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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Plexus and the Firebug

There was a firebug in Plexus. I’m not talking about Richard Nugent, who published the literary quarterly FIRE during the Harlem Renaissance, and who played the Pope in the art opera Eve in 1986. Nor am I referring to the Italian performance artist (his name escapes me at the moment) who dressed up in a specially designed golden Minotaur costume and roller skated on the streets of the East Village with flames issuing from the horns, as well as his legs and arms. No. I am talking about an arsonist.

There were two core Plexus participants at the three “accidental” fires that I know about. I would be counted as a third except that I was next door when the squat on East Sixth Street was gutted by fire. Fortunately no one was hurt, though a number of people were forced into the street and had to seriously scramble to get roofs over their heads. I had been preparing to stage my death row drama “Monster Time” in the Shuttle Theater, which was in the basement of the squat and arguably the nicest space in the building. In any case, the building was old and the wood lath in the walls and stairwells burned hot and fast. The next two incidents, that I know of, occurred in Italy in the summer of 1989, the first on the island of Sardinia.

We were scheduled to perform the Columbus piece at a mountainside festival. Unfortunately, a one day train strike made us a day late arriving. Instead of Saturday night and a crowd that numbered more than 1,000, we performed on Sunday afternoon for an audience that numbered fewer than a hundred. It was only when we were leaving Sardinia that I discovered we could all have flown for roughly the same amount of money as the train and boat tickets cost, and been there in time.

Nonetheless, it was a beautiful journey. The boat traveled along the coast of Sardinia, which is a huge island, for quite awhile before we arrived at the port of Cagliari. Local artists put us all up. By this time I had married the television actress Sara Jackson, and she was totally into the energy and experimentation that was Plexus. Compared to her soap opera and TV commercials, this was Art.

However, the performer’s art is less exciting when the audience is the most minimalist element of a production. Sara and I had commissioned some great costumes for the Columbus show. (They were recycled and appeared again in my play “The Secret Warhol Rituals” several years later.) I had written a libretto composed entirely of Latin clichés but no one had yet learned their lines, so we were doing the show entirely as a pantomime, or a fashion show – depending on your perspective.

Everyone was fairly disappointed to have come all this way to perform for a handful of people. Say what you will about Plexus being an obscure moment in the annals of performance art in NYC in the late 20th century; when we put on a production the audience was huge – at least a thousand people would show up. Our performance on this remote Sardinian mountainside was listless. Then, suddenly, