An interview with Asher Hartman in the afterglow of The Silver, the Black, the Wicked Dance performed in the Bing Theater at LACMA on Friday May 13th and Saturday May 14th, 2016.
Asher: Do you want me to get a little table for you?
laub: Sure. Ok, good. This formalizes it a little… Let’s see. I got to see The Silver, the Black, the Wicked Dance twice, which was really fun. Why did you choose that space?
Asher: We were looking for different spaces in the museum. When I went into the Bing Theater, it had a particular sensation in it that was attractive to me. It has a kind of energy from all the old performances over the years and film series ongoing at LACMA in the Bing Theatre. It’s full, that particular space- with a lot of energy and history.
laub: What kind of history?
Asher: It has a history of great musical and film performances and if you look at the architecture, it’s this beautiful 60’s architecture reminiscent of 1970s film and theatre, which, to my recollection, having been very young at the time, is very psychological, very intense, very character driven, very emotionally driven, and has a somewhat experimental sensibility, and so, immediately you walk into that theatre and you feel it. People talk about that theatre as being haunted by the feeling of John Cassavetes. I understand that, there’s intensity about the space that I felt really akin too.
laub: How important is it that people know about theater to view your work?
Asher: I don’t think it’s important at all. Artists don’t seem to have a connection to theater, which I completely understand, because theater- American conservative contemporary theater- is not very interesting to me either. I think the more you know about it, the less available you are to what I do, because I don’t use plot, I don’t use narrative. For visual artists, that seems to be fine. Few people ask, “but what happened to this person?” or, “what’s the meaning or moral of the play?” Artists are able to make meaning themselves. They’re watching and putting pieces together. Sometimes artists are interested in things that are seemingly peripheral to the action. An artist might be thinking, “look at that arch!” instead of “why is she leaving him?” Things that a theater audience typically aren’t that interested in. Artists aren’t always looking for the cues of narrative theater.
laub: That’s good, because I only know about Alfred Jarry, and even then I only know one play of his, Ubu Roi.
Asher: There is a vast history of experimental theater, which has many trajectories, such as the path taken by Antonin Artaud in Jet of Blood wherein the artist is actively trying to deconstruct conventional theater for political purposes. But there is a significant history of experimental theater here on the west coast that people are not always aware of, or don’t employ with the same ferocity, for example, as actors and directors might have in the early 1930’s, 1950’s and then in 1980’s, because the film industry is so dominate here.
laub: Versus theater.
Asher: I think so. Because it’s so dominant it’s still hard for people to see beyond linear or narrative action.
laub: How do you feel about that?
Asher: I like film, and I like TV, and I like YouTube videos, I like all that, so I’m not against plot, narrative, linear action. But reaffirming that structure as an artist doesn’t feel productive. I’m in a sense trying to undermine that structure to get at the unconscious of social political issues that interest me. But I didn’t invent experimental theater, so, yes, it is sometimes frustrating to work in this form because of the apparent lack of knowledge or experience of work that’s like mine . That lack of experience then sometimes leads audiences to equate this difference in my work—it’s lack of, say, Aristotelian form– with failure. Also my work is very influenced by performance, which is so important here in Los Angeles.
laub: Who do you find yourself in dialogue with when you make stuff?
Asher: I am really too young, sorry, too old/young, to have seen Richard Schechner’s work live or The Living Theater. The Living Theater was this incredibly political, risk taking–theater that opened around 1947 and came to its apex probably in the 1970’s. They were an extraordinarily groundbreaking company that challenged the conventions of theater and made works for political reasons that often put them in danger. They confronted American culture, in particular our militaristic, capitalistic culture, in a way that at the time, and even today, was incredibly dynamic, frightening, truthful, heavily impactful emotionally. Even watching footage of Paradise Now, or The Brig for example, you can see how they got deep into peoples’ psyches. Sometimes their pieces would transpire within usual theatrical time limits, and sometimes the works took hours or days. Their work was not focused on entertainment but on political change.
laub: I want to see that! To be a part of a change in that sense.
laub: How do you work? What’s your process of creating, writing, finding your actors?
Asher: I have a core group of actors that I work with. My beginning point is always something that I need to think about, or something that is attached to one of the actors. In this case I had a lot of conversations with Joe Seely about his family, his origins, his life. We started thinking about some of the ideas that are attached to being a white person of various levels of privilege in Southern California. I watched a Brene Brown Ted Talk and read some of her books. I found her work interesting and useful in that she identifies this leitmotif of shame in American culture, which is really —clear. But, at the same time I felt that she failed to connect shame to the foundation of violence that this culture is predicated on. So I began with this thesis: how does our violence, our historical violence, inform our behavior in the present, and how do these behaviors manifest? What do they look like? What do they suggest? And I researched tons before I started writing.
laub: About the history of violence?
