Saturday, September 28, 2013


photo by Jet Liam

This is the post-mortem of a piece I did the first Friday of September. Because I'm interested in process, I'm going to write about the process of making the piece. If that's not your thing, enjoy the pictures.

A few months ago, I had an idea that involved clouds of color in the air. I didn't have any idea for what, I just pictured throwing something in the air that would make a colored cloud. I figured flour would make a cloud like that and asked on Facebook if anyone had any ideas for coloring flour.

I should say, I had no idea at the time that there is an Indian holiday that uses just that sort of thing. Holi. Had I known that, I might have just asked an Indian friend or two about it, but in any case, it was an Indian grad school classmate, Shikha, who answered with a link for making colored flour. Indeed, had I known this was an actual thing, I would have just conducted my own web search for instructions. There are, I've learned, several pages with this information out there.

So, anyway, that just sat in my brain for a few months and gestated. Then, the movers and planners of Continuum announced a night of three-hour, durational performances, which is one of my favorite forms of performance art. I went to brainstorming and came back to this vague colored flour notion. What resulted was Flouring/Flowering

This was the initial idea: I'd stand under a slowly dripping water hose. Around me would be pans (or whatever) of colored flour. The audience would be invited to toss the flour into the air over me. Hopefully, the water on me would cause some of it so stick as it fell, so that the cloud of flour would then color me.

It would fall in line with a lot of my work, which is a celebration of body, of being incarnate. It would also test my comfort zones, as I knew I had to be (at least) mostly unclothed for this. I seldom am in public with so much as my shirt unbuttoned very far. I also knew part of this was also dealing with my hirsuteness. In general, I'm not ashamed of my hairiness, nor do I dislike it. I simply know that some people find it on the "ew" side of life, particularly in this age of shave, waxing or otherwise "manscaping."

I don't manscape. I think life is too short for all that.

Anyway, I figured the water and settling flour would highlight my hairiness as well.  Something for the bear admirers out there, maybe.

The first thing I learned was that making colored flour, while not difficult, is time consuming, I should have started coloring my flour at least two weeks earlier. I also found that it doesn't want to pulverize back into a find powder so easily. My blender did an okay job, but after sifting, I still have a few cups of colored flour that is the consistency of sand.

But the most important part is the time consuming piece. I knew that I would not possibly have enough colored flour to put out for random people to toss. I tried to find an assistant who might ration theflour as the evening went on, but no assistant ever materialized, so that a little more was available at the start of each hour. I was concerned that someone would think it would be funny if they dumped it all in the first half hour and then what would I do for the next two and a half hours?

So being distrustful of humanity in general and a bit of a control freak in particular, I decided I would just toss the flour in the air myself. That way I could make sure I rationed the supply to stretch through the whole three hours.

Also, when I went to scout the warehouse where the event was held, I really liked this nonfunctioning elevator car. While there was a source for water not too far off, there wasn't an obvious way for it to drain without having regrettable consequences. The warehouse was un-air conditioned and in September in Houston, that meant I would be making plenty of my own water. So I ditched the dripping water hose notion and decided that anything that stuck to me would be sticking to my sweat.

That's two changes from the original concept, for those who wish to keep track.

I did agonize over what to wear---an unusual emotion for me. I toyed briefly with the notion of going ahead and wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but that seemed to obscure some of the point of the piece. flour accumulating in the creases of clothes might have been interesting, but not as clearly a celebration of my middle-aged body, in all it's beauty and flaws.

I thought I had a tan, full-bottom dance belt. For those of you who don't know what a dance belt is, it's a bit like a jock strap that male dancers wear. Most fit somewhat like a g-string, but there are those with full bottoms, making them something like aggressively supportive briefs. Anyway, I thought maybe that would work for the piece. Except I couldn't find it. The tan dance belt that I did find left more of my lower cheeks hanging out than I was willing to let hang out.

Now, a word about nudity. I'm not against it. I'm even willing to be nude in the right circumstance. I also know that whenever I, personally, see nudity in a performance piece, it can really overwhelm the whole thing and the piece becomes about the nudity. I'd just seen a video of a dance piece by a famous and respected choreographer and there was a section with nudity. While I got what he was after with this section, I have to admit that the nudity was distracting. If I wasn't convinced I would not be nude before, that convinced me.

I admit, I had the converse discussion within my own brain: If all I'm wearing is something like briefs, does that become really obvious and does the piece then become about the one piece of clothing I'm wearing? Maybe.

What really cinched that I would wear something was that I really don't feel like I have a life where I can appear in public fully nude with random strangers taking pictures of me. I've been an artist model a few times, so in a controlled situation like that, it isn't a worry to me. But for better or worse, I do have a day job to worry about and a few relationships that are probably strained enough by what I did wear.

So for better or worse, I wore some athletic boxer-brief type things I found at Academy. They're form-fitting and didn't have a fly, so they seemed like a good choice. And they were. I feel like they allowed me whatever safety such minimal modesty allows while also keeping the shape of my body in focus (and confirming well enough that I am a cis-gendered male). As a bonus, they were super comfortable! I believe I hit on the right balance with these.

In coloring the flour, I decided that I'd stick to the primary colors---red, blue, and yellow. After I started making these colors, I realized something---mix those colors together, and you get black. Despite knowing this, I had pictured having a rainbow of colors on me. As you can see in the pictures, that didn't happen, the black did. So if I were to do this again, I'd stay away from full spectrum and just do maybe three colors from a narrower portion of the spectrum  (blue, green, yellow or red, yellow, orange or maybe even blue, purple, red) but not a combo that will create black. It was still kind of interesting anyway, I think, but the black mud look was not part of the original concept. And had I realized this before I had colored a whole lot of flour, this would have been another change.

At the last minute, I also realized, hey, white is a color. So, to extend the life of my flour supply, I added white, uncolored (or bleached, as the package says) flour to the mix.

