Jim Fletcher"If you're not assuming the burden of pretending, and yet you are acting, what is acting?"
Within the field of experimental theater, some describe Jim Fletcher as a muse. Seeing him perform, one might understand why. On stage, Fletcher is uncannily captivating- legs apart, shoulders back, eyes forward, Fletcher might remind you of a human body possessed by an alien. Best known for his longstanding collaboration with Richard Maxwell's New York City Players, Fletcher has maintained a parallel existence within the art world, most notably as a longtime collaborator with the art collective Bernadette Corporation. Throughout all these projects, Fletcher’s consistency has been a belief in ensemble work as a source of liberation from authorship itself.
Were you interested in theater growing up?
I was not uninterested in it, but I never thought of pursuing it. I was 35 when I did my first performance. Before that I was an art handler, among other things: teacher, case worker, dog-walker, pedicab driver. I wrote, and read a lot, like so many other people. I was involved in some political movements.
How were you involved in ACT UP?
Gay culture, or the queer community, whatever you want—it’s changed a lot in the years since then, but it was, it sort of felt like home to me. And AIDS was extremely menacing. ACT UP was the first time I saw people address what they now call biopower. We occupied the FDA in Washington. Heroic people, heroic-erotic, and witty, plus doctors, scientists... ACT UP was significantly a middle class movement, similar in that respect to the Occupy movement. Well, it wasn’t entirely middle class, but it was more so than, for example, the movement to free Black and Puerto Rican political prisoners in the United States. That was a different kind of action because what we tried to do there was to win court cases, or get them out of prison some other way. It seems weird to me though, to call these things movements. A kind of model of activism around issues and demands... when it was really about staying alive in a way that was halfway sexy, you know, something you actually wanted to do.
Did you study politics in college?
I studied English.
So what was your introduction to the art world?
As an art handler. I enjoyed that immensely. I was also in the art world through friends—they were increasingly involved in it and I was involved with them, I guess by the bonds of love? Just by staying close with them I stayed in it, or near it. Really my work has always been about staying close with people that I'm close with. That's the number one motivation. Without being up in their face all the time. That goes for my work in theater as well. Working is a way to be with people, period.
Did you do any writing for Semiotext(e)?
Chris Kraus used to ask me to write reviews for books that were coming out around then, like the David Rattray book, How I Became One of the Invisible, and her debut, I Love Dick. I co-edited Still Black, Still Strong with Sylvère Lotringer and Tanaquil Jones, about Black political prisoners in the United States, which included an original timeline of the Black Panther Party and the disastrous COINTELPRO infiltration.
How did you get started in theater?
A four-night run of a show called The Libation Bearers, a lip-synced opera at an art gallery on lower Broadway. Done entirely to the music of early Queen. It was a real spectacle, very much about the drag scene at the time. I came on just to make the sets and help my friend Rafael Sanchez who created the piece, and directed and performed in it. He was a fellow art handler, and he ended up putting me in it. This was around 1998. A few years earlier I had started attending a regular club evening called Jackie 6O in a basement space in the meatpacking district. They had these great performances... it would just blow your mind. It was very punk but also over-sexed and simply gorgeous. I loved it so much I just wanted to help Rafael, who was one of the great performers of that scene. It wasn’t like theater, but it also wasn't officially part of the art world, as far as I could tell. A few months after The Libation Bearers, I was introduced to Richard Maxwell, who was looking for someone to play the part of a racecar driver.
You’ve worked with Richard Maxwell consistently since then. What was it about his work that kept you there?
I have a real love conflict with literature, and of course authorship. It’s not a new thing, it’s an old thing... the struggle between authorship and the actual energy of making something in writing and reading. I love to see writing that escapes that somehow, without detaching itself from the situation. Rich's work remains incredible to me.
How would you characterize a Richard Maxwell play?
The reviews used to say that it was deadpan... as if we had a deadpan ethic. I think it’s because in theater, people are often used to all kinds of helpfulness on the actor’s part, which can get rather complicated. Like, “This is what my character is feeling while I’m saying this thing that I’m saying, and this is how this feeling fits into the story tonight.” When you proceed based on that kind of knowing, sometimes you stay in that knowing. We kind of work on streamlining that machine in the hopes it could get up and go somewhere. At the beginning of working on a show he may say “I’m not asking any of you to pretend.” On the other hand he'll say to us emphatically, "Don't be afraid to act." I find that interesting. If you're not assuming the burden of pretending, and yet you are acting, what is acting?
You’ve been fairly central, and actually starred in, a lot of Richard Maxwell’s plays.