Asher: The beginning was pretty straightforward. I read as much as I could in history of the United States. I looked at ideas in object oriented ontology; violence in popular culture; popular renditions of the psychology of mass murder; studies in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, being especially interested in how we carry trauma with us and how that trauma manifests, thinking about what people are actually dealing with on a day to day basis, just in their bodies. I was also thinking a lot about class shame, shame in being racist, of being the target of racism, of being deprived power; of what it means to age in this culture. And then I interviewed all the actors at length about what they wanted to work on related to these issues, what they wanted to bring. Then I start channeling a text and shaping it onto the actors. We do a lot of improv to develop the ideas, and once the text is done we rehearse. We tried to figure out what’s underneath it, getting deep into the emotional qualities the text carries, and the spiritual qualities attached to it, yet acting it in a very traditional method or Stanislavski-based, emotionally-based fashion. Then we cut the text again, trying to use only parts that have very strong emotional resonance. But there is no moral . That would put me in a position that I don’t want to be in. I don’t think we experience life as having a moral conclusion. I don’t think we go through life thinking, “Now what is it that I’m about?” “Why am I here?” I mean we do ask that question, but that’s a frustrating question, because what’s the answer?
laub: Do you have a relationship with any sort of religion, in your past?
Asher: Maybe Judaism, but not really. I made attempts to study and basically went back to watching Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeannie. Maybe television was my religion.
laub: But, your family, you never went to church or anything?
Asher: I did, I went to a lot of them. Let’s put it that way. I grew up in Berkeley, in San Francisco. We went to a lot of churches.
laub: Just to see what it’s like?
laub: I find it incorporated in your work, this idea of religion or spirituality, but kind of based in Christianity.
Asher: The Judeo Christian dome is really interesting because it informed our experience in the West in such a way that’s very hard for us to think beyond its ideology. What is a life? What is my life? Particularly as Americans, and by that I mean people who live in the United States, we’ve been given a really narrow view of what life is and could be. Then we are told to advance in those narrow confines. For a lot of people, that’s be born, go to school, get a job, find a partner, procreate, get a house of some kind. You know the drill. As a psychic, sometimes people will ask me, “am I going to find someone?” “What about my career?” “What about money?” These are really specific boxes that people like myself—I’m not trying to distance myself from anyone else—think in. They define self in a way that’s very particular to our culture.
laub: I was thinking about the systems that you’re working through with your performances, and how they are part of the larger problem of life, systems of control, systemic racism, accessing hidden resources, could we talk about some of those systems?
Asher: Both class and racism are structures that preoccupy me as a white person. I was awakened to the violence in these structures early in my life. The school I went to was very mixed racially and my teacher was black, but the book we were reading contained all white characters, and it was shocking to me. I remember looking up from- it was like Dick and Jane and Their Dog- and I’m looking up to my African-American teacher and thinking something is fundamentally wrong here and it’s scary. I felt genuinely afraid at the schism and frankly at the power I understood somehow to have had even over my own teacher at the time. This was the first grade. And from that time period I went in and out of various attitudes towards race, from being a pretty racist person to being a person who became aware of what my fears were, to being in a relationship with a guy who is black where we were both grappling with our own racism, not always toward each other, but toward African American people in fact, in the complexities of external and internalized racism as it plays out in a relationship; to being exposed to police harassment, because I was with this person. I wasn’t being harassed, but he was, simply for being, existing. I grew up in Oakland, I worked in Oakland, I’ve seen a lot of violence in Oakland, but I myself am not the victim of that particular kind of violence, though I’ve certainly experienced a lot of other kinds of violence. Because of that, I think I’m just really fundamentally made of these questions about race, class, violence. I think it’s interesting that it is very hard for white people to talk about our own racism, because it seems that when you point out something as racist, it’s as if really what you’re saying is that person in question is an evil person. But racism is everywhere, metaphorically in the water. Denying your own racism is like saying I’ve drunk the water, but I didn’t experience any effects of the water. Racism is a part of our culture, literally in the buildings and neighborhoods we design, the words we use, the way we relate to each other, to the larger governmental structures and systems that inform us. I think that’s one of the great things about experimental or art-related theater, or maybe we could call it “people saying things in front of other people in a structure,” is that we can get at these issues publically. I don’t think anybody I know, for example, wants to participate in racism. Intellectually, we don’t want to do that, but we do because we are a part of a racist culture. It’s ok to call those things out and it’s ok to take responsibility for them, and it doesn’t mean you’re the devil because you have had a racist thought. It means that you have to correct a perception; you have to re-understand .
laub: How do you talk about racism with other white people?
