By SARAH SENTILLES
On November 20, 2014, at 8 pm at the Alberta Rose Theatre, Carla Rossi, Portland’s premier drag clown, will host, for one night only, “Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World,” which its creator Anthony Hudson calls a “riotous multimedia cabaret show.”
Armed with a songbook of Berlin theatre standards (with pianist Maria Choban) and dance support from cabaret girls The Dolly Pops, Carla will make a (satirical) comparison between 1920s Weimar Berlin and contemporary America – covering everything from immigration policy to drones to racism to DOMA to the Voting Rights Act. Hudson combines humor, theory, drag, dance, politics, song, and critique to make visible what most people want to ignore – and somehow manages to make you have a good time anyway.
I sent Anthony Hudson (a.k.a Carla Rossi) eleven questions about the show – and here is what Hudson had to say.
You’ve said that “Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World” is the story of two star-crossed lovers: Weimar Germany and contemporary America. What parallels do you see between these two time periods?
I actually have a game show section in my show where contestants have to guess which culture – Weimar Germany or contemporary America – is described by a basic clue. But there are so many overlaps and parallels that the game show becomes impossible to win. Both cultures are sandwiched by war. The Weimar Republic was established after WWI and gave way to the Third Reich and WWII. I came of age with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and am watching them occur all over again now, only we’re not calling them wars. Throw in economic trouble, xenophobia and racism toward immigrants, and “tolerance” for queer people despite existing legislation against queerness and you’ve got yourself quite the mirror image cocktail.
I’m interested in the edge – that line between satire and sincerity, between critique and reification – as a site where transgression and transformation occur. That’s why I’m drawn to drag as artwork. Drag often reinforces heterosexist projections of what makes a “woman,” but – as the theorist Judith Butler argues – it can also expose the cracks in binary sexism by blurring (or queering) gender. Queer drag exposes gender as a performed historical construction rather than as a biological reality. Carla’s the edge for me. With her I’m not trying to emulate femininity (although I’m sure that’s what she thinks she’s doing), I’m trying to break down our preconceived notions of identity to expose them as performances rather than as innate, core ways of being. Not to reignite the Madonna/Lady Gaga feud, but philosophically I’m much more “Express Yourself” than I am “Born This Way.”
What role does humor play in your work? What does humor make possible that other kinds of performance may not?
There’s an unofficial rule to my work – it has to be funny. Even if my subject matter is dreadful I have to find a way to laugh at it. I have a hard time finding respect for something if it doesn’t have a bit of comedy to it. I think in performance, humor breaks down resistance and provides an immediate entry point for the audience. To laugh at something you have to first find relevance in the joke being made – and for a whole audience to laugh at something, something wonderful happens. It creates a kind of collectivity, a sense of togetherness, like we are all in on the joke. It’s a powerful way to create and harness collective energy, and as a performer I depend on that energy flow with the audience like a battery.
I think that my love of humor is cultural – I’m half Native American, and I can’t think of any group of people more ready to laugh than Natives. The biggest and most memorable laughs I’ve ever heard are from my family that live on the Rez. You need to be able to laugh there. Humor is something the oppressed & underprivileged need to survive.
Why this topic? Why now?
One answer is that it’s the natural culmination of my interests – Weimar Germany, Dada performance, the music of Kurt Weill & Lotte Lenya, and monologue-based theatre – over the last two years. Another answer is that I’m terrified that World War III is on the brink of happening, if it’s not already.
You’ve been performing in Portland for three (four!) years, and you’ve noted that more and more performance venues (gay bars) are closing down, in part as a result of gentrification. What has been lost with these closures? And what do you hope performing at the Alberta Rose Theater might make possible?
Gay bars and venues provide a safer space for queer performers to make and show work. And since drag is so subcultural it’s hard to get it seen in a fine arts and context, and heteronormative audiences often don’t appreciate its value. It’s culturally relevant artwork. Portland used to have a bustling queer scene – performance troupes like Sissyboy and DKPDX (the latter being an amazing group of drag kings, which you hardly see anymore) took Portland by storm just a decade ago and sold out shows to audiences in the hundreds. Portland queers are still here of course, but with the bar closures we have more of a “pop up” culture now – renting spaces that are queer-owned, or just down to play, that may not necessarily be bars or even have stages. Some of my friends just put on a great show called “Dungeons & Drag Queens” at a local game store and it was at capacity. Even so, it’s still hard to connect with your core audience when they may not feel safe going to a space that isn’t queer, and it’s hard to find funding to make it happen without the old venues too. My hope is to find that crossover – to get queer audiences to pay a few more dollars than they’re used to in support of talent and technical support (which we don’t always get in bars), while getting an arts audience to take a chance on queer cabaret – and see what happens. I’m hoping for some good cross-pollination. And of course my evil plan is to recruit and convert more unsuspecting audience members into disciples of Rossi-anity.
