A PERFORMANCE AUTOPSY

THE GATES OF HECK GOES TO HELL performed at Art SD 2014, November 8, 2014.  With Perry Vasquez, Aaron McFarland and Skyler Mic. 

Photo by Xavier Vasquez

Photo by Xavier Vasquez

by Perry Vasquez

Aaron McFarland and I first set our sights on bringing The Gates of Heck to Art San Diego back on April 30th of this year. (The Gates of Heck is a schlock-rock opera I wrote inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Aaron has been with me for every performance, providing eye-popping video mixes that greatly add to the nuance and fun of the show). On that day we arrived at the Balboa Park Activity Center to meet Ann Berchtold who organizes the Art Fair and who invited us to perform at the big VIP Party. We wanted to check out the space and see if it offered any possibilities as a venue for performance.

After greeting us out front, Ann walked us through the building, which is actually set up for badminton when it isn’t being used for other things. We strolled across the beautiful hardwood floors of the Activity Center as I imagined well-dressed, aristocratic-looking people swinging at shuttlecocks then wildly throwing their rackets before wrestling each other to the ground.  

Ann led us out back into the courtyard where the VIP party would be. My first impression was, “This is not good.” Although the 30 foot high exterior walls of the Activity Center would be great for Aaron to project his video onto, it was lots of massive, bright white concrete surfaces ringed by a twelve foot high pergola around the perimeter. Great for parties, I thought, but it didn’t seem to offer any natural place to set up a slammin’ performance stage. 

In the back of my mind I was thinking about some things I'd learned a few years ago at a performance art workshop given by Guillermo Gomez-Pena.  Liminal i.e. transitional and/or marginal spaces, he said, work much better for performance than centralized, accessible spaces. It’s counter-intuitive but if you think about it it does make sense. The corollary is that there is a certain risk-to-reward ratio in any performance that must be taken into consideration. Performing in a safe, conventional space may be more convenient and less hassle but it will never be as exciting as performing in a space where you weren’t meant to perform. As William Blake famously wrote, “The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”.  

As I scanned the courtyard, the only space that seemed remotely promising was the flat roof-like area offered by the cross beams of the pergola. I’m afraid of heights therefore I am riveted by the sight of anyone stepping too close to the edge of a high drop. “So why not set up a stage there?” a voice inside me asked, "You're not the only person who has a fear and fascination with heights." So, I turned to Ann and Aaron and said, “OK, let’s do it up there,” and pointed to a section of the pergola standing in front of a large blank tower -- a good backdrop. I was half expecting Ann to reject my idea as too risky or weird, but she just turned around without skipping a beat and said, “OK”. Afterwards, I wondered what I had committed to. I hadn't even climbed up to see if my plan would work! Would we all go down in flames?

Fast forward to November 7, a day before the show. We didn’t have the luxury of much time to build our stage and rehearse. Everything had to be done over six hours in two days. Noe Olivas came in and helped me lay down four sheets of plywood to cover the gaps between the pergola beams on Friday morning. That was easier than I thought. Aaron came in Saturday, three hours before the show to hook up his cameras and projectors. Skyler Mic, the sound artist, showed up an hour before the show to set up his gear. To the amusement of some security guards and unsuspecting fair-goers I rehearsed for an hour on Friday afternoon before the gig. That was it. This was going to be one of those shows that required us to practice wu wei, as the Chinese say, roughly interpreted as going with the flow.

Saturday, November 8, the night of the performance the weather was warm and the sky was crystal clear. I was excited to see a full moon hovering over the stage behind me. My infernal performance would be crowned by that celestial beauty. As I took the stage I thought of Li Po, the Chinese Taoist poet who wrote verses about drinking wine and dancing with his shadow under the light of a full moon. I felt very calm and ready for anything -- except maybe falling off the stage.

My elevated position gave me a panoramic view of the audience. In case you're wondering, I didn’t fall but the show was not without drama. The guitar amp lost power during the first number. I barreled through with the singing, strumming the chords as if nothing were wrong while shouts from the audience encouraged me to rock on. Nice. Meanwhile, Xavier Vasquez, who was also filming the show, quickly restored power and I carried on.

Standing on an elevated stage shouting out lyrics to a song about Charon ferrying VIPS down the River Styx to an audience of VIPs is a surreal and unsettling experience.

When the VIPS come on board my boat 
like it was some kind of joke
They say Mr C, where's the luxury? 
Bring us alcohol from the hosted bar!

So I lick my lips and I clap my hands
then I grab my oar
 and I start to give out licks  
to the VIPS screaming MERCY PLEASE!

I say can't you see? This is heaven to me

At some point, a well-dressed, drunken art lover lost all inhibitions and began expressing his dissatisfaction in the most colorful language at the top of his lungs. No doubt the combination of a full moon, wine and my attitude pissed him off. Aaron and/or Ann quickly escorted him from the stage. But moments later, the DJ abruptly started spinning "Bust a Move" in the middle of the noisy feedback finale, "Exit Hell". Krikey! Outraged friend, Sean Brannan, later explained to me how he and my wife, Rondi, rushed the DJ to accost him for violating the performance. In the face of staunch opposition he quickly withdrew. On top of these disturbances the sound was loud and muddy because we never had time to do a good sound check. By the end it was all very, well...chaotic. Somehow the show had gotten out of control, but none of this bothered me at the time because I was high up in my own world, encased in a cocoon of sound and light, blissfully unaware as the set came to an end. 

Admittedly, this wasn't the best performance I've ever done, but the chaos and confusion did add an element of excitement that only happens when the script gets broken. When that happens it causes a blurring of the boundaries between art and life that is highly prized but which is difficult to call down from above. We were also blessed by exquisite lunar timing. The poetic appearance of the full moon hanging overhead combined with the elevated stage made for a visual backdrop that would've been lost at ground level.

All in all, I felt this performance was a gift despite its flaws. I'll remember it for a long time.