Shock Opera Put the Meta in Metal – Evelyn Cushing
Evelyn: “Gender Bending…it was really cool to have all women. I found it quirky and surreal, but also so much of, like Alice Cooper…they wore women’s clothing…and they named their band after a woman and imitated women…and to kind of turn it all around and have the all male band who kind of dressed like women be played by all women..it was so Meta”
David: “yeah, totally metal”
Evelyn: “No David, meta…like meta…” (telepathically chiding me and saying “there’s no “l” in Meta, it’s just Meta…no one said metal…it’s just so meta”)
I felt like I transported to the end of the Steel Panther video, “Death to All But Metal” where Sarah Silverman and Michael Starr argue over vernacular and sentence structure…see the exchange here…at 3:04
Silverman: “I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying, death to all BUTT-Metal”
Starr: “No it’s not Death to All BUTT-Metal, it’s ‘Death to All But Metal’”
Silverman: “Yeah, BUTT-Metal”
Starr: “No, there’s nothing about BUTT….it’s just Death to All, But Metal”
Silverman: “That’s what I said…”
Eloquently stated by Evelyn Cushing, I saw the irony. The entire show pushed norms that I had been exposed to in theater, even for me. It pushed far beyond merely recounting a rock icon’s life – each actor brought their own voice and experiences to each character and absolutely blew me away. Sure, I may possess some bias because I am an 80’s hair band/metal guy, but I’ve been around enough various types of art to see something special, and this more than made me do a double take. The sheer level of detail and creativity that the cast and writers put into each part of the play was exceptional.
I had no idea that I would spend 26 hours interviewing 8 people over the course of three weeks to write this article. I had no expectations going into the show nor did I expect to want to write an article. I was just lookin’ for nuthin’ but a good time (pun intended). I walked out at intermission asking one of the cast mates to introduce me to the director to ask if he’d be willing to let me interview him. One interview led to another and so forth, and baaaaam, I have an entirely new set of really talented people I know. To be sure, not everything made it into this article, but the process spawned so many other forthcoming article ideas. I could write a separate article, literally, about each actor and her story and inspiration. This group of artists is easily one of the most diverse I’ve ever met, and I enjoyed every minute of the process.
To be sure, this started as a simple “Hey, I’d love to write a review for you” to a full fledged two piece series of articles on the story behind each actor, their inspirations, and the play itself. I hope you enjoy learning about these very special people as much as I enjoyed learning about them and their story. This piece is part 1 about the producers, Dylan and Julia, and Berlin, the actor who plays Alice. Part 2 (forthcoming) is about the supporting cast:)
Where it all started – Dylan and Julia
Dylan can’t recall the exact moment, but at some point it dawned on him “why hasn’t anyone done a dramatic play about Alice Cooper? I mean come on – one of the most theatrical bands of all time…no one has even taken a stab it?” In many ways, it remains unequivocally clear that without Alice Cooper, we would not have had had 80’s hairbands in all of their glory. Slash from Guns N’ Roses even noted: “we wouldn’t be here without Alice Cooper” Bob Dylan has acknowledged that Alice is one of the best songwriters of that era (and other eras). The reality is that the onstage antics, for example, the chicken fiasco, paved the way for many other bands much later to pull off shocking antics. Bands such as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails definitely owe Alice a beer or three. As Alice put it, they were the dagger in the heart of the love generation. Shocking, indeed.
Dylan got into theater through his grandparents in Chico California. With them, he saw 6 or more plays per summer. That said, Oklahoma was the first play that really got his attention (as a side note, my man crush, Joe Manganiello also found Oklahoma captivating and put him on a path toward stardom), and he said that as soon as he saw Oklahoma, he was like “Bam, that’s it” (gesturing a pistol firing straight up in the air). He moved around a lot as a kid, and as a gift, his mother got him a ticket to the PCPA Theater Fest in Santa Maria, and from a field of 300 budding actors, he made the final 12. From there, theater hooked him.
His folks bought him a video camera and then began the backyard videos. These videos garnered the attention of a teacher at school who had applied to the California lottery for funding for arts curricula, and the rest became history. Although he studied English Literature in college, and as he put it “hung out with depressing English majors”, he still followed his theater interest. He eventually started the Blue Room Theater when he was 25 with some of his friends (no big deal, right…”I’m just going to start a damn theater….”). That project has since morphed, and a past production was Night of the Living Dead, starring children. The company still exists today and has an entire component of it dedicated to helping young actors blossom. That’s one common thread with Dylan and Julia and Berlin (and the rest of the actors in the show) – yes, they are entertainers, and yes, they want to make money, but within all of them, they live out the mantra that the arts are the key to our survival as a community, and they all go far beyond most in trying to create art that inspires people of all social strata.
Dylan’s main contribution to that theater came in the form of pop culture, specifically, Theatre Du Grand Guignol. For those who don’t know much about Guignol, don’t worry, I just penned an entire article about Dylan’s “Guignol Fest” which celebrates its tenth year this year here in Portland. Guignol, per the good old dictionary is “dramatic entertainment featuring the gruesome or horrible” The genesis of Guignol is in Paris France, and the genre aims to create naturalistic plays that sometimes evoke extreme arousal and/or vomitous reaction (sometimes both!) Guignol focuses on what scares you in the here and the now, versus the past. It also focuses on plays about social strata considered in the low end of the spectrum. Ultimately, Guignol pushes the envelope in just about every way possible. It’s no wonder that this interest eventually grew into Shock Opera.
After spending several years with the Blue Room Theater, Dylan decided to leave and came to Portland. In his own words, “[he] didn’t want to be that guy at the end of the bar in his 30’s…like a Steve Buschemi” Through that process, Dylan came to the realization that he could not work for someone else; he had to make his own art. He wanted to make his own plays, on his own terms. Part of the result was his own Guignol Fest here in Portland, but also Shock Opera. In short, he saw something he wanted to do and made it happen. He never gave up on it.
What struck me most about Dylan as he introduced the play was his desire to share his art and his humility. I vividly remember sitting in my seat, excited about the show starting, and Dylan in a soft voice, dressed as Alice Cooper, simply stated “This is a play I wrote, and for whatever reason, not many people have shown interest in reviewing it. I’m not sure why…anyway…here is Shock Opera” I specifically recall thinking “why in the hell wouldn’t someone want to write about this???!!!” As the play went on, I became more and more convinced that I would write the article, and it wouldn’t be just a review. Rather, it would be a deep look into the director and producer…and into each actor and bring their stories to light. In my view, that’s what we deserve to see and hear – we deserve to see the genius behind the curtains, versus just my thoughts on the play. So, sorry Dylan….I guess no one will write a true “review”:(, but through these articles, I do hope to illuminate YOU and Julia’s work and impact on the community here. I’ll settle for that.
“I’m the hardest working doctor in roll and roll theater” – says Julia with a laugh, only it’s not a joke. Julia at one time had ambitions to be a surgeon, but could not get away from the art. As a child, Julia loved entertaining: she was a dancer and a musician. She plays the flute, the xylophone, and piano covering everything from jazz to symphonic music. By the time she got to college, she joined the elite East West Players Theater, the premier Asian-American Theater Company. Scores of notable Asian-American actors some from the theater. No small feat, right? After very successful stints in graphic design and PR, she still felt herself saying “where’s the art?”
Her start in performance art came in the form of Butoh dance, which represented a very real and apocalyptic feeling. The genre more than touches the taboo, it embraces it. Admittedly, I had never heard of Butoh, but it’s simply fascinating. In short, it uses torturously slow movements and often extremely grotesque movements to tell a story. A visceral form of art, it appeared after World War II in Japan, and it served as a reminder of the horrors (in part) of the war. Julia took that passion to New York to finish her postgraduate studies in fine arts, which eventually led to other forms of art.
Through these experiences, she helped pioneer biological art. Julia and her friends were basically an art collective that travelled together using their own body tissue to create art. For example, she biopsied her own vagina and created her own art from her vagina. This led to sex based art, performance art, and live sex art. She embraced the whole spectrum and idea of sex as art and the concept of surrealism. Today, she is pretty well known for making chocolate vaginas and penises for sale.
This further evolved into sexual politics. She became active in using art to change the way the female body is surveyed, similar to authors like Eve Ensler. She’s used art and politics to help create an atmosphere of sex positivity. She found, through this work, it helped create dialogue around sex versus a bashful exchange. She noted that a lot of the discussion still centers around the male gaze versus telling the story from the female perspective. She simply stated: “In order to have the discussion, you have to give power the women to make those stories” Perhaps not to the end of a story like “Teeth” (Vagina Dentata), but at least to the extent that porn or the discussion of sex should include and be led by women too.
To be completely frank, pretty much every facet of American life lacks a vantage point of the female when it comes to storytelling. Yes, anecdotal examples exist, as they always do, but by and large, it’s all from the male perspective. This particular piece of work, Shock Opera, when one peels back the onion, reveals an extremely complex gender dynamic among the actors and to me, it resolves the stupid question people often ask: can a woman play a man’s role effectively? I state that it’s a stupid question because I’ve never questioned it, but the more I delve into theater, and the more people (like these actors) I meet, the more I see their voice lost and pushed down into the abyss. Julia definitely understands this and some of her ideas to bring the female voice back in are, to be completely forthcoming, so unique and provocative, that I am excited to see them come to fruition. If you want to know more about that, you’ll have to talk to her and learn how to get involved:)
In sum, these two forces combined through a series of circumstances, and they’ve been producing work ever since. If you read this article and find their story interesting, I suggest simply emailing them (tell them you’re my friend) and having a beer with them at Beulahland Portland. It was 4 of the most enigmatic and entertaining hours I have spent in a LONG time. That’s not to take away from any of the other actors you’ll hear from in this and the next article. I only acknowledge this because I believe they represent true diversity of thought when it comes to not only types and modes of art, but also diversity in terms of really pushing the envelope of social norms and finally, diversity of who tells the story. 99 percent of people would not think a show about a heavy metal band would do this, but I beg to differ. Of any show I have seen here and of any actors I’ve met and talked to, this show touches very directly (and indirectly) all the things that no one else seems to want to broach as far as sex positivity, drug abuse and addiction, gender roles, and social norms. For them, this is a labor of love, a piece of their art, and admittedly, they didn’t necessarily plan to make the statements it does. But, from an audience member, who floats from among social strata, art forms, private/public life, I see it all, and this production blew me away in terms of drawing the audience into the play but also forcing the audience to consider abandoning the traditional.
The piece reaches far beyond Portland; Alice cooper himself and the various band members have taken notice of the work. The first year they produced Shock Opera, they actually met Alice Cooper. Friends suggested they do another run of the shows in October of that first year, and they timed it to run the day before Alice Cooper’s actual show. One thing led to another, and Alice’s manager invited Dylan backstage to meet Alice. The manager stated “Alice would like to talk to you” and they immediately thought “Oh shit, we are getting sued”. In reality, Alice simply said “keep doing what you are doing” Dylan pointed out: “the arts make dreams come true…I never became a rock star….and this is closest thing *I am going to get….this play is like a love letter and they are like: ‘cool’”
The end game for these two and Shock Opera remains yet to be seen. It does involve a full length movie, but I don’t want to give away the secret (yet) of what that movie will look like…you’ll just have to keep reading:)
Enter Berlin Sofra
“What we do is not some fake thing..we are not fake bitches…giving fake love and doing fake shit…and what I do is real…and when you walk in….how you act and what you do is how you really are…and there’s nothing fake about it [being in the sex industry]” – Berlin Sofra
Berlin Sofra played Alice Cooper’s character in the show. No pretense exists with her whatsoever. Blunt and succinct, she eschewed the typical Portland “let’s talk around a subject instead of really talking” and cut to the chase. Berlin (as well as Una and Jeanette, whom you’ll meet later) are strippers in Portland. Yes, the sex industry. I’ve been around burlesque for quite some time, but I grew up in Indiana where anything close to that industry maintains an unhealthy stigma. Yes, Portland is different, and at the same time, I believe we take it for granted. We all suffer from unconscious bias, and I found myself in that boat during the show. Not because of any prejudice I have, but more from the vantage point of: I’ve never seen a stripper act in a play or a theater (or at least I didn’t know it). I found myself thinking “wow, they are excellent actors” as if I should be remotely surprised. It’s as almost as if I should have had “[for strippers]” at the end of that statement. I felt that bias immediately and had to recalibrate my thoughts and take my mistake for what it was – ignorance and illogical. Absolutely nothing about any of these actors was fake, rather, as someone who interacts with a broad swath of people of all walks, these actors are the most real people I’ve met in a long long time.
Because of the stigma, many accuse interactions in the sex industry as fake or opaque. Sure, that may be the case in some situations, but I disagree. For me, I just view people as people, and I do my best to not see differences, but rather similarities. For me, every time I’ve set foot into a club, find myself in awe of each detail a dancer puts into her or his or their choreography (yes, I admire and acknowledge all types of dancers including non-binary). I constantly find myself in awe of the physical prowess and execution of various movements and motions. To me, it’s art. I find myself (if I do talk to the performers) asking about how and what they do to keep in shape, how they came up with ideas for various routines, and why they picked the songs they did, versus asking for a motorboat. I have zero doubt that what Berlin stated above is completely true. In her own words:
“I think the reason that sex workers have a real knack for acting is not because we are good at faking things…it’s because people show themselves to us so nakedly that we can really understand who they are inside and we can deliver that to other people. Everyone is normal in their own way…people will act so different when they are paying you…if someone’s not paying you, they’d never talk about the things they hate the most about their wife ..but somehow when someone throws forty bucks over the bar they can say anything…kind of like a bartender…in a sense, but even more so…people say we’re naked….”
“At the end of the encounter, we know more about them than most. It doesn’t matter that they have clothes on and we don’t. After a dozen years in the sex industry, I think that the reason us women that do this unabashedly and deliver some of the most unsavory aspects of Alice Cooper’s story is because we deliver this naked and vulnerable as a matter of course to make our living. The sex industry is so raw most of the time that it makes it much easier to show those parts of the story”
She went further to say that their entire livelihood is predicated on reading people better than anyone; it’s predicated on being open and vulnerable; it’s predicated on allowing others to be open and vulnerable. It’s entertainment. In her view, one of the things that made this show work so well is the inclusion of sex workers… “Rock and Roll is Sex; it is human interaction with sex and drugs and greed, and we are depicting the rawness of it in real time.” She noted that the show is, in large part, about a group of boys becoming men, realizing their sexuality, and recognizing the power of seduction and also how destructive and painful it can be in the end.
In her view,
“We are perfectly proficient [to play these roles] because we deal with these raw aspects of human emotion all the time…insecurity…covering up substance abuse problems, performing when problems exist all around…around…we all serve the fantasies of others as well. It works because the cast is authentic and it would not have been possible without that perspective…”
I delved further and asked how she even came up with the character and what she did in preparation. Alice cooper truly plays the antagonist in this piece. One might think he’s the hero, and that’s perfectly reasonable to conclude. At the same time, as Berlin put it, some may conclude that he was the source or a source of tremendous pain…“he rolled around in two fields of shit and came up smelling like a rose!” She enjoyed the role because she got to deliver a lot of interesting and also ugly things as a human. “I got to deliver it, but somehow being Alice, you have immunity from judgment. I was able to be a really ugly person but lose the judgment. I got to be an unabashed, unapologetic human and they still loved him and wanted to buy his album.”
It definitely saddens me that no future theatrical performances of Shock Opera will take place. They collectively made a decision to pursue the next chapter, the movie. My only regret is only seeing this show ONE time. I will definitely explore, through the next article, with the rest of the actors, the individual stories of how they prepared to be their respective characters because I think that’s the coolest part. While not a “review” like I originally planned, I hope this piece gave you a glimpse into Dylan and Julia, and also Berlin’s take on her industry and what many would consider nontraditional actors. I personally view it as a beautiful thing, and I hope that it expands your thought process just a little bit….until next time when we meet the rest of the cast….:)