Funny While Female: Four Artists on Gender, Humor, and Performance

Artists Rachel Libeskind, Ana Fabrega, Starr Busby and Allison Brainard take the stage.

Kate Messinger

All photos courtesy of the artists unless otherwise noted

In its sixteenth season at New York’s influential Dixon Place theater, the OBIE award-winning monthly performance series titled Little Theater is known for bringing new and unexpected voices to the stage. This Monday, January 11th, however, the strangely distant worlds of art and theater will intersect with a live show featuring four women who find identity between the lines of art, performance, and comedy. Curated by performance artist James Allister Sprang and hosted by his poet/rapper alter-ego GAZR,  artists Rachel Libeskind, Ana Fabrega, Starr Busby and Allison Brainard take the stage to investigate what Sprang calls “performing arts deconstructed as performance art.”

“Each of these artists possess experienced performing bodies that have engaged crowds on a number of different levels,” says Sprang on his lineup of artists. The acts oscillate between stand-up comedy, some sexy jazz singing, mythical storytelling, and a performative “interrogation,” and although each performer's world is decidedly unique in tone and medium, there is an underlying sense of humor that unites the group. The Creators Project spoke with the four artists-turned-performers about their pre-stage rituals, the role of gender in artistic practice, and the importance of bringing comedy to the stage, especially as a female.

Rachel Libeskind

Rachel Libeskind, Photo by Nicolas B. Hen

Never afraid to mix mediums, Berlin-raised artist Rachel Libeskind brings together the physicality of live performance, the tactile elements of collage art and the theatricality of opera, creating an immersive conversation between artist and audience through the stage. Little Theater will showcase Libeskind’s newest project described as an “interrogation in progress,” a progression from her well-received show, The Traveling Bag at Chelsea Hotel in which she packs and unpacks a suitcase. “Performance is a means of pulling out emotions and reactions,” the artist says. “It’s impulsive, from the unkempt corners of my brain.”

The Creators Project: On the difference between art and performance:

Rachel Libeskind: Performance is vast, performance doesn't necessarily need human bodies or voices, performance can happen in the void or on the stage. What I have learned from working within the context of theater or opera, is that framework is everything —the audience needs very few subtle cues and signifiers to identify something as "performance." It is a powerful paradigm.

On performance rituals:

I always wear white when I perform, as though I am getting ready to be baptized, or get married.

Rachel Libeskind, Photo by Lana Barkin

On being a female performer:

I don't feel that my work is necessarily about being a woman, or my experience as a woman-- but rather about my experience as a human being existing in the wake of history.

Performance has been a space, historically, that women have had an easier time inhabiting (easier than, for example, painting). But I think that has a lot more to do with the fact that people are used to digesting the image of a women on a stage (actors, singers, strippers, etc.)

[Being a woman] is the only identity I know. My body is the only body I know. As a blonde, 5-foot tall woman with an overtly "feminine" body, I can't negate the obvious and immediate connotations that people might have when they see me perform. I am definitely performing my gender, whether I am on stage or not (i.e. all the time).

On bringing humor into her performance:

I think humor is an interesting foil sometimes–humor is a safe voice, often, for women to discuss more "taboo" topics (sex, unhappiness, general malaise with gender inequality). Humor is  an "acceptable" context for women to complain (without getting labeled as a nasty wench). Humor an incredibly important theatrical device for women in performance. For me, a dark humor–an ability to have lightness when bringing dark topics in–is a key part of my work as a performer; I want everyone to be in on the (grim) joke.

Ana Fabrega

Watching Ana Fabrega’s comedy is rarely comforting. “My stand-up, does not have any set-ups, punchlines, or stories,” the artist admits, “it's a mashup of characters, one-liners, non sequiturs, bits, and other miscellaneous things.” It’s a refreshing take from most stand up comedy, leaving an aftershock of laughter as the bits barrel on, and putting Fabrega in a category of performance all her own.

The Creators Project: On being an artist vs. a comedian:

Ana Fabrega: I'd refer to myself as a comedian before I referred to myself as an artist. But, if someone said I was an artist, I wouldn't refute it. I think there are a lot of comedians today whose work lives at the intersection of art and comedy. There is a wave of comics, especially here in New York, whose sensibilities appeal equally to art audiences and comedy-goers. Dare I call them "alt" comedians?

Before she gets on stage:

The only thing I consistently do before I perform is feel nervous. If I'm doing a stand-up set, I'll look over my notebook and try to remember all the material I want to do that night. If I'm doing anything else - which usually means there's a lot of improvising  then I don't rehearse anything.

