It’s not every day you hear of a musical that’s both a rumination on death and a
big gay extravaganza, but then again it isn’t every day that Chris Tanner creates a musical. Mr. Tanner’s latest is The Etiquette of Death, a collaborative effort that threads together scenes and songs from a long list of downtown theater staples to tell the story of sensational beauty product t.v. saleswoman Joan Girdler (played by Mr. Tanner), whose ailing son (Brandon Olsen) gives her the chance to meet her biggest fan – Death herself (Everett Quinton). Below is a condensed version of a conversation New York Press recently had with Mr. Tanner, in which he talks about his inspirations for exploring death, the collaborative efforts that brought the play together, and why he wants you to walk out of the theater laughing at your own mortality.
NEW YORK PRESS: When did you get involved in theater and the creative arts, and what brought you to New York City?
CHRIS TANNER: I was always an artist. The first drawings that I made as a kid were of Honey West with her beauty mark and her beautiful bosom smoking a cigarette with diamonds around her neck. I moved to San Francisco to go to art school, where I studied neon sculpture, and I got a small part in the chorus of Anything Goes. I found homosexuality and musical theater at the same time. After college, I went to CalArts to study acting, and we had an excursion to go see the agents in New York City. When I went there, that was it: I loved New York. I moved there in 1979, and immediately began working at La MaMa.
You remain a painter and a sculptor [see Mr. Tanner's work at his website]. Do you see theater as an escape from your other projects, or more as a complimentary means of expression?
Art and theater really both inspire me. They’re very different, and I usually don’t do them at the same time. They really come from a different place. But they feed each other. I love them both. The paintings are a constant support. Financially and artistically, doing these paintings is important for me as a human, just to get out this art. In [The Etiquette of Death], everybody involved gets a drawing – so I’m a barterer. I pay for everything with my art.
The Etiquette of Death is the final show of La MaMa’s 50th anniversary season, and also dedicated to the theater’s founder, Ellen Stewart, who passed away last year. What makes Etiquette fitting for this position?
Ellen was like my other mother. I would go to her for personal problems, everything. She was a nutty, crazy, wonderful, powerful, wild woman. I loved her very much. [The play] is a big extravaganza, a big ol’ fashioned huge homosexual drag queen production with big wigs, and the set’s all glitter. 20 actors with 10 piece band, lavish costumes, a gorgeous set – it’s a huge amount of work. You could never do that anywhere [else] with such expertise. I don’t believe that anyone could do what we did for how little money, and La MaMa is famous for supporting projects like that. It has a history of lavish shows.
Talk about the process of putting together The Etiquette of Death, both conceptually and collaboratively. What inspired the exploration of the etiquette of death?
Seven or eight years ago, I did Ravished by Romance at La MaMa, another lavish show based on all the poetry by my dead lover Steven Lott. I still wanted to do something [more] with death and that poetry – it was a great feeling, getting my dead lover’s work out, to make it live again. About 5 years ago, I started getting together with Greta Jane Pedersen [who plays Isis in Etiquette] to talk about doing a show about death. With Gary’s [Hayes, a set designer and friend of Mr. Tanner's] passing last year, I came up with the idea of asking some of my favorite writers in an e-mail if they would like to write a 10 minute scene of their take on the etiquette of death. People started sending me stuff, but they weren’t sending it quick enough, so I realized that I better start writing something too. But then people started really sending stuff in. We cut the show down to 2 hours. I don’t really care if it’s correct, a regular 90-minute musical or whatever. Death is a big, messy, huge thing that is always out of control. I just wanted it to be good and to honor the people involved.
Drag plays a huge role in The Etiquette of Death, with many characters played by opposite genders. How are reversed gender parts important to the piece?
I think that inside of everyone there’s masculine and feminine. I love laughing and dressing up and singing and that sort of thing. We’re all gonna die – I just wanted to help people to be able to accept it a little bit easier. There’s something about when people are dying that makes everything else go away so that only the most important things stay. It’s a very interesting journey – kind of wonderful, mostly ghastly. It’s the most important thing in the world then, because that’s someone you love. I don’t have much to say about [why reversing the gender parts is important]. I just work from my gut.
[Mr. Tanner recommends looking at recent blog post on gender in the play by Journalist Edward M. Gómez.]
With full chorus, major key songs like “we’re all gonna die,” the show uses humor to suggest that death can – and perhaps should – be celebrated as a shared human experience, not feared, shunned, or condemned. Is this the right way of looking at death?
I think it is a great way to go. I love [the show's finale]: everyone’s singing, everyone’s going out of the theater smiling and knowing that they’re going to die. It’s just so nutty. Death is taboo – I want to break through all taboos. I don’t want people to have the guilt and shame usually involved. Just let it all go. It’s all about living every day like it’s your last.
The play is part of the Queer New York arts festival. What do you think this festival brings to NYC theater?
The festival is wonderful, especially for young people. People come from all over the country. It’s still not easy to be gay. It’s easier now because of tv, but New York is still a destination for many young gays. I think it’s all about nurturing them and making them feel okay about who they are.
What will you be working on next?
I’m currently writing a one-man theatrical show, Tippy Toes Tanner. I’m also getting a new series of paintings together to show in 2013.
The Etiquette of Death, the final show of La MaMa’s 50th Anniversary season, runs from June 14 – July 1, 2012 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, located at 66 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & the Bowery in New York City. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 5:30pm with the exception of the Sunday, June 24 performance, which will be at 2:30pm. Tickets are $18 for adults and $13 for students and seniors and can be purchased online at LaMaMa.org, in person at the box office or by calling 212-475-7710. For more information visit LaMaMa.org.
– Paul Bisceglio
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