Photographer, singer/songwriter, playwright, actor, producer, and smasher of the patriarchy Jody Christopherson and I have been running around in similar circles for years and years now. She once composed a song for a “Vagina Choir” for a fundraiser for my theater company, Caps Lock; she also took a photo of me on her balcony that was then displayed at an art gallery. Her work is huge-hearted, pulsing with energy, and feminist as hell. She sat down with me to discuss her upcoming double bill at HERE Arts Center, Greencard Wedding and AMP.
Mariah MacCarthy (Rail): So, Jody, my love, my first question for you is: Why do you do art?
Jody Christopherson: Because there is a lot of shit happening in the world that makes me angry, and what else can you do with that? There’s a photo I took in collaboration with (playwright) Leah Nanako Winkler as part of my installation, Necessary Exposure: The Female Playwright Project. She's standing in front of Trump Tower—coldest day of the year in 2016, just after the election—completely topless, with “Do and Say Whatever the Fuck You Want in Your Art” (a phrase she wrote) written on her back in permanent marker.
Rail: I do love that picture something fierce. I framed it and put it up in my office. Not joking.
Christopherson: Oh my God. Thank you. I have a ton of them I’m super willing to send to people if they want them, too. For me it’s a daily reminder of following intuition, and that we, in our whole being, are powerful. She’s quite literally using her body as a protest sign, bringing what's inside out against harsh, fucked up elements. We’d researched if we could be arrested [They could.], what we would do if we were, and we went anyway. We didn't get arrested—in fact, the cops checked my camera and loved what we did—let us walk away. I think it’s a starting point— the first time I was really able to participate in something outside of the arts community that was a bit dangerous. And I think those actions add up. Which is one of the reasons I started going to abandoned asylums for AMP. It’s important to me to research in that way, go to places outside of myself. I often feel like what I am doing isn’t enough. Is too safe. My question is always: how can we go further? I really admire artists that do that. Diana Oh, Pussy Riot, Hannah Kallenbach, Marina Abramovic, Belarus Free Theatre—
Rail: Yes yes yes yes yes.
Christopherson: Sophie Calle, Kim Gainer—Oh! Daniel Irizarry and Laura Butler Rivera. They are huge in my heart. They taught me that there is power in grotesqueness. I think there’s something that shifts when you find that you are a part of the world and you are political.
Rail: Jody, I want to make memes of like everything you’re saying.
Christopherson: And for me, my safety is necessary, but my comfort is far less important than my need to shift things and make an impact. And while I’m sort of original, I guess, I've been influenced so much by the bravery of others that if I were a meme I’d want to credit a gazillion people who inspire me.
Rail: We’re basically just a giant ladder of humans. The people who inspire you were inspired by other people who were inspired by other people. The people you inspire will inspire other people who inspire other people.
Rail: Tell me more about your adventures doing those photo shoots in asylums. The pictures are gorgeous.
Christopherson: Okay, so, anatomy theater. Theaters have always been places that were science and social science-based venues, but also total theater. Way back to the late 1700s, public dissections were being held to examine, essentially, electricity—and if that was a thing that we produced, or could create. Our ability to examine is something that I think is very powerful. The meaning of the word “monster” is similar to “demonstrate”: to show, and to show what’s inside. So there’s this electric power in being a monster, in tapping what’s inside, in needing to control or release that. And it used to be that when you tapped that power, or you couldn’t control it or be controlled, you ended up in an asylum.
Rail: Ohhhhh, that’s so yummy. I don’t mean to diminish that with the word “yummy.”
Christopherson: It’s totally yummy. Like in the way that horror is delicious when it means something. And like, we all have these sparks—these intuitive things that we actually should follow but are often told to repress. And I wanted to write about women who didn’t repress them, who embraced being monstrous.
