Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An old Claudia Shear interview, for Kimberly Vergez

Dirty Blonde, playing Mae West
By Fred Dodsworth, special to the SF Examiner
May 13, 2001

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers, femme fatales and mamma mia's in our lives. Today's Q&A is Claudia Shear who wrote and stars in
Dirty Blonde -- a tale of adulation, adoration and self-acceptance featuring iconographic proto-femme Mae West. Dirty Blonde plays at Theatre on the Square through June 17th.

Fred Dodsworth: We live in a world in which women are expected to behave in certain ways and…
Claudia Shear: Do you think that’s true? It’s certainly less true then when Mae West was alive. There’s no question with things like divorce and child custody and salaries and discrimination that it isn’t a little better now. As far as the way women behave… (pause) it’s not like women aren’t able to do what they want. Women are able to be shocking now in a way Mae West couldn’t have done. It’s just that Mae West was more shocking because there were stronger rules, it was a more Puritanical time.
You know William Randolph Hearst helped destroy her career. His papers refused to take advertisements for her pictures. One of his editorials asked, “When will Congress do something about Mae West?” He was very influential in creating a backlash against her and of course he was part of the whole thing with the Hayes Commission and the decency code. They cut her scripts to shreds. They weren’t letting her be funny anymore.

Dodsworth: What do you mean by funny?
Shear: Dirty! Funny! Raunchy! Bawdy! Suggestive!
By the time she got to “Belle of the 90s,” she had a line like “I wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole” and they made her cut it. They were so afraid of what people were going to say. This is a woman who was arrested and sent to jail, who did a play called “Sex,” did a play with gay men. Her films were wildly successful but there were a lot of people who were very shocked.

Dodsworth: Shocked by what?
Shear: She has sex all the time. She is clearly a prostitute. She ends up with a guy. The Hayes Censorship Act says a life of crime must always be punished but she kills somebody in “She Done Him Wrong.” In “I’m No Angel,” she’s hustling guys but she ends up as a rich socialite. Married, happy ever after? This is not the message they wanted to send.
And she’s clearly a woman who’s not a virgin, who’s having sex all the time, who likes it a lot, who is aggressive about it, assertive about it. You can understand why this was upsetting people.

Dodsworth: But that was before the “Decency Act.”
Shear: It was Mae West movies and the Fatty Arbuckle case that shocked people and they cracked down.

Dodsworth: The Fatty Arbuckle case happened here in San Francisco.
Shear: One of the greatest travesties of justice in the history and who did it? William Randolph Hearst. Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted after three trials and the jury gave him an apology! But by then he was destroyed. Nobody would hire him. There was no question he never killed the girl. It was a salacious news item. Hearst saying look at these disgusting people, look at their disgusting orgies. Hearst was one of the greatest hypocrites that ever walked this planet.

Dodsworth: I don’t actually think that our times are that different.
Shear: I agree with you actually. “A plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.”

Dodsworth: But to me the more interesting issue is how women are demonized.
Shear: Mae West was definitely demonized by Hearst but the thing is that she liked being shocking. She knew that she was shocking. She liked that.
There's the whole other question, which is homosexuality and how people deal with that. Mae West showed gay men actually talking to each other, that they existed. It wasn’t like there was a gay subculture. You know what I mean? There was the eternal bachelor. The whole thing of homosexual culture was totally different. So she was really in the forefront of that.
There were men who had acts where they would come out in gowns and be female impersonators but it was considered family entertainment. You would take mom and the kids to see this. But it wasn’t really attached to having sex with other men. Then she did “The Drag” and things like that and suddenly people were like “Do you mean these guys in dresses actually want to be girls? They want to have sex with men? Whoa, wait a minute!”
These guys were wiped out. There was this really famous drag performer. Julian Eltinge was his name. He was reduced to bringing out a rack of dresses, pointing to them and trying to do his act! He died in penury.

Dodsworth: Today that would be performance art.
Shear: They wanted to see him dressed up as a girl doing his campy thing!

Dodsworth: Do you think there’s a misogyny in that? Is it making fun of women?
Shear: I think that there’s a flavor of that sometimes. It’s such a fine line. It’s not that I would accuse anyone of misogyny but Marlene Dietrich, when she dresses as a man, is not the object of ridicule. It’s the sexiest thing in the world.
You know the world is a big place, lots of things are allowed. But a woman dressed as a man is taking on power. Look at Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” there’s something really powerful about her because she has suppressed her secondary sex characteristics as a woman and therefore she is a man in the world. You take on a certain power if you dress as a man.
If you dress as a woman on some level you’re also taking on a power. A man who comes on stage dressed as Joan Crawford or Lipsinka! Lipsinka comes out on stage and this is a person of power.

Dodsworth: What is the root of that power?
Shear: The root of the power is when people transform themselves into what they feel they are, into what they feel they should be.

Dodsworth: So it’s transformation into true self?
Shear: Into what you imagine yourself to be. It’s why brides are always beautiful. The dumpiest girl in the whole world, bless her, the day of her wedding she will be beautiful. Because for most people it’s the one time in their lives where they wear a custom-made gown, where someone does their hair and their make-up, where everybody looks at them. They glow as a result of it and that runs through to everything.
I’m a big dresser-upper and how that transforms you. A lot of the time I’m in my sneakers, I’m in my T-shirt, I’m going to work out and yet when I transform and I’m in Manolo Blahniks and the Florentine cocktail dress, it’s a whole different persona that comes out. You know what I mean? When I go to Paris, for example, where I spend most of the time in a cocktail dress or out of the cocktail dress (half-laughs), it’s like I’m a different person.
But you know the thing was that Mae is really actually complex which is a thing that many people flatter themselves thinking they are...

