the storytelling into the music, making it shorter, and making more music. But I’m terrified to work on it. So we’ll see what happens.

SL: Can you talk a little more specifically about the content of the show?

EM: I think that the audience walks away from this show not sure what happened to Erin Markey and what Erin Markey is making up. The bulk of the narrative of the show, I am telling a story about having accidentally been a sex worker, but as a character: my Aunt Jan. So it’s confusing in that way, because I know that the story is very true. It feels really scary to offer that to the audience because I’ve always felt like this particular story is not to be shared. The thing that feels secretive is the shame—the professional shame that I’ve attached to it because you don’t want to talk about having been a prostitute, because suddenly you’re not marketable, you know what I mean? At least, that’s how my brain has been working for the last however many years. And just being honest about it on stage—I had a similar experience finally talking explicitly about being a queer woman onstage. Kind of later than you would think—I would say in like 2012 or something like that. I mean I had a queer audience, and that was always just joyfully implicit, but it shifted when Whitney Houston died. And the show kind of is about that too on some level.

SL: From the outside, the way you approach intimacy in your shows is kind of detached into absurdity or irony or pop culture or the like. Does that become a way for you to process or handle the intimacy?

EM: It has been, but I feel like now my shows are moving more towards diving in way too deep into a really—for lack of better language—witchy self-seriousness about—about, like, how deep these colors run (laughs). That feels pretty all over the map, but one of the ways it feels is good.

SL: You mentioned earlier that you’re letting each show dictate what form, or what sort of performance genres you bring into each show. Can you talk a little bit about how you build shows? Do you start as a writer typically, or do you start in other ways?

EM: I feel like I start from more of a body place, because it’s performance, and because I’m the one performing. When I’m doing some kind of energy practice like yoga or qigong or meditation, that’s when my mind clears, and goes to different realms where it can’t like race or worry or overthink. Then, like there’ll be some little nugget, some little golden nugget that makes me laugh—like, I was like coming out of a meditation and I decided to “namaste” out of it because I was like, it would be cool to say thank you in that way. I wanted to sort of make it my own, and what came out of my mouth was: “the kind and generous little girl in me sees the kind and generous little girl in you.” And it was just like really funny and real and spooky at the same time. And I just kept doing it, and making some other people in my life start doing it, and then, you know, that becomes huge. Then my brain starts to like consciously and unconsciously orbit around whatever that is, or like different little pieces. It’s like I have four or five like chunks of something, whether it be writing or body-driven or whatever, that I’m like into, and then the rule is how do I draw the lines between them for a show, because these are the things I’m thinking about now, and I trust that they’re connected and that that’s the show.

SL: Right, so sort of following the intuitive impulses and finding some constraints around them, but letting them be.

EM: Yeah.

SL: And your shows must change a lot audience to audience, too.

EM: Yeah, it depends. Like—I just did a stand up night at a museum in Massachusetts. I was very confused when I got there because I did not expect this—I thought it was going to be an intimate setting. It was a 1,000 person house. And a lot of—a lot of people who wouldn’t normally be in my shows, who’re a few generations older than me, sitting right in front. And I was having people get up and be very physical, forcing them to like do the splits and I was like—OK, this is only gonna last for so long with this crowd. And that is correct. It did only last for so long. So, yeah, when I go out of town, you never know who’s gonna come because I’m not normally responsible for bringing that audience, you know. I don’t have a following in any other city. So I’m really at the mercy of the venue, and I kind of love that because you know, it teaches me a lot about like how far I can and can’t go with all different kinds of people.

SL: Is there anything else that you would like to say or share on the record before we close out?

EM: Been eating a lot of seaweed. It’s really good for your kidney.

SL: Is that true?

EM: Yeah. I’m studying five element theory, this like ancient traditional Chinese medicine, and I highly recommend it. And that’s ON THE RECORD.

Photo by Ian Douglas

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