Over all, I'm really happy with the event. I felt the flour caking on my lips and other places. When no one was watching I pulled wads of black paste from under my arms. It took 48 hours---and a whole lotta eye drops---for my vision to return to normal (mostly, I saw halos around lights for a while). It wasn't what you would call comfortable. And yet it all felt right. I had some good, positive feedback from people, and while I'll take some of what I learned and alter it if I ever do this again, I have no regrets about this iteration of the piece.

Oh, and the smartest thing I did? I laid down a small lap blanket on the floor of the elevator. Did that ever make clean-up easier!

Now, for a smattering of photos from various sources:

photo by Craig ArrMutt
phot by Craig ArrMutt

photo by Alex Barber
photo by Alex Barber
photo by Jet Liam

photo by Jet Liam
photo by Jet Liam
photo by Dean Liscum

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes from a Presentation on Theological Aesthetics

Here, in Houston, there is a new, monthly gathering called the Queer Theology Discussion Group. On Tuesday, September 17, I presented some of my thinking on theological aesthetics as applied to performance/live art. These are some of the thoughts I presented. I'm really just at the beginning of trying to express some of this formally and I very much invite comments and questions.

I started with a very brief introduction to performance/live art, talking about it's difficult-to-define-ness, but how it always seems to come from the edge. There are plenty of places online to get historical overviews of the form, so I won't repeat that here. I did pass around my copies of Peformance Art: From Futurism to the Present by RoseLee Goldberg, Performance; Live Art Since the 60s, also by Goldberg, and the Artist's Body by Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones. I'd marked a few pages in each to draw attention to some of the more famous performance pieces, such as Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll (do not look this up at work or around people sensitive to nudity or sexuality), Vito Acconci's Seedbed (concept not safe for work, but most photos are), and Yoko Ono's Cut Piece.

I also introduced the concept of theological aesthetics, which can have nearly as broad a definition as performance art. Briefly, theological aesthetics might address:

1. The beauty of God/glory of God; beauty of church doctrine, of theology itself (theology as creative writing genre).

2. Theology of creation or the natural world, which reflects God's beauty.

3. Liturgy and liturgical arts.

4. An artwork, an artist's body of work, a particular movement or medium of art---all of it approaching the conventions of the art with an eye to what they may say about God.

5. Among other things.

I should go without saying, I'm about the business of #4 and performance art.

Some assumptions I bring with me to art:

From an after-performance talk by Bill T. Jones some years ago: The best way to look at modern art is to look at yourself looking at modern art.

I've interpreted this to mean that it is fruitful to investigate my own reactions. Do I think an artwork is offensive? Am I disgusted by it? Why? I may not change my reaction, but it may be an insight to myself that I'd not met without the help of the artist.

Ask questions of art. What am I seeing? What am I feeling? What is the artist/artwork telling me?

With these approaches, liking or not liking are less the issue (although, to be sure, there is work I like and work I do not like) but the dialogue it creates become the thing. Quite often, the more difficult pieces---the ones you don't like---have the most to tell you.

Theological assumptions I carry with me:

Art-making is always an act of incarnation. Ideas and words (logos) take form. (Form can sometimes give birth to ideas, of course, but the notion remains this: flesh and spirit are both necessary for what we recognize as life, including an artwork that has "life.")

Also, we humans are made in the image of God.

There is beauty in these notions, but I also hasten to add that wherever there is flesh is there is also death and decay.

A somewhat famous quote from Flannery O'Connor: "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

 In a chat with a friend on Facebook, we were talking about incarnation. at one point, I said, "We want incarnation to be magazine cover models who don't fart, but I'm a gassy middle aged man." The point being, there are things we think of as unpleasant associated with incarnation but we don't like to think about them. They make us very uncomfortable and queasy and so much of our society tries to avoid them. Pastor Lura Groen says one of the most controversial things she ever said in a Christmas sermon was to reference changing the Christ child's poopy diapers.

Performance art often addresses the limits and the functions of the body. Endurance of pain, bloodletting, other bodily fluids are often part of performance art. When I look at live art that uses/exposes these things, I think of the O'Connor quote above. I feel the artist is trying to tell me something, show me something. I admit, I sometimes struggle to hear.

I believe it's a tricky thing to look at non-religious and even anti-religious work with a theological eye. I sometimes feel I'm bringing to it something the artist might find offensive. Still, I confess to being who I am and I can't avoid doing this, especially as I'm drawn to this type of work.

One thing I wonder about is the sacrifice---a religious term---of the performance artists. Once you read a scroll of text that you pull out of your vagina, can you get an office job? Once you've masturbated beneath a platformed as you broadcast your sexual fantasies to the people above you, can you coach little league?

In other words, some breaks with social normalcy are made when you break social conventions in such a public fashion. As someone who often says security is a false idol, I admire their lack of concern with the security they're risking by putting their ideas and bodies so literally nakedly on display. It seems to me a performance artist, on the extreme edges of performance art, sacrifice something of an "ordinary" life when they say what they say in the way they say it.

Is this prophetic? (In our discussion afterward, Jeremiah came up.)

Is this liberation, speaking from the underneath, speaking from the fringe?

Are they telling us something about justice, speaking seldom heard truths to conventional power?

If all this piss and blood and cutting is ugly, is it a more true representation of the crucifixion than most of the pretty art pieces in our churches?

If "Christian art" has spent too much time in safe, pretty, sterile pictures of Easter, does this often non-Christian form of incarnation give us a way to enter Good Friday, the necessary passage on the way to resurrection?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When Things Don't Go As Planned, Plan As You Go

In two days, I'll be participating in a night of durational performances produced by Continuum Performance Art they're calling Submission. 

Because they're good enough to let me play once again in their sandbox, I'm doing a piece I'm calling Flouring/Flowering.

And because it's late at night and I still have to get to the day job in the morning, I'm not going to talk too very much about this---I'll do a post-mortem after the show and give more detail on the evolution of this piece. In fact, I suspect even in the 48 hours until it's in progress, it wouldn't surprise me if it evolved a little more. Such is the nature of this performance art thing. It's definitely not going to end up being what I first thought. Planning. Whatever.

Suffice to say, there is colored flour involved. Above is a picture of my first batches of it.