Dodsworth: Everybody’s complex!
Shear: Everybody’s complex, but it’s not manifested in quite the same way. They’re just not simply as interesting. I don’t think Sandra Dee is as interesting as Mae West. It’s not the same conflict. Which is one of the things about drag that makes it so powerful is that underneath there’s this profound conflict (pause) between what we’re seeing and what we know to be true.

Friday, August 21, 2009

An old Mark Morris interview, for Mare Earley

Mark Morris Speaks
By Fred Dodsworth, special to the Berkeley Daily Planet
Sept 28, 2003

Mark Morris and his eponymously named Dance Group regularly perform for Cal Performances at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall — so much so that some claim the globally renown dancer/choreographer as an honorary citizen of the People's Republic of Berkeley. Certainly Morris is a member in good standing in the 'cultural revolution,' as his footprints are stomped all over what is modern in today's dance world. In addition to founding the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, Morris was one of the founders of the White Oaks Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The Mark Morris Dance Group opened the Cal Performances season with L'Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato on September 4th and returns to Zellerbach Hall September 12 through the 14th with a 'Repertory Program' of dance featuring the music of the late West Coast composer Lou Harrison, a world premiere of dance to the music of Béla Bartók, and a nine-song dance-cycle to the recorded music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
As we spoke Morris, dressed in shorts and a plain tee-shirt, laughed easily. Unexpectedly pudgy for a dancer, and with longish, straggling gray hair, the 40-something Morris had just spent the afternoon wandering unnoticed around Berkeley.

Fred Dodsworth: Your music is rhythmically challenging. How do you teach dancers to work with complex rhythms?
Mark Morris: How do I teach rhythm? I'm good at it and smart and my dancers are brilliant and we practice. You have to have something to start with though. If you're interested in something you work on it. If need it for what you do, if you have an interest in it then it can come true. If you don't need it and you're not interested, you'll never learn it. (laughs)

Dodsworth: You're in your 40s, as we age our bodies change, how does that effect you, as a dancer?
Morris: Well, I don’t know. I'm going to dance a little bit longer, not a whole lot longer. I'll keep performing some but not forever. Because it's less… it's more… it's more trouble than it's worth at a certain point — to warm up for two hours to dance for five minutes when it used to be the other way. It takes longer to recover from injuries. Of course I'm way smarter about certain things, I'd be much better at some things, if I could [just] do those things but that's always how it works. That's normal.
You know I'm a lovely dancer and I continue to be and when I don't want to I won't. But I'm a very good teacher and I can still choreograph and I'd rather watch other people than watch me. (laughs)

Dodsworth:Can you envision doing dance for older bodies?
Morris: I already do. The youngest man in my company is 28, which doesn't seem like much but in dance or in other things that require that sort of work, you know, like athletics or something, that's very late in your career. So it's different if you're an instrumentalist or a writer or a painter or a choreographer, of course that's different. But I work with… they are already older dancers, they're in their 40s and that's old for dancers and that's great but you have to have been a good dancer and then stay a good dancer. You know just cause you've made it, you're old and you're still dancing doesn't mean you're good. It just means you're old. It doesn't mean you're wise. It means you're old.
I was co-founder of the White Oaks Dance Project, which was originally 'older' people, but it changed as it went along so that just Misha was an old 'thang'. It's fine. It's a possibility. I don't think it's the future of dancing, is everybody getting old. If you can still dance when you're old and you make stuff up and there's still good work to do than it's great but it's not like a mission. (laughs)
I don't work with little teenagers, I mean they're great and they're fun sometimes. At the San Francisco Ballet I'm working with much younger people and that's fine but to tour and work and live with these people… I don't want them to be 17? There aren't very many good dancers anyway, old or young. But also that's… if you're 20… I mean, come on, who wants to see a naked old person? And that's the market.

Dodsworth:Is that you're market, kids in their 20s?
Morris: They're all over the place. It's mixed but there's a certain demographic that spends the most money on certain things. It's not necessarily what I want to watch. I don't like contemporary, popular music very much but I never have. It's not like I’m now old and there's nothing like the Beatles were. I never really liked the Beatles that much. I mean for a minute I did, but it's never been a big interest of mine. It's not like I'm an old curmudgeon, it's just like I don't really spend the time doing things that I don't like to do very much.

Dodsworth:Bob Wills was once popular music.
Morris: Yeah, in the ’30s and ’40s. Absolutely. I like lots of popular music. I just don't like contemporary popular music. I like music from the ’20s. It's not a rule, it's just a preference. It's not like, 'oh, this is from the’50s therefore I don't like that.' I don't think that way at all. It's, 'oh. I like that song, what's that?' There are exceptions. But I don't buy that music. It's not interesting to me.

Dodsworth:What is the story behind your Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys dances?
Morris: I work with live music but this particular piece is one that's not. It's to recorded music because it's a particular recording session that I like. I could hire a cover band but this is them [Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys] very, very old. He died sort of the next day. This is from the early-middle ’70s, they'd been a band for 40 years. It's them… they're all very old on this recording. That's what I like. It's not a period recording from the ’30s. It's fantastic. If you listen to their music from the ’30s and the ’40s and then from the ’70s, they're relaxed and they don't have to pay any attention to each other and they know each other and they read each other's minds and they play fabulously and their rhythm is perfect and it's great. It's wonderful.