Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Conversation About Art

Freshmen year of college, I had a movement teacher named Joelle Edwards. A petite lady with a black crew cut, she would be your friend one minute and then enemy next. One minute she was telling me I had too many mental health issues and perhaps should see a therapist. Sure, I was a high strung nineteen year old. Maybe she had a point. In the next sentence, she was having a mood swing where she would just scream at students in the hall of the studio. One time, she took a knee pad and flung it at a second year in a rage. The next day she apologized. Then she told us her therapist couldn’t see her that day, and sometimes she had episodes.

Yes, Joelle. I still remember her. She told my mother during Parent’s Weekend I was doing quite well. Weeks later, during evaluations, she ripped me up and wrote some ugly, nasty things about my aptitude and work ethic that are still on record. Not that I really care, but it is a testament to who she was. Then in the next episode she would tell us as a woman who was married three times, had been a squatter on the Lower East Side, and might or might not have been bipolar, that she knew all there was to know about acting. Granted, she had never acted. She had only danced. Yet Joelle was informed. She told us all acting and performance needed to occur from the pelvis. Therefore, we should have as much sex as possible, just not with anyone in our group.

Joelle’s crowning achievement, aside from a one night stand with Richard Gere, had been her days as a dancer in a downtown experimental theatre company. As Head of Movement and Student Affairs, her black and white photos from her dancer days decorated her office. While this avant garde troupe was not well known, this was a credit she constantly bragged about. Yes, being a Mamette Carlisle dancer. Mamette Carlisle was not Martha Graham, but by the way Joelle spoke about her, she might as well have been. Instead, Mamette was what the Lower East Side was in the 90s before the rent was jacked up and her like moved to Brooklyn. Mamette Carlisle was one of a self-important conglomeration of trust funders who created masterbatory art that no one got or cared about. Usually, they faded into obscurity, and that truly made the world a better place.

Joelle would routinely pull me into her office where I always got a gander of the photos. It was usually to tell me she was concerned about me, but meanwhile she would freely admit to being off her meds. Or it was to inform me my teacher, Ariadne Schwartz, who I routinely butted heads with complained to her I “wasn’t listening” again. Meanwhile, how can I listen to someone like Ariadne who only ranted about the acting career she should have had but didn’t?  Then in the next breath Joelle always told me I was doing fine. It all depended on the day, and if and when she saw her psych support network.

Joelle thought it was important we understand art of all sorts, so she organized a field trip at the start of the second semester to The Mamette Carlisle Studio. The way Joelle spoke about her home base, I thought it was on par with Alvin Ailey. Instead, when I got there I found it was closer to Avenue D, yes, the place where a week earlier during a wrong turn I saw a heroin addict and his buddy shooting up. The front of the building was dirty, and the day was already gray and snow filled as well as depressing. Of course, this had to be the back drop for this adventure, or misadventure depending on how you wanted to think of it.

As we entered Mamette’s studio, it was on the third floor of this building that should have been condemned. Walking up the stairs, a girl, Lori, who bragged about how many famous people she saw on the street, let out a blood curdling scream. Her bleach blonde hair flailed. “That’s a rat!” She yelped.

“Welcome to New York.” Joelle cooed and laughed. We exchanged glances. Hopefully, we would survive this afternoon jaunt.

Entering the studio, we were greeted by a smell of must and a look of a place that was barely if ever cleaned. It was as if Mamette Carlisle was not expecting company of the first years from a prestigious performing arts program, but rather that we had barged in. As the door closed, someone announced they felt cold. I turned. It was Bobby, a kid from the Midwest who had recently announced to his dorm floor he was gay. We had all known, so it was no surprise to us. But Bobby had to do it for Bobby, so he made the announcement to about ten people who shrugged apathetically.

“I do not believe in heat. A warm dancer is a sluggish dancer!” A loud, bass voice thundered. It sounded like it could have belonged to a female impersonator anywhere. Emerging from the corner came a rotund woman who looked not like a dancer but rather a linebacker for the New York Giants. Dressed in something that resembled a trailer park fat wrap, she had sewed fur onto this thing making it much more hideous than it had to be. On her face was a combination of shades that looked like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show had done her makeup. Except Mimi from the Drew Carey show was likeable, and this woman was not.