And I'll be in an old, non-functional elevator as I do it.

I hope it'll be pretty. At least for a bit. Then I predict it'll get messy. Maybe it'll be a beautiful mess.

Read a little bit more in this notice in the Houston Press.

And come see me. Leave the kids at home, but come see me and the other artists of Continuum.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wringing Out Light Post Performances

The stage---or chancel---is set.

Neil is shrouded during John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud"
Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers is now past tense. A few post-show reflections (with more rehearsal photos) follow . . .

First, I'm most gratified by the conversations that occurred after the performances. They are what make Wringing Out Light a success. These old poems from across centuries brought forth discussions about illness, racism, and domestic abuse. The comments of "beautiful," "surprising," and "inspiring" are also much appreciated, but I will ponder the heavier conversations for a while.
Donna wrings out the light; Neil is shrouded behind her.

I always say that BB/OP is about "showing, not showing off," that we are "servants to the showing." In the process of rehearsing, that's an easy goal to lose track of. There are often nights of just trying to solve problems of staging and transitions. Still, there were things I had in mind of showing. I was particularly keen to share some of the more sensual, even sexual poems of the mystics. Last November, when we presented Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis, I'd mentioned, in the post show talk-back, that one of the poems fit squarely in the tradition of erotic love poems to God. Some of the people in the audience snickered and I said, "No, that's a real thing." So I'm happy to have presented poems, asking God to "kiss me with the happiest kiss of your mouth." It was important to me to have people hear of desiring God in terms of a sensual ache and yearning. I believe I showed at least some of the audience another way to relate to God.

Similarly, it was important to me to not gloss over real pain and loss. St John of the Cross, with his dark night of the soul, was quite helpful in that regard, as was John Donne and George Herbert. In choosing and working with some of these poems, I challenged my own theological thoughts and perspectives. Do I really believe that "what moves all things is God"? Am I okay with not thinking of God as a "being"?

I chose pieces not just because they reinforced my own ideas about God---I wanted to show myself struggling with the material, too (whether the audience could actually see that or not, I couldn't say).

Runs of shows always come too early and are gone too soon. If I were to do this again, I'd set more time aside for just talking about the texts. The cast kept finding new layers right up until we closed, and maybe that would happen no matter how much we talked about the texts---who can get to the bottom of what the mystics have to tell/teach us? Still, this was one of those things that maybe got set aside because we got busy with problem solving and transition making.

Speaking of transitions---this sort of show is challenging in that regard. I wanted to give the audience time between poems to absorb the text. At the same time, I didn't want there to be simply a stopping between the texts. I aimed for a flow from one text to another. Austin choreographer Kathy Dunn Hamrick had posted on Facebook back in May: "In Modern Dance, once you understand the significance of transitions, you'll realize there is no such thing as a transition." As influenced as I am by modern dance, this tidbit kept running through my head as I worked on moving from one text to the next. This wasn't exactly modern dance, but I was thankful for Kathy's word that there is no such thing as a transition. It made me see these texts that spanned centuries as part of one lineage. It helped me realize that even as we moved from "ecstasy" to "darkness," life flows through the transitions, no matter how abrupt the turn in the flowing. 

Or something like that. 

A few people had asked about where I found these poems. Most of them came from a wonderful collection called For Lovers of God Everywhere edited by Roger Housden, but I also a couple of pieces in The Province of Joy, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's devotional book using the writings of Flannery O'Connor. Angela offers some additional reading from other sources in the back of her book.   

Finally, I have deep gratitude to my cast. Roy Brooks, II, Bridget Lois Jenson, and Donna Meadows jumped into this project, trying whatever I asked of them. Patrick Flannery, who I asked to play guitar in response to what he saw us do, which he took on and fulfilled remarkably. (Patrick and I have had much fun about his involvement---I asked him to join us without actually having heard him play. He asked if I wanted him to audition. I asked, "Have you played in front of people before?" He had, so I told him what time rehearsals were. He asked if I was sure he was what I wanted. Sometimes, I have a gut feeling and sometimes I even trust it. This was one of those times that paid off with high interest.) Past BB/OP performer, Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter, had a conflict that kept her from joining us on this show, but she graciously came to two rehearsals to "watch book" for us, as we were memorizing our texts. It was good to have her involved, even if she couldn't perform with us this time. 

 And of course, a huge debt of gratitude to St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, who played host to our rehearsals and performances. There is no exaggeration when I say we couldn't have done it without their generosity. 

I'm not sure what is next for BB/OP. This show feels like something of a landmark, but I couldn't say how. The post-performance conversations will shape future decisions, I feel---again, I can't yet say how. 

Do check back here---or "like" our page on Facebook---to be among the first to find out.
Donna comes down the aisle out of the darkness.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wringing Out Light Final Rehearsal

Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers

1805 W. AlabamaHouston, Texas 77098

Friday, July 19, 2013, 7:30pm
Saturday, July 20, 2013 7:30pm
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 3:00pm

Admission: pay what you can

St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, George Herbert, John Donne, Teresa of Avila, and several more visionaries and poets are represented in this program of poetry and performance. Let the words of these mystics draw you to a place of contemplation (and maybe some rejoicing).

 We had our final rehearsal tonight. Here's a few quick snapshots to help whet your appetite for the evening.

Last thoughts for those of you who are planning to come . . .

It's a short program. If you don't have time to eat before the show, you'll be able to find plenty open afterwards and it won't be so late as to completely wreck your diet.

At the same time, it's a dense show in the sense that the language of the poetry has a lot going on in it. We try to leave space in between the individual texts to let the words and images sink in.

Additionally, it felt that the material didn't lend itself to a curtain call/applause at the end. The ending is clear and those who wish to follow the performers out to the gathering area of St Stephen's are welcome to do so. We'd love to visit with  you.

At the same time, if you find  you want some more time in the space to sit quietly  with the material after the fact, you're welcome to do that as well.

I'll likely have some reflections on this experience after the fact, but for now, I think that is enough. Come see what Bridget, Roy, Donna, and I have put together. I think it will have some surprises and some delight and . . . well, a range of possible emotional responses.

