At La MaMA, the East Village bastion of avant-garde theater that helped consolidate the off-off Broadway theater movement half a century ago, a group of downtown artists have concocted a theater piece that aims to take the sting out of death. The Etiquette of Death (playing through July 1 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre) is the brainchild of painter, collage artist, sculptor, and performer Chris Tanner, whose theater appearances includes work with Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group. The production is directed by Everett Quinton, best known for his work with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which was founded by his late partner Charles Ludlum in 1967. Quinton, who was 24 when he joined the Ridiculous in 1976, eventually took over artistic leadership of the company after Ludlum died from AIDS in 1987. The company disbanded a decade later due to financial constraints. Since then, Quinton has pursued a career in acting and directing, appearing in varied fare including Shakespeare, Jacobean tragedy, and the drag sci-fi B-movie spoof Devil Boys from Beyond. We talked recently to Tanner and Quinton about their current collaboration.
Chris, how did you come up with the idea for creating The Etiquette of Death?
Chris Tanner: My former set designer, Garry Hayes, who was a friend of mine, passed last year and my whole group, the designers and a lot of the actors that I have been working with for years, were all around. Being a collage artist, I love to pick the best jewels from everywhere. So I thought of getting my favorite writers together—about 10 writers and five composers—and I said to them, “What is your take on the etiquette of death?” I just gave them the title and asked them to write a 10- minute scene. And I asked Julie Atlas Muz to work on the choreography and Everett to direct it.
What sort of material did you get on this subject?
CT: What I got was all over the place! Some of it was a little bit like TV soap-opera drama. In the end we went a more ridiculous way.
Everett Quinton: It has been great working with all these different writers. It’s a pastiche. I’m calling it an Afghan: Afghan squares in search of the thread to sew them together. I actually don’t know what it is. All I know is that we can have fun with it. And except for one or two days, it has been a joyous undertaking.
One doesn’t usually expect to hear the word joyous in connection with death…
CT: The play is filled with music and dance and the chorus is birds. I think the flying in and out, the movement (there’s a river that goes through our play), and the music brings the joy to it. It’s still La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and we are experimenting. We are doing very irreverent things with death.
EQ: I taught this class last year and we were talking about nihilism. There’s a lady who referred to happy nihilism—that you go to the edge with a smile on your face. That’s what I’m kind of thinking this is. It’s a tough subject. We’re separated from death although we have lived with it and have had it up to our necks. Who was the philosopher who said if you get over the fear of death you’re free? I know that Huey Newton of the Black Panthers also said it. For example, I’m afraid of homophobes, but I realize the only thing you have to fear from them is dying, and once you’re not afraid to die, they have no power. I haven’t achieved that yet.
Chris, you lost your partner Stephen Lott, and Everett, you lost Charles Ludlum. How has your personal loss informed the play?
EQ: I lost two partners. And when you find you have survived…I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s confusion. And it was all around us. I remember once the joke was when someone died of a heart attack and you thought, “Oh good—something natural.” AIDS is slowing, but it’s still happening. It’s still with us.
CT: Yes, you see, Garry, my set designer, he died of AIDS, even at this late time.
So what was your etiquette? How did you cope?
EQ: Just one foot in front of the other. When my second partner, Michael, died, I was suicidal. I actually figured out how to do it, but the will to live was stronger. It’s painful stuff. I have not figured out what this play is about, but it’s going to be a romp. We have Jezebel Express, the burlesque queen, and Julie, the co-director and choreographer, give it this big show biz…
CT: …when people die she wants it to be a Fosse jazz death! But some of the songs are the actual things that people have said when while they were dying. There’s no etiquette of death. It’s messy and rotten.
So you’ve turned death into an extravaganza?
CT: Yes. There are processions and everybody is dying; it’s nutty. These fabulous wigs just came in from Perfidia this morning. We have beautiful costumes by Becky Hubbert, and a gorgeous set by Steven Hammel. It’s going to be very glittery and glamorous. Why not go out with a bang? I hope people will get something like “live everyday like it was your last.”
EQ: That’s one of the things in the piece by John Jesurun, who was asked to tie up the plot at the end. He talks about how people don’t see the good that’s in their lives. It’s hard to live. It’s probably equally hard to live as it is to die because the world and its concerns weigh on us. I’ve never been a fan of being alive. I’ve always found it a pain in the ass! But then again I don’t want to die either. Once, this lady wanted to tell my fortune. I said, “Darling, I have enough troubles. I just want the future to hit me.” I don’t want to sit and wait for something, unless it’s a million bucks.
Chris mentioned earlier about taking a ridiculous approach with this play. Everett, given your long association with Ludlum and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, how does this resonate with you?
EQ: It reminded me of what I used to have and the fun of that, where it’s all not so white bread. Although I do love white bread, it’s a much maligned food! But it’s fun to be on some edge. There’s the story that Chris developed about the character Joan Gerdler, the cosmetics sales lady—that’s where the Ridiculous hinges on. The pieces that were sent in weren’t in themselves ridiculous. Taylor Mac’s stuff is very intense, very frightening. He has captured people’s fear of death. He has these big speeches which are in fact the workings of a frightened mind. But it’s nice to be getting into my bag of tricks and to be playing with odd ball people, strange people.
CT: And it’s so much fun for us to learn and get all this Ridiculous wisdom, it’s quite wonderful.
What’s the story of the cosmetics sales lady?
CT: She’s the Etiquette Cosmetics regional sales manager. She’s a single mother with two children—one is insane and the other one is dying. She’s the breadwinner. She’s got a TV show and she’s trying to keep it together, but she’s got brain cancer too.
EQ: It’s like the Oresteia. No good is coming to this family!
CT: She’s inspired by my real aunt who was an Avon manager. She did have a daughter that went crazy, but no dying son. The dying son comes from a play I did about seven years ago at La MaMa called Ravaged by Romance. It was based on my boyfriend Steve, who’s one of the writers in this play too. He died in 1990. He was the dying boy in the bed. Now it’s my son.
What kind of actors did you look for when casting The Etiquette of Death?
CT: There are first-timers and there are people like Agosto Machado, one of the original Cockettes. He’s someone who’s been through it all and he brings great history the play.
EQ: It was whoever who would agree to be it on these terms; there was no money, no audition. We invited people to come to a reading and if they said they wanted to be in it and committed the time, then they would be in it. After the first reading, we said I would go home and decide who was doing what. There are young actors who have never been in a show, this is their first experience. I find that thrilling—to be on the stage with someone who’s going to do it the first time. It reminds me of the first time that I did it.
Is there still something of the old Ridiculous spirit left, or have things changed completely?
EQ: Things can’t stay the same. I do miss it, but I also love what I have now. The problem with the Ridiculous for me was that it was insular. I used to be the big cheese. Now I’m in this wider world, where I’m not the big star any more. But this play does feel to me, like, let’s get a room and put on a show. What has changed? You see, when I joined the Ridiculous in the ’70s, it was already established. Nietzsche said, “Beware the taming influence of your time.” That was already in effect when I got there. When I teach about Ridiculous to college kids I always use the early plays like Turds in Hell because they epitomized what the 1960s stuff was about: Bill Vehr stuck nine cocktail franks up his butt and shat them out on stage. When we did a revival of that play after I joined the company, that wasn’t possible. That can’t happen anymore.