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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

23

A Conversation With Adrienne Truscott, a Performance Artist Doing a One-Woman Show About Rape

In my most feverish anxiety dreams, I'm at work facing a tribunal of scary bosses, not naked but totally bottomless, and somehow more-naked-than-naked as a result. For performance artist Adrienne Truscott, dreams like this are the stuff of inspiration. In her new solo show, "Adrienne Truscott's Asking for It! A one-lady rape about comedy starring her pussy...and little else!"  Truscott wears a cropped denim jacket, boots, a wig, and, well, not much else.

The setting’s not within everyone’s comfort zone, but Truscott’s audience is in good hands. She’s a seasoned performer with a history of naked feminist shenanigans (notably as half of the Wau Wau Sisters) and her nudity is anything but gratuitous: the show has a very real and very timely point. Combining stand-up comedy and performance art, Truscott confronts both the idea that rape jokes are never OK, and also the very people who tell them. Using her impressive wit, exposed body, and multiple cans of Coors Light, she highlights and challenges the way we talk about rape.

At various moments, Truscott’s bare torso serves as a screen for projected videos of male performers, her neatly groomed pubes forming a tidy goatee on their faces. At one point, rapper Rick Ross appears across her belly to deliver his now-notorious lyrical boast about drugging and raping a woman. Truscott's exposed body serves as a tool for Ross's humiliation, turning the joke into an act of public shaming.

Minutes later she literally slips on a banana peel (accompanied by a “whoopsies” sound effect), just in case you felt like a laugh. That's the most surprising thing about this show; despite its daunting subject matter and unpredictable energy, it’s also incredibly warm and engaging.

The next day, I sat down with Adrienne for a long conversation about comedy, rape, and anger.

Can you tell me more about your process for developing this show?

I was working for Olivia Cruises, and hanging out with some of the other comics late at night, we would crack each other up. And on one night in particular, we were discussing how, while it was a super amazing environment, as a comedian it also felt sometimes overly sensitive environment. So when we'd get together at night over bourbon or whatever, we felt like all that would come out, in the privacy of each other. And I made a joke about rape, which was followed by another joke about rape—which is actually the one I start my show with [Ed. note: It starts with "a lady walks into a bar" and ends with a sore vagina]—and I never imagined I would hear that joke from this particular dyke who is quite proper in some ways, with politics in the best place. She just let that one rip, and I was like, "Good lord!" Then a couple of us made them, and I felt like we were making jokes from a very different place than we'd ever heard them be made. In that space I felt like there was this license to be autobiographical, or just women talking about how the culture out there is so twisted that at a certain point you have to make fun of the surreal nature of the logic about rape.

Years and years before, in college, in a literature course about race, class and gender, a male professor tried to get us going by bringing in all these statistics, like, "You think it was bad back then when you're reading this 19th century women's literature books, but is it any different now?" One of the statistics was, “two in five women are sexually assaulted.” And there were about 10 people in the room, most of whom were women. With like two guys and him. And as a way to shock us, he was like, "I mean, that means up to four women in this room right now have been raped. How does that make you feel?"

I got so angry, and all of a sudden everyone was looking at us like potential rape victims. Some of us were, statistically or not, and the fact that the focus was on us in that moment got me so annoyed. I was like, "I'll tell you how I feel. There's two guys, and you, so which one of you is a rapist? Cause if we're talking about this room, one of you had to do it, cause you can't rape yourself. How do you feel?" That was a turning point for me. 

Just starting this year I'm starting to see more campaigns on college campuses that aren't like, "how to be safe,” they're like, "how not to rape.” I feel that changing, in the last year or so. And that just weirdly or brilliantly coincided with a bunch of lazy comics making lazy jokes about rape. And at the same time, I found people who said, "You can't make jokes about rape!" And I was like, "That's really reactionary. You can talk about anything as long as you speak about it intelligently.” Then these comics just sort of laid themselves out for analysis, making it this ridiculously timely show.

I'm really excited to hear you say that you hear that shifting, because one of my questions for you was, why do we keep putting the onus on women to fix this? A recent article by Emily Yoffe encouraged women to drink less, in order to avoid getting raped. There was all this great conversation around that.

It is super complicated. I saw some girls in Sydney, Australia. People drink differently there, [both] men and women. They binge like crazy, and they drink really fast and they get out of their heads. And then I do see young women walking around in a state where I'm like, "Jesus Christ, I hope she gets home OK." And it's not that I want her behavior to change, it's just that I also do understand what can happen in the world. But that doesn't fix it.