Well, one last thing
 The performances are pay what you can. Feel free to come more than once---all three times, even---on whatever you pay the first night. Really. We want to show you this thing we've made.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wriging Out Light Sources

Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers

1805 W. AlabamaHouston, Texas 77098

Friday, July 19, 2013, 7:30pm
Saturday, July 20, 2013 7:30pm
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 3:00pm

Admission: pay what you can

St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, George Herbert, John Donne, Teresa of Avila, and several more visionaries and poets are represented in this program of poetry and performance. Let the words of these mystics draw you to a place of contemplation (and maybe some rejoicing).


I've been working on the program tonight and thought maybe it would helpful to our audience to have an idea of what poems we're doing before they come to see the show. So here are the first lines of the poems and its source. All are online, so you should be able to find most of the texts with a little Googling.

Such love the sky now pours (Francis of Assissi)
O give thanks, for God is good (Psalm 136:1-9, paraphrased)
Glory be to God for dappled things (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
All things are too small (Hadewijch II)
When he touches me, I clutch the sky’s sheets (Teresa of Avila)
Draw me after you (Clare of Assissi)
I had a natural passion for fine clothes (Teresa of Avila)
I came to love you too late (Augustine of Hippo)
“What is grace?” I asked God (John of the Cross)
Without a place and with a place (John of the Cross)
How could I love my fellow men who tortured me? )John of the Cross)
Death be not proud (John Donne)
Love bade me welcome (George Herbert)
We awaken in Christ's body (Symeon the New Theologian)
Become as a child (Anonymous, 14th Century)
I first saw God when I was a child (Catherine of Sienna)
Unsophisticated teachers say (Meister Eckhart)
I cannot dance, O Lord (Mechtild of Magdeburg)

I hope the above increases your curiosity about the show . . .

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wringing Out Light Traps in the Process

Breath & Bone/Orts Performance presents: 

Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers

1805 W. AlabamaHouston, Texas 77098

Friday, July 19, 2013, 7:30pm
Saturday, July 20, 2013 7:30pm
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 3:00pm

Admission: pay what you can

St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, George Herbert, John Donne, Teresa of Avila, and several more visionaries and poets are represented in this program of poetry and performance. Let the words of these mystics draw you to a place of contemplation (and maybe some rejoicing).


So why Christian mystics and all this? It's a fair question. 

In April---three months ago at this writing, in fact---I had a pretty big surgery, which I've written about elsewhere (check out my Crumbs at the Feast blog)---and despite the expected discomfort, etc., it all went remarkably well. Long story short, the experience left me with some wonder and gratitude. Besides, having strangers cut you open from sternum to navel, touch all kinds of things and cut some of it out? It's kind of a mystical experience, no matter how sciencey you want to be about it. 

So when I started thinking about the next project for BB/OP, prompted by WOL cast member Roy (who simply said, "I'm available this summer," which was enough), I looked about my cluttered apartment and picked up a collection of poetry from the Christian mystics. One of the first ones I read (randomly from the middle of the book, because who reads a poetry anthology from front to back?) was a very short poem from St. Francis, who wrote:

Wring Out My ClothesSuch love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring out the light
when I get

Perhaps you see the source of the show's title? 

Anyway, it felt good. It felt right. I came up with the title, "Wringing Out Light," almost immediately. 

So as I began culling poems that appealed to me, that seemed to have some imagery I could stage (even if the staging was simply standing still with the words). I started gathering performers. I started shuffling the poems I had on my floor to find themes and maybe an arc to the arrangement. 

And then I saw a really big trap in this project. As I read the poems and tried feeling them in my body, I found a intense, almost gravitational pull upward. My gaze, my posture, my arms . . . 

I thought---oh crap, I'm going to ask an audience to spend an evening looking at people looking and reaching to the sky. 

No. No no no nonononononono! 

There's nothing like fighting against the pull of all the worst cliches of liturgical dance (which isn't a crack at liturgical dance, just at bad liturgical dance). But I remembered a piece of advice from a college acting teacher, the late, great James Nelson Harrell (he referred to himself as "Little Jimmy Harrell from Waco").
He would tell us to "play the opposite." A sad scene is sadder if the character is trying to laugh instead of cry. That sort of thing.

So my first task was to find some poems that had a bit of a darker edge. (St John of the Cross is good for that, John Donne helps, too.) Then I made sure that my performers knew that I was going to fight against the upward gaze and reach. Finally, I found a very few times when I allowed that gravitational pull to lift our eyes and hands upward. Hopefully, all this will make for a richer palette of images. 

Besides, the mystics would tell us that God is not in heaven, not exclusively. God is below, beside, in front, behind, within . . . plenty of directions in which to give our attention. 

I hope you will come check out what we've done. I hope it's as luminous as getting cut from sternum to navel. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Wringing Out Light Performers

Breath & Bone/Orts Performance presents: 

Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers
1805 W. Alabama, Houston, Texas 77098

Friday, July 19, 2013, 7:30pm
Saturday, July 20, 2013 7:30pm
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 3:00pm

Admission: pay what you can

St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, George Herbert, John Donne, Teresa of Avila, and several more visionaries and poets are represented in this program of poetry and performance. Let the words of these mystics draw you to a place of contemplation (and maybe some rejoicing).

Rehearsals for Wringing Out Light are humming right along. One night soon, I need to remember to take some pictures to post of the rehearsals . . . 
Today, I thought I should introduce the performers. Briefly: 
Donna Meadows
 Donna Meadows

Donna has worked with me on every Breath & Bone event that wasn't just me performing solo. She has a long history in the Houston dance community and has enthusiastically jumped into anything I was doing. 

So if you were at Hope Stone Studios last fall for Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis, or at the Photobooth on Montrose for ShadowPlace, you're probably well familiar with Donna, at least in regards to her work with BB/OP.

Bridget Lois Jensen
Bridget Lois Jensen

Bridget is a first time performer with BB/OP but I've known her for a few years now. She is active in several communities around Houston, both religious and social justice oriented. A track coach by profession, you can also find her in community gardens, rallies for fair treatment of immigrants or against the death penalty, and who knows what else. 