When Mamette spoke, she had a put on tone, a faux English accent almost like the one Madonna uses. In this case Madonna is an actual star, and this woman just believed she was one. Mamette told us she was once like us, from the “Provinces” before the “Kingdom” called her to make art. By Provinces she probably met Idaho. Mamette explained she had studied dance in Chicago, but did not have the “traditional” body type to be a dancer. No, she did not. My cousin Mandy had danced and toured with City Ballet. Mamette’s name didn’t just make the notorious dancer Fat List, this woman was the Fat List. Mamette blamed the “fall of dance” on Balanchine and explained woman had to kill themselves to be dancers. She said she wanted to crush the perception, and believed all people could dance. While the mission sounded worthy, no one anywhere would want to look at her in a leotard for any reason whatsoever.

Mamette walked as she spoke, and the floor boards creaked for dear life under her weight. Bragging, Mamette claimed she was often inspired to “mother” her pieces from her sculptor husband. She told us they were love at first site, and the ultimate creative team. For a second, I felt terribly for judging her. Perhaps I needed to get past the exterior to realize Mamette was truly an Ellen Stewart, a downtown innovator who’s eccentric manner was a tad of a turn off but underneath was pure genius. Maybe this was a lost La Mama no one knew about.

Moments later, Mamette introduced her husband Fredrich. He was a slender, slight man who looked almost sickly. On his head, he had wispy gray hair that was thinning. Fredrich was as white as the snow outside with a sallow undertone, and looked like he had not seen sunlight in years. It was perhaps because Mamette kept him prisoner so he could create more sculptures to inspire her. The clothes he wore were tattered, and his blood shot eyes indicated that the man had a rough life. The bones in his fingers visible, it looked like food was a dream for this poor man. It was probably because Mamette got the last pork chop, just like she got every pork chop. As he spoke, Fredrich had a soft, gentle voice. He was a relief from the thing that had greeted us upon entry. After two sentences about his art, Mamette cut him off. She thundered, “THANK YOU!” Like a mouse who had narrowly avoided a glue trap, Fredrich quickly scurried away.

“Now, Mamette is going to show us a video of a dance she created based off of a sculpture her husband did, called ‘The Gloves.’” Joelle said.

“The dancer might look familiar.” Mamette explained. She turned off the lights, and turned on her projector. As the show began, Derek, a kid from Michigan, who had asthma, began to cough violently because of the dust particles. Another rat ran by, and Lori shrieked again. Being sober for this experience was a trip in itself.

The projector rolled, and Joelle was on the screen as a young woman. As the dance began, it was to old rag time music. She was wearing a coat and tails, and had the same terrible crew cut. “This is when I was squatting in the Lower East Side. My building at the time was illegal and the cops kicked me out the next day. They also arrested my heroin addict boyfriend who beat me.” She chirped with a manic energy that made the room full of college freshmen exchange wide eyed, helpless glances.

The dance began, and Joelle bopped in place. She made did the cliché, canned jazz hand motion. I sat in anticipation, waiting for Fosse choreography. Instead, this went on for about five minutes. While Joelle was quite perky and cute as a young woman, this dance was completely and utterly pointless. After five minutes, a striking young man who looked like he had just tumbled off a turnip truck and needed twenty dollars badly, and this was what they asked him to do, ran onstage. Without prompting, he stole Joelle’s gloves. She fought him, making it look like there was a struggle. Joelle then chased the man for three minutes until he simply gave her the gloves back. Then thankfully, the piece was over.

When Mamette turned on the lights, there was feigned clapping. She was our teacher, and perhaps our grade for the semester would depend on it. There were some questions asked. Julia, a girl who was from the Deep South and perhaps the only Republican at NYU asked, “Who is the random guy that stole her gloves?” We all laughed as she delivered the question in her thick, matter of fact drawl.
“Oh, that was my last husband.” Mamette said contemptuously. “You see, he was good about being in my pieces, but just up and left one day.” No, Lady. That is the excuse you gave to the cops. Food was short, funds were low, and you had to draw straws and he lost. So yeah, you ate him.