"Laughing Through the Tears": Talking With Jessie Kahnweiler About Her Dark Comedy, Meet My Rapist
A few months ago, Los Angeles filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler released the short film Meet My Rapist onto the internet. It's a dark comedy that begins with Jessie encountering her rapist at a farmer's market, and then attempting to get through her day as he follows her—first to a job interview, then to meet up with a friend, for dinner with her parents, and finally for a therapy session. It's uncomfortable to watch, even when you're laughing. Jessie talked to The Hairpin about her movie and her 94-year-old grandma's online shopping habits. MORE

I got in some blog back-and-forth thing with some guys about this victim-blaming stuff, and I was just like, "Dudes, the minute you bring that up you just reveal so much about your lack of understanding." Like, armies rape villages. It's a military tactic. And women in India, or Muslim women, who don't drink and don't drive, who are dressed from head to toe in black—why are they getting raped?

The other thing that cracks me up about that is, there's just so much energy put into that argument. Can you name me one other instance at your workplace, or in history, that a man hasn't been given full credit for his actions? You know what I mean? How often does a man do something and they're like...hmm...I think she's responsible. So this is not the one instance when we're gonna be like, "Thanks you guys! We should take credit for that!"

That is so good. Thank you. Like, in a deep way. Seriously. 

Shifting gears a bit, I want to talk a bit about the larger context for your work. There are some other amazing female comedic performers out there whose work I think is in the same vein as yours, like Tara Jepsen and Beth Lisick, Jibz Cameron and Erin Markey. I see a common thread which is like, a bit of danger, some aggression, maybe some erratic behavior, that I think is really thrilling.  I'm wondering if you agree that there are commonalities there, and if there are other things that sort of link you all? 

I think that's really true, and it's something I've been noticing. It's women who have been doing feminist performance art that's kind of wild and funny and twisted, just leaving their costumes behind and going to comedy open mic nights. I've been talking to other women recently who are like, "I just started doing stand up comedy!" In like this sneaky voice.

Why is that, do you think?

We all come from this art performance world, and stand up comedy is not exactly revered as a brilliant art form from that vantage point. But then you think about how many comedians have had such a potent effect on culture by naming things and saying things about race or gender... If you think, "I'm a lady in a room with a microphone saying whatever I want,” that's a dream come true! And you don't have to be at a pro-choice rally! With all of those women you mentioned, the main thing is they want to make people laugh.

I like that it totally upends the humorless lesbian feminist trope. In the ‘90s I was like, "I shall not identify as a lesbian!" And a big part of that was wanting nothing to do with these stereotypes of people who have no sense of humor, who never have fun and never have sex. That's part of why this is so exciting to me.

Yeah, same for me! And it does feel like a turn, and it feels tidal and it feels massive to me.

 So this is your first one-woman show—what's that like?

I've never really had any interest in solo stuff; I just never imagined I would do it. I'm sure it has to do with the subject matter, and also secretly wanting always to try stand-up. But it was kind of ridiculous and funny that I was like, "Why don't I try my first solo show ever, and stand up comedy for the first time ever, and instead of doing a 10-minute set I'll do an hour, and I'll do it about rape! What could go wrong?" I'm someone who has taken on more difficult things in life by cracking a joke, which is great and not great.

So doing this feels like a natural way to talk about a difficult subject. Most people would say, if you want to talk about rape, comedy's probably not the way to do that. But for you it makes sense. 

It does make sense. And I think it's also because I adore comedy. I do feel like comedy can be really paradigm-shifting political, amazing work. Like Richard Pryor—massive!

I am amazed by what you do on stage. Any one of those elements—talking about rape in public, being naked in public—would make me pee my pants. Is there any part of this show that scares you? Or a part of performance in general that scares you?

Not lately! When I was in my twenties I knew deep down I was way too uptight and terrified to be a good performer. And I knew that if I became a better performer my life would be better. Somehow I knew if I just keep going into this, which is terrifying, everything will be more interesting.

I love the presentation of the naked body as something other than erotic, or comforting or available. 

Yeah, and it's so funny. Being naked just from the waist down is a completely different way of looking at a lady's body. It could be that some of those people [in the audience] are comfortable in a burlesque bar or a strip show, but this is presented just slightly differently.

I read a review of your performance in the fringe festival in the Independent, and then of course I had to look at the comments section, which is a bizarre place! One guy said, "Ridiculous. Why does this girl have to display her fanny to get attention? Great stand-up comedians like Dave Allen never showed his genitalia, did he?"  I'm wondering what you would say to this guy.  

Sometimes the statement itself is so revealing! I don't have to do it to get attention, but I'm smart enough to know that it will get me attention. I very clearly exploited my sexuality for marketing purposes. I knew what I was doing with the photograph I put out there. I hoped that I was attracting a group of four guys out for a night, who are like, "There's a lady with her pants off for free at 10 o'clock. What's to lose?" Those are the people I want at my show.