She started working with me a couple of years ago on a project based upon the Desert Fathers, which got interrupted by personal crises (and it's a project that isn't so much dead as dormant but quietly still developing). She's expressed interest in performance for a while and I've been watching for when she might be able to work with BB/OP. And here we are. I couldn't be happier. 
Roy Brooks, II
Roy Brooks, II

Roy was another person involved in that Desert Fathers project. Shortly thereafter, he started a PhD program in theater and performance and I figured my chances for working with him were past. 

Then he contacted me a couple of months ago and said he'd be in Houston this summer, did I have any projects he might participate in? 

Well, at that moment, I was recovering from my surgery and just beginning to think about what the next project might be. His note kind of kicked me into gear and, again, here we are. I'm quite thankful for his reaching out and getting me going again---even if that was his purpose for contacting me! 

Patrick Flannery 

For the first time, I've engaged a musician to participate in a BB/OP program. I go to church with Patrick and I've seen him carry around his guitar and heard him talk about his passion for playing (and his wife's comments to similar effect). This was one of those situations where he was in the right place, standing where I was looking. I admit, I had never actually heard him play before, and he offered to audition for me. I said, "If you can improvise and you've played in front of people before, you're what I'm looking for." I also don't often choose collaborators that freely, but somehow I knew Patrick would be a good fit. He's rehearsed with us once, now, and my gut feelings have been proven correct. His playing is going to add a wonderful layer to the evening. (And I need to get a shadowy photo of him, I guess . . .) 

And there's me. So four of us performing the words and movement of the poems, one guitarist adding some aural layering to it. 

Next time, I'll talk a bit about how I've gone about staging the poems, the traps I discovered in taking on this project. More soon. Thanks for your interest and share with your friends!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers

Breath & Bone/Orts Performance presents:

Wringing Out Light: Poems & Prayers

1805 W. Alabama, Houston, Texas 77098

Friday, July 19, 2013, 7:30pm
Saturday, July 20, 2013 7:30pm
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 3:00pm

Admission: pay what you can

St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, George Herbert, John Donne, Teresa of Avila, and several more visionaries and poets are represented in this program of poetry and performance. Let the words of these mystics draw you to a place of contemplation (and maybe some rejoicing).


The above is the description of Wringing Out Light that I have on the Facebook event page.  Of course, here is where I expand on process and whatnot. 

Which I will do more of in the days ahead. Today, I put this up to have the performances searchable for non-Facebook users. 

But I'll be back soon with stories from behind the scenes, like how many traps I'm finding in trying to make a performance from poems by the mystics . . .

Monday, May 20, 2013

Coloring the Line

photo by Hilary Scullane
This past Friday (May 17, 2013), I participated in a small group art show, called The Hilary & Nikki Show, at the Hardy & Nance Street Studios. Some folks from Continuum Performance Art were involved (most significantly, the titular Hilary Scullane) and they let me play once again on their playground.

For those who don't know me or don't follow my other blogs, I had a fairly big surgery last month. I'm recovering wonderfully and all is well, but being cut open from sternum to navel is a bit traumatic all the same. It's fair to say that I'm a bit obsessed about the experience.

You can see the line of the incision on my belly here, but not how it curves around and under my navel. In this performance/action, I drew the line of my incision on paper with a red crayon, over and over. Through the night, more marks accumulated on the papers. At intervals, I'd turn so spectators could see my belly.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this piece. It felt somehow necessary to my own processing of what happened to me, but I'm not sure what I was trying to show people (and as I note in the blog masthead above, I aim to be a "servant to the showing"). My friend, Misha, tells me to rethink saying it's self-indulgent, which is what I've said about it. She wasn't able to be at the show (she had her own gig to attend to), but she said when she saw this photo on Facebook, she knew exactly what it was about. But of course, she's a friend and knows my story.

I put this out here on the blog to admit (as not all artists will) that sometimes I don't know what or even why I'm doing what I'm doing. Am I doing it for myself? For my friends? How am I communicating to strangers?

In another post on this blog, you can find a photo from Tell Me Where It Hurts, a pre-surgery (even pre-diagnosis) performance that I felt was much more successful than Coloring the Line. In that case, I took my own unease about what was going on in me and asked other people where they hurt. It felt much more expansive, more inclusive of human frailty.

But, well, I'm far from the only person who has survived a major surgery. Perhaps my processing this in public is an entry way for other people to process their own frailty, too. It's definitely more subtle than Tell Me Where It Hurts, but that's hardly a detraction.

The next day, I went to a performance art workshop at the Lawndale Art Center. I was babbling on about Coloring the Line and the facilitator of the workshop asked me how I felt about it all. I said that what I learned was that I really do want people to see my scar. I want people to know that, while I'm healthy, healing, all that, this kind of traumatic thing really did happen to me, that it wasn't an abstract thing. It's as solid as the line down my belly.

And that may be where I go next with any performance growing out of this surgical experience. In a culture where we don't like to see or acknowledge one another's wounds, maybe these thoughts will develop into something that will honor the concrete, real, actual scars, wounds, hurts---and healing!---of the onlooker as well as exposing my own.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

ShadowPlace Farewell (for now)

a performance installation
March 17, 7:00pm.
The Photobooth on Montrose (on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose)
Houston, TX
$20 Suggested Donation

We're down to our last showing of the ShadowPlace performance installation. It's happened so fast and within too much chaos---but that's what it's about. The shadow places in the everyday, the beauty in the shadows, the ephemeral nature of it all. . . waiting, keeping vigil, walking a labyrinth that keeps shifting around you.

I might have more reflections after we close tomorrow night. For now, I'm going to copy and paste some reactions posted to our event page on Facebook . . . join us tomorrow evening if you can . . .

