The Passion of Saint Ferver
Last fall, I caught Jack Ferver in one of his sold-out shows at the New Museum. I wasn’t sure what to expect since I hadn’t seen any of his previous live performances. I knew that this particular show, titled Chambre, was based on Genet’s great short play, The Maids (which, in turn, is based upon the gruesome real-life Papin murder case) but I had come primarily to see the work of my friend Marc Swanson, the brilliant fine artist and frequent collaborator of Jack’s, who had created the exquisitely stark set. I knew Mr. Ferver from his hilarious character Jimmy Tickles on the television series Strangers With Candy and a few other minor, albeit uncommonly funny appearances on the big and small screen. Nothing could have prepared me for what lay in store.
It’s difficult to accurately express the feelings evoked while watching the volatile Ferver on stage, gazing admiringly at himself in multiple mirrors, reciting the idiotic, egomaniacal prattle of a contemporary pop-star (Lady Gaga), his lithe body moving with virtuosic technique. The combination left me gob-smacked and at sudden moments, howling uncontrollably. My praise was immediate and perhaps a bit hyperbolic and I wondered if the work’s magic might wear off. Several months later I continue to be haunted by its astonishing power. But where does the power come from exactly?
At its white-hot center, Chambre is a furious indictment of class disparity and entitlement and the very real rage that accompanies this. It’s also a scathing denunciation of the absurdity of celebrity. But like many great works of art, it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s a new kind of alchemy; an approach to theater that blurs disciplines, coupled with Ferver’s keen sensitivity to persona, personal performance, and the exaggerated gesture.
I sat down recently to talk with Jack about movies, past lives, Jeffrey Dahmer, camp, neo-camp, and his upcoming solo show Mon, Ma, Mes (Revisité) which begins tomorrow night, Wednesday January 13th at Gibney Dance in TriBeCa and continues through Saturday.
Jack Ferver: Well, I looked through your whole apartment. Everything looks put away and really organized, maybe a bit like how I organize which is to say, it could probably be better. But you have to keep moving! Is this where you watch films?
Have you seen Carol? It is incredible.
I cannot wait to see it!
I’ve seen it twice already. I cried three times and then sobbed hysterically at the end, inconsolably.
Hmm… in that case, I may wait to watch it in private.
Bent over and sobbed! At the Paris, which is a terrible theater to see a movie in, because of the crowd. The audience is worse than teenagers. They talked and chewed with their mouths open, kicked the backs of the seats. It was like children. Entitled babies. It’s so hideous. At the very beginning of the film this woman goes, “What’s this movie about?” And this older woman says “Lesbians!” And then this man goes, “Ooof.” Then this other woman leans in and says, “Very well dressed lesbians.” And I was like, Jesus Christ! I really wanted to turn around and say, “Look! I waited 12 years for this film so just shut the fuck up back there!”
I think this might be my favorite Todd Haynes film. It’s so beautiful. I mean, Rooney Mara is an incredible contemporary actress, and Cate Blanchett is an incredibly talented actress from the 50s. Her style of acting is more akin to my style of acting: over-the-top and incredibly mannered, and dramatic. Especially in this film which takes place in the 50s, so she can actually pretend she’s a woman that wants to be Betty Davis. It’s incredible. Really it’s about Rooney Mara. It’s about her relationship to this insane woman named Carol. Well, she’s not insane she’s just really dramatic, which I deeply relate to. My roommate came home and he had just seen Carol and I went through almost all her lines right away, and he died laughing. He said it’s uncanny how well I can imitate Cate Blanchett. And I was like, “Well? We’re like this: [crosses fingers]. I was probably meant to have been born back then as a Hollywood actress.
Maybe you were.
Maybe. Actually, I don’t know… I think my last life was longer ago than that, but who knows? I was probably burnt as a witch. I think that’s more likely because I feel so… I was terribly, mercilessly bullied growing up. Also, my most reoccurring nightmare is about the Holocaust. I’m in a concentration camp trying to get other people out. Which is why this Trump thing… my heart races! It's very scary!
