Monday, March 29, 2010

James Scruggs, creator of Disposable Men has a New Work In Progress - Touchscape: An Emotional Striptease

So tell me about your new piece.

Touchscape: An Emotional Striptease is a series of monologues ranging from 30 seconds to 7 minutes long, and they're all about men and touch. Most of them are homosexual but some deal with incest which is decidedly not homosexual- although some people think it is. But it's about men touching men - romantic, sexual, anonymous, or the complete lack of touch.

One piece is about a guy who is on a subway and you know how people say, "excuse me ladies and gentlemen, please pardon the interruption..." and he does that to the audience, but he'll go out and beg for touch. I think I'm going to do that. I want someone really sexy to do it without clothes, but I'm going to do it myself. So I'm going to have a reading on April 12th at Harlem Stage. It's a beautiful space and just a bare bones kind of thing. I have a residency at the Baryshnikov for three weeks from April 26th to May 14th and then we're going to whatever we create at Dixon Place on May 17th.

I'm doing the reading just to hear the whole thing. The piece is designed to be done by several men and we're hoping to get seven guys for the reading. I've got five now. For the workshop, I'm going to do maybe six or seven of the pieces, just to get them up on their feet. It's very physical theater, or movement with text. Movement with text has this whole, bad connotation.

Why is that?

When I hear movement with text, my eyes role because it's so often pretentious and bad. I've seen it done super well, but it's because it has gone more towards a physical theater thing, or people have been working together for a really long time. I'm actively soliciting collaborators. I've got choreographers who are collaborating with me. We've had long conversations about the components of text, movement and sound. Nobody's going to be precious about any of it. If we find the text is too long, we'll take it out. If we're going to be redundant, like if I grab her arm, it's going to be a choice, as opposed to it's because the text is written that way. I'm not going to be precious, the choreographer is not going to be precious. I have a composer doing original music and he's not going to be precious, either.

This is not a gay piece. It is about men touching men. Men don't touch men. Asian women walk to together arm in arm. African men, from the continent of Africa, walk around holding each other's hands, and I've seen it and it's really odd. And you've probably seen it too. You see them across the street, and you don't get a homosexual thing, and it's really odd. It's something about being OK with touch.

It came about because I was in transit going back and forth on the subway and I would try, on a really crowded day, to not be touched, and it wasn't very hard. I found that really spooky. I can't remember the last time I was on a train and somebody touched me, and it's never skin to skin. It's like somebody's coat brushes against my coat and it's 'excuse me!'. I'm really interested in exploring that.

One piece is about a guy who is soliciting touch, and another piece is about a guy who was molested, and another piece about a little boy who's been incested and it's both from the little boy's point of view and the father's point of view. A couple pieces are about romance between two men, or anonymous sex. Another is about loss, and then there's a piece about anonymous intimacy - which is a whole other thing. You know, in New York you can find anything. It's amazing that you can find anonymous intimacy. I think it's so cool.

There should be an Iphone application you can download, called Anonymous Intimacy.

You know?! (laughing) There's not that many places you can go.

There are hug clubs.


Yeah, there are places you can go to get together with a group of people to cuddle and hug.

Oh, that's so cool. I mean, as a gay man there are places I can go - places like bars, where the whole months of meeting and talking - you can cut right past that. You can go up to somebody and if they look interesting, you can just hold them. It's just so cool. And when you get tired, you walk away. So there's a piece about that. All of these different things. I'm trying to find a way to marry it with movement/ physical theater and I've got some really interesting choreographers that are buying into it on a really deep level. I think that's the key. Have you ever seen DV8?


They're a group out of London who do amazing physical theater. And there's another group called Bathsheba choreographed by Ohad Naharin - amazing movement with text and they've been together forever. Everybody buys in on a deep level. I've got no money and I'm sort of interviewing people to be in my piece and basically it doesn't matter to me if they're gay or straight, but they have to be fearless. There's something about being on stage and saying 'I' in front of an audience. Saying 'I' and then going into the story of like, incest, and being able to own in for that time, and not try to wink and say this is not me, I'm an actor, or being on stage and talking about anonymous sex or doing things that you wouldn't do. You have to have a fearless quality, and that's the kind of people I'm looking at.