Toni Leago Valle: Belated response from me about ShadowPlace Sunday- loved the tranquil silence, shuffling of feet, the occasional sigh, all to the background of Montrose on a Sunday evening - muted horns, sirens, laughter as people went into the restaurant next door. I felt I was in a safe cocoon peering out at the world. You have no choice but to relax. Thanks Neil for creating work that doesn't look like "work."
If you missed it, there are two more Sundays.
Misha Penton: Lovely sunset-to-darkness performance installation this eve. The whooshing of the diaphanous fabric created a breath-like rhythm as the movers slowly spiraled through the space. I was particularly drawn into the performance's persistent tranquility against the chaos of the Montrose/Westheimer intersection with its bustling cityscape music: just on the other side of the glass...
Margo Stutts Toombs:I am so glad I saw ShadowPlace, again, last night. I love seeing light installations when they occur at twilight. From my comfy spot on my pillow, I could enjoy the movements, fabric, lights, shadows and the lights from Montrose. I wondered how many people passing by, paused for a moment to enjoy the installation and think, “Wow, I never noticed The Photo Booth, before.” From the street, it must have looked like a magical display window. Next Sunday (St. Patrick’s Day) is the last “performance.” It starts at 7:00p.m. Don’t miss it!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Showing ShadowPlace

a performance installation
March 3, 10, & 17, 7:00pm.
The Photobooth on Montrose (on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose)

Support our Indiegogo campaign!

As I've pointed out before, the line below the title of this blog is "servants to the showing."

What should I say I'm showing in ShadowPlace?

Shadows, yes. Speaking in general religious/spiritual metaphors, light and shadow vie for dominance in our lives and the shadows can be either rather scary or be the byproduct of very hopeful light.

I never intended this piece to be quite as personal as it's become. In the last month, I've had some, shall we say, medical surprises. A fairly serious surgery is in my near future, but that's actually good news when it could have been months of chemotherapy to fight an aggressive type of cancer. Tests and scans and other such pokings on my person over something like three weeks finally got me to a diagnosis that is free of cancer. Hallelujah, thank you, amen.

But in those days of uncertainty, I couldn't help musing, "And here I am making this thing I'm calling ShadowPlace, a meditation on waiting and watching."

Well, I won't go into all the many things---dark, humorous, sad, hopeful, scared---that went through my mind during those musings (and still are on a constant, present, playlist in my brain), but suffice to say, your attention gets mightily focused in those moments. My thoughts were scattered, yes, and I was forgetting things and thank God for friends who picked up after/for me, but my attention focused on things that might otherwise have been lost, ignored as insignificant.

There were small, moving lights that maybe magnified the shadows at times, but also made them beautiful.

And I thought, "this is what I'm showing---the beauty in the ShadowPlace of uncertainty."

I hope that's what I'm doing. I want to be servant to that showing.

I will leave tonight with a quote from a favorite poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. He gives us a musical image that I believe, today at least, is about the same tension I've found in my personal ShadowPlace:

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.

I hope you will come join us in the shadows and find beauty in the passing light. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

ShadowPlace Reactions (and a solo performance)

XXXXX and I enjoyed ShadowPlace. That was our first time at PhotoBooth so we were thrilled with the space itself. The piece was very interesting and the passing traffic and associated sounds are wonderful – especially in its impromptu appearance. What a terrific concept!!!  The lights and fabric screens and dangling fabric panel worked very nicely together.  . . . By the way, during the performance and because of its meditative aspects, XXXXX told me that he was doing some of our yoga exercises while we were watching, fixing his mind on his balance and breathing and moving his weight from one foot to another and balancing, etc.  I wish I had thought to do that during the performance. I think that would have really been perfect.

The above is an unsolicited reaction to ShadowPlace that came to me via one of the performers. (The author asked to remain anonymous, but allowed me to reprint this here.)

I asked to publish this reaction because it was so gratifying to hear someone entered into the spirit of ShadowPlace. I love the idea that someone was practicing yoga breathing while watching the shadows.

Another person in the audience told me that it took them about ten minutes to let go of expecting "entertainment" and got into the flow of the piece, the way the screens were abstract, absent of cultural or religious meaning, yet complimenting the architecture of the Photobooth on Montrose.

Sometimes, as an artist, you have an idea or even less than an idea, just an image or feeling that you're working with. That's a bit what I had at the genesis of ShadowPlace (see previous blog entries). And you know it's not a blockbuster idea, not an idea that will make anyone a million dollars, and yet . . . you can't be alone in finding something in it.

So it's gratifying that at least a few people understood the contemplative nature of this piece, in that place. I'm hoping more contemplatives might find this piece during the next two performances.

There are ways in which this is truly a performance installation, something to come upon while you're about something else, something with which to spend 10 minutes or it's full hour duration. It got away from me a bit and became a performance in a more traditional sense. Perhaps in a future iteration, I'll reign it in for that performance installation purpose again, but it I do hope more of you will come see this work, surrender to the play of light---both generated within the performance and the random headlights from the parking lot just outside.

Please come check it out. Bring your curiosity, maybe a pillow or blanket to sit on, and possibly some yoga breathing . . .

a performance installation
March 10 & 17, 7:00pm.
The Photobooth on Montrose (on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose)
Houston, TX

Support our Indiegogo campaign!

* * * * * * * * * *

Just a quick note about a solo performance I created for the Continuum Live Art Series at Avant Garden. 

A few weeks ago, a doctor told me that I had a mass in my abdomen. Alarming information, to be sure. Thus began a series of tests and a biopsy, but early in the process my mind was already trying to figure out how to process this, how to do something with it. I knew the next Continuum Live Art event was coming up, I wanted to participate, but didn't have a solid idea. A crisis in mortality seemed like rich soil to cultivate. 

After going through a quick succession of more obviously medically inspired pieces, I hit upon what I called "Tell Me Where It Hurts." I put on a blue, Lycra, full body suit, handed people a Sharpie pen, and asked them to mark on my body where they felt aches and pains. The notion was that I wasn't talking about my health crisis to many people (definitely to a select few) and that other people might like to express their aches and pains in some graphic way. 

It was an evening of occasionally poignant moments. While I asked people to simply mark and X and next to it a number from 1-10 depending upon the intensity of the pain, some drew lines to indicate where the pain radiated. One guy took my hand and drew a heart in the palm of my hand and with real sadness in his voice said he might never again touch the woman he loved. 