Let’s talk about your work. I might describe it as self-reflexive; you investigate the self as a way of investigating the world. Would you agree?
Completely. It’s very much a micro-examination of myself. It’s only the psychological aspect that is macro. But that's the genesis of theater: to create a role or story or narrative that you have a personal interest in or concern about. Then the personal becomes political. In my next piece, Mon, Ma, Mes, I deconstruct earlier works of mine to look at why we construct personas to navigate the world: the persona of the artist, the persona of the famous person, and the persona of the gay man. It slowly corrodes, getting closer to core gestures and psychology. Mon, Ma, Mes is as much my work as it is the work of the character, Jack Ferver. Some things in my work are verbatim taken from other people I've heard.
Like the Lady Gaga’s deposition in Chambre?
Right. I was watching these recent videos that have come out. She talks about why she left the music world. For one, she doesn’t like making other people money. Which means that she likes making herself money. So how does she think that she functions outside of these people who she doesn't want to make money for? My biggest complaint with her is her utter capitalism and greed, while pretending she is above all that. That deposition was nightmarish. She is a semi-good musical theater actress. It all just smacks of the Vedic calendar and this time we’re in known as the “age of mediocrity.” The fact that Lady Gaga was this year’s Billboard’s Woman Of The Year speaks well to that.
Let’s talk about the ascendancy of contemporary performance. We’re definitely having a moment, yes?
Specifically, do you mean in the visual art context? Because I feel like that’s where I’ve seen it rise the most, or at least gain notoriety.
Exactly, within the context of the art institution. I also want to talk about your conception of neo-camp. I’m not sure if you coined the term, but it seems no one else has been using it or has elaborated upon it. At least, I haven't found that yet. Also, I want to talk about where you come from.
I should probably start there. I grew up in the Midwest in a very small town in Wisconsin, Prairie du Sac. My joke for it is: it’s like Boys Don’t Cry, but without the funny parts. It was very grim. Though, thankfully, my parents were liberal democrats. My dad was gone a lot. There was a very strong work ethic in the house but I think it was very much on the good side of the scale… getting things done, accomplishing a lot. I always got good grades for reading and speaking and writing very early, earlier than other kids.
Would you characterize yourself as precocious?
I was precocious. That was fostered by my mother who wasn’t anticipating having a child. I meant so much to her and we spent a lot of time together. I was very much her best friend so I was treated in a very adult way. I remember she would wake me up and we’d watch Dynasty together when I was in second grade. Before that, she wrote down a lot of things I said as a child and they're pretty on-brand for things I say now.
So you’ve always been Jack Ferver?
Well, I remember when my grandmother died. I loved her so much. I felt very safe and very protected by her. Both of my father’s parents were dead by the time I was born and my mother's father was dead so there was just my Nana. She died and we were trying, unsuccessfully, to reach her by phone—I think I was five—so we drove to her home and my dad took the hinges off the door and I ran in and found her first. She was dead, smiling, cold. At her funeral my brother's girlfriend picked me up so I could see into her casket and I saw this thread in her mouth because they’d sewn her jaw shut. I remember I was so perplexed by it, so I’d draw her face on these pieces of blue paper and then I would lie on the sofa, imitating how she looked in the casket, trying to get close to whatever she’d gone through. It was driving my mother crazy who was already so heartbroken. It was so painful to have her kid doing this. She really just wanted me to stop. So she’s on the phone with her friend, Carrie Ellen who was one of my mothers close friends, very much like an aunt to me growing up. Carrie Ellen said, “Well let me talk to him,” and she said, “JW,” (everyone used to call me by my initials back then) “I know you loved your Nana. She was a wonderful woman and she was also a very, very dear friend to me.” At the time I felt irritated that someone was trying to calm me down or change my feelings about something that was so personal for me. I didn't need to be consoled I just needed to grieve. So I said to her, “Well I got news for you lady: your friend is dead!” And I hung up the phone.
