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Selling Squonk Opera at the Midwest Arts conference

No Comments The Jilted Brides Melbourne

You’ve never seen anything like it

The agent at the booth to the right of me was doing brisk business. Behind him was a plastic banner displaying a photo montage of musicians heavily jowled, paunched, but still throwing their silver hair around under purple stage lights: Eric Burdon and The Animals, Foghart, Joan Jett, Mickey Dolenz (from The Monkees), Paul Revere and the Raiders, Chubby Checker, The Ides of March to name only those bands whose names I (sometimes only dimly) recognized. In addition to these genuine artifacts of bygone rock ages, the Paradise Artists booking agency also represented a selection of sonic simulacra, tribute bands including The Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular, The Spirit of Michael Jackson, and Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp. Presenters – people who run theaters and arts festivals – would sometimes form a small crowd to talk to Bill about his roster. Bill would hold up CDs and DVDs and explain a band’s significance to a long gone Top 40. Sometimes (as in the case of the Ides of March) this consisted of only a single hit in the ’70s.

“Eye of The Tiger”, Bill prompted helpfully at one point. A guy with an ill fitting safari suit had been thoughtfully twisting the display stand around and had stopped at the Survivor CD, obviously trying to remember why the name seemed so familiar.

My booth was not so popular. My backdrop consisted of a silhouette of a woman seemingly attacked by half a dozen microphones. On my display table, posters featuring disembodied projected eyes, a person with an accordion in space on top of a crane, gigantic images of planets circled by gramophones. I was representing Squonk Opera, a multi-media musical troupe, based in Pittsburgh, who had been staging acts of “sonic hooliganism” and “rust-belt Dada” for almost twenty years.

“We’ve played everywhere from Broadway to the Edinburgh Festival!” I explained to George, an elderly presenter from a theater in Saukville, Wisconsin, population four thousand.

George’s kindly eyes glanced at the posters, then looked at me, still uncertain whether he should have paused at my booth at all.

“We’ve won the same award for theater design as The Lion King.” I offered my trump card as I moved even closer to George.

George then relaxed into a complete halt.

“Your shows look very intriguing. But are you sure they are family oriented?”

“Oh yes! Kids love our stuff. Its very spectacular, as you can see.”

“Well. We have a lot of retirees in Saukville. Even I’ve retired. I’m really running this theatre as a community service you know. I used to organize busloads down to Chicago to see the latest Broadway musicals. But since I’ve stopped doing that, people keep asking me “What are we going to do now, George? We want to see something new!”.

“Well, the most common remark we get after our shows is: I’ve never seen anything like it!

George left clutching a flyer for that night’s showcase performance by Squonk Opera, promising to attend.

Squonk were performing excerpts of their latest show Mayhem and Majesty, for two nights in a row during the Midwest Arts Conference, Indianapolis Sept 13 – 16 2010. As their part-time Communications Director, my job was to hustle up interest in their act. For the duration of the conference, I sat by day in my tiny black booth in the Indianapolis Convention Center, one of eight hundred other artists, manager’s and agents also hawking their entertainment booty to middle America’s performing arts venue managers. By night, I introduced Squonk’s ‘best of’ concert at a nearby venue. The troupe then replayed excerpts from Mayhem and Majesty every half hour until 11.00pm. I alternated between circling the crowd, urging people to drink, asking for business cards, then sitting on the back steps watching people’s reactions as the sonic hooliganism unfolded.

Squonk, like thirty other showcase artists, had gambled a lot of money to perform at Midwest Arts, one of the biggest, annual performing arts trade fairs in the United States. The objective was simple: get on ‘the radar’ of presenters, and then into the programs of theaters across America. Would Squonk get enough bookings to help the surreal company survive, improbably, for yet another year?

Luxury digs

The drive from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis was a six and a half hour perfectly straight hair-part through corn and wheat fields. Once there, we checked into the conference hotel room – four of us (Steve and Jackie, the artistic directors, Bob the lighting guy, and me) in a room with two queen beds. Sharing beds made the overpriced Westin fit into the Squonk budget.

“At least you get to share with us in a luxury room” Steve had counseled me before the trip. “The rest of the crew are bunched in economy rooms on the outskirts of town.”

Sharing a bed with anyone with whom I did not share a romantic attachment was not my idea of luxury. I had packed earplugs and was prepared for a sleep deprived week.

“Nicole and I intend to touch each other all night ” Jackie joked, trying to lighten my mood as we dragged our luggage and booth gear into the room. “Oops, did I say that out loud?”

“I’ll sleep on the floor” Steve said. Then he grabbed the remote, and in his other hand held up a can of mini frankfurts. “And heres my dinner”. Then Steve was half undressed and in the chair, the television was on, and stayed that way for the rest of our stay.

That night, after I had mashed Squonk cards into fleeting palms at the opening party, I returned to our room and collapsed on my side of the bed. Bob was absent, presumed in the lobby somewhere enjoying private time with his laptop. Steve was channel surfing and I quickly found myself riveted to the unfamiliar world of cable TV, as hypnotized as a chicken with a stroked head. Jackie returned from a late meeting to find both of us silently absorbed in the suffocating world of “Hoarders”, a reality show about people who compulsively collect trash until it takes over their whole house.

“How can you enjoy watching that?” Jackie exclaimed.

I didn’t know. But it was the same question I found myself wanting to put to the audiences of middle America’s performing arts centers as, over the next two days, I wandered around the trade show floor.

Where dreams come true

When Jackie or Steve had time to help me at the Squonk stand, I’d take off for a few minutes to wander up and down the rows of our rivals’ booths. These were crammed with Photo-shopped artist posters, merchandise, video screens. I could generally tell which agency had the most successful acts by the size of their digital screens and by the relaxed look of the agent. Broadway shows – or acts based on Broadway musicals, no matter how tenuous the connection – were at the top of the pile. They sold themselves.