Mamette then announced she had another dance for us. And as she stated this, she told us this was the dance she was most proud of. I was hoping it was better than the last disaster I had been subjected to, but knew I couldn’t be so lucky. Gosh, and my parents were taking out a second mortgage on their home for this.

While the last dance had no point, this one didn’t just suck. Let me tell you it was awesomely bad. At the start, a willowy man graced the stage with a board. He put it down and began to tap dance. As he danced, I realized he actually was pretty good. Maybe there was hope for this routine after all. Getting a closer look, I recognized the dancer was Fredrich. Mamette confirmed my suspicions seconds later when she stated, “That’s my baby. That’s the husband that didn’t leave me!” Yes poor Fredrich was once a dancer and sculptor with dreams. Now he was a prisoner of a fat fur mumu wearing witch who deprived him of food, sunlight, and fresh air. Oh that poor man.

Just as Fredrich danced, a voice boomed from a loud speaker, “I was a farmer, and the government stole my crops. Now I am forced to dance to feed my family.” As this was said, Fredrich stopped dancing. I knew it was all downhill from here.

Just then, Joelle ran onstage. She was wearing a bikini and began twirling a hoola hoop. Joelle in all honesty was the worst hoola hooper I think I have ever seen. Every five seconds, she dropped the hoop. There was no music of course, and Fredrich was no longer dancing. Just then, a high, shrill female voice ascended from a loudspeaker. It declared, “The government stole my children because they are evil. The government then slaughtered them. Now I must hoola hoop to survive.” Several of us bit our lips in an effort not to laugh. Was this actually happening? Oh yes it was….

Just then, a bunch of female dancers came onstage. Some were dressed in bikinis, but these weren’t bikini bodies. One woman lifted up her arm pits to expose a mound of hair. Just then, a familiar rotund woman ran on the stage naked. Mamette shouted at the top of her lungs, “That is I!” As I sat there, I prayed to God not to turn to stone. But if I did, I was sure my parents could sue the university for a pretty penny.

As if that wasn’t enough, a good looking man who seemed like he could be on a billboard at any point but probably needed the money ran out in boxer gloves and Rocky trunks. He stood in front of the group pretending to box, as the women danced seductively behind him. The would be Rocky then began to punch himself before knocking himself out. “He actually knocked himself out!” Mamette informed us. Rocky won my respect. Not only was he committed, but I would have done the same thing too if that tribe of women was gyrating behind me.

“We thought he had sucker punched himself.” Mamette said as the piece dragged on. I wanted to tell her I couldn’t blame him. If I was in a theatre piece like that, I would attempt suicide myself. As the room sat in a disturbed silence, the dancers on the screen stopped. Together in unison they yelled, “THE GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO CENSOR US! THE GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO CENSOR US! THE GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO CENSOR US!”

Just then, disco music came on, and they began to dance. It was as if their boxer comrade was not sprawled on the ground, and they just needed to work around his injured body. Disco had indeed died, and these assholes killed it. Disco had been brutally murdered. No, actually, it had been tortured. And as they danced, all horridly out of sync, I wanted to scream, “The government should censor you! The government should censor you! The government should censor you!”

Finally, Mamette turned the lights back on. Again, we fake clapped. This was akin to a nursing home pageant, except with a nursing home pageant the performers are likeable. Joelle beamed, and smiling with a comfortable superiority for a job mediocrely done she cooed, “Those were my glory days as a dancer! This company found me after City Ballet told me I had no future.”

City Ballet was correct. This woman had no future. Usually every great is told at least once that they have no future. Those people are sometimes wrong, but there are times they get it right. This was one of those times the powers that be hit the nail on the head, and they should have done more to crush her spirit.

 “We were such a hit they gave us an extended run.” Mamette declared. Her maniacal eyes bulged from her chubby face. I didn’t know what was worse, that there was an audience for this crap or that people paid in the first place.

 “Any questions about the rehearsal process?” Joelle inquired as she looked around at the shocked eyes of her first years.

My initial question was almost, “You guys rehearsed this? Seriously?!”