And you're like, fuck off, I'm a grown up. I didn't have to do it, I chose to do it because I'm an artist and I have a long history of knowing how to use my body. And you wanna go, "If you sat in my audience, and I cracked jokes and interacted with you with my pussy out, you'd probably feel pretty uncomfortable, so who's really getting the attention? Maybe I've actually put all the attention on you, sitting at a show watching a naked pussy.” Because I have all the power, I'm on stage, I have the microphone.

Ultimately it's a lazy and insignificant remark from a person who's not really participating in the conversation on a level that matters.

Well, thank you with engaging with him vicariously for the purposes of this conversation.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd love to have a debate with that guy, with or without my pants on! But ultimately I don't wanna go down that road. I spend most of my days with funny people laughing and trying to make them laugh, and I love that! I'm a pretty lighthearted gal. I also know comedy and anger are always connected.

[Sometimes] I'm asked, "Why did you make a show about rape? What was it about the rape jokes out there that bothered you?" Of course I have strong feelings about all that stuff. So I can get pretty amped up, and I don't wanna run the risk of, "Oh, see, we knew she's an angry feminist!" But a comic like Bill Hicks or Doug Stanhope, they're totally angry comedians! They're tearing into the world, and they're fucking brilliant and they're allowed to be. No one's like, "He's no fun, I don't wanna have a beer with him! What an angry grumpy misogynist!"

Yeah I think it should come as no surprise that Ellen DeGeneres was the first lesbian on television. She's so gentle! A ray of sunshine! I think she's never been angry once in her entire life.

Yeah, it's a luxury we don't have.

 

Top photograph by Allison Michael Orenstein, Art Direction by Signe Mae Olson.

Kira Garcia enjoys puns, feminism, textiles, and history. She lives in beautiful Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn with her girlfriend and two handsome cats.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

smartastic

"There's two guys, and you, so which one of you is a rapist? Cause if we're talking about this room, one of you had to do it, cause you can't rape yourself. How do you feel?"

Wowwowowowowowowowow. Yes. Thank you.

FlufferNutter

@smartastic Right???

mistersister

@smartastic Fucking amazing. Fucking brilliant. I'm a guy and I wanted to stand up and applaud.

Danzig!

No one's like, "He's no fun, I don't wanna have a beer with him! What an angry grumpy misogynist!"

Bill Hicks and Doug Stanhope are a blight upon the earth.

The thing about comedy is that it's meant to be a reflection-free zone, sort of this outlet for (and only for) public celebration of the individual's skewed perspective. An art form. But at some point, via Carlin or Bruce or perhaps even before them, comedians became "truth tellers", cutting through cultural pretense and political programming and producing tautologies that reflect not just upon the speaker but on reality as a whole. And that's terrible, because comedy isn't an inherently critical platform. Popular comedy doesn't push, it supports.

I guess an argument could be made that you can dismantle the master's house with the master's tools, but beyond the fact that countercultural tradition from which comedy grows is as reactionary as the monoculture it fought against, it seems looks like stand-up as a practice is an exceptionally poor tool of radicalism. Its sacrosanct nature as speech is stifling in itself, and many constitutional notions of what's funny and what comedy is supposed to accomplish are inherently patriarchal (an audience produces an overly sensitive environment as though it was their problem).

Anyway, stand-up comedy is fun, but so are most things that reinforce toxic culture. I just don't see the point in creating your own hermetic silo of anti-patriarchal comedy when it can only stand alongside pro-patriarchal comedy at a respectful distance. Radical art that fails to challenge the first principles of its culture is not radical at all. We have no reason to respect misogynists, or acquiesce to their claims about their right to do or say anything.

leonstj

@Danzig! - While I agree pretty strongly with your first sentence, I need to respectfully disagree with your thoughts on the role of comedy.

I don't think it's true that comedy isn't an inherently critical platform. At least as far back as Shakespeare, the role of a jester is often to issue the harsh truths and protests against authority that, if spoken plainly, would lead to censure.

Humor is almost always the drawing of attention to something which is wrong. "What's the deal with airline food?" doesn't work if the deal is that airline food is delicious and it's amazing that it's included. A regal and dignified person farting is a shitload funnier than a bum passing gas.

At the same time, some laughter and joking is mean-spirited too. I am constantly making fun of my god-son for his inability to do simple things like "speak". But where you really lose me is the idea that doing stand-up is inherently ineffective in....I don't know. Honestly, I feel like I'm a relatively smart guy, but the last paragraph here confuses me?

Like....stand-up can't make shit better because so much stand-up is shitty? I'm lost here. Like, if 99% of Stand-up for the history of time had been pro-kitten-killing, does that mean if somebody decided to do anti-kitten-killing standup, they would still be helping the dead-kitten agenda because they were doing stand-up at all?

I just don't understand how comedy is inherently patriarchal. I mean, I know this isn't verbatim Goldman, but I think the old "I don't wanna be part of your revolution if I can't dance" should hold - laughter and joking are fucking awesome. If somebody like Truscott can use an awesome thing like laughs to also say good, positive things for society, and to draw in people who wouldn't necessarily be aiming to hear her message, isn't that awesome?