On comedy and gender:

I think the humor in my work is completely independent of gender. I don't think I've ever written a joke that "only will women understand" or "relate to."  I really dislike gendered material - comedians that only talk about gender-specific stuff. So boring and outdated.  And, from a business perspective, bad idea — why isolate half the audience?  My one-liners could be said by anyone - male or female - and (hopefully) anyone - male or female — would find humor in them. When it comes to creating characters, I rarely think about the character's gender. I usually come up with an idea for a person and let that guide the writing.  If I consider the gender, it's an afterthought (i.e., does how I dress for this character matter?).  I have some characters whose genders I don't know, and sometimes people will ask me if it's a man or woman, and I say, "I don't know."  There are some characters I play that I think are men but other people might think are women and vice versa...and who cares?

On the importance of feminine identity in her performance:

Being a woman doesn't inform my work, so in that regard it's not important. However, with regard to the comedy scene in general, yes, being a woman matters. In the alt comedy scene, which already is small, there are at least 5 male performers for every female performer. I wish more women were doing alt comedy because that really is a man's game. (I'd like to note that the alt scene has much less misogyny than the traditional stand-up world, some of which is probably just a generational thing.)

Starr Busby

Texas raised singer, songwriter and actress Starr Busby takes storytelling to auditory heights with her performance at Little Theater which explores the deep sea from the perspective of a small mollusk through sound loops, voice and and performance.

The Creators Project: On the intersection between art and performance:

Starr Busby: They are completely intertwined. I identify as a creator, thus, I am always creating. If there is an audience, then I am communicating with them through whatever work I am doing.

On the how female identity shapes her performance:

My performances can be very sensual but that is not specific to my gender. I am strongly connected with my femininity and masculinity. It is not a duality but, both show their face in my performances.

Her pre-show ritual:

I pray for grace and give thanks for the opportunity to share what I've been given. I ask that I don't get in the way of what needs to be communicated to that specific group of people. I ask for strength and awareness to properly execute the task I've been given.

On bringing humor into performance:

I like to insert humor whenever/wherever I discover it in performance. I expect my audience to be an open palette; ready to go where I am willing to go.

Allison Brainard

Through video and performance conducted in basements, museums, theaters and galleries, Allison Brainard makes art and pop culture commentary a performative experiment. At Little Theater she will perform Makin’ Whoopee where she delves into the character of a sexy jazz singer: “a meme that has established itself in collective consciousness.”  The performance it has expanded she explains, pushing to explore “the compromises performing artists are sometimes forced to make based on the limitations of space, time, money, and the availability/presence of collaborators.”

The Creators Project: On translating her art into performance:

Allison Brainard: I've been exclusively interested in making live and ephemeral art since I graduated from college after making a feature-length piece for my senior project. I just remember watching it and being the happiest I've ever been. I'd always done drawing, printmaking, painting, video, theater, dance etc. Right now my ideas find their fullest form in performance and video.  I'm still not really sure which world I want to land in, so right now I'm straddling theater, dance, performance art, and comedy.

On pre-performance nerves:

I get different levels of nerves before performing depending on the show.  If I'm not very nervous sometimes that makes me nervous. Sometimes I do pushups if I feel insane. Anything that disperses the energy into my muscles. But then I'm that classic case where once I go out on stage I own it. Each time I perform in front of an audience I get better at understanding them, what they want, and whether or not to give it to them.

On gender and identity in her work:

A lot of the questions I ask in my work are related to gender, sex, and sexuality, and that there is an interest in the gender continuum.  I'm usually starting off with some kind of archetype or common stereotype and then meditating on it, chipping away at it, boiling it down to it's most subtle expression. My work is usually autobiographical at least at some level, so in that sense yes, it is important to my practice my identity as a female. In one piece I give a powerpoint presentation to the audience about all of my ex-boyfriends called Ex-Boyfriend Show while in another, called Boy Show, I direct eight male performers and although I'm physically absent, the female gaze is strong.

On having a sense of humor in performance:

I'm the type of person who starts to get uncomfortable if nobody in the room has laughed in the past five minutes. I have never made a live performance without some level of humor, and the comedy world has become extremely interesting to me in past years.  Improvisation is a huge part of my practice and for me that is tied pretty closely together with the comedy.  

Little Theater is a one night event on Monday, January 11, 2016, 7:30 p.m at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie, New York. Buy your tickets here for a reduced rate or at the door.


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