There were the less poignant moments, like the trio of inebriated young women who just wanted to flirt with the anonymous guy in blue Lycra. They drew hearts on me or wrote their name on me. I suppose if I were straight I would have been less annoyed by them. And there was the guy who drew a big X on my crotch, I'm fairly certain just to see if I'd react. My reaction: "I'm sorry you feel pain there." 

But that's the beauty of performance art like this. You take your risk with strangers and the mix is just human. And I have this blue body suit that is a map of one audience's pain, a reminder that everyone hurts. 

photo by Julia Claire

Saturday, February 23, 2013

ShadowPlace is People

a performance installation
March 3, 10, & 17, 7:00pm.
The Photobooth on Montrose (on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose)

Support our Indiegogo campaign!

I'm writing this short over the noon hour on a Saturday. I'm getting things ready for tonight's rehearsal---yes we're rehearsing on a Saturday evening because this group of performers is just that busy. It's a little shocking that they're not performing tonight. I guess I caught them between gigs.

On the Breath & Bone Facebook page (go "like" us!), under the "About" link, I've said:

Breath & Bone will be a loose affiliation of creative people who will be artists in their own right, be affiliated with other performance companies, or have their own companies; artists will therefore be variously committed to Breath & Bone, according to the current project in production. Artists who wish to affiliate primarily with Breath & Bone will be encouraged to seek out other opportunities as well. In this way, we are all trained and cross-trained by the whole Houston arts community. 

This group of artists exemplifies this ethos to a large extent. Michael Simmonds lists himself as an artist and musician---and he's the participant I know the least about but hope to find out more after we complete this project. We have several dancers and choreographers with Cassandra Shaffer-Permenter, Donna Meadows (both worked with me on Jill Alexander Essbaum's Necropolis during my HopeWerks Residency), and Laura Gutierrez. Shanon Adams is all over the place lately, in dance, performance art, and theater circles (a woman after my own heart, really). Ashley Horn directed me in her dance film Wanderland and and now she's performing as well as making costume pieces for me on ShadowPlace. She's another one of those multi-disciplinary people to whom I gravitate: dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, costumer . . . and she was just this week featured in the Houston Press's 100 Creatives feature. And finally, a big part of ShadowPlace are these rather big fabric screens, which are being made by fiber artist Sari Frey (who has also had a long career in the Houston Grand Opera's chorus).

I hope in our collaboration we all learn from each other and take a little bit of each other to our next project. That's how artmaking is transmitted, it seems to me.

Now, to click "publish" and get on with the tasks at hand for the rehearsal . . . busy busy busy . . .

This is going to be beautiful. I hope you'll join us for it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ShadowPlace Origins

a performance installation
March 3, 10, & 17, 7:00pm.
The Photobooth on Montrose (on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose)

Every idea starts somewhere. ShadowPlace started over two years ago.

I first started imagining a performance installation with large pieces of fabric and light and shadow almost 3 years ago. The church to which I belonged at the time had a worship space with movable seating, something that I wanted to play with. I pictured these screens with people holding candles in the darkened nave, their shadows thrown on fabric that was translucent enough for the shadow to be seen on the other side. Two people would walk around the screens, catching glimpses of the other shadows, but not seeing "face to face," to use a Pauline phrase. In this initial idea, the fabric was stationary. I imagined this to take place before the Wednesday night lenten services, as something that was simply going on as people gathered for the prayer service. Each week, I'd arrange the nave's seating differently, the screens in different configurations.

When I proposed this to the worship committee, it was decided it was a bad time for it, or it was deemed too unusual---both comments were made, so I'm not sure which it was precisely, maybe both. But at any rate, it didn't get performed in that space.

But the idea stayed in my head. And grew. I started seeing the screens move as well as the people with the candles. I started looking for other sites where this might be performed.

The Photobooth on Montrose has emerged, in the last year or more, as a place for the small art event. I eventually approached Simon Gentry, the photographer and proprietor of the Photobooth, about doing it there. He seemed excited about the meditative nature of the piece.

In translating it from a sacred space to a secular space---really a business space---opened up some possibilities for me. I felt less constrained to think it through too much, I was free to let the piece present its own meaning rather than my putting meaning on it. In short, I'm allowing this piece about being in an ambiguous place to have its own ambiguity.

This excites me. I think it allows for people of many religious traditions---or no religious traditions---to enter into the experience of shadows moving, light shining, people seeking, screens separating . . .

I hope you can come see it, watch it for at least 10 minutes---it's a come-and-go affair, by the way---and then tell me what you see in it. 

* * * * * * * * * *

I might mention, briefly, that we are not using candles. I love candles, I think they throw amazing shadows. I also think open flame next to light fabric is a bad combination. 

Last summer, as I was working at one of my occasional gigs as a dance writer at a NobleMotion Dance concert, I saw a section of dance that found all the dancers holding these small lights---which threw awesome shadows!

"THOSE!" I thought loudly in my brain, "I NEED THOSE!" 

So a week or two later, I contacted the lighting deisgner, David J Deveau, and found out what THOSE! were. 

It's all about paying attention to what's around you . . .

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


First of all, if you're in Houston, take note of these dates:

March 3, 10, & 17, 7:00pm.
The Photobooth on Montrose (on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose)

For one hour, for three consecutive Sundays, Breath & Bone/Orts Performance will be in the Photobooth, moving large screens of fabric and carrying lights, offering a meditative performance installation. The theme is watching, waiting, keeping vigil, hoping . . .  the medium is light, shadow, and fabric. It's going to be a quiet hour. And beautiful. 

We're also running a small fundraising campaign so the performers all get a little pocket money for their time, talent, and skill. We're using Indiegogo. If you can spare as little as $10, it'll go a long way to helping us bring this contemplative hour to a busy corner of the Montrose neighborhood. Go here to contribute.

