“That was the living breathing example of you’re given literally the most resources and it’s the worst. It’s so bad.” In a conversation about bad theater with Jon Burklund and Niko Tsocanos, two members of the performance ensemble Boom Bat Gesture, it was only a matter of time before someone mentioned Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
We were talking about Boom Bat Gesture’s DIY aesthetic and creative process, art and failure, and BBG’s recently completed, curated series Do Your Worst–a project where they asked artists to make potentially, intentionally bad work.
Therefore, the legendary Broadway “failure,” could not go unmentioned. But in our hour-long talk, where everything from the quality of bubble-machine bubbles to the value of Julie Taymor’s disaster-plagued project got raised, it was quite clear that what is “bad” or “good” or “failure” is highly subjective.
This malleable standard therefore made for a fruitful and diverse subject for the six artists in the series who made text-based pieces, dance, theater, and interactive performance.
Boom Bat Gesture was formed in 2010 when Burkland and Ilana Stuelpner were still students at Bennington College. After graduating in 2011, they formed what they call a “theater band.” As Burkland explains, “We’re friends and we do it for ourselves. We don’t have a season or any money and we don’t hold ourselves to any expectations. We just do gigs as needed.” Tsocanos came aboard when he was cast in their first show (Anastasia Clark, a musician and sound artist, was the fourth member of the troupe but has since left for California).
BBG is centered on improvisation. “We started practicing improvisation through movement/sound/text, using a lot of the techniques we learned through our dance and physical theater backgrounds to attempt to cultivate our own form of improvisation. Improvisation is what seems to be driving our work now, because we start there and it’s like playtime for us. Then we pick and choose what we like, ” Stuelpner explains in an email.
They have a recurring improv show, called Screen Eyed Baby Ice but they also do scripted work built from this improvisational process. Their last full-production, Blankland!, was one of these. Centered around a bizarre, hyper-stylized violent kids television show, it was staged in what I referred to in my review as a “murder basement.” The audience and performers got up-close and personal. Sat under a plastic tarp while fake blood splattered around us, I was charmed by this bold, bright, silly, and yet sound production. BBG concocted a strange world that made sense to them and yet we got to peer through the looking-glass into it. They convinced us to eat green goo, sing, and laugh even if representations of violence and death were all around us.
This improv process started with BBG’s first full-length work called Cthulhu’s House of Z. Burkland recalls a Young Jean Lee podcast interview in which she explained her process where she forces herself to think of the last thing that she would want to do and then try and make that piece. From that Burkland and Stuelpner were shaken from their rut and Burkland says they had a new starting point for their work: “Just make the worst thing you can possibly make. Just write it and choreograph it and when you get to a stopping point think how could I make it even worse.”
Stuelpner thinks “the worst” has continued to influence their work. “The worst is still within us. Perhaps it is more of the aesthetic of our work as everything we do always leans towards the weird, the horrifyingly hilarious, the uncomfortable. But the pressure to make something good or memorable is also tugging at us, which is kind of the worst also,” she says.
When the opportunity arose to curate a series at the Brooklyn performance venue, Triskelion Arts, BBG decided to share their personal formula of dwelling on “the worst” with others.
“Originally I had the idea to call it Worst Show Ever,” says Burkland, “But after a lot of long conversations about what we wanted this to be for the artists, we decided to change it to Do YOUR Worst with the emphasis on Your. What is YOUR version of the worst thing.” But as Tsocanos notes, “It took us two months to write the prompt. Because it’s such a personal question and such a subjective thing to say what do you think is bad, what do you think is good.”
Burkland notes that the artists in the series “have wildly different ideas of what the worst means to them.”
For musician Michael Chinworth, he was excited to make a piece of theater, something he had not done in 10 years. “I was quite liberated by the theme,” he says. For his piece, “I had originally imagined “The Worst” was the idea of being too autobiographical and holding personal experience in too precious and public a light. Hence my piece which was essentially a staged diary entry.”
Chinworth’s work, Four Day Filibuster, was dominated by voiceover of this diary text. Under the constant chatter of this voiceover, one performer played a videogame, another was frozen like a statue, and another wrote text for the statue man and moved the statue man around the room. Chinworth describes the focus of the piece as on “anxiety, brain-clutter, and ceaseless, obstructionist interior monologuing.”
His confessional writing was funny, self-conscious, and yet compelling and intimate. His staging with all the performers, a text-based video on a monitor, and the voiceover was a healthy dollop of too-much-ness. Yet that exactly captured the fretting overabundance of the voiceover’s worries.
For interdisciplinary performance artist, Coco Cafe, the Do Your Worst prompt was already part of her practice. “I visit this premise quite often actually. As a cis/white passing Latinx queer indigenous person who makes things, I think about failure and legibility A LOT. Like, a lot a lot. So my response to this invitation was like, “oh ya cool, I do that!”” she says. But like Chinworth, this was a very different creative environment for her to work within.
“I don’t usually perform solo work in theaters and I’ve never re-performed anything before. A 3-night run was new for me. I come from painting and ritual (specifically Lakota tradition). I’ve been opening up to the possibilities of the theater,” she explains.
“For me, the worst possible thing that I can do, in performance, is to tell a lie,” she says.
Coco Cafe’s piece, illegibility is protection. always., was centered on a topic she has previously explored in her work–mass disappearances in Mexico.
For this piece, she approached every audience member and told them two days ago her son was disappeared. She held out her hand. She collected the pocket-size mylar blanket packets that each audience member had been given when they walked in. She lay the shimmering blankets on the stage and then ran a loop around the room. She repeated this over and over.
She then asked that the audience help her complete her work. Each person who came up on stage was to lay out the blanket and run a lap around the room. With this, we shared in and carried the emotional weight and physical labor of mothers seeking their loved ones, even if just for a minute.
Her work took a more serious and political tone than the others in the series But to shy away from this just because she was in this series would have gone against her commitment to truth-telling. She explains, “I could have softened it. But the truth is that there are mothers and families who fucking trek into the desert to search and dig for mass graves. So, I felt like this sensation, this imagery, this very real experience is a/my truth. And that’s exactly what I wanted to share with these folks, in Brooklyn, who have the luxury of not having to think about this particular happening and their relationship to it.”
From all this evocative work, I queried BBG about whether taking risks and failing was an important and necessary part of making art. “Part of my response to is failure necessary, is absolutely. But usually the failures, they’re the drafts. They are the things we create as part of our process to make the thing that we want to put in front of people. But we have these limited resources. We don’t always have time or space. The pressure of getting through the drafts to get to the thing that works before you get it on stage is so high. Sometimes. Often.” says Tsocanos.
This prompts Burkland to raise the topic of the infamous big-budget Broadway comic book show: “I’m just curious between the relationship between resources and success and resources and failure. Maybe limitations allow a creativity to thrive.”
“I saw Spider-Man right before it closed. I didn’t pay for tickets which was the right price,” says Tsocanos, “If I had been asked to do the Do Your Worst festival, my idea would be to recreate Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark from memory. Never look at the book. I’m just going to take 25 minutes to just try to make this show happen from what I can remember of it. Which is not a lot and is not good.”
To read more about Boom Bat Gesture, visit their website.