I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Two things: One, I first saw Adrienne Truscott perform with Tanya Gagne as the Wau Wau Sisters at Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, in 2005. I had just moved to New York, and though performers like Murray Hill and Julie Atlas Muz had blown my mind, it was Adrienne and Tanya who tore open my shutters and threw up my sash. My jaw hung as I watched them do their signature “Sister Christian” acro-schoolgirl-lez-strip number. This was during a big burlesque moment in downtown performance, and I was used to performers stripping in a wink-at-men and showa-little-thigh, vintage pinup way. Adrienne and Tanya were tearing each other’s clothes off with their teeth while hanging from a trapeze* and praying the rosary— truly and actively giving no shits about what the dudes in the house might want, only what they themselves might want. It was what I never knew I always wanted. It might sound old hat now, but let me assure you it was originally their hat, and they made it with their bare hands! Since then, I’ve seen Adrienne’s work formally evolve across dance, comedy, nightlife, and performance art, and I’ve had the luck of becoming her friend.
Two, just minutes before Adrienne arrived at my house for this interview, I finished binge-watching the entire first season of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why, about a teen girl who commits suicide. Rape is involved. After showing the girl slit her wrists and bleed to death in a bathtub, the director’s final shot is of the straight white boy who had a crush on the girl finally experiencing freedom from the weight of her death, riding in a convertible with the top down, his hair blowing in the wind.
*Apparently, I am misremembering that there was trapeze, but that’s what my body saw and I want to leave it that way.
Erin Markey Okay, so I really just want to talk about rape culture with you. I’m sort of thinking about it nonstop, since we basically have no choice.
Adrienne Truscott Yeah.
EM There are so many TV shows that use the reality of rape culture as a premise for success. Like David Lynch with Twin Peaks. He’s a genius, but would that show be as popular without the premise of rape and murder? How does your work fit into a context that is or isn’t explicitly about rape culture? I‘ve been thinking about how much energy women spend peripherally and directly thinking about rape and processing it. And I want to talk about it in the context of your most recent works, specifically Asking for It, THIS, and Wild Bore.
AT It’s kooky to be known for, thought of, and spoken to about rape culture so much because of Asking for It, which is the only explicitly political work I’ve ever made. With that show, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and I knew if I didn’t say it, I was going to explode. But since I started performing the show, the whole conversation about rape has become a part of my life in this everyday way, which is separate from how it may be part of my life otherwise.
For example, I was having a chat with two lovely straight white art guys, and we were talking about the kinds of movies that scare them, like shark movies or natural disaster movies. I said, “Those don’t bug me—I don’t think a tornado is going to hit me, and I don’t think I’m going to get eaten by a shark; but the ones about psycho misogynists scare the fuck out of me.” Because I’ve been told since I was six, “Don’t go in the parking lot.” What’s it like to be in the trunk of a car? I hope someone doesn’t make a dress out of my flesh. You know?
EM (laughter) I do know. That fear is like woven into the fibers of my muscles.
AT I can’t even calculate how much energy it takes to process that information, all of those microdecisions I make, like, Fuck it, I’m going to walk through the park.
EM Every moment is full of raperelated microdecisions when you’re walking around presenting on any level as feminine or in some relationship to “femme.” Your solo performance THIS seems to be addressing that, too. One part that stayed with me in particular is your description of being on the beach as a young person and a stranger taking pictures of you. Is that an autobiographical story?
AT Yes. I can never quite remember how old I was when things happened. Trauma and repressed memory both relate to rape culture.
When I was around fifteen, I got to go to California as a babysitter with my next-door neighbor, who was an aerobics instructor. In Malibu, I went to the beach with Vincent, the little boy I was looking after, and laid out my towel. A man came down from his house and twenty feet or so away, he started taking pictures. And I was thinking, I’m in my mint green bikini. What if he’s famous? He never asked my permission, and he never asked my name. It was this terrible, silent negotiation—the more I didn’t say anything, the closer he got.
EM This story is such a powerful moment in the show.
AT I remember instantly seeing myself through the gaze of that camera and not feeling inside my body, thinking, What if I put my leg like that and pretend I’m looking at the ocean? I started putting myself in positions I’d seen in magazines and photos. He came in closer and was circling me.
EM And the kid was there?
