“Generator: Pestilence Part 1” is a new theatrical production being presented by La MaMa in association with Allied Productions Inc. The show is the first of a three-part cycle and the most ambitious live art creation in the 35-year partnership of Jack Waters and Peter Cramer who are regaled for their challenging and innovative interventions in art and politics. The entire “Generator” series is a multi-perceptual intersection of art, performance and AIDS is led by the queer skinned “kitchen band” NYOBS. Performances begin February 20 at La MaMa where this immersive, environmental production will take over the entire downstairs.
The storyline of this show—which kickstarts the trilogy—focuses on a spark of energy that triggers life on the planet when a small cluster of single-celled organisms evolve into pre-humans. Science and mythology merge to create an origin narrative which climaxes in a lyrical expression of language sung by the African spider god of stories, Anansi.
A meditation on the AIDS epidemic as cultural phenomenon, “The Pestilence Trilogy” is about how a virus can infect and affect an entire society. Pestilence is a cycle of beginnings and endings. It merges art, social practice, and technology by combining theater, moving image, light, sound, music, choreography, drama, immersive interactive media and even fragrance.
Creators Jack Waters and Peter Cramer recently discussed the project via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the arts and why do you gravitate towards the theater?
Jack Waters (JW): I was raised in a family of modest income. My parents’ values embraced a great love of the richness of art. Well-known figures in jazz, blues and folk music often came to perform at parties that my parents gave at home. These musicians became mentors that inspired me and my siblings to sing and play various instruments. My older sisters were given lessons in modern dance that I imitated like the character in A Chorus Line (I Can Do That!). Later I took classes on my own and became a dancer. Many of my parents’ friends were artists; painters, sculptors, actors. We were given lessons at a very early age and there was always art making in my home.
Peter Cramer (PC): I gravitate to the theater as a world of personal education, exploration and expression. A way to bring people together with a sense of imagination and hard work. I am from Williamstown, the home of the Williamstown Theater Festival All our neighbors were involved in the festival back then, so as a child I was in our own productions in their attics and barns. Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was also a big influence on my dancing and singing!
MM: What experiences do you most draw your inspiration from creatively?
JW: Being in the world of Fluxus artists introduced to me by the late Geoffrey Hendricks and his partner Sur Rodney (Sur). Also being exposed to the world of art making in NYC opened to me in the 70’s by the video artist Michel Auder and his roommate, the late Bob Smith. They gave me the opportunity to meet the Warhol Superstars – the reason I came to NYC, as well as Meredith Monk who lived above their Franklin Street loft. My early experiences as a dancer introduced me to the work of German Expressionist Mary Wigman. At Juilliard I was taught by Wigman’s disciple, Hanya Holm whose Broadway credits include Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. Also, every movie made by Ken Russell.
PC: The time we live in and how we survive it. The political and personal. The collective DIY spirit. Arte Povera, Happenings, Fluxus, Radical Faeries. High and low culture. From classical concerts by Pablo Casals to the vaudeville of Gypsy — Faith Dane Johnson (the original Miss Mazeppa from Gypsy) was one of my first teachers. From summer stock to international opera and ballet companies at the Kennedy Center.
MM: How did you come to work together?
PC: Jack and I met as fellow dancers at Battery Dance Company in 1980. I saw his own concert at Cunningham Studio and was impressed that he had the wits and wherewithal to produce his own choreography while I was still just learning to develop my own discipline. Once we clicked as lovers, his friends and I formed a collective named P.O.O.L. (Performance On One Leg) and quickly left Battery Dance to venture out on our own paths. Friends of friends worked in NYC’s club scene from AREA to The Pyramid Club, so those places as well as lofts, galleries and outdoor venues became our theaters. Once we became co-directors of ABC No Rio, a collectivist art place on the Lower East Side we had new opportunities to explore as artists, arts administrators and curators.
JW: Peter and I began to collaborate when he came to work in the dance collective I had formed with collaborators Brian Taylor and Joan Kaplan that would later be called P.O.O.L. We transitioned away from strictly concert-based dance into cabaret and performances that incorporated installation, street performance and film.
MM: How come you decided to focus a play on the topic of AIDS and why make it a trilogy?
PC: It’s complicated. AIDS as an influence is unavoidable as an artist. In the 80’s and early 90’s, New York was an economic wasteland that left neighborhoods destroyed by bankruptcy, neglect, drugs and white flight. Losing friends and colleagues is a frightening experience that made coming out and identifying as gay absolutely necessary. Having seroconverted HIV positive in 1991, GENERATOR is just a continuation of numerous works using performance, film, installations, social engagements and curations that are our response to living and serving through this period. Making it a trilogy gives us something to keep engaged in art and activism of these tumultuous times.
JW: As a student at Juilliard I was exposed to the music of Wagner. His Ring cycle inspired the serial approach to Pestilence. I am a longtime AIDS survivor and a proudly out PWA (Person With AIDS). My experience as an artist and activist during the early years of the AIDS epidemic led me to appreciate the concentric relativity in patterns of viral replication, epidemiological proliferation, and the evolution of human culture. As an artist, it’s the patterns I’m most interested in.