How many outfit changes does Carla have in this show – and which is her favorite look?
Oh no! You got me! I was originally going for two or three costumes in this show (you know, because Cher does it) but I decided to settle on one particularly wonderful costume made by my friend Sarah Dee. Sarah runs a business called Scrafts and makes a bounty of reclaimed leather harnesses and accessories for the queer community in Portland (when she isn’t teaching sewing to youth and her students). For this show Sarah is creating a beautiful bodysuit inspired by my love of fringe and the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. She’s also creating me a delightfully silly boudoir look to throw over my costume for the one and only cute, lighthearted song in the show.
If Anthony could invite any three people to attend this show (and they had to accept the invitation), who would he invite?
Sandra Bernhard. She’s influenced this particular show more than any other performer I can think of. Coco Peru, because she’s a drag queen I’ve always admired – and I’ve had the immense luck to become acquainted with her over this last year – and she’s the kind of story teller I’m aspiring to become. My third guest is dead, but I would want to invite Leni Riefenstahl, the director of the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. At one point one of her “films” (retroactively created by me, and starring Carla) appears in the show. I’ve always been fascinated by the way she prided herself on the work she made for Hitler while simultaneously denying any guilt by association with the Third Reich. Leni has even influenced how I play Carla in this show – part of the premise is that Carla was alive in Berlin during the Weimar era and stayed in Germany after 1933 – and I’m really interested in how someone who perhaps passively participated in Nazism would describe that era and attempt to justify their presence there… and how selectively they would (or wouldn’t) remember certain events.
If Carla could invite any three people to attend this show (and they had to accept the invitation), who would she invite?
1. Mel Gibson, because he could make a really good unbiased movie about Carla’s time in Nazi Germany. 2. George W. Bush, because Carla really likes those paintings he did and she feels a lot more forgiving to him over that whole war and economic collapse thing now that she saw how sad he looked in the shower. 3. The Guy with the Drink Tickets because duh.
You’ve said Carla “satirizes culture by emulating it.” What do you mean?
Carla is my way of confronting whiteness, oppression, and privilege in the United States. I’m not a lecturer who excels at explaining these systems. I’m a performer. Luckily Carla is a trickster clown, and clowns and tricksters say one thing while doing the opposite. Carla embodies everything I find wrong in the world and demonstrates just how wrong it is simply by taking it to its next absurd step. She lives in a racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, classist, capitalist, celebrity-driven society, and she wants in on the action. She thinks the way to make it in society is to become a product fit for consumption, so she follows the media’s lead and tries to become a famous white woman. Lately she’s been calling herself the ghost of white privilege, and, as she says, that’s funny because white privilege will never die. She confronts audiences with their own biases and unchecked assumptions merely by being herself.
You use historical songs from Berlin theatre. Did you rewrite the lyrics or keep them intact? What is your favorite lyric?
Originally I had this Quixotic vision of rewriting the songs and placing them in a modern context. As time went on and I found different translations of the material (a lot of these songs were made into safe, English language versions in the ‘50s and ‘60s) I realized it would be a crime to rewrite the songs. They’re just as relevant today as ever, and way more bawdy, risqué, and disquieting than anything written today. I have, however, arranged lyrics from different translations (of the same song) to create the “definitive” versions I want to sing.
Almost every song has been altered musically in one way or another. I’m working with a completely amazing pianist named Maria Choban, who calls herself the “gangster of classical music.” She has a reputation for breaking pianos because she plays so aggressively and passionately. Together we’ve calculated when and where to play with the audience’s expectations – there are multiple mash-ups, and Maria’s injected some famous medleys into a few of these German standards to place them into a more American, almost USO-style context. The most well-known song in the show sounds nothing like itself – or any version you’ve heard before and – and it’s completely disturbing and seductive at the same time.
My favorite lyric in the show is from that song, but it’s too upsetting to print out of context. Here’s my next favorite – it’s from the Canon Song by Kurt Weill, originally from 1928’s Threepenny Opera: “We’ll meet a darker race / we’ll fight them face to face / ‘cause it is clear we’re better / we’ll kill them it doesn’t matter.”
What’s next for Carla?
That’s my favorite question lately, because after preparing for and thinking about and working on this show for the past year, I’m having a hard time seeing past this event. It’s like the flaming sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, except that flaming sword is in my calendar for November 20th. But next year’s plans include a Carla Rossi webseries, a potential dinner theatre project with a friend of mine, the Austin International Drag Festival that I’ve been invited to perform in, and – surprise – more Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World! Since this is a one night engagement, I’m approaching it as an incubator for what will become an even bigger, multiple-night run next year and I want to tour it in a few cities. Everything’s coming up Rossi!
“Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World” is funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council. The show will take place on November 20, 2014, at 8 pm, at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta. Tickets are available through the Alberta Rose Theatre’s Box Office. $15 advance, $20 at the door. Presented with ASL interpretation. 21+.