AT The kid was there. I have no memory of anyone saying anything the whole time. I didn’t, he didn’t, and little Vincent didn’t. I think Vincent sensed the menacing presence but didn’t know how to speak to me. The guy was in charge of this weird moment and time seemed to stop. Later, when I was old enough, I became aware of what those photos might be used for and I felt super creeped out, ashamed that I had done something stupid, and afraid that I was going to be in danger from it, or that I’d be made fun of or perceived as slutty.
EM It felt like you had potentially ruined your life.
AT Yeah. I never told anyone. I didn’t tell the woman I’d gone to Malibu with, who was like that cool grown-up lady friend, if you’re lucky to have one. I didn’t tell my mother either.
EM When did you remember this story, and how did you decide to put it in the performance?
AT I remembered it one time when I was visiting my mother in New Jersey—it’s not a place I spend a lot of time—and I went by our old, shabby apartment, just looked at the door and thought, God, when I lived here at 17A Ocean Heights Manor, I did not think I would be in New York City thirty years later, surrounded by amazing people.
EM Ocean Heights Manor. It’s such a good name.
AT Our building had these four doors in a row with people yelling up top and next to us. One neighbor, Joan, spoke Italian, and she was always in aerobics gear and makeup. I was that young person who was like, You’re amazing, I’m listening to every single word you’re saying, tell me more, let’s go do aerobics.
EM (laughter) Aerobics is the feminist wave nobody talks about.
AT So when I visited, I was thinking about her and what an outlet she was for me. When I was a teenager, she was thirty-something years old and had a kid. She used to say, We’re getting the fuck out of Ocean Heights Manor. And then I remembered our trip to California.
EM She was the one you were in Malibu with?
AT Yes. The event made it into my show because it was one of those moments where body, culture, desire, identity, danger, time, and memory all collided. As an adult cis-woman, I’m aware now of what was happening on that beach, but my reaction at the time was so automatic and innocent and, ultimately, manipulated by this male authority. For people presenting as feminine, these reactions are learned early and many of us battle them every day.
I’ve been in therapy, thinking a lot about my experience of time, and I realized there are whole periods of my life that I don’t remember. This is what trauma does to a person. In my art, the act of writing helps me remember things I didn’t know I’d forgotten. I think it has something to do with attaching language to experiences. It’s a pretty basic concept, but it’s something I’m only learning now.
EM It’s the act of writing that makes you remember things, not thinking or discovering them in conversation?
AT Talking feels performative to me, whether I mean it to be or not, even if I’m just being that dork at the cocktail party telling a funny story.
EM It’s easier to fit into a context of entertainment.
AT When I’m free-writing, I don’t always know the direction or the context, but I start discovering memories I had repressed or forgotten. It’s a fascinating process.
I have such a visceral memory of that moment on the beach because it was so creepy. The interaction sort of announced to me the reality of being a woman in a mint green bikini in the world. And because it felt like a weird trespass, it also felt like a secret experience. Through writing, I uncover these secret things.
EM God, you’re making me remember my own mint-green-bikini out-of-town babysitting experience.
EM I was fifteen and trying to teach myself to feel comfortable in a bikini in order to be a “real teen girl” on the beach. But I was feeling like a slut because I was supposed to be babysitting. There were all these dads there with their families, and I wore this push-up bra top, looking like some hot little thing. I was feeling like that was the least professional thing I could have done—
AT —as a babysitter.
EM Yes. (laughter) I would pore over the picture of myself in that bikini for years and years, thinking, Is this real? Am I pretty? Or am I a slut criminal who tempted dads?
AT (laughter) Dad tempter! Oh my god. Where’s that doo-wop song? “Dad Tempter in a Mint Green Bikini.”
EM (laughter) Let’s write it. Are you able to articulate the relationship between that moment on the beach and the many other, sometimes disparate, autobiographical elements you present in THIS?
AT I should preface my answer by saying that I’ve always been horrified at the idea of making autobiographical, confessional art. But as I matured as an artist, I began noticing there was autobiography in all the work, even the abstract performance pieces. In each I had created a vehicle to experience the grief or anger that I wasn’t experiencing consciously, in a form that wasn’t autobiography and therefore I could live with it. But ever since I made Asking for It and THIS, the conscious and unconscious experiences have come a little closer. Now I try to investigate what material in my life presents itself as available for art making without making me puke from self-indulgence. Autobiographical material has to be generous beyond the traditional parameters of autobiography, or I won’t use it.
EM When I was writing my weirdo musical, A Ride on the Irish Cream, my only objective was to try to remember things I had never remembered before. And what I discovered was that I really didn’t have any memories I didn’t already—
EM But the more space I gave to the memories, the more I was able to access the feelings attached to them. And the way those feelings sat in my body became the way I wanted the physical space of the theater to feel. Before, I had no way to be conscious of those moments or to take them seriously.
AT When preparing for a particular performance, I write the feelingsI remember having with a certain experience, and while the writing is nonlinear and nonnarrative, I’m able to convey that collection of feelings and images, and the end result is a story.
EM I would say the terms nonlinear and nonnarrative are not even fair ways to describe feminist performance. Asking for It is a story. THIS is a narrative. These performances are also creating space to allow for new ways of making a story, or making a “plot.”
I’m thinking of all the TV shows and movies where there is almostno difference between how rape scenes and sex scenes are articulated. Sometimes the rape scenes are the sex scenes. When I’m seeing a rape scene on TV or film, I want to believe that the woman’s point of view, her truth, is essential, and I latch onto this belief because I need release from the fear of sexual violence. But watching these scenes always ends up feeling either hollow and infuriating or hot and very passenger seat. These are the scenes that contribute to a culture where rape is normal and inevitable.
AT The whole Cosby thing has driven me crazy. We can’t keep circling around the question of why women can’t speak up. We all know why women can’t speak up, especially if it’s against a powerful person orthe justice system. The justice system as it is doesn’t function appropriately when responding to sexual violence. There’s also the repression of the act—sometimes you don’t come to grips with it for fifteen years because it’s a fucking dark forest where something happened, and there was only you and one other person. The current law doesn’t acknowledge what happens after the actual crime, the crazy waves of trauma that come and go.
EM Or the way that memory works—
AT —even without trauma.
EM If your memory is influenced by the ways that we, as a culture, learn to tell stories, you won’t necessarily be able to understand your rape as rape. You will need a new way of thinking about sex and violence, and who’s going to give that to you? Adrienne Truscott!
AT I don’t know if this relates, but I did a comedic performancein Melbourne recently called Wild Bore. It’s a collaborative work with two other women, Ursula Martinez and Zoë Coombs Marr, and it does something we’re not supposed to do: respond to critics of women’s experimental work. I have Charles Isherwood’s review of your work in the New York Timespretty much memorized.
AT In Wild Bore, we were looking at all the different ways male critics tend to speak about experimental work by female and queer artists. There’s so much evidence that these critics never even engage—they never give women the benefit of the doubt; they never trust we know what we’re doing. They act incredulous that in an evolving art form a performer might invent— and I’m paraphrasing Mr. Isherwood here—a secret coded language baffling to her elders. That’s what theater is, sir. Consider yourself baffled and old.
EM Actually, it’s not a secret code; it’s just my language.
AT On one occasion, during the run of Wild Bore, the Malthouse Theatre and Monash University invited a panel of artists and critics to respond to the show. Some of them were critics we had specifically quoted and called out in the show by putting their quotes in a new context.
EM Ooh. This was in Australia?
AT Yeah. Hopefully the piece will come here. One of the critics, a gay man—I reckon aesthetically and theatrically that he runs pretty conservative—said in a moment of desperate self-defense, “I’m not a woman; all I have is my imagination to try to figure out what your experience is.” And I thought, No, you moron. You are failing to engage with centuries of literary texts and theory and plays and art and stories that articulate women’s experience. Your imagination is of no use to you or anybody else because you remain the sole, uninformed author of it. If you actually want to know anything, shut up and listen every time a woman speaks, because the information is right there.
EM Did you say that?
AT No, we decided we were going to let our piece speak for itself.
The collective cis-male imagination has been expressed in every form I can think of. I do not need to see it again, and it does not need to be made into a cultural product for a while. For example, there’s no new, “even more interesting” way to depict the rape and murder of a woman.
AT Occasionally, I am permitted to write for the Guardian, and I have been trying to form ideas for an article about women artists and their male critics. It feels crucial to me. For example, imagine if Isherwood had understood that everything Erin Markey does on stage is intentional, and everything she says—even if it’s mind-boggling—is real and allowed to exist in theater. And that what she’s doing is a new way of presenting memory.
EM Maybe what’s new is not how we tell our stories, it’s that there is a little more financial support and more visibility due to the democratizing influence of the Internet. Women and queer people, feminine people, people of color, and poor people have been speaking in so-called crazy riddles for a long time without a commission.
AT I know. Sometimes audiences see your work and say, “It’s so inventive.” You’re like, Literally, I had to invent a new version of the form in order to have a place in it.
