Wednesday, April 18, 2007

My Report on Ridiculous Theatre

Outrageous! And By the Way, Is Female Ridiculous?

Before his death in 1987, Charles Ludlam created a vast body of work and an important artistic and social legacy. He fashioned incandescent, sometimes frightening, always outrageous, cultural events through his individualistic performance style and craftsmanship of over two-dozen plays. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the experimental theater scene, his written work has had a life beyond the initial shocking performances; Ludlam’s ghost lives on. Inspired by his irreverent self-confidence, tenacity, and groundbreaking artistic vision, Ludlam continues to be a vibrant role model for subversive theater artists. Many of his plays are still being performed twenty years after his death. Ludlam’s genius was in his excavation of the dregs of popular culture and his effortless process of wittily combining them with themes (and dialogue) drawn from classic works of literature and theater. In addition to his invaluable contribution to the modern theatrical tome, Ludlam was also an activist, incorporating powerful sexual identity politics into his absurd physical comedies.
Charles Ludlam, dynamic performer and prolific playwright of over 29 plays produced successfully Off-Off-Broadway between 1967 and 1987, sprang full grown from the tripped-out, radical head of 1960s-era Greenwich Village. Ludlam was part of the psychedelic stew that included experimental filmmaker Jack Smith and seminal Pop Art legend Andy Warhol. In 1967, Ludlam was fired from his own play, Conquest of the Universe by Warhol’s in-house Factory theater and film director, John Vacarro. Ludlam and Vaccaro had been working together on the play at what was then known as The Ridiculous Play-House, it was Ludlam’s first starring role and playwriting debut. Other cast members included underground actresses Ultra Violet and Mary Woronov, as well as other lesser known “Superstars” from Andy Warhol’s art films and John Vaccaro’s experimental theater productions.

After a particularly vicious fight one night, Vaccaro had had enough of Ludlam’s arrogant behavior. At the Ridiculous Play-House, Vaccaro had given Ludlam freedom onstage he’d never had before. Classically trained as a theater major at Hofstra University, Ludlam had performed in college productions as well as in Summer Stock plays, yet he’d always stuck out as a ham; too campy, pasty, and over-the-top to be considered a “good” actor. An artist himself with an eye for talent and a taste for weirdness, Vaccaro had encouraged Ludlam to go crazy onstage, act as freaky as he could. This released him from the shackles of naturalistic Method acting that he had always despised. By portraying “unbelievable” characters or performing in drag, he felt he was enabling a new kind of communication between the actor and the audience. Because Ludlam’s fans knew that he was being honest with them, he wasn’t trying to trick them into believing he really was the character he was playing, their sense of suspended belief was heightened. If the audience could be moved by his emotional depiction of a female Camille, the result in turn would be doubly impactful. Finally, Ludlam could go beyond what reality dictated and create far-out, truly exciting, new work. As it turned out, Vaccaro may have felt he had given Ludlam too much freedom, for in his mind, he was becoming a little too big for his britches. In order to maintain control of the production and the playhouse, Vaccaro, in a dramatic gesture, threw Ludlam’s ass out of the theater. Surprisingly to both of them, most of the cast left too, in solidarity.

Perhaps what inspired this rebellious exodus was Ludlam’s intense charisma and explicit artistic vision. He knew he was pushing the limits of fashionable experimental theater. He possessed an excitement that was missing from the cynical, hipper-than-thou, underground milieu. His adventurous peers gravitated towards him because he was crafting a new genre. Ludlam’s praxis was to become a hybrid of the discarded, underappreciated cast-offs of popular culture. His revelatory, re-valuing process would turn out a theater of pastiche. Ludlam became an archivist, an alchemist, combining trash, glamour, and humor with radical sexual identity politics. With his courageous collaborators, he would revolutionize underground theater; celebrate, reject, and redefine traditionally held concepts about gender roles in performance, and bring irreverent comedy into the political theatrical arena.

Holed up in one of his fellow actor’s tiny New York apartments, the diva and his defectors formed a rag tag little performance troupe, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Ludlam and his gang felt emboldened to steal the Play-House’s name because they, as a group of actors, more accurately represented the original theater’s anarchistic ideals. Bizarrely, Vaccaro continued with rehearsals of Ludlam’s play at the still functional Ridiculous Play-House, recasting it with other Factory folk. A short time after forming the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ludlam too, mounted a competing production of the play. The observant few noted the new title, wondering if it may have been a reference to the two flamboyant gentlemen's final showdown.

Being the only member of the group with any experience in writing, directing, or acting, Ludlam took on the role of leader of the performance troupe. Over the course of the following twenty years, Ludlam would write, direct, and star in all of the company’s productions. The colorful ensemble consisted of men and women: heteros, homos, and hippies. They shared a love of “low” popular culture, mostly old, “B” movies from the 1940s and cheap, melodramatic horror flicks; anything “trashy” and under-valued by mainstream “straight” society. At the same time, they were mesmerized and thoroughly impressed by the likes of Shakespeare, Moliere, and traditional Opera. By adopting, adapting, and combining the unwanted and the venerated into comedic masterpieces, Ludlam created a sparkly new universe, an absurd mix of intense performed sincerity, elevated emotion, soaring camp, and preposterous hilarity, he created Ridiculous Theater.

Ridiculous Theater used a hedonistic, anarchistic approach in line with hippie attitudes of freedom, excess, and lack of censorship. It was an attack on the normative condition. The personal (homosexuality, drag performance, gender bending) became a political, theatrical statement of pride and independence. Owning and expressing it created a sense of empowerment. Humor became the ultimate hedonistic enjoyment. The audience’s laughter came in response to this illicit entertainment. It was a camp celebration of everything glittery and gold. By adopting the aesthetic of kings (or queens, more aptly) the artist became one.

Ludlam crafted his productions by skillfully spotting what each of his actors’ strengths and weaknesses were and writing roles to suit them. Because of the utilization of this artistic strategy, the company resembled an early Italian Commedia Dell’Arte troupe, with each actor often playing a specific “stock” (or type) of character. It is important to note that a specific goal of Ludlam’s was to afford himself and his actors the opportunity to play any and every character that had ever existed in the history of literature and theater, whether they were male or female. Ludlam and his collaborators shared this playful aesthetic, simultaneously subversive and entertaining. By breaking all theatrical conventions, making everything ridiculous, they were able to critique a society that had, up to this point, oppressed them.

The company members shared an appreciation for excess and glamour and a general disdain for conceptual art. In a sense, they were rebelling not only against an uptight, conservative mainstream culture, but also against the established, avant-garde art world itself. The Ridiculous Theatrical Company was the ultimate outsider, creating work that was the antithesis of Minimalism, the fashionable aesthetic of the era. Ludlam and his comrades felt that art, political performance, and painting in particular, were becoming homogenized. Everything was grey, beige, black, or white and he wanted purple, pink, and turquoise. A close friend of Ludlam’s coined a term that seemed to sum up his process, “Virtuoso Maximalism", “Concept and execution is academic. Going crazy and committing an atrocity is actually more modern…Today’s avant-garde makes art respectable but doesn’t give us anywhere to go."

In terms of performance style, the actors’ technique was broad, expressionistic, and exaggerated, almost clownish. This placed them out of reach of traditionally held concepts of “good” or “bad” acting. The company spoke a shared vernacular of an experimental, artistic, and sexual underground. They collectively knew what was funny, hip, shocking, and boundary breaking, and they integrated it all into a brainstorm of ideas that would fly around the theater during their creative/creation sessions. Ludlam possessed the masterful skill of being able to sweep up these glittering images, caricatures, sight gags, and campy one-liners swirling around and encapsulate them into a well written, perfectly timed farce. A key element of the collective’s work and Ludlam’s personal aesthetic was the utilization of drag in almost every performance. Ludlam claimed that his personal process was to first actually become an actress then embody the character he was to represent onstage.

Ludlam’s decision to incorporate drag into his company’s aesthetic and productions was troubling to some members of his mixed straight/gay, male/female audience. The cultural temperature of the era made some feminists question whether or not drag was indeed a drag for women. Ludlam had an acute awareness of the political ramifications of this. In response to the skeptical, feminist questionings that were bubbling up along side his experimental productions, Ludlam explained that what he was doing was exposing and deconstructing the oppressive attitudes that existed regarding the assumed sacredness of women. If woman is something sentimentalized, put on a pedestal, she cannot ever be considered truly equal. In addition to this, Ludlam also insisted that if a man can adopt and display the outward, feminine characteristics of a woman: hair, make-up, dress, it shows that these attributes are not actually what constitutes being a woman. Ludlam points out that gendered behavior is a construct. As discussed in Ronald Argelander’s 1974 piece in The Drama Review, the androgynous sexual role-playing the company performed freed the actors to explore their own sexual personas onstage. In the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, men and women both had free reign to explore their own multifaceted identities. This freedom of performance removed any and all limitations of their fantasy lives. The actors were free to explore and act-out, without societal or conventional theatrical constraints.

In further discourse on the subject, Ludlam also pointed out there is a stigma against showing “female” emotions because being a woman is not valued by the patriarchy. By dressing up as a woman and acting like a woman, he was exposing this taboo, making it ridiculous. Drag historically has been used as a means of eliciting derisive humor. Normally, it is used as a way to show how impossible it is for a man to successfully portray a woman. In the Ridiculous Theatre, while there was laughter, it was not mocking or contemptuous. Instead, it was a celebration of social freedom and larger-than-life femininity. In his essay on Ludlam, Ronald Argelander observed that the company members, “entertain the idea that strict biological/social sexual division may be a cruel joke that nature/society is playing on humanity. For them, and in their performances, pan-sexuality is a reality."

Female members of the company often portrayed male characters. Ramona Malone, the actress known as Black-Eyed Susan and a long-time collaborator of Ludlam’s, often played young boy roles and Lola Pashalinksi, wanting to recreate an interesting male character she had observed in an old Hollywood film called, The House on 92nd Street, embodied the meta-theatrical Mysterious Mr. Christopher, a female character who dressed in men’s clothes. These are examples of female-to-male drag, but what about female-to-hyper-female impersonation? This concept was often present in Ridiculous Theater, an exaggerated representation of extreme female-ness portrayed by women themselves. This stems from the same desire women and men have to capture and express an amplified, fantastical reality. By encouraging men and women both to explore the panoramic proportions of their own gendered identities, the artist redefines the audience’s sense of reality as well as critiquing and possibly altering society’s norms.

In his first drag performance directed by John Vaccaro, Ludlam reached back further back in time to portray another one of his other female obsessions, silent film star, Norma Desmond. Again, speaking with Dan Isaac in 1968, Ludlam said the character of Desmond, “Sprang from Zeus, totally formed…I put the wig on and POW! There was Norma." Drag freed Ludlam from the constraints of naturalism. By “becoming” a woman, he was allowed to show “female” emotions, and in effect, create a universality of expression. Presenting these cross gendered characters and shunning the naturalistic Method acting technique was a way for Ludlam to reach further than what realism normally allowed. Within the playful, imagined world they constructed, the tacky and mundane became astonishing. Early on in his training in the Method technique, Ludlam realized that he was expected to “not to do anything extraordinary. The problem was that everything (he) was interested in was extraordinary." The Ridiculous Theatrical Company gave him a living venue for this innate need to create something supernatural and bizarre. Naturalism was oppressive.

Although he specifically claimed he and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company were not political theater, they did alter their world for the better by positively influencing the young men and women who made up their audiences, as well as the new generations that are discovering his work today. If he had lived through the decadent 80s, Ludlam would have realized that he had a hand in changing the world, or at least the world of experimental theater. In his drive to constantly create innovative performances, Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company broke down socially constructed sexual identity barriers, paving the way for future artists and redefining drag performance. He and his female collaborators simultaneously fought for gay and feminist rights in a most delicious, entertaining, shocking, and beautiful way. Through their use of physical comedy and humor, the male and female, gay and straight members of the collective created a universal, community-driven model of performance.


Anonymous said...

Hello. I was a member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company from 1979-87, and I happened across your report. Good job!

Edward McGowan

Bill Nobes said...

Another former member here. I was Stage Manager from 1995 - to its closing.

You might consider posting this on wikipedia. It's a shame there is no RTC page (though plenty of red links to it).