Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Rah-Rah for Dada

Marissa Skudlarek mingles with some Fringe elements.

Last Saturday, spending an evening at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, I saw two pieces in a row that mentioned the French surrealist André Breton, which has to be some kind of bizarre record. In Sebastian Boswell III’s mentalist act “The Ineffable Experience of Impossible Achievements,” he plays a game of Exquisite Corpse with the audience, claiming to have learned the game from Breton himself, in the 1920s. Following that, I saw Breton (portrayed by Ignacio Zulueta) as a featured character in Zurich Plays, “a Dada history of Dada.”

I like to think Breton would be pleased by this coincidence. After all, at its best, Exquisite Corpse is a game that allows you to find deeper meaning in the products of chance. And the SF Fringe Festival itself is a product of chance: as a member of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, it is required to choose its lineup via lottery, rather than curating it based on ideas of what is “good” or “worthy.” This accords with Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, in which he wrote of wishing to make art “in the absence of any control exercised by reason.”

The production of Zurich Plays at the Fringe Festival is spearheaded by Steven Westdahl, who directed the show and plays Tristan Tzara. (Steven and his partner Megan Cohen – who also appears in Zurich Plays, portraying Man Ray – were the forces behind Theater Pub’s April 2015 show, Steven & Megan in “Megan and Steven Present a World Premiere by Steven & Megan.”)

There’s something strange but wonderful about seeing 21st-century artists in a Fringe Festival in California paying homage to a revolutionary avant-garde arts movement that took place 100 years ago in Switzerland. After I saw Zurich Plays, Steven kindly agreed to have a brief conversation with me about the show and about the Dada movement (with Megan adding some pithy comments).

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. (This costume gets re-created in ZURICH PLAYS!)

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. (This costume gets re-created in ZURICH PLAYS!)

Marissa: From my research, it looks like you were involved in a previous production of Zurich Plays in Atlanta. Can you talk a little about your decision to bring this show to the SF Fringe?

Steven: One of the ways I was “paid” for my work on the 2001 production in Atlanta was with no-fee rights to the script for future production. With less than an hour left before the deadline to submit for the SF Fringe, I hastily threw together a proposal for Zurich Plays. I knew the 100th anniversary of Dada was around the corner, it is a script that I knew had never been seen outside of Atlanta, and it was so much fun to see and then work on. Once it was chosen out of the lottery for a slot in the festival, it finally dawned on me that I had to cast, design, rehearse, and produce a full-length play in a few months. With the help of my partner, Megan Cohen, I got some of the best Dada-minded actors in the Bay Area to agree to work with me for two months for next to nothing.

Marissa: It’s been nearly 100 years since the Dadaists presented their revolutionary performances at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Are there any lessons you think contemporary artists can learn from them?

Steven: Depends on which Dadaists you turn to for your lessons… Hugo Ball would teach you that it is OK to walk away from a group that you founded if you no longer agree with the direction that it is heading. Marcel Duchamp would teach you have no fear in recontextualizing your surroundings and the products that you are being sold. Man Ray would teach you to brand your work with a unique and identifiable name. André Breton would teach you to see and name what other artists are doing, if even just for yourself.

Megan: I think they teach you Y.O.L.O.

Marissa: Do you think there are any artistic movements in our own time that, similar to Dada, are upsetting the status quo and rewriting the rules of what art can be?

Steven: The territorial pissings of graffiti, stencil, and wheatpaste street art; the 4chan-esque corners of the internet; self-taught artists who break the rules without knowing them. Bansky might consider ‘themselves’ to be Dada. But also Banksy isn’t Dada.

Marissa: If the Dadaists were transported 100 years into the future and saw your production of Zurich Plays, what do you think their reaction would be?

Steven: Zurich Plays might be too safe. We cut the real onstage urination in favor of stage magic and a piss-rig. We bought a few things from prop stores and use them as what they were intended to be used for. We test the patience, focus, and stamina of the audience but never really offend them. I think the Dadaists would want more people stirred towards riot or, at least, a few walk-outs. No one is going to protest Zurich Plays. It’s an experience but not a revolution. It is art about anti-art without being anti-art itself.

Megan: I hope they would say it made them hungry.

Zurich Plays has 3 more performances at the San Francisco Fringe Festival: Saturday Sept. 19 at 2:30 PM, Wednesday Sept. 23 at 7 PM, and Friday Sept. 25 at 7 PM. Advance tickets available here.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She realizes that the Dadaists would probably denounce her as hopelessly bourgeois. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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