Risking to Be Real
Covering the Andys: Warhol and Jackson
The beginning of Gob Squad's Kitchen seems deceptively playful and slight. The audience is led through a backstage area and greeted by performers in quasi-character as people from Andy Warhol's early Factory scene in 1965. (Gob Squad aren't actors per se—they always perform in quasi-character.) The performers greet the audience and, at the New York performance I saw in the winter of 2011, passed around what smelled like a joint.
Once we had taken our seats, the performers kept going—smoking, flirting, and breezing around the stage while remaking some of Warhol's iconic films with cameras and screens mounted around the theater: Sleep (of someone sleeping), Kiss (of people kissing), Kitchen (of people in a kitchen), and so on. At times, it felt like a Factory version of a Renaissance fair, permeated with a downy, druggy atmosphere. At other times, it looked like contemporary performers trying to figure out how to produce that atmosphere. The result was a self-conscious cross-pollination between back then and right now.
But then something shifted: The performers began gently bringing audience members onto the stage to join the scene. By the end, the performers had all left, with audience members in their place doing just what Warhol had his circle of so-called superstars doing for his cameras—hanging out in a kitchen, sitting quietly in front of a camera for a screen test—and a new feeling had emerged, one that was tender, rich, and delicate but powerful.
Too often, performers violently jab at the fourth wall between the stage and the audience, but Gob Squad—a Berlin-based company of artists from Germany and the UK who have been working together since the mid-1990s—slowly coaxes and seduces it down, even while there is a literal wall of video screens between the audience and the performers. In the process, which is almost imperceptible when it first begins, Kitchen creates an intimacy rarely felt in a theater.
Last week, I interviewed Gob Squad member Sarah Thom, who was in her Berlin apartment, and asked about the mechanics of that transformation. She said the idea of the audience replacing performers preceded the Warhol theme, but that his films seemed like the perfect vehicle. "That tenderness, that special bond that occurs by bringing in this quite fragile relationship," she said, "becomes so much about projection." Once the audience comes into the show, she explained, "every action, every nuance of what takes place onstage is accentuated and overwritten with the idea of Maybe I could've done that—and what would I do if that were me?"
Gob Squad has worked with audience participation throughout the years—with installations in hotels and so on—and has no interest in turning audience participants into buffoons or giving what she calls "self-conscious drama students" a chance to show off. "You know how when you go to karaoke bars and you see the good singers get up, it's boring," she said. "But the people who are fragile... seeing someone cross that border is so much more interesting."
While some people think of Warhol's work as remote, cool, and dry, Gob Squad's Kitchen imbues it with warmth and immediacy. While working on the piece, Thom realized many people's initial impressions of Warhol's Factory as cynical had just been handed down from art-school professors. The more she looked at the work itself, the more innocent and tender it seemed.
"We [Gob Squad] talk about how in Sleep, the guy in Sleep didn't know anything about all the shit that was happening," she said. "At that time, there weren't death warnings on cigarette packages, the space race, the Vietnam War... what was it like to be back there?" Kitchen, like other Gob Squad productions, relies on a delicate balance of structure and improvisation, aestheticized characters and everyday selves. "It's risking to be real," she said. "We set ourselves up to constantly teeter on failure, to expose ourselves... but whatever the audience does is right! They can't do anything wrong!"
That "risking to be real" might be the key to the transformation Kitchen achieves. It is not, as it first appears, just an homage. Every night is immediate and new.
"It's not Andy Warhol's Kitchen," she laughed. "It's Gob Squad's Kitchen. It's how we would do it, our cover version—but totally fucking it up!"
Fucking with the original is the whole point of a cover version. And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at ArtsWest is definitely a cover of the obstreperous, profane Broadway rock musical that channels Andrew Jackson as an arrogant, angst-ridden badass and the problematic hero of America's adolescence. (He was a populist who kicked American aristocrats in the balls, but he also led the massacre and displacement of Native Americans.)
But this Bloody Bloody, directed by Christopher Zinovitch, tries more to copy than to interpret, and it's always difficult to replicate a stadium-rock production when you've got a garage-band budget. Fans of the Broadway soundtrack might enjoy watching their favorite songs live, no matter who sings them. Those who have yet to encounter the musical (whose book by Alex Timbers is, at times, a clever South Park–style take on the seventh POTUS) might want to wait for another version.
This article has been updated since its original publication.