Are you looking at people that have a movement background?

I have three choreographers and dancers who are going to create solo pieces for themselves. I've got a director and I'm working with a couple of other actors who move, so there's going to be a range. I am not a dancer, by any stretch of the imagination, but I sort of audition for myself. I wrote this piece, and I wanted to see if I was good enough to be in it, so I did a little thing at Dixon Place - a group show, a piece about this guy who is really really effeminate - a sissy, like Little Richie back in the fifties and sixties. I don' see that anymore. A very specific thing, foundation and eyebrow make-up, no lipstick, because that would mean something different, and groomed within an inch of their lives, and I did the piece about this guy who is attracted to thugs. He was in the projects and they would beat him up in the daytime, and in the nighttime, it was a little different. He meets this guy at night on a rooftop and just talks to him, and holds him for three nights in a row. It was like the best thing in his life. Then the guy went away, so he's reliving this whole thing, and I do it with the gestural movement vocabulary from girl groups of the fifties and sixties. I thought they did crazy moves but it's all very, 'look at my hips' type of movement, so even I could do it (laughing). I've done it a couple times for completely mixed groups, and I got the best response from older white women which is a good thing. They'd get choked up and I'd think, 'good!'

It's universal.

Emotions are universal, although it's men. I don't really care if it gets branded a gay piece. I just don't want to be in a Christopher Street theater. It's a scary time right now. It's absolutely cool to be gay in New York City in the Village. Not so cool in midtown, and even less cool if you go further uptown into the Bronx. But when you get outside New York, it's just a whole different world.

There's this whole thing in Uganda, where there are these Christian missionaries that go to there and preach anti-homosexual things and they're changing the law - not as a direct result, they claim - but there's a law going on the books in Uganda, which is probably going to pass, where homosexuality is going to be punishable by death. And if you harbor a homosexual, you can go to jail for years, just from knowing someone and not reporting. It's crazy. What's the point? So I'm asking myself, why am I doing this? And it's because I think it's important. I'm not saying my piece is important, but I hope that other people will say that it's important. It's important to put it up there and say 'look, these are people that are in the world, and look at how we act in these scenarios. Just like you. And I bet you, you know somebody just like me, and they may not admit it to you. I've been in the room a lot of times and people say, 'you know, I can tell a faggot anywhere.' And I go, 'oh really? What about me?' and they go, 'No, not you.' because, I mean, there's a whole range of community of men that touch men.

There's so much there. You're not only talking about touch between homosexual men but all the labeling. What is homosexual? What is a man? What is feminine? What is intimacy? What is sexuality? There's a whole bunch of stuff in there.

Even in the gay community, it's sort of like - I'm writing a piece - trying to figure out how to do it. In the sixties, seventies - when I was coming up, in the black community, the closer to white you were, the better. Of course. So if you were light skinned, you were better than somebody that was dark skinned. If your hair was not nappy and was straight, it was good hair. And it's almost like that in the gay community. The closer you are to heterosexual, the better. If they can't tell, if you can pass - it's not in those same terms, but it's the same thing. In the black gay community, there a term called unspookable, meaning they can't tell from across the street.

That's so frightening because the kind of censorship you have to impose upon yourself, the way you move, the way you talk, or walk...

Yeah, and it's this whole put-on thing and I don't put on anything. I'm like, this is who I am, and most people don't necessarily look at me across the street and say faggot. And I used to really be like, 'yeah!' when somebody would say,'I didn't know you were gay.' But now, it's a left-handed compliment. It's a slap in the face. Like if somebody said, 'I didn't know you were black.' I'd be like, 'why not?'

Like if you give somebody a script and they say, I didn't know this was written by a woman.