Over the next few days, I'll be sharing the history of this project (I've been wanting to do it for at least two years) and telling you about the great collaborators. For now, I hope you'll put it on your calendar, maybe go like our Facebook page and visit the Facebook event page.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Evoluntion of a Piece

Last night (Friday, January 18, 2013), I participated in a performance art event at Avant Garden and created/curated by CONTINUUM. They are currently in the middle of a residency at Avant Garden, with monthly performance showcases and workshops.

I attended their last workshop, wherein we were guided through exercises and eventually created "rituals" (broadly defined). I created a very brief piece that I called "The Liturgy of the Other."

That seemed to be enough to present something at this month's live art event. With little more than a week to come up with something, I revisited a piece that I had never actually completed: "Watch How You Watch (or: what do you see when you see yourself seeing?)."

"Watch How You Watch" was first presented in connection to a Fieldwork Showcase in November of 2011. It was a duet and Denise Wilborn joined me in the performance. We set it up as an installation in the lobby so that it was going on as the audience entered. It looked like this:

We were dressed in loose, flowing clothes, in a fully lit lobby, with only tape on the floor (with the name of the piece written on the tape) to demarcate the performance space. I had intended to hang strands of small mirror tiles from above to further demarcate our space, but ended up with time to only hang two round mirrors on either side of the square. They are pretty well invisible in this photo.

The Avant Garden, solo version of this piece looked like this:

photo by Hilary Scullane

Here, I'm in rags---a torn shirt, jaggedly cut off pants---and while you can't see it in this photo, around 50 small, round mirror tiles taped to my face and body (about 20 of which fell off during the performance). I got a few more mirrors suspended from the doorways to this small, mostly enclosed space on the second floor of Avant Garden, which the photographer placed in the foreground here. Here's another view wherein you can see some of the mirrors on me:

photo by Hilary Scullane

So, I hope these photos demonstrate that the two iterations were visually quite different. Still, I chose to call them by the same title.

At the base of the piece is the movement meditation that I have used with a couple of groups and that I try to do, however briefly before any performance. I call this meditation/practice "practicing resurrection." It's something I've come up with by stealing from a few people along the way, but I've "baptized" it with a bit of Christian story into it. Briefly, the questions underneath the meditation is, "what if my body were resurrected, awake, fully renewed? What if my presence extended beyond this physical body while maintaining its seat and being in this physical body?" In answer to these questions (and a few others I might ask along the way), I move, trying to follow the impulse of my body, in response to stimuli around me.

In the process of doing this meditation, I began wondering about the performative possibilities of it, that is, the performing it for viewers as well for participants. That it was purely improvisation, and improvisation of the most impulsive, unplanned, pretty much unstructured kind, I wasn't sure what the point was.

Then I recalled Bill T. Jones, in a post-performance talk-back, telling an audience member (and I believe he was quoting someone else, but I don't recall who) that the best way to look at modern art is to look at yourself looking at modern art. That is to say, what are your responses to the work? Are you intrigued? Why do you think that is? Are you dismissive or judgmental? Explore that. Etc.

So I decided to present this mediation, this exercise in new life and scars and eternity, as a performance, not because I thought people would "get" all that was behind the meditation, but as an attempt to start a conversation with its title. I admit this becomes something of a confrontational piece---but again, I'm not sure people will "get" that from watching.

Honestly, I don't know what people get from looking at it. I'm curious about that, but not my purpose just this moment.

Underneath all this is also my theological presupposition that we're all made in the Image of God, that the human body is intrinsically beauty, bearing the beauty of God, and the human body in motion, animated by the breath of life, is pretty close to exploring the movement of God among us.

So in the first iteration of "Watch How You Watch," I focused on beauty, of showing people that we are beautiful creatures and so I had us dressed in such a way as to enhance the beauty of the body in motion---flowing costumes that also, at time, clung to us and billowed out from us.

For the context of the CONTINUUM showing, I knew I wanted to take it in a little different direction. I hit upon the idea of putting mirrors on my body so that not only could an audience member look in the hanging mirrors to "see what they see when they see themselves seeing," but also so that my own body might reflect the viewer as well. I knew this would require baring more skin. Baring more skin would also add the layer of looking at my overweight, not magazine-cover-ideal body---asking the audience to reflect on what they see when they see themselves seeing a body that is, frankly, hairier than popular media like to admit humans can be (or if they admit to it, it's ridiculed).

To this end, I briefly toyed with the idea of simply being naked. I often joke that it's inevitable that I'll at some point be naked in a public space, but I also am not into nudity without careful consideration of it, not in a society that has a wide range of responses to nudity. In this North American culture, being naked too often becomes primarily about being naked---and this piece isn't about that.

I considered just wearing the billowy pants, going topless, as it were. This also didn't exactly sit well with me. The pants alone could evoke a martial arts practitioner. Adding a T-shirt or tank top seemed too casual. I wondered if I might find a vest somewhere quickly and cheaply.

Then I thought about rags. It was a bit of a jump from "vest" to "rags," but that was the sequence. I found a pair of slacks with a worn-out knee and a shirt with a threadbare collar, and commenced to cut and tear into them.

The result looked more castaway-cum-Doc Savage, than, say, homeless person, but it was definitely not "pretty." Asking people to look at rags while also reflecting their reactions back to them . . . well, this intrigued me. It felt like the piece now had a new level that the first version hadn't even considered. I felt very good about the evolution to this point, at least for the CONTINUUM/Avant Garden iteration of the piece.

I'd like to keep this performance in my back pocket, so to speak, have it as a piece to pull out at a moment's notice/opportunity. But this experience has opened my eyes to how I might be open to context and morph the piece according.

I think there are possibilities for this piece to continue to grow and change, both as a solo piece and as a group piece. I hope it's sooner than an a year before I revisit this piece.

(To that end, I should say that if you might want "Watch How You Watch" as part of some event---I can see it as a pre-show/lobby presentation before a theatrical event or as a durational piece going on during a party or other gathering---please feel free to contact me at neilellisorts (at) yahoo (dot) com. That goes equally if you have a workshop or retreat that might benefit from an hour or so of "Practicing Resurrection.")