Theatre Preview: Suzanne Bocanegra’s Farmhouse/Whorehouse Starring Lili Taylor Sept 30-Oct 1
For over 20 years, Suzanne Bocanegra’s work across media has combined a voracious curiosity, a keen eye for history, and most of all a sense of rapture specific to collage. In Bomb, composer Julia Wolfe said, “Bocanegra’s art is human, historical, filled with the material of life, highly organized and highly messy all at the same time…She looks at her subject in a whole new light, and then has us do the same, revealing both the social/historical context of the original and her own idiosyncratic take on it.”
Talking to Bocanegra about her new work Farmhouse/Whorehouse coming to the Wexner Center September 30 and October 1, she referred to her artist-lecture pieces as “A collage in time. That really attracts me. And the format of a lecture lets me cram in all the stuff I want to cram into [these pieces]. A lecture is an essay in public. With pictures.”
Talking about the inspiration for this third of these pieces, Bocanegra said, “It veers off into different things but the structure starts with my grandparents. My grandparents owned a small ranch, about 100 acres, in La Grange, Texas. Across from the famous Chicken Ranch, the subject of [the stage and movie musical] The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Even before the musical, the place was well known in Texas. That was the starting point, those lifestyles across the road from each other.”
“I talk about growing up in suburban Houston, being enamored of the whole farming lifestyle. Hippies were happening, ‘going back to the land.’ I had stars in my eyes every time we’d go back there. Whereas my Mom, growing up in that, hated it. Couldn’t wait to get away from the farm, would tell me how boring and lonely it was, how much work. So it’s about those attitudes.”
“On the other side of the road, I talk about the depiction of prostitutes in art, especially French art. I talk about La Goulue [Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse]. All those French Impressionists, that’s what they painted – why? I started thinking I’m an artist here in New York. And nobody I know paints prostitutes. They all did! So I started looking into that.”
Asked about those changing attitudes, Bocanegra commented, “[My grandparents] never thought twice about it. The Chicken Ranch had been around for a long time, they knew it was there when they bought their ranch. It wasn’t seen as a bad neighbor or dangerous at all, they each kept to themselves. They never even thought it closed [referring to the movie]. They always thought the customers just went around a different way.”
Citing modern resonances, Bocanegra commented, “The hippie lifestyle of going back to the land and wanting everything right out of the ground, and what we see today in Brooklyn with pickling and wanting to own chickens is great. But the reason we have enriched flour is less the government trying to mess with the food with chemicals and more children got sick and died of pellagria. They’d have fresh vegetables when the gardens were going but during the winter it was corn mash and syrup.
She expounded, “My Mother loved her suburban kitchen – she didn’t have to grow or butcher, she could just go to the supermarket, after a childhood of making a meal being hard work. And that goes for the Chicken Ranch too. It was a hard, hard life with very strict rules. You only had one day off a week to go into town if you could get a ride. You could only make one three-minute phone call a day. The madam was extremely strict. Some of the employees liked that because they came from a situation where there were no rules. Or a situation that was even worse. But it was only idealized by people who didn’t live it.”
I asked Bocanegra about the process of finding collaborators and putting together these three artist-talks. “I sort of stumbled into this genre. [For When a Priest Marries a Witch] I was asked to do a normal slide talk at the Museum of Modern Art and decided to tell the story I’d always wanted to tell about the story of my Catholic church in Pasadena, Texas, and the scandal and how that made me an artist.
After I spent time telling the story and the needed background, it came to be this real yarn. I thought ‘I need a real storyteller to tell this.’ And I thought, ‘I need a man because I need it to be clear it wasn’t me.’ Of course, this is interesting, doing When a Priest Marries a Witch now people always think he changed his sex. When we started in 2010, that didn’t occur to anyone. That led to my voice in his ear, a technique pioneered by the Wooster Group. Then someone suggested my own voice, my delivery was kind of flat, as he’s very animated, be pumped into the room along with Paul’s voice. It worked as a piece, then we started doing it at theatre festivals.
“Once at a little theatre festival, Frances McDormand and her husband Joel were there. They loved it and took us out for beers after, and I suggested ‘Frances, would you like to do the next one?’ And I thought oh, she’ll never do it, but she did. And that turned into Bodycast. When we were touring Bodycast, we went to Houston and Frances didn’t want to go so it was suggested Lili [Taylor] sub for Frances. That set up my using Lili in Farmhouse/Whorehouse. And she’s great.”
Bocanegra continues to work with a variety of media including an upcoming workshop at the Fabric Workshop. But she’s not abandoning the artist-talk format. “I’m currently sketching out a talk commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has 63 figures, a mix of historical and fictional, doing crazy things. It’s the first artist-talk not to start with a personal story. I’m also tentatively thinking about a talk that combines ideas from Chromatic which was about color theory and Little Dot [a 12-hour piece at Danspace that took off from Georges Seurat’s pointillism and the eponymous Harvey Comics character]. When we were working on Chromatic, based on Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, the downtown theatre presenters and artists all said ‘You can’t use the word ‘color’ in the name. People will immediately assume it’s about race.’ And of course, they’re right. So I’m thinking about how words change their immediate meaning in context.”
This is a rare example to see a sui generis artist with one of the finest stage interpreters working today. I saw Lili Taylor in a performance of Mourning Becomes Electra and it pinned me back in my seat. Anyone with an interest in story-telling, the limits of theatre, personal history and identity in art, should do themselves a favor and see this.
Farmhouse/Whorehouse runs for two performances at 8:00 pm on September 30 and 2:00 pm on October 1. For tickets and more info visit wexarts.org/performing-arts. Star Lili Taylor will also introduce and lead Q&As on her films Dogfight (wexarts.org/film-video/dogfight) and I Shot Andy Warhol (wexarts.org/film-video/i-shot-andy-warhol) on October 2.