My archival dramaturgy project continues with an interview with Jack Ferver about his recent project Death is Certain, which premiered at Danspace Project in April of 2009. Death is Certain featured performances by Ferver, Tony Orrico, and Liz Santoro, with live music by John McGrew and lights by Kathy Kaufman. We also talked a bit about Ferver’s A Movie Star Needs a Movie, which premiered at the New Museum in October, 2009, performed by Ferver and Santoro, with lights by Travis Chamberlain, video by Jason Akira Somma, costumes by Reid Bartelme, and music by Sebastian Tellier and Chris Lancaster.
SM: Thinking back on Death is Certain, what is still present for you?
JF: A really intense part of the piece for me was that at the end, the piece becomes about Tony. Liz and I witness him giving up and leaving because he can’t hold on anymore. I have a reaction to it, and I think it was the first time that I was able to view, and have compassion for, the “other” whom I felt so wounded by. It was sort of like if Medea witnessed Jason and cried. The real tragedy of Medea is if Jason becomes just a person who tried the best he could. That was an incredibly sad part to me about Death is Certain, which I don’t think I got until the audience was there. The audience provides a witness element. I would watch Tony, and I would try not to cry.
SM: In rehearsal, one is still thinking of the making and the structure, building it. Once it’s built and happening then you can watch it in a more experiential way
JF: Death is Certain is the most personal piece that I’ve made, and it was really intensely sad. Each day I was trying to strip away and do the most basic thing around how I was feeling – around the subject matter that I was approaching: resistance. The piece ended up feeling like exposing my resistance for an hour in front of people – and my futility in it. I will fail. So, it felt like exposing that failure over and over and over with people – and also really exposing my tenderness. I felt each night in performance how fleeting it would be, and how these people on stage with me whom I love, and everyone I love, will eventually be gone. I would really live that every night,
SM: I felt that in the audience – particularly during the section of nudity. Nudity in performance is a tricky thing; we’ve all seen it a thousand times, and we all have thoughts about it. Still, somehow that section in Death is Certain made me think about the group of us, all sitting in that room under our clothes, as bodies. It highlighted for me how little we consider our bodies in daily life. We resist that reality. I felt tenderness for everyone else in the audience during that moment.
JF: That was the point. There’s a position that we’re in with our clothes on. Then we simply stand up, take the clothes off, get back in the position and then lay together, and we were so tired. The piece is really exhausting. It just opened up a whole feeling that I have for humanity – on my good days – which is that people are really trying. Everyone is really trying. It was such a moment of vulnerability, which I really wanted.
SM: What about A Movie Star Needs a Movie in relation to that? It seems that there’s almost a rebound with Movie Star from the difficulty of facing this very vulnerable place in yourself.
JF: I think in Movie Star I wanted to see what happened if I showed my projection. While making Death is Certain, I was sitting on a bench outside of a café having a coffee and smoking a cigarette, and I saw this woman sitting next to me, and she had her iPod in, and she was also having a coffee and smoking a cigarette, and she had this face on. I became I aware of the face I might have on – the face that actually I know that I possess, and that people have talked to me about. I became very interested in the projection of people.
SM: By creating an untouchable persona, you can ignore exactly what you were focused on with Death is Certain: awareness of your own futility and the empathy for others that comes from that awareness.
JF: Movie Star is really an exploration of having no empathy for others, including my best friend Liz who is in the piece with me. There’s a trick in Movie Star: Liz and I never touch until the very end.
SM: During Movie Star, or now as your moving into whatever is next, do you feel that there are themes from Death is Certain that you’re still exploring, or have you moved on to other topics?
JF: Each of my pieces has felt very different, but I feel the through-line continues to be about psychology. You’re also absolutely right that each piece has had a quality of rebound from the previous work. Also in the transition from Death is Certain to Movie Star, there was for me that question of, “Do I need to suffer while I’m making my art?” There was a lot of suffering for Death is Certain. I mean, with a title like that…
SM: Were you actively trying to explore whether the suffering was necessary or was it simply that you were suffering in your life, and so you were making that piece?
JF: That’s a really good question. I’m making work so that people don’t feel as alone as I feel. I want to create a setting where an issue can be held by everyone and we can all let some air come into it. And hopefully in that have some healing. Tony Kushner has this really great line in Angels in America, “…the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.” I’ve spent a lot of time examining the psyche. When I was a kid I thought I’d grow up to be an actor and a therapist.
SM: You’re still working from that perspective, it seems.
JF: I guess that’s what I feel I’m doing. I’m interested in seeing the effort. The stuff is made to be difficult, because that’s what it’s like when you get up in the morning and you have to go live. It can be really hard. Dance is hard. It’s hard on the body.
SM: In a way it’s just an exaggerated version of what we all do to ourselves in daily life. How do you know if you’ve been successful in providing this sense of community for an audience around a specific topic?
JF: I feel ultimately I just put it out there and let it be what it is. I’ve enjoyed seeing theater or dance the most are when I’ve had catharsis watching the work. It’s brought up some element for me of myself that by witnessing and watching someone else go through, I get perspective and a sense of identification, relief – even if it’s a very dark and frightening thing.
SM: Someone else is also there.
JF: I know that sometimes I can see a piece of dance through a very critical lens that can be unfortunate. I can miss things. I’ve been really trying to get into a process of being open when I go into a show. That requires a moment of intention before I go into a theater: “I’m just going to be very open and to receive this gift.” It’s always a gift, regardless of how I ultimately feel about the work. It’s a gift that someone does that.