Asher: We started this particular piece trying to look at white racism and white shame and white guilt, and it was really boring, almost intolerable, because, who cares? That’s the real question, who cares? The basis for the play grew; the cast grew. We began to do improvisations around racism along with a host of other related ideas. These improvs influenced a lot of what I wrote. For example, there’s a scene between Kensington Smith and Zut Lorz where Zut says to Kensington “Shut up! Stand up! Be taller than me! Be white!” Kensington, in response to that, became kind of playful, kind of bratty. She made Zut laugh. They began a very complex exchange around sex, love, power, need and race. They are both incredibly present as performers, that presence and complexity built the dialogue. In theater our feelings come up through the unconscious; we vomit some of our learning, some of our acculturation, some of our desires to unlearn, to restructure our interiors, all of that gets brought into the conversation whether we think we are controlling it or not. Improvisation forces it out.
laub: Improv- a vomiting of toxic systems.
Asher: Exactly. I think performance is a true emetic. You can look at all the things that are in your vomit. It’s ok; you’re a human.
laub: I think it’s hard to understand that its ok.
Asher: I think it’s possibly because we haven’t had a national discussion of the violent history of the U.S., and perhaps because in fact many people still have a stake in that violence. We have not as a nation talked about slavery in all its detail. We have not talked about the genocide of the people who were here before the Europeans arrived. We haven’t talked about Europeans’ systematic and brutal takeover of the continent. We haven’t seriously looked at even the internment of Japanese-Americans, a shameful historical moment that we seem to frame as incidental and resolved. Shame is one of the most difficult feelings for people to handle. For example, in my generation it was common for white people to say in response to these parts of American history, “I wasn’t here, my ancestors were Polish, Hungarian, etc. They had nothing to do with this history.” But every European-American has something to do with it because in fact we come from a continent with a very brutal history and large strains of this violence live within us and within our cultural endowment.
laub: Now what? What is there to do? It’s not a fixing of a problem, but we’re in a place of denial, where the everyday, day to day, just keep going, perpetuating an end of the world system. We need to get moving! Change needs to happen. Revolution needs to happen. Are we always on the edge of Revolution?
Asher: What does Revolution look like in the 21st century? In an era where some people would much rather be on their phones, how does that function? For me, it functions through all kinds of dialogue, enactments, shamanic action, purging of the soul, of submission. There is no denying the history of the Americas- period. We cannot work our way around that. In my practice as a psychic, I often ask what do the ancestors want? How can we heal them? What part of their pain are you still carrying with you? But also can you step aside as a white person and let someone else do the talking? Which is ironic, because I’m talking and I’m writing plays….
laub: But it seems that you write through your actors. When I first saw your play, I thought this was the schizophrenic mind of Asher. All these dialogues that are happening in your own mind, and you are getting these actors to act it out for you, but it’s not.
Asher: It really does come from them. So many minds. We become like a hive, and I think that’s why people tell me so frequently, “I feel like I have the inside of your mind” which is true. It is my mind. The play has to go through some sort of filter, but it comes from lengthy conversations with people, very honest conversations about what they want to purge, what they want to expose, how much exposure they are willing to stand. For some actors, the response is “Yes! Take me all the way!” Let’s expose as much as we can.
laub: I would say then you’re not just writing plays, you’re listening. An active listening. The first rendition I saw, at the end somebody shouted, “this was horrible!” and walked out, it seemed like part of the whole thing. It was good! It means that something’s happening.
Asher: It’s true. There’s this theater director I really, really love, Romeo Castellucci, I remember seeing a rendition of his play about Giulio Cesare. There was a woman who was extraordinarily thin, painfully thin in the last act, wielding a sword in a Hamlet-like costume, with really loud noise music, as I recall, and all these desks turned upside down and a cat head, just a puppet, revolving on a plank traveling across the theater. The scene went on for what seemed like forty-five minutes. People just left. I went to a Q and A with him, and he was asked, “How do you feel when people leave your work?” and he said, “Very sad.”
laub: That’s so sincere!