5 Questions with Chris Tyler
Artist-in-Residence Chris Tyler is about to open his latest work R*NT (Or: what you own: another dirge for a city remembered) just in time for the 20th anniversary of RENT, Jonathan Larson's Tony and Pulitzer-winning opus.
We sat down with Chris for another installment of our 5 questions blog post series in order to learn more about his experience creating within and for our Lower East Side community and his genre-bending spectacular process.
Q: Your show R*NT (Or: what you own: another dirge for a city remembered) is a full on explosion of the hit musical RENT. I'm curious to know your personal relationship to the source material itself. Did you grow up an avid fan? Did the musical shape your adolescent identity, like Les Mis did for me? How has your relationship with the musical changed over time? Why is it important for you to be unraveling this material today?
I didn't know that much about RENT until I got to high school in 2003. A close friend was obsessed with the cast recording and told me that I was "such a Mark" and so I decided to bring my entire family to see the show on Broadway at her behest. I, of course, did not pay for the tickets. We sat in the mezzanine and none of us had any idea what was happening onstage. My grandmother turned to me at intermission and asked if the Santa Claus was a man or a woman. The whole thing was quite cacophonous and I understood maybe 20% of the words being sung. I especially hated the fact that we were sitting so far away because it meant we hadn't paid the highest price possible for the tickets.
All of this is to say that the 2005 film version was really my access point. Slick, sexy, anachronistic and innocuous, it almost felt like it was made just for me. I couldn't get enough of the soundtrack. The production was so full. I listened to it over and over and my secret boyfriend gifted me a copy of the theatrical release poster that I proudly displayed above my bed when I got to college the following year. I don't know if I ever really liked RENT, but I do know that I felt really cool when I told other people that I really liked RENT.
Since moving to New York I have undergone a particular kind of radicalization via Occupy Wall Street and the queer performance scene. I've consistently wondered how much my pursuit of these experiences has been informed by my consumption of the Rent narrative in my youth. Rent itself never really provided much insight into politics or activism or performance subcultures, a notion that Sarah Schulman's Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America helped me more fully contextualize. And so I guess this project is me trying to make sense of my adolescent affinity for that radical veneer. Plus, I've always known that I'd make a great Mark.
Q: From what I have witnessed of your work, it tends toward both the utterly ridiculous and the completely sincere. It has this rare ability to comment on the pop-cultural moment while celebrating it at the same time. Is this duplicity intentional or coincidental? Is this what the kids are calling the 'new sincerity'? Do you consider your work to lean more toward a critique or a celebration of its subject?
Oh, the duplicity is definitely intentional. If you want to label it, I guess you could call it post-irony, a term that Wikipedia tells me connotes "a state in which earnest and ironic intents become muddled". I like to lean heavily into both critique and celebration at the same time, but because my work tends to engage with relatively monolithic pieces of popular culture, it's generally received as highly critical.
I think this says more about the state of discourse in 2016 than it does about the work itself, though. There is an increasingly small number of artists willing to engage rigorously with successful mainstream properties because it means potentially alienating the institutional powers that be and/or blockading yourself from said franchises revenue stream. It's like, every artist who isn't independently wealthy is broke and desperate to keep their career afloat and so no one wants to say anything remotely unfavorable or analytical about, say, Hamilton because rich people love it and it can't stop winning awards. But what does that do, in turn, to our collective capacity for critical thinking?
Q: As an AIR you have spent the past year getting to know University Settlement's rich community of artists by participating in and even hosting our bi-monthly performance salon SHARE. What has this experience been like? How has creating alongside and with our young artists influenced your creative process with US?
It's been a blessing to witness the kind of deeply truthful, articulate and virtuosic work on display at the SHARE salons, and it's allowed me to feel more in touch with both the joy and necessity of performance than I have in quite some time. I think I've definitely siloed myself in a kind of "downtown" context over the last few years, which has, in turn, made a particularly solipsistic attention to form feel all the more pressing. It's healthy to remember that there are so, so many other more pressing reasons and more impulsive ways to make work.
I create because I want to fuck things up and prod at socio-cultural mythologies and facilitate debate, dialogue and connection. I create because I value the perspectives of thoughtful people ideologically invested less in upholding what is than in imagining what might be. I create because I think we benefit from truth telling and fearlessness and speaking our minds, whether or not our words might compromise future networking opportunities. It's really empowering to work on a project with individuals inside a community that hold similar values dear.
Q: Some resonating themes influencing your work include real estate, healthcare, gentrification and the Disney-ization of the Lower East Side. How has the recent Rivington House scandal, which led city bureaucrats to lift a deed restriction on a former nursing facility in order to create luxury condos, affected your creative process on this piece? How does the piece intend to respond to current events in our neighborhood?
Learning about the Rivington House scandal was definitely a synthesis moment in the process. It was like "oh yeah...housing, healthcare, gentrification, HIV/AIDS, public policy...these things are all still completely interrelated." Something we're still grappling with in rehearsals is how to bring these so-called "actual realities", to borrow a phrase from Rent itself, into the show. I've been lucky to speak with my friend Elizabeth Koke, the director of advocacy communications & marketing at Housing Works, about the current state of AIDS activism in New York. Right now, the movement is really rooted in the idea that supportive housing equals healthcare for people living with HIV/AIDS. Yet we're seeing both Cuomo and De Blasio renege on promises of funding for affordable housing time and time again despite a shared "commitment" to ending the epidemic by 2020.
I think it's dangerous to think that these policies are somehow unrelated to, say, the city receiving $16 million from a for-profit healthcare company in exchange for lifting a deed restriction that was instituted to provide a necessary social service for the community. The whole "cleaning up" of New York over the last twenty-five years has given our government exquisitely-branded permission to behave more like an entrepreneurial organization invested solely in the bottom line and less like a municipal body concerned with the lives of the people who actually live here. It's a confusing thing to navigate. But remaining informed and critical of policy is key, and so I hope the show is at least able to shed some light on the whole debacle in a way that inspires audiences to learn more and maybe even get involved at a local level.
Q: This may be a spoiler, but how do you want your audience to feel at the end of your show? Is your message ultimately one of hope for the future of our community? Do you know yet? Are you yourself hopeful, skeptical or some combination of both?
I want the audience to feel however they want to. We're serving a lot of different messages and amplifying a number of disparate tones and perspectives, and so I hope that people have a complex and charged experience with the work. I don't know that I'm hopeful for this city. I worry that hyper-gentrification is a death knell and that no policy change at any level can fundamentally uproot this nightmare oligarchy we're finding ourselves in. But I also think that by acknowledging the past (the city's past, our personal pasts, past ways of thinking or past relationships to people and ideas and so on and so forth), we can find small, daily ways to resist. Tiny ways to strive for something better, to be more empathetic, to keep alive the revolutionary ember that's helped ignite movements like Black Lives Matter, ACT UP, Occupy Wall Street, Stonewall and every disobedient demonstration in Tompkins Square Park across the ages.
There's a line in Rent that says "there is no future, there is no past, I live this moment as my last," and it's true to an extent, I guess. No, I don't know that there is a future. Living and breathing in the present is essential to, you know, not completely falling apart in the face of gross systemic oppression. But there is definitely a past and no matter how much particular narratives of "progress" attempt to erase it, it can–and should–inform the moment now.