EM I wanted to ask you about standup, since we are talking about form. What was it like to work in that new context?
AT When I made Asking for It, part of me just wanted to try my hand at stand-up. It was the form that seemed to make the most sense for the piece. I tried it out at Dixon Place as part of HOT! Festival, and then I performed it in Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is the belly of the beast for male comedians. I insisted the show always be presented and discussed in a comedy context as opposed to an art or theater context. Not only because I wanted male comedians to think twice about their rape jokes, but also because it’s a place where men on stage solo reign supreme, and I wanted to reign supreme. In Australia, I had comedy management, not art management. And I was on a roster with people who weren’t much like me.
EM Were you doing your full hour?
AT I was doing my full hour because most festivals over there invite that. I’ve taken pains, in the titling and in the description of the show, to let people know they’re coming to see a comedy show about rape, so that no one is unexpectedly triggered. After the show, I’ve always availed myself to anyone who wants to challenge me on the appropriateness of the show’s content. But I can’t really do that when I perform as part of a lineup. There, the audience doesn’t get any warning that I’m going to come out pantless and say things about rape. Once an audience member came up to me after the show to complain, and another had left in the middle of my performance, and I knew, Oh, that person just got legitimately triggered and is out of here, and I hope they’re okay. Sometimes I find them after the show to talk.
It’s problematic because you never know when a male comicis going to joke about rape and be a fucking asshole. Remember the Daniel Tosh thing, which I’ve sometimes included in Asking for It, when a female heckler called out during a stand-up set of his, “Rape jokes are never funny,” and he responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped right now?” It was so long ago, but it has sort of established itself as the tipping point. Guys doing that kind of self-proclaimed “edgy” material are everywhere. I’d like to have seen how that night would have gone down if Tosh had been followed by a female comedian dissecting his (and other male comics’) relationship to the material—in real time, in front of the audience. I get chances to respond by performing in comedy lineups. If I’d been there, that female heckler might have felt differently at the end of the night. Tosh might have too, but I doubt it!
EM ”Edgy” rape material is built into the form.
AT Anytime someone gets triggered, I reconsider whether it’s responsible of me to perform even ten minutes of my piece to an audience who didn’t buy tickets to my show, and who didn’t know what was coming. But I also know that in comedy clubs all over the world, there are guys doing fucked-up material, and they’re not giving out trigger warnings.
EM Totally. I mean, even if stand-ups aren’t presenting that kind of material, the traditional way of making a set is usually so boring and without nuance. Like, not funny. Trope city. It’s repeating the same joke fifty times and pretending the repetition is not happening. Actually, I’m making it sound better than it is. I almost feel like your work would be more powerful in a shared bill situation.
AT Yeah, I mean it’s weird when I do that.
EM Girl, I understand.
AT I do have an MO of hanging out with the male comics backstage first and trying to be as fun as possible to make my point: “Whatever preconceptions you have about me being a lecturing feminist killjoy, I’m going to show you that I’m not that person.”
EM But what if you are?
AT To me, it’s more fun to mess with their preconceptions and then go out and do my material. It forces them to be like, I have to follow that? It also makes it easier on me to be in those green rooms. It’s always crazy to go out in front of an audience with all these dudes in it and perform that material, even if I do wear pants. Audiences do freak out a bit. Then I think, Oh, shut up for fuck’s sake, Joan Rivers said abortion on the Tonight Show a century ago.
EM So how has stand-up influenced the work you’re making now?
AT It made me realize that I love writing for performances where the stakes are laughs. They’re really clear stakes. I know how I want to play the space between comfortable laughs and uncomfortable laughs, building tension and releasing tension. When I get bored of that, there are so many other things I can and want to play with and communicate in a live space. In this day and age, a live space is a precious and sacred thing.
I do have a lot of preoccupying thoughts about context, venue, and institutional setting, but I also know I would get tired of performing more esoteric stuff to more esoterically inclined crowds. As a political creature, it doesn’t always feel satisfying to me. Artistically it does, but sometimes I just want to get in a mainstream room and see what I can get away with. That’s a guiding question for me: What can I get away with in this room?
Erin Markey, recently named one of “Brooklyn’s 50 Funniest People” (Brooklyn Magazine), is a performance artist and writer who makes music, shows, and videos. She is currently an artist in residence at Joe’s Pub, and a member of the Obie Award–winning ensemble Half Straddle. Recent shows include Erin Markey: Boner Killer and A Ride On the Irish Cream.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee