On July 14, 15, and 16, The Kitchen will present three days of performances, panel discussions, and video presentations honoring the work of the great downtown theater artist Jeff Weiss and his mentor and partner Carlos Ricardo Martinez. The event is coordinated and curated by Nicky Paraiso from La Mama, who collaborated and performed with Weiss for over 20 years and is a font of knowledge and wisdom about Weiss and many other downtown theater and dance artists from the 1970s to the present; Kate Valk from the Wooster Group, who performed in …And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid, Part IV (Or The Confessions of Conrad Gehrhardt), an historic collaboration with the Wooster Group in 1984; and Brooke O’Harra, the co-founder and director of The Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf and their long-running live lesbian soap opera Room for Cream.
O’Harra will direct three nights of performances of Weiss’s scripts performed by Valk, Paraiso, and a large number of famous and some infamous Rent Gets Paid alumni, along with many younger artists. O’Harra and her partner Sharon Hayes have been interviewing Weiss over the last year spurred by Weiss’s remarkable history, an interest in serial theater, and the ways in which a Jeff Weiss performance can be seen as “an event that completely holds community.” In January, O’Harra, Paraiso, and Valk, with Norman Frisch had raised money to help pay some medical expenses for Weiss. Of the over 300 people who immediately and generously responded, 200 had performed with Weiss over the years. It seemed obvious that an event that exposed contemporary audiences to his work would be both entertaining and of historical interest.
I spoke with a number of people who had worked with Weiss including Keith McDermott, who recently directed Jim Neu’s The Floatones at La Mama; Mary Shultz, the Obie and Bessie award winning actress; and Nicky Paraiso, who began working with Weiss in 1979. All three of them had appeared in the 1984 And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid at the Performing Garage.
The first time I saw Jeff Weiss was in the early 1980s at the Performing Garage in one of the many versions of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid. He handed me a can of beer, said some very nice things to me, and I was completely taken in by his overpowering charm. For the next three hours or so he roamed around the stage, performed exquisite love scenes, terrifying moments of intrigue and murder, and very energetic sex with other men on a wrestling mat. He performed all these scenes by himself with occasional appearances by Nicky Paraiso, his collaborator and musical accompanist. Between the scenes there were renditions of American show tunes (“When or Where”) along with some original tunes (“Don’t call me gay, I’m homosexual”). I was convinced he was one of the greatest performers I had ever seen. This conviction was strengthened by seeing him in his own tiny theater, The Good Medicine & Company, on East 10th Street and again, most memorably, at the Performing Garage with the Wooster Group in 1984.
Jeff Weiss and his partner and collaborator Carlos Ricardo Martinez (aka Richard C. Martinez, or Murphy) had been performing And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid and other pieces at their performance/home space on East 10th Street since the 1960s. In the 1970s, Weiss had appeared in a number of Harry Koutoukas’s “camps” and had worked as an actor with other downtown directors at Caffe Cino and La Mama, but he has always insisted that Carlos was the foundational influence on his work: “Richard said only this: just play it for real. Whatever you believe about what the lines tell you, no matter how outrageous, it’s not outrageous to you. Be perfectly committed to what you are saying.”
By the 1980s, Weiss, well respected by his peers and downtown critics, had won a few Obies and had been profiled in a number of weeklies. His opinions were valued if not always shared. In 1977, in an infamous essay in the Soho Weekly News entitled “How Can It Be Avant-Garde When Everybody Does It?” written by Weiss and copyrighted by Martinez, Weiss had attacked a number of downtown artists and the alternative theater’s infatuation with “European” theatrical innovators:
He (Andrei Serban) and his doleful master, Grotowski, have stolen the life and poisoned the open waters of American Theater with their moral “purity.” They have encouraged in our actors a deadly self-importance that has sucked from us the native American passion and joy for life that was always our greatest source of strength as performers.
In 1984, the Wooster Group presented …And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid, Part IV (Or, The Confessions Of Conrad Gehrhardt) at the Performing Garage. Instead of playing all the parts himself, Weiss assembled a supporting cast of some of the most talented downtown actors and performers. Among others: Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Willem Dafoe, and Nancy Reilly from the Wooster Group; John Bernd and Mary Shultz from the Meredith Monk ensemble; and actors and singers who had worked with Weiss in the past including Nicky Paraiso, Keith McDermott, Dorothy Cantwell, Sturgis Warner, and Jonathan Freeman.
In this version of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, the Conrad Gerhardt character and his alter ego the Finnish gymnast/wrestler Bjorn Zoltar were united and became the dramatic engine that drove the event. In previous versions, there had often been a Pennsylvania Dutch Everyman who had a complicated family life and was fond of wrestling. In many other plays, a Finnish gymnast appeared who was seductively charming, also fond of wrestling, and ultimately murdered his lover/victims in scenes that were very touching, often funny, and inevitably terrifying. With the addition of other characters who were hot on Connie/Bjorn’s trail, the action was on the nature of Conrad’s identity and its many contradictions. Weiss’s acting chops were on full display in these scenes, and audiences were riveted by his deliciously macabre portrayals.
One of the persistent activities in the piece became trying to determine when someone was “acting,” pretending to be or unknowingly becoming someone else. Acting and becoming were at the heart of the mystery, and many of the characters were obsessed by it. Ron Vawter as Detective Persky in particular:
I love wrestling on an empty stomach. Don’t you? Makes one feel lean, hard tough.
Those are Gehrhardt’s lines, “lean, hard tough.” What is this?
I know. He’s my hobby. I know all his lines. Would you like me to do a few more? I could, you know, with gestures.
The piece had great singing in it. Accompanied by Nicky Paraiso, Dorothy Cantwell, and others, Weiss sang his heart out. Musical numbers interrupted, changed and refreshed the tempo of the evening, and Weiss’s cabaret-influenced notions of dramatic structure fit very well with the Wooster Group’s syncopated sense of order and time. It was clear that people on stage and in the audience were having a good time, something that Weiss highly valued.
Mary Shultz remembered that acting in this piece with Weiss was exhilarating. “A total gas! In the two man scenes, he would focus on you like a laser. It was like he was drawing it out of you. He knew everyone’s lines because he’d written them and would almost say your lines with you, mouthing the words.” When I mentioned to Keith McDermott how mesmerized I was by Weiss’s charm when I first met him, he observed that many people were similarly impressed and that at certain parts of the play that intense charm “could be a total ruse for a murderer.” He also pointed out that one of the things he loved about the theater was that it was anarchic and that this production was “total anarchy.” The energy of that anarchy and its visceral nature; the bodies in the room and on the wrestling mat were crucial. The Wooster Group’s fondness for furious acting and the movement oriented training of many of the other performers combined to “reveal a collaborative vitality that rivals that of their star,” wrote Mel Gussow of the New York Times.
Weiss and Martinez continued doing versions of And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid at their theater on 10th Street until 1997 when they left to go to Pennsylvania. They did parts of it in Hot Keys, their wildly popular cabaret evenings at Naked Angels in the early 1990s. Many younger actors were introduced to the work—or as Weiss said, “Beautiful young women! Sexy young men! and some of them could act!” Weiss began to get parts (and get paid) in more prestigious theaters partially as a result of good notices and reviews from the 1984 show, but mostly because he began to be recognized as a great actor. He was highly praised for his Ghost, Player King, and Osric in Hamlet with Kevin Kline (a faithful supporter) at the Public and was on Broadway in Front Page.
Hopefully, Weiss will be in attendance at the Kitchen in July and his many admirers and a new generation of theater artists will celebrate his and Martinez’s accomplishments.
Renditions of And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid, directed by Brooke O’Hara, will be presented at the Kitchen (512 W. 19th Street, Manhattan) on July 14, 15, 16 at 8 pm. For further details, visit www.thekitchen.org.
ROGER BABB was for many years a playwright / director with Otrabanda Company. He worked as an actor for Joseph Chaikin, Jim Neu, Julie Taymor, Merideth Monk and many others. He taught at Princeton, NYU, Swarthmore and most recently at Mt Holyoke College.