I remember telling a friend of mine that story a few years ago and he said it’s uncanny how much we can really just be what we are early on. And yes, there’s change and growth and permutations. I think the older I’ve gotten it’s more a multiplicity of selves. I think the older we get the more we multiply inside, we have these different lives.
I grew up by Jeffrey Dahmer. I remember when he was killed in the prison and they announced it over the loudspeaker at school.
I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. They just announced it over the loud speaker that he had been killed and everyone cheered.
Just “Jeffrey Dahmer is dead”?
I think they said he had been beaten to death and we all felt so overjoyed, I guess. I don't remember. I just remember it happening. I mean, I was so heavily in and out of dissociation growing up in that town. My bullying was extreme and anyone would say that I had it the worst unless they have guilt about that and they won’t admit it.
I was on the train last night and this man and woman got on and she said, “Why did you do that?” and he said “He just reminded me of these kids I used to beat up all the time.” She said, “What are you talking about?” and he said “I just remember this boy at camp and there was something about him so I just beat the crap out of him all the time. He wasn't very good at sports.” I looked at him, this man that was saying this and his face and his eyes… he just looked like a bad person. I think we like to think… I used to like to think that there could be a possible psychological solution for everything and everyone and I think it became much more terrifying to realize that there are bad people and that there is evil and that things are out of control and that I won't ever be able to understand. So much of what’s happened in my creative life, I’ve been drawn towards acting and dancing because I can rehearse and repeat and make it right. Though there is no perfect. Everything is ultimately out of control.
And this is something else that I’ve noticed about you, as an artist, is that you seem to be refining some essential story. Don’t you think so?
I think there are definitely central themes in the investigation, which is always about otherness. So whether it's that otherness discussed in Chambre about power struggles, or in Night Light Bright Light around the feelings of the outlier-gay-dancer-actor. [NLBL is based on of the life, work and death of Fred Herko who killed himself by “dancing” out of his Cornelia St. apartment window in 1964.] I definitely keep making work that is about the outsider and the outlier and the “other” because that's my position.
What do you mean by “other”? Disenfranchised?
They could be. In Chambre they are. But the “other” for me is anything that's against the majority or against the majority view. Everyone feels lonely and afraid and jealous. None of us is so jealous as to kill our own children but we can relate to Medea’s sense of jealousy. You can relate to that feeling that someone has fucked you over. That is what I'm doing inside these works.
That’s a good segue to neo-camp.
Yes. Certainly in how I use tragedy. I was just talking to someone today about how he hadn't seen Showgirls or Sunset Boulevard or Mommy Dearest and it was blowing my mind.
He was straight?
No, 25. I'm sending him the movies to watch. Notes On A Scandal is a huge camp film and then Black Swan, such a camp film. I mean come on! The beginning watching Sarah’s body and then it's Natalie's face? That's hilarious. That alone was enough and then to have it go on with Barbara Hershey and her face?? It was so incredible, just wonderful. What a wonderful experience at the theater and I'm sure he didn't make it thinking that this was hysterical. I knew people who were very terrified, bewildered, moved by this film. Though no gay people. I don’t remember any gay people having that experience with it.
Why do you think gay people would not have that experience?
Maybe because they're trauma has been so epic? I think that there is a long-standing history of gallows humor for people who are survivors of trauma. I think that the position of being so hated around your sexuality and actually being termed a “sinner” and the strength of the church. It’s a lot, psychically. I think that's part of why. There are other things about aesthetics and taste, being able to delight in something so over-the-top. So for me in terms of neo-camp, it’s knowing that these forms of camp have existed.
You’ve said there's “inhabiting” and then there is “commenting”.
Right I'm trying to comment and inhabit. Or inhabit while commenting.
Or comment while inhabiting? Because I don’t know if there is a distinction to be made.