SM: How do you view the balance between mitigating an audience’s potential sense of loneliness and putting the audience on the spot by pushing them to participate in a role that they didn’t come in to play? What’s that tension for you?
JF: For the audience participation in Movie Star, my question was, ultimately, “Will they look at themselves on the projection?” That was a driving question – back to being on that bench with that woman. I wondered, “Who is watching you, and how do you see you?”
SM: For whom are you performing?
JF: And what movie are you in right now? So, I made a situation where the audience would be in a movie, but wouldn’t have chosen it. So, would you as the audience try to get your movie face back on? Would you try to find your light? Also, I have to say, part of the reason I use audience participation is because it makes me so deeply uncomfortable, and I feel that life is so ultimately uncomfortable. I’m curious if we can have freedom in that and begin to relax – if I can eventually begin to relax.
SM: It is supremely uncomfortable. I found myself watching the projection during that section of Movie Star because it was safer. I was aware that I was doing it. I was aware that I was hiding by watching the movie because I didn’t want to deal with the live experience.
JF: That was also why I had the platform as far as I could in one direction and the screen as far as I could in the other because I wanted it to be sort of a tennis match. Actually, I did that in Death is Certain as well. Death is Certain is based this technique EMDR, which tries to trigger your left side and your right side to open you up to access memory. So, even the choreography of Death is Certain, sometimes is set with timing for that.
SM: It’s interesting that there’s that layer of technical investigation in addition to what’s more clearly an emotional investigation.
JF: That’s the hidden part. The pieces always have these real technical elements to them, but that’s my secret! Ultimately I’m using the technical elements to hold the emotional and physical rigor. In Movie Star there’s a layer where the film is delayed just slightly, so that you’re never able to watch it in real time. You can see the performance in real time, but the movie happens just behind, so there’s this other layer that tricks the mind. I was interested in how the film could look more beautiful than the performance.
SM: I think culturally right now we are caught up in an idea that the record of an experience becomes more important – more “real” – than the actual experience. That goes back to what you were saying before about having a critical mind when you go into a performance instead of just being able to watch. You’re already thinking about what you’ll say after the show – you’re already at the end.
JF: The end of Death is Certain was originally a three-page sermon about why I started to make the piece. I really wanted to just expose everything, and when it got down to the wire, I realized that I had just done that. I just spent the last 60 minutes doing that. That ending became very layered because that’s how I imagine death – it’s just that pause, that break. It’s just a blackout when you’re in the middle of something and it’s over.
SM: It was a great choice: not to do the three-page sermon.
JF: Tell me about it.
SM: The unexpected cut-off fit your content perfectly. Plus, it’s just a great, old performance trick to “leave them wanting more.” Dramaturgically, it was very smart.
JF: There were a lot of technical elements that went towards it. John’s final note on a loop pedal was another EMDR technique: sound going left and right down the audience, and the lights were going left and right and then they all stop. Then, I’m about to give this thing, and then it’s out. I wanted people to have space to be with the piece.
SM: I felt that space in the audience. I think partially because you set up such hoops for yourselves to jump through as performers, that when you were at rest, you were completely exhausted and content to be at rest. That allowed us to rest too, without just waiting for what was next.
JF: For me a pause or a silence has to be so earned – Harold Pinter’s pauses are always so earned. If the pause isn’t earned I feel like the choreographer is asking me to take a look at what just happened, and I’m too aware of the question, which takes me out of the experience. It doesn’t feel genuine, and I see the artifice, which is fine. I just think that I feel most compelled by either really going for the thing or really showing the artifice.
SM: There is something genuine in revealing what’s fake. It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation supposedly about Death is Certain, but we keep talking about Movie Star. I wonder if there is a sense of mask with Movie Star. Did you create Movie Star with a desire on some level to cover up what you had exposed with Death is Certain?
JF: You might be right, Sarah. You might be right. I can look at that. But you’ve also asked me questions about Movie Star!
SM: I know!
JF: So perhaps it’s a mutual experience that we’re having. It’s so hard to talk about some of it without saying what I was going though personally during the process. After I did Death is Certain, I said I’d never do that piece again. But, I may be showing a portion of it for an upcoming project because I feel ready now to go back. What a surprise that after Movie Star I feel ready to go back! I’ve gotten more comfortable with my darkness. I actually feel Death is Certain is quite beautiful and poetic. I feel like I can inhabit it and touch in on the grief, because I feel that chapter has closed in a lot of ways for me. I’ll always have the grief and I can revisit it any time and be fine with it.
SM: There’s a distance.
JF: The piece that I’m working on next feels again an amalgamation. I can now push myself even further with the elements of despair from Death is Certain, with a mix of “the crazy” from my other pieces. I guess because I’m feeling stronger.
SM: You’re more in control of those elements.
JF: Movie Star then is not only is it a rebound, but it’s a comment. We all get that we’re in pain, and we can have a sense of humor about that, and that sense of humor is quite dark. But I took that gallows humor out of Death is Certain because I didn’t have any humor at that point in my life.
SM: The last, “cut-off” moment seemed to me an undercut of humor in a way.
JF: When I look back on that time, I find nothing funny about it. The funniest part in Death is Certain is when I say to Tony and Liz, “You guys are awesome,” and they just push me by my face backwards.
Sounds really amazing. Great interview. I want to see it live.
Thanks, Jody! I hope you get a chance to see the show live soon. Jack will have to keep us all posted…