I never felt like I was starring in any of his plays. An article of faith with him is that every person, no matter how many lines they have or how much experience they have, is on a level playing field with everyone else. It’s at the root of what we're doing. It's a natural thing, though it's not naturalistic, and the shows are built in a way that they can fully engage that reality. The reality of people's bodies, the space, the audience, a story, things being said, things being heard. You would never say someone has more of a body than someone else. Or would you?
How would you say your creative relationship with him has changed over the years?
It’s strange because in the beginning he was fairly unknown. He’d get some attention each time a play would come out, but we worked in the dark a lot. I really related to how the writing worked as just another path to the energy, to freedom, to whatever it is... to another path of connection. I think the accumulation of history and identity insures that the work as it develops does not get any easier than when you first did it. But it does advance.
What’s it like working with a director?
It's great having a director. I'm grateful that not all of us need to be up on stage. Sometimes people think they'd like to model their group work based on the way they think society, or interpersonal dynamics, should be, e.g. "no directors". I never liked that. We're not making a micro-society. A director helps you locate the conflict and the struggle outside of yourself--you can struggle with the director. It's a division of labor.
So you were involved in the acting, and then the writing...
No. I rarely write for the NYC Players. At one point Rich got tired of writing grant proposals and asked me to do that. I had never written one, so I sort of made it all up. We got zero grant money that year, but oddly, after four years or so, some of my imagined goals were accomplished. One of the things we stated was that we would pursue a stronger connection to the art world. Another was that we would dig into the Old Testament.
So you like the art world.
Yeah man... the discourse is so snazzy compared to theater.
Bernadette Corporation is pretty different from Richard Maxwell.
In the art world, working in a collective is not necessarily the most natural thing, only because it’s not the only way you can do it. In theater, it's the only way you can do it.
What has your involvement with Bernadette Corporation been like over the years?
I contributed to the magazine, Made in U.S.A. That’s how it started. But it's not really how it started. These people were my close friends.
How many people were involved in Reena Spaulings?
There were maybe 30 or 40 people at our first meeting at a bar in SoHo.
So you were part of that group.
Yes. We made it happen like an organization. Almost bureaucratically. The editing process was like a beautiful machine, it was like a device that we had designed. Just in the way material moves among people, and how it gets thought about, conceived. And the conceiving was a big part of the model of the machine. I liked that a lot. The bureaucratization of conceiving.
It was a flexible framework.
The book has its own line and its own life, but it didn’t happen by accident. It also didn’t happen in a predetermined way. When you were writing, you were writing knowing that other people were going to be editing it. You were writing with things that other people had written. What I loved about working on Reena Spaulings was that sense of writing without a writer. It wasn’t like, “here’s my part, and here’s yours,” no. You’re doing this, and it’s going to change. It had incredible energy in terms of the body of people that made it. It was a scary thing. It was like a fucking dragon.
What was it like when it was finished?
When Reena Spaulings came out, like when anything comes out, the body had to define itself more, and was able to. There was a response. Bernadette Corporation made a product, and that product was now being responded to, and bounced back onto Bernadette Corporation.
What about The Complete Poem?
The Complete Poem is at a later point in the timeline. The text benefited from a focused energy of composition that was a kind of modeled warfare of defined elements.
There were only 4 people working on that one, right? That’s a lot less than Reena Spaulings. You could get into an argument.
You could argue in the writing. Some of the writing forms we devised were rather exigent--it was hard work. Plus you could cut or add...it was complex. I love that because it gets you out of a lot of the problems of being "the poet." In the gallery, people would sometimes ask “is this a real poem?” Which is good! It’s good if something can have the possibility of not being real. Often when searching for the author(s), I naturally resort to the photographs. This poem is something that in its finished form exists in space, and includes images.
What were the goals when writing The Complete Poem?
Everybody had their own goals. The poem itself had its own goal. One of the goals that we may have sort of shared was... you know, poetry can be so great, but it can also be really awful. We had gotten to a point in our life where it’s like, we have to go to war. When it comes to poetry or something like that you’ve got to ask yourself: what’s good about it? What’s the problem with it? Go for what’s great. I think a big problem with poetry now is the poet. It wasn’t always, but now, it’s a problem, man, one of the things that ruins the thing is the poet. ‘Cause his name is always gonna be there either at the top or at the bottom or in the table of contents, but why? For his benefit? I mean, who’s it for at this point? And so, here was a way, it’s not like you’re not taking responsibility for it, but honestly the author is someone else. The author is not dead, but the author is someone else. The poem has its own reasons. The reader, too, has their own reasons for being there.