Instead someone beat me to the punch. It was a druggie girl by the name of Andrea. With pitch black hair, at nineteen she already smoked a pack a day. Her mother was the house manager for some summer stock theatre in upstate New York, and her father was a playwright who bragged he would have been Harold Pinter except his boozing got in the way. Andrea, nose ring sparkling, suspiciously inquired, “Dude, you seriously rehearsed? This looks made up on the spot.”

“This is devised ensemble theatre, similar to what you kids do in Joelle’s class. We did a series of improvisations and got this piece. Good theatre looks unrehearsed.” Mamette condescended. This indeed looked unrehearsed, but good theatre it was not.

“What inspired this piece?” Steve Hollander asked. He was a kid from California, and a favorite of Joelle and every teacher in the studio. At the time, he was dating the daughter of a famous movie producer. However, he also had a bizarre relationship where he would flirt with a male voice teacher of ours. This man, attracted to Steve, would grab his butt cheeks and inform him he was sure he was going to be the next Anthony Hopkins. Steve would flirt right back and told him he had nice eyes. Note: Steve is no longer acting.

 “The government yanked my funding. They claimed my work had no grounds or no merit for the grant I requested.” Mamette explained. “This was in the era when the NEA was oppressing artists.” This may have been correct. However, in her case the NEA was correct not only to yank her funding, but to make sure she never got any of my parents hard earned tax dollars ever again.

A few more questions floated about the air space, mostly from kids playing the favorite game. The inquires weren’t sincere, they just wanted to keep their names atop the star list. When one asked if Mamette still choreographed, she explained she did. However, she injured herself during a performance and had to “take a step back.” She claimed it was her foot. Actually, the correct name for that appendage was hoof.

Mamette then went into a tirade about how the only funding went to commercial theatre, and pieces for the school children in impoverished areas. Yes, normal people apparently didn’t need art or creativity. And why would youngsters who are artistically underserved need the arts at all you fat, ugly, loathsome troll of a woman?

Then Joelle informed us, “The reason you are here today is because as an artist, you will be in constant conversation with other artists.”

The room was silent. Just then, Kyle Smith, who’s mother was a well known concert pianist, leaned towards me. Whenever Kyle would speak about his life, he spoke about his mother first and foremost. Kyle said, “Yes, and if my mother were here, she would begin the conversation with, ‘what the fuck was that?’”

Seven weeks later, I was told by Joelle I didn’t belong in my perspective studio. Three weeks later, I made the steps for a transfer. When I announced I was leaving, Joelle acted surprised and hugged me out of despair. She told me she didn’t want this to be the end of my relationship with my former studio, and wanted to invite me to return for transfer track or specialty workshops. I yessed her to death. There was no way in hell I was ever going back to that nuthouse.

The year after I left, the real chaos began within the studio walls. Our studio head and his wife, a well respected indie filmmaker, went through a nasty divorce. Through the process, she came out as a lesbian and left him for a woman. The studio head began an affair with a then student and married her after a three month courtship. His first wife had been beautiful, but this woman looked like a vampire who had a skin disease. However, she took over studio operations and used unemployed alumni as slave labor thus eliminating Joelle’s job.

Joelle, in response, had a nervous breakdown. She shaved her head, and was found wandering around Washington Square Park by a few of my former section mates. Shoeless but with a plan as most who have lost their mind have, Joelle told them she was looking for butterflies to catch. This would have been feasible, except it was March in New York City. And while it was a warm night, there were no butterflies. So they put her in a cab and took her to Bellevue.

After a six month stay in the mental hospital, Joelle announced she had retired from  teaching. Being Head of Student Affairs had been taxing on her psyche, fragile to begin with. Mamette Carlisle’s husband Fredrich left, aka he had been eaten. So she took Joelle in as her roommate, free of charge. These days, Joelle is trying to be a writer. She keeps a blog about her time as a squatter on The Lower East Side. Her writing is much like her dancing, awesomely bad. The internet and web are free to anyone who wants to blog, and as we know art is subjective.  So perhaps the crazy bitch did teach me something after all.


  1. Should be filed under possible ideas for a screen play. Funny and tragic, light and dark, a character study in thirty five hundred words or so. I enjoyed this, form derived from chaos. A good read through a very special magic mirror. Most inspiring. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for reading. I think I will write a screenplay about the experience called Escape From Acting School