One of my characters in AMP is a woman from South Boston who auditions for the Boston Symphony in 1952. She’s working class. She’s wild. She’s very intuitive and a brilliant musician. They had these “blind auditions”—they decided they needed more parity, so they put up screens that women would audition behind, so they wouldn’t see them and wouldn't be biased in selecting musicians for the orchestra. But they could hear the women coming in by the sounds their high heels made, because of course you wore heels in the 50s. Eventually they did realize they had a bias, WHEN NO WOMEN AT ALL made it past the first round of auditions. So, they readjusted. I think people came in in their socks, or there was carpet, but they ended up with roughly a 50/50 orchestra after that. Anyway, the woman in AMP, Anna, realizes what’s happening, gets really outspoken and openly angry about it, and ends up in an asylum because people think she’s crazy. I wanted to tap that, to honor it and learn more about the things that happened in these asylums, where so many people for so many different reasons ended up. So I felt I had to go there, to those places. Feel that electricity.
I went to Tewksbury Hospital in Massachusetts and spoke with a woman who is getting her PhD at Harvard Divinity and who works at Tewksbury Hospital in the Public Health Museum. It’s part functioning rehab hospital and part museum—a place where historically the poor, the Irish, immigrants, the sick, the mentally ill, and a lot of violent women ended up. It was the most likely place that a person like Anna would have gone to. And the stories I kept hearing were so much about women who had no control over their bodies or minds. They had that taken from them.
Rail: Yeah. It seems like that’s the story of women and medicine in general.
Christopherson: YES. Ashlynn, the woman I spoke to, is hoping to create a non-profit that puts the names of patients on their graves. There are about 10,000 people buried in the Tewksbury Hospital cemetery, but once you became a ward of the state, they could seal your records and only put your number on your grave. Records can be sealed for up to seventy-five years after a patient’s death. Also, often bodies were sold to tanneries. There was a pair of shoes that were made out of a woman’s breasts.
Rail: Like, one single pair? Or that was the model, and there were multiple pairs made?
Christopherson: They don’t really know. That’s the pair they could prove were made in that way.
Rail: Jesus Christ.
Christopherson: But it really struck me that the abuse of bodies, the way that abuse of bodies is justified, really has so much to do with what is contained inside those bodies—the energy, the thoughts, the actions that the body represents—and how totally horrifying that is. So I wanted to voice that and create a piece where women could behave any way they needed to, to create monsters that have amazing hearts, minds, and go as far as we can with that.
Rail: GAH, I love that so much.
Christopherson: I want to ask you a question, if that’s okay?
Rail: Yes, go for it!
Christopherson: You do so many things in your work that are joyful and hard and amazing. Are you a fearless person? Or how do you find ways to expand?
Rail: Oh wow. I’m definitely not fearless. I just don’t think fear is that big a deal?
Christopherson: How do you work with it? Or how do you treat it?
Rail: Shitloads of therapy, for one.
Christopherson: An anatomy theater!
Rail: It’s also just more important to me to do big things I’ll be happy to have done, than not to be uncomfortable. I think because I read a lot, maybe? Because people in books are always doing big things.
Christopherson: And they make it possible to feel like doing those things is okay—or, like there’s a way to do it?
Rail: Exactly. I mean, they gave me the idea that my life should be extraordinary to begin with.
Christopherson: Yes yes yes. And I think this all goes back to power in a way. That what you are told becomes reality. Which is why theater is a form of resistance. We’re not making pretend worlds; we’re making a world, hopefully. Like there’s death by 1,000 cuts, but there’s also life by 1,000 tiny surges of energy.
Rail: Yes! I think about this so much, especially with Diana Oh and Taylor Mac and the latest TEAM show, Primer for a Failed Superpower—that you can literally just create the world you wish you lived in and put it in a room.
Christopherson: Yeah, and the world grows in different ways depending on the audience, which is why it’s so cool that it’s different every night. Those were all such great shows.
Rail: Do you mind if I pivot into asking you about Greencard Wedding?