And the proportions can shift so that inside of the work there can be places where I inhabit solely and then there can be places where I might just be commenting. And then they can also happen at the same time.
Traditional camp doesn’t do that?
There’s no comment.
Is there not?
I really don't think Mommy Dearest has a comment in it, at least not intentionally. The comment must be intentional. The comment must be: I am formally constructing this; I'm actually constructing this to happen. In Black Swan I just do not think from looking at his [Aronofsky’s] other films that he was looking to comment on the work. Or to have a sense of awareness around how crazy this seemed. Like when the mom gets her the cake she says she can't eat it and then the mom takes her finger and sticks it in the icing and sticks it in her mouth. It's hilarious! I think maybe they laughed about it on set but there wasn't a sense of knowingness around that gesture.
Don’t you think part of that “giddy thrill” you experience is the ambiguity of intention?
Like in Showgirls or…?
Right. A sophisticated director would be conscious of this ambiguity and would try to exploit it.
One would hope.
He is a brilliant director. I can't imagine that he was completely unaware of the implication.
I'm sure that he had a sense of it but I still view that film in terms of camp not neo-camp.
But you think Jack Smith is neo-camp?
I do. That’s also because he's playing with tropes in a very active way.
Who else is neo-camp?
Todd Haynes. In Safe for example… I mean, come on! When she's looking in the mirror at the end and when she has the child on her lap? The clothes, the lighting, the script! Julianne Moore. You know Julianne Moore is neo-camp. That thing she does on Billy on the Street where she’s like, “Do you want me to cry on cue? I’ll cry on cue!” That to me is taking a thing that we know, which is crying, then crying on cue. But in the public eye you do it in a real way. You pretend like you're not sending it up. I look at Fosse in these terms: a choreographer who is playing with style. It’s a style that’s existed in mysterious ways and he's taking it and playing with it in this way. It’s (cut a) very (like) *wink* I know I'm entertaining you. I know that this is sexy now. There’s that great thing in Notes on Camp where Sontag says that the thing becomes italicized so it's no longer a chair it's a chair and I think the neo-camp part of it takes it to this other extreme of italicizing and maybe even bolding it and bracketing it. Almost sort of violently showing its knowingness and its use.
It's funny that you use that word because I feel like there is something intrinsically aggressive, if not violent, about this kind of expression because it feels almost like you're dragging people—kicking and screaming—into a psychological space that they don't necessarily want to inhabit.
The way I’ve thought about it is that people come into the audience and they already have judgment before they see the work. We live in this time where everyone feels they’ve seen everything already and it's very hard to get people to leave their homes. Why would they go see a live performance when they can watch Real Housewives? I talk about this when I teach all the time. How are you going to get them to leave their home? What experience can you give them in this post-reality television and post-Internet time? What can you do now? So already the audience is going to say, “I know this thing. And I know this thing too.” It's part of basic human psychology that people want to know and people love categorical thinking. It’s so unfortunate and it begins with you and me: “I know what this is. I know what that is.” That is death. So for me, neo-camp is more about playing with what people think they know and showing them that you know it too and that you really know, and there is a violence inside of that because that's what it takes to shake people up. All art is political: you’re either waking people up or putting them to sleep. I am trying to wake people up but that means a level of psychological play.
You say it's very hard to get people out of their homes to see something but I think there's a growing group of people that feels compelled and hungry for unconventional performance.
Performance, at least in the art context, has certainly had an upswing. People desire something that isn't just entertainment. Something that, at the same time, isn't pedantic, isn’t conceptual or made only for the art community. I think that that upswing speaks to people's hunger for experience and connection. For me, all of this is about catharsis. It’s about an experience that happens in the room. I never had catharsis in rehearsal. My catharsis happens with my audience.
Jack was photographed at Drive-In Studios in NYC on November 22, 2015.
Stay up-to-date on Mr. Ferver’s projects at JackFerver.org