Today I want to talk about failure. Reading about other people’s failures, and subsequent successes often inspires me. Dominick Dunne's career comes immediately to mind. There’s a YouTube video titled Best Motivational Video Ever that chronicles this thinking very well. (Click the title to see it.) So maybe talking about one of my own failures will help bring about some success.
Il Viaggio del Serpente (The Voyage of the Serpent) was the Plexus failure that almost made me write off the group’s activities in 1988. I would, of course, succumb to the allure of the group’s experimental opera/theater one more time in 1989 with the Italian tour of Columbus Voyages to the Planet Art. But in 1987-1988, we were all talking about “The Serpent”.
I really went to work on this piece with abandon. It had the makings of being the kind of spectacle that no one could ignore. I began to design the piece and meet with artists. My plan was to have the world’s first opera in the form of a parade. It was to be street theater on a magnificent level. My first play was produced by the street theater unit at McCarter Theater in Princeton. In the early 197os, I lived in Vermont for a year and one of my neighbors down the road was Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. Their spectacles, albeit performed in a field as opposed to an urban street setting, further influenced my thinking about free public theatrical performances. My subsequent and tenuous – to say the least – affiliation with Theater for the New City in Manhattan also led to an appreciation of this métier. So, Il Viaggio del Serpente was to be my personal piece de resistance.
I drew up plans which included a serpent that could be assembled in the street, modular construction style, much as we undertook in Eve – which I promise to write about soon. Participating artists would each be given 12-foot lengths of canvas 40 inches wide, stenciled with a large set of musical staff lines. Each artist would then use whatever imagery, or abstraction, he or she chose to portray musical notation. Canvas carrying straps would be strategically sewn so that each length could be carried over the shoulder of three people. Grommets and ties at either end would serve as the links between each section. Thus, we would have a serpent with musical scales.
The serpent would have two sides and the singers/chanters would be 2 or 3 abreast in between. I also came up with a conical shaped hat design – hats are often important to my costuming concepts, as you’ll learn if you follow this blog or get a chance to see some my shows realized onstage. Everyone within the serpent – musicians, artists, carriers – would wear one of these hats, as well as a poncho-style piece of fabric. The wide part of the hats' conical shape was to be the top and obviously the crowns would be fitted to individuals heads at the bottom. Tops would be closed and painted different colors. The outsides of the hats would be painted with polka dots. This way, as the parade moved through the streets, the dots would undulate like the back of a serpent if seen or filmed from above, for example from a helicopter.
Eric Roberts, the movie actor, who was a friend of mine in those days, agreed to be the parade marshal. He would ride in a Cadillac with a papier mache serpent’s head over the hood. The music was to be all fanfares, and simple lyrics/chants would be created to suit the music. A raised platform on the trunk of the car would be for the conductor. The main body of musicians would follow right behind that. Depending on the final length of the piece, units of musicians would be strategically placed in various sections of the serpent to follow the conductor’s lead. These placements would facilitate the singers and the audience along the way hearing the music at the same time rather than having it waft back from the front.
Rudolf Pippei, the nightclub impresario, was running The Tunnel at the time. He loved the entire concept and agreed to help finance the purchase of materials.
Sandro, who was out of the country during much of my planning, returned. He didn’t like the idea at all. It was too much, too large an undertaking. He had something quite different in mind. Plexus was nothing if it was not Sandro’s effort first and foremost. I didn’t argue with him, though I was seriously disappointed. The artists who had previously been enthused drifted away from the project. I soon found out what Sandro had in mind.
One evening a few core members of Plexus gathered in the President’s Dining Room atop the Bobst Library at NYU. There I was given a gas mask and along with everyone else in the troupe we did a kind of line dance through the assembled audience of academics, to recorded music, as I recall. The Italian television network RAI, at Sandro’s urging, sent a camera crew. My big moment in front of the camera, I lifted the gas mask off my face and said “Save the rain forest.” This apparently got aired in Italy. The next year when I was in Rome, several people commented/complimented me on my “political performance.”
I found the final realization pathetic, no matter who covered it. When Sandro arranged for us to do a similar version in Dakar, Senegal a few months later, I declined to go. It was, for me, a failure. I had burned up some good will and energy to no avail. An interesting idea became a haphazard lurching happening staged for a handful of professors.
I was writing all sorts of magazine articles at the time and shrugged my shoulders at the outcome. Plexus was becoming something quite other than my vision for it, and no matter how much Sandro praised my efforts as impresario and dramaturge, I felt very frustrated. My grand idea – an opera in the form of a parade – should have been too big to fail.