“Why should I book you when I can get The Two Tenors for the same price?” a lady presenter had demanded from Steve at the opening night party. “If I book a Broadway act, I am guaranteed ticket sales.”

“Are you like Spam-a Lot?” a presenter from a college town in Missouri had asked me hopefully. “We filled the house with that one!”

Squonk’s stint on the Big Apple’s avenue of dreams had been a decade ago. They had messed with people’s minds at the Helen Hayes Theater on West 44th for three weeks, then holed up for three months at the innovative off-Broadway venue PS122. Jackie’s music was post-modern classical – Meredith Monk meets Elbow, with a bit of progressive rock thrown in. Not exactly thigh slapping feel good ditties.

I passed rows of more tribute acts – there were several rival Beatles ‘experiences’, who tried to differentiate their products by specializing in different periods of the Fab Four’s output: one group stuck strictly to the early 60s ‘Please, Please Me’ sounds and mop top look. Another group offered to take you back to their psychedelic period, and their agent hung their Sergeant Pepper’s costumes on racks behind her to prove it.

Genres that I thought had disappeared with vaudeville were apparently still alive and well. There were “mentalists” who could dazzle you with their psychic powers and hypnotic gifts. There were giant images of mascaraed men leaning towards the camera flourishing top-hats – magicians who offered “spine-tingling thrills and chills for the whole family”.

Other genres that were defying the relentless Darwinism of fashion, were also well represented. Folk music in all its scrubbed forms – celtic folk represented by men with well combed beards holding fiddles, bluegrass played by people with a full set of teeth and music degrees. You could also buy intimate nights with singer-song writers like Janis Ian, or inspirational one woman or one man shows with titles like ” 18 Reasons to Live, Laugh and Love.”

Finally, there were images of artists I had actually seen. The thin, well dressed lady from Pomegranate Artists represented New York’s former avant-garde, now so firmly established, they are perhaps now simply called ‘garde’: her roster included Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson.

“Whats Laurie up to nowadays I asked?”

“You know she just did some shows at the Sydney Opera House? ” the agent offered, picking up on my Australian accent.

“Laurie had a dream one night. She performed a concert for an audience that was all dogs. And when she woke up she thought “Thats what I’m going to do”. So she and Lou (Reed – her husband) were in Sydney curating the Vivid Festival a few months ago, and she announced she was going to do a show for dogs. And thats exactly what she did. Thousands of people turned up with their dogs and listened to Laurie’s music on the steps of the Opera House.”

“I can imagine that was a huge success.” I said, and I suddenly felt jealous. “Australians have the sense of humor and fun to really go for something like that.”

“Yes! Thats what we thought, we couldn’t imagine a concert like that working so well anywhere else.”

I wandered back to the Squonk booth, jealous on two counts: that I had missed out on Laurie’s canine concerto, where the audience would have been just as entertaining as the music; but also jealous of an artist who had reached the international stature where she could just wake up one day, and effortlessly make her dreams come true.

“Its because of art that we are here”

Over two nights, Squonk performed scenes from their non-narrative, experimental musical Mayhem and Majesty, in a glass atrium called the Arts Garden. The Arts Garden was a glass and steel structure that formed part of a walkway between buildings overlooking Indianapolis’s main street. As Squonk’s surreal video projections and kinetic sculptures looped and flew about the stage, I divided my time between staring at the streetscape of one of the Midwest’s most prosperous towns, and scrutinizing the reactions of the presenters in the audience.

At the conference luncheons, each keynote speaker had delivered an impassioned speech about the importance of art: “Its because of art that we are here”, each speaker reminded the diners, as we sawed into our microwaved chicken and apricot main. Each speaker reminded us that the role of arts administrators and theatre presenters was a sacred one. This was because the performing arts at their best opened minds, they provided a heightened experience of reality, a spiritual experience. As soon as the speakers left the stage, they were followed by bands who were providing the luncheon entertainment. The conference lunch spots were the most expensive spots in the conference, as artists/ booking agents paid premiums to strut their stuff in front of a captive audience of a thousand eaters.

Some of the spiritual experiences that attendees were then exposed to, which were greeted with enthusiastic applause, included a Ricky Nelson tribute show, and Ball in the House – a white A Cappala group that did R&B jingles “with no drum machines or tapes. Its all done with our mouths! Please keep fork clattering to a minimum.”

Despite the lack of ’60s nostalgia or tongue beatbox gymnastics, the Squonk showcases were going surprisingly well. After each performance, there were presenters who clapped wildly, then turned around and sought me out. Their eyes were a-gog. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” they said as they shook my hand, and we agreed to talk next week. By the end of our second night of showcases, I had enough cards in my wallet to suggest that Squonk would have bookings for the next two seasons. The company would survive to dazzle and disturb yet another day.

But one presenter who did not seek me out was George, the retired presenter from Saukville, Wisconsin. George had turned up on the first night, he was the first to arrive. He dragged out a cafe chair to position himself near the stage, and settled in with a look of great expectation. But as the show started and progressed, I could see George’s profile start to transform, brow and mouth melting like a wax figurine, drooping slowly from excitement to horror. In one scene, where high pitched frequencies transformed sand on metal plates into shape-shifting mandalas, George drew his fingers up to his ears. I immediately felt like a heel, a smarty pants fraud. I shouldn’t have wasted this kindly man’s time. But he stayed till the end. And when the show finished, he did not clap but sat in his seat for a while. Then he got up and walked slowly away like he had something on his mind.

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