Christopherson: Not at all! That’s actually a good pivot because that’s a show with tons of audience interaction, and we never know what we’re going to get each night, in certain moments. And that really rocks. Because anyone who comes to the theater vulnerable and human is my type of theater goer, no matter what.
Rail: Totally! It seems like so much of your journey as a generative artist has been in relation to Greencard Wedding—is that fair to say? Can you talk about that journey a little bit?
Christopherson: Greencard Wedding was the first large scale generative work I’ve created that uses technology. I have some devised/collaborative works that came before, but GCW is really ambitious and different in the sense that it’s inspired by a true story (my bandmate lost his visa), uses some of the music I created during that time, and has pre-recorded Skype video. And it’s a very transparent look at what it takes to get an artist visa and how the system is really difficult for artists—mostly based on capitalist ideas. I think it can feel very hard when you are one person up against a large system. It’s sadly just going to get harder to travel to other places under our current administration.
Rail: I know. It breaks my damn heart.
Christopherson: I should say that our teams are amazing and seventy-five percent women— a hundred percent of the designers are women: Morgan Zipf-Meister, Martha Goode, Stacey Boggs.
Rail: Who run the world? Girls.
Christopherson: Yes! The shows seem compact, but it really takes a village—Amy Marin (Stage Manager for both shows, AD of Greencard Wedding), Meredith Packer (assistant producer), Emily Owens (press), Isaac Byrne (director for AMP), Ryan McCurdy (Co-Music Director for Greencard Wedding, Connel in Greencard Wedding, a composer for Greencard Wedding, the voice of Percy Shelley in AMP), J.Stephen Brantley (voice of William Godwin in AMP), Finn Kilgore (Voice from Off in AMP), Chloe Dirksen (Dialect coach for both shows and the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft in AMP), and of course David Anzuelo on screen in Greencard as Unka Dave. And while we can't announce where yet, there will be touring in 2018 outside of the US....
Christopherson: Thanks. Really exciting to meet new audiences. Also, producing in NYC is probably one of the hardest and most expensive places to do a show. It blows me away that touring internationally is cheaper than doing a show in New York—a city I love, but wow.
Rail: IT'S SO TRUE. Producing looks from the outside like something that just kinda happens, rather than something that requires bleeding from the neck for months on end.
Christopherson: It’s been really challenging to try to raise the money, and we're still trying. And for real, we are bleeding from just about every place we can to try to do this. We've been busking on the street, applying to as many grants as we can, doing the PAINFUL work of asking other amazing artists and people outside the field to contribute to our Indiegogo and Fractured Atlas campaigns, but it seems like it's gotten harder over the years to do crowdfunding? I love our audiences so much, and I feel like: okay, when can I stop asking people for money and make tickets really affordable? How can we make big theatrical work that people want to come see and can afford to see?
Rail: YES. The economic model of indie theater is built entirely on the backs of artists. We fund our own work and we fund our friends’s work and we had the least money to give to any of that work to begin with.
Christopherson: I think that's all I probably have in the tank? Oh, buy tickets to our shows! Greencard Wedding comes with whiskey-soaked wedding cake. And at AMP you might just soak yourself if it’s scary enough. Or if you like it a lot.
Greencard Wedding, written by Jody Christopherson and starring Christopherson and Ryan McCurdy, co-directed by Morgan Zipf-Meister, will run November 29 – December 20, 2017, at HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas) in repertory with AMP, written and performed by Jody Christopherson, directed by by Isaac Byrne (running December 5 – 19). Both shows are presented by Goode Productions (with Associate Producer Meredith Packer) and are part of SubletSeries@HERE: a curated rental program, which provides artists with subsidized space and equipment, as well as technical support. For tickets, visit www.here.org or call 212-352-3101.
MARIAH MACCARTHY is a writer and creatrix whose plays have been done everywhere from NYC subway stations to brunch in Paris. Her award-winning solo show about becoming a birth mother, Baby Mama: One Woman's Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People, recently hit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her first YA novel, Squad, will be published with FSG in early 2019.