(NB: I only disagree at length here because I have a lot of respect for both the intelligence commenters of this website as a group and for your thoughts as an individual, and I have many times in the past had my thoughts and opinions changed by the wonderful people who comment here, and as I disagree currently, would like to open myself up to maybe having it changed again)

Danzig!

@leonstj Fair points. I guess what I was trying to get at is sort of a notion of comedy as a non-neutral medium. W/r/t patriarchy, part of it is hoary old post-structuralism. It's essentially the same critique that's used against traditional classroom structures - you've got the teacher at the front of the class, standing and actively speaking, and the students seated and passively receiving. The idea is that this arrangement of people is inherently authoritarian and deterrent to criticism (hence why so many gender / critical studies courses arrange their classrooms in a circle). Not a great arrangement for individual incitement.

I guess I'm essentially arguing from Brecht here, and his thesis that theater creates a remove rendering it inherently toothless as critique and actively reinforcing of our distance from social problems. Brecht's notion was that you had to break from the "rules" of your medium and directly antagonize your audience, and make explicit their personal complicity in whatever injustice is portrayed.

Kira Garcia's descriptions of the Truscott show seem to indicate that it's going for that (the nudity, etc), but I have a hard time reconciling radical theater that's not openly didactic about how the medium itself perpetuates ignorance. I could be way off-base. But my feeling is that with stand-up at least if you give people radical humor they'll take the latter and leave the former where they found it. Consider that Dave Chappelle left his own show because he realized white people weren't actually considering the points he was trying to make (points that weren't even subtle). It was just comedy to them, and he became disgusted with it.

I guess the disconnect here is that I think comedy as a general cultural practice is in need of dissection, not just its openly insensitive aspects.

Danzig!

@leonstj tl;dr super short version is that "laughing to keep from crying" only makes sense insofar as you would actually cry about whatever you're laughing about, and honestly? Most people (or dudes, at least) don't cry about sexual violence. They don't need a mechanism to cope with the reality of it because they don't live with the reality of it. They laugh about it because they don't have to think about it if they don't want to. And who wants to?

femwanderluster

@Danzig!

"Brecht's notion was that you had to break from the "rules" of your medium and directly antagonize your audience, and make explicit their personal complicity in whatever injustice is portrayed."

But...that's exactly what is different about her show:

"And you wanna go, "If you sat in my audience, and I cracked jokes and interacted with you with my pussy out, you'd probably feel pretty uncomfortable, so who's really getting the attention? Maybe I've actually put all the attention on you, sitting at a show watching a naked pussy.” Because I have all the power, I'm on stage, I have the microphone."

I don't get your point, despite liking all your big words.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@femwanderluster Yes, thank you.

Barracuda

My view on comedy is if it makes me laugh, cool. If it makes me think critically about my own life and experiences, even better. If I don't think something is funny, perhaps it's just not funny to me. Perhaps, it's funny to another person.

The other night, I watched Aziz Ansari's latest comedy special on Netflix. I didn't really care for the first half. The second half was hilarous to me.

supernintendochalmers

I thought that guy's review was interesting because to me, the problem with nudity in solo shows is that it's been done so. Many. Times. It's an easy way to get voyeuristic attention and ratchet up the outrageous. That said, this sounds like a really interesting use of it that could potentially shift the balance of power in the room. I wish there was more info in the piece on how to see the show!

FlufferNutter

@supernintendochalmers I wish there was more info on where to catch the show, too. I really want to see it, but internet searches are coming up short. Emma! Jia! Help!

j-i-a

@FlufferNutter ahh it seems like she's traveled around with it but that it's not a regular thing in NYC? most recent performance was oct 28 at joe's pub?

FlufferNutter

@j-i-a Gotcha. It's a shame she doesn't have a regular thing going, but I'll keep my eyes peeled for upcoming shows. Thanks!

mrstruscott

Hey Y'all. Thanks for reading, thinking, commenting, etc. I'm fucking delighted that you're interested in seeing my show. I did it at Edinburgh Fringe for a month, have lots of overseas gigs booked, and am hustling as hard as I can to do it Stateside, where, though I live here, it's harder for me to book. I didn't plan ahead! I'll do it again at Joe's when they have the room, and I'm looking for other places in NYC and around. I'd like very much to do it in mainstream comedy clubs, or other places like Joe's. Thanks for your interest! I'm on it.

sycofan

@mrstruscott Any chance of you coming to Ireland?

mrstruscott

@mrstruscott Yes! I was just there, and am starting conversations to do it either in Cork, or Dublin, or both! I'll be at the Soho Theater in London in May for 3 weeks, so most likely around that time. Thanks for your interest!

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