MM: Was it difficult to decide which forms of multimedia to work into the piece?
PC: As we’ve been multimedia artists for many years, it’s always a challenge to keep up with technologies as they develop. We like to invite others to be involved too, so we’re learning from them as to new possibilities of presenting this type of media. My own experience working as a tech director and lighting designer is another aspect that I’m looking forward to re-engaging in.
JW: No. My early exposure to many forms of art making and my career in a number of mediums including writing, visual art, cinema, and dance have always led me to understanding that various ideas demand their specific forms of expression. Putting different mediums together in the same work is the origin of the operatic tradition.
MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged and how did you end up at LaMaMa?
JW: Our way of working is not easily containable by typically marketable standards. Because of this, we have always had to generate our own resources in collaboration with my partner in life Peter and our collectively intergenerational community of collaborators. While this DIY approach can be challenging, it also informs the work to great artistic advantage. La MaMa is part of this life-long continuum of familial relationships that connect my introduction to the Living Theater to what I’m now doing at La MaMa. This familial chain of creativity connects me to movements like the Judson School and Fluxus, that in turn follow the legacy of predecessors like Bauhaus and the Surrealists who parented the previously mentioned expressionist movements. The body-to-body transfer of a dance work allows me to track this generation-to-generation legacy by individual names.
PC: The big challenge is getting back on the production horse, so to speak. Recently we’ve been doing our individual work in film and installation, as well as founding Le Petit Versailles, a community garden that is now recognized as an art place for a new generation of queer artists and activists. We’re connected to La MaMa having performed work for One Night Stands back in the 80’s when Gordon Kurtti (best known as Sketch Louie) was resident artist for this cabaret. He was our first friend to die of AIDS, so his spirit hovers and reminds us to have fun and make the most of the experience.
MM: Were you personally impacted by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s?
JW: AIDS affects everyone personally, not least because of the loss of an entire generation that could have made ours a different world than it is today. There’s a myriad of personal and professional relationships whose loss has affected my life and affects my every thought and emotion. Again, I could name names, but the list is, sadly, too long. As a person living with AIDS I am directly affected. Everything I do and make is personally related to AIDS.
PC: Of course. I’ve already mentioned Gordon, but we also lost Brian Taylor, one of our P.O.O.L. collaborators to AIDS. There was definitely the need to get involved in ACT-UP and other protest groups as we were also fighting the Reagan administration on their policies in war torn Central America and apartheid South Africa.
MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?
JW: My favorite segment is the scene leading to the finale It’s like a hybrid of a pagan radical fairy-like ritual and an ACT-UP action. The last scene is also amazing but I’m not giving that away.
PC: I’m looking forward to turning the Downstairs lobby of La MaMa into an immersive environment that precedes moving into the theater itself. As to the action on stage, I’m looking forward to the opening scene where we present the evolving of single cell organisms.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
JW: A heightened sense that they have always been part of a beautiful, if sometimes difficult process of ongoing change.
PC: Mystified and delighted by our imaginations so that they are curious to find out how the next part of the story will be realized.
MM: Can you give us any teasers as to the plots and/or elements of part 2 and part 3 and/or when they are scheduled to be presented?
PC: I’ll let Jack speak directly to this question but expect Pharaohs and Walter Benjamin to appear….
JW: As the origination and development of the cycle was done at the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice and the EHF gallery in NYC, parts 2 and 3 will also be work shopped in Italy. I can’t announce the venue now, but it will most likely be a partnership between hosts in Venice and in Naples. La MaMa has expressed interest in co-producing the premieres of the next two segments of the Pestilence Cycle. Part 2, DEVELOPMENT begins with the invasion of ancient Egypt by the Kushite Kingdom (also known as Nubia and the current Sudan). The narrative takes us through the medieval plague years to the establishment of the industrial age at the end of the 19th Century. Part 3, PROCESSOR starts with the 20th century development of automotive culture, through the electronic age into the advancement of biochemical engineering. The cycle culminates in a present to near-future conglomeration of governmental/media/corporate digital dystopia.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JW: My video Eye Virus Commissioned by Visual AIDS for STILL BEGINNING: The 30th Annual Day With(out) Art 2019 was made in collaboration with Victor FM Torres. It is currently streaming on Art Forum On Line at https://www.artforum.com/video/jack-waters-victor-f-m-torres-eye-virus-2019-81494 and on the Visual AIDS website at https://vimeo.com/372220412 . Remnants, another collaboration with Peter is a variable media expanded cinema work created in 1995 for MIX NYC (then known as the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival). Remnants will be mounted at Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY on April 29 — http://www.vsw.org/event/remnants-with-jack-waters-peter-cramer/. We are in the process of transferring Remnants to the collection of MoMa. The MoMa acquisition will herald a new digitally based version of Remnants with showings in NYC to be announced.
PC: We present our films February 1 at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. https://www.manacontemporary.com/event/fact-fiction-fantasy-films-by-peter-cramer-and-jack-water/. And as we put out a call for proposals for Le Petit Versailles garden season of public events, we’ll begin curating that schedule, applying for grants and getting that garden ready to open on May 1.