Embracing Dissonance

WE won! The Star of Happiness is proud to announce that it will be a part of Horse Trade’s miniFRIDGE in the summer of 2011.  Thanks to all those who came out and supported, an huge appreciation to David Lowe for producing some perfectly weird video and to luckydave for helping with tech.  both of these super talented guys have agreed to help out with the final production which will be nearly an hour in length and a culmination of a couple of year’s worth of research inspired by Helen’s four year stint on the vaudeville circuit.

I sometimes worry about putting so much pressure on Helen’s time on vaudeville.  After all, it was a mere four years in the long and impressive life of a woman named one of the most influential people of the twentieth century and whose name has been household for over one hundred and twenty years, though admittedly I just met someone the other day who claimed never to have heard of Helen Keller(!), which was a reminder to never take anything for granted.  But her time on vaudeville, controversial and even scandalous as it was  at the time, affords a unique opportunity to think about the relationship between spectacle and performance, oddity and entertainment.  My research into Helen’s time on vaudeville prompted me to wonder about the roots of vaudeville and its “odd act” which vaudeville producers dubbed any act that did not precisely fit into the entertainment arts.  Sometimes these acts would be informative other times sensational.  The best ones were both.

Helen had a theme song called “The Star of Happiness” written especially for her by the man who also wrote “yes, We Have No Bananas”.  She was a headliner, performing only twice a day with a premium salary, whereas lesser acts performed up to four times daily in this continuous entertainment.  Ostensibly her act was informative, but it had enough to titillate and amuse.  It cannot be said to be free of the stigma of the freak show, and yet it gave her an opportunity to voice her controversial, generally leftist, opinions that had gotten her into trouble on the more conservative lecture circuit.  She was supposed by many to be a heavenly, not political, creature. 

What interests me in this moment is its potential to be a crucible for a number of volatile substances.  Disability is as unstable a thing as a person can handle.  I will consider myself a failure if my work looks anything like a celebration of overcoming obstacles or transcending adversity or the like.  This is not that, or if it is, it is despite my best intentions.  But neither is it a flippant parody, meant only to reveal the embarrassing connections between the odd act and the freak show, though this connection is part of what drives my interest.  There is no easy interpretation of the deaf blind body offered as spectacle to the masses.  Like it or not, she was performing as herself and her fame was securely wrapped up in her person.  She was not blind, pardon, to this fact and as I hope will be clear in other places on this blog and in my performance, she often found this crippling – more crippling in certain respects than the disabilities themselves.

When I tell people about this project the most common question is “what was her act?”  and well, that will be part of my act too, so I won’t give it all away, but I can assure you that, though wholly dependent on her being there live and in the flesh, it consisted of elements as old as performance and as transcendent and hacky as vaudeville itself.

Vaudeville producers made it a point of having acts as varied as possible so as to invoke in their audiences a constant state of alertness.  The dissonance that the heart’s and mind’s of the spectators experienced as they were carried from opera to monkey acts and from buster Keaton to Helen Keller, is precisely the mental state I would like to induce.  However, I, unlike vaudeville producers who might accidentally inform their audiences if they thought it entertaining, am more like Helen who would happily entertain en route to opening eyes.

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