Especially when they think it's some sort of a compliment. I mean, what do I do with that? Oh I didn't know you were a woman. I thought you were better. I thought you were a man. Oh no! (laughing)

Are you integrating any video in this since that's something you've worked with in the past?

Not in this incarnation. I have a tendency to start simple and then just go crazy. I'm not under the umbrella of a theater so I'm trying to keep it really simple - just movement and text and music. Video is going to appear, but I keep pulling back because I want to make sure the video will buy in on just as deep a level as everything else so they'll be no video unless it has to be there.

What's your background, in terms of performing and video and all that?

I went to school for film. I went to the School of Visual Arts, graduated in '80 and I thought when you graduate, you go to a film production company and they're like, 'ok, cool! Come on!' They didn't tell me that basically my degree could get me sweeping the floor in any production company in New York. If they had told me, maybe I'd have been ready, so I was mortified. I ended up doing corporate audio-visual stuff which pays really well, and I ended up working at Windows of the World, the two top floors. We'd do corporate functions for 3,000 people. It was huge and I was actually on vacation on September 11th, due back on the 12th. When that happened, it changed everything.

I was making a lot of money, a ton of money, and and then I lost that. I had put my art on the back burner because I was making so much money. I bought a house. I made more money than anyone I knew. But I didn't have time. But then that happened, and so many people I knew died and if I didn't extend my vacation by a day, which I did - it just sounds so theatrical - but I was supposed to be back the 10th but I extended it a day to come back on the 12th and if I hadn't done that, I would have been there so we wouldn't be having this conversation. I really felt like I got a second chance, and I figured I'd take a risk. I've talked to a lot of older people and they never say, 'I wish I hadn't taken so many risks,' They never say that. They always say, 'I wish I had taken more risks and done what I wanted to do.' so I decided to be an artist.

I started writing. People told me to start applying for everything because the first couple of years, you're not going to get anything so I applied for a grant, a residency and I got everything and it was like, 'whoa!'. I got a performance opportunity. I got a Franklin Furnace grant. I got a grant from New Jersey State Arts, and I got into Here Arts Center, their residency program and I had to do a show. I was like, 'shit!' I didn't expect to get it! I was mortified. I wrote a piece called, Disposable Men, and I hadn't planned on performing it because I'm not a performer, but I was always available to myself so I was a stand-in, and I figured somebody along the line would come in and somebody would say, 'We need a real actor, James.' I got Kristin Marting, who's the Executive Director of Here Arts Center to direct me, and I tricked her into thinking I was a performer, and we did it, and it went really well. It has toured around a little bit. You know National Performance Network? It's a network of about 80 theaters across the country and through them I went to Painted Bride in Philadelphia and Seven Stages in Atlanta, and Amherst New World Theater, a couple colleges - maybe about five to seven spots. I just didn't know that was going to happen. It was a piece about the atrocities perpetrated against African American men. It's a really like, heavy, as in weighty piece.

But, from what I read, you use humor in it.

Yeah, it was the only way to get through it. I wrote the piece about lynching first. I figured if I can write a piece about lynching that was funny then I could do the whole piece. So I wrote a piece about a restaurant called Supremacy where a guy was working and he was a lynch nigger and he got lynched for tips. He got lynched every night. So it's this really, really, odd sort of spin, and if there's a black contingent to the audience, it's funny, but if it's an all-white audience, the PC police show up and they're like, 'well, if I laugh what does that make me?', which I love. I don't mind being challenged in a theater and everybody doesn't like that, but from what I've heard, if you're a white person in the audience and you laugh and you're the only one, you think, 'well, that makes me racist', but if black people are laughing, you can laugh along with them.

At the very end, we had 41 laser pointed guns and we go through the Amadou Diallu thing, and I talk about just hanging outside my house and there's video and I prompt the audience to shoot me 41 times with this laser, and there's smoke in the theater, and there's a line going from the gun to my body and it's really interesting. If you have gun number 19, you know what you're supposed to do when number 19 flashes and it's on my stomach. You're supposed to point it, and hold it on my stomach. It doesn't matter if you do it or not. Some audiences - nobody does it. Some audiences - they just can't wait. It's very bizarre. My intent was to make the person who was holding that number feel something.

I had never performed in front of a group and I was scared to talk to anybody. It was a solo show. It was an hour and fifteen minutes of me and the first night I was like, maybe I'm going to have stage fright, like they have in the Little Rascals, where you can't talk in front of anybody (laughing), maybe that's going to be me, and then they told me the New York Times was there and I was like, 'oh thank you, what am I going to do with that?!' I was ignorant in the best way.

I spent so much time working on it. I think I cried myself to sleep every night the last two months while I was working on it. It was horrible. But performing it, there were so many things I had to concentrate on. One piece was Willy Lynch - I don't know if he really existed, if you Google Willy Lynch, all the stuff that comes up points to one document and I don't buy it, but the one document is how to make a slave. A recipe to make a slave. How to enslave a people. And it says you take a people - black people, and you separate them, men from women, light skinned from dark skinned, and you pit them against each other. The light-skinned niggers are better than the dark-skinned, and it happened way back then and up until very recently, good hair still meant closer to a white person's hair, and everything in that recipe worked. It's scary.

We did this whole thing where I come out in a fat suit where I'm like 400 pounds and I have this big head with the curly George Washington wig, and there's a projection on my face of this really distorted guy, and he says this Willy Lynch thing. And later, I come out in a KKK costume and there's a projection - I'm kinda jumping around, but there is a monitor in the audience that's my head and as people come in, I talk to them from the monitor. And there's images from - in the 80's they had a phenomenon called Brother Always Dies First, and in horror films, somebody always had to die first and it was always some black guy. Siskel and Ebert coined the phrase to describe all these movies where black men got killed in these crazy ways in the first ten minutes of the film. So, in Disposable Men, there's a guy in the audience which we called The Audience Nigger which was me. And I'm yukkin' it up on the monitor and it could turn and I would ask you what your name was - if you were sitting next to me, and I could hear you, and I would talk to you the whole time. People were like, 'how is this happening?' and I came out there in a KKK uniform and I pull the image out. I pulled it onto me and I beat it up and I threw it into the fire and I stomped onto it, and it's funny because I'm inside of it (the KKK outfit). I don't change. I'm still James but to see the faces of people when I come out in a KKK suit and it's a one-man show, so guess who's inside of it, you know? But I mean, there's like horror.

We did it in Atlanta where the KKK came to that theater less than than thirty years ago, so it was a big deal. There were people in the audience during the talk back that said they had been that close to someone in a KKK outfit.

So in Disposable Men I put all these iconic images of oppression and it was interesting to line them up. The other layer was Hollywood monsters and how African American men and monsters are similar because they are given these huge attributes - sexually and otherwise, and we have to be killed in ways that a normal, white man doesn't need to be. The whole town would go out to lynch a man literally, and it's documented in some southern towns that if there wasn't a lynching for a couple months they would have one, and there's a book called Without Sanctuary, and there would be children pointing at a charred body like it's a fish. And there was a whole phenomenon of these lynching postcards where they'd take pictures of lynchings and put them on a postcard and write these, 'great barbecue, Wish you were here.' kind of comments.

And it's not that long ago.

No, it's not. I did the piece in 2005 and less than thirty years ago, it was prevalent. In the sixties, it was still happening. It's not old news. It's different now. I've yet to see or hear of a white man that's been shot twenty, thirty or forty times. It just doesn't happen. White men get out of cars having a knife in their hands and the police talk him out of it. A black man has a candy bar and gets killed. There's a real issue that we're bigger than life, so that's what the piece was dealing with. So that had all kinds of video. It had eight or nine channels of video so I'm trying not to do that. I'm trying to start off simple.

Touchscape: An Emotional Striptease will be presented at The Gatehouse at Harlem Stage, located at 150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street across from Aaron Davis Hall, Monday, April 12th at 7:30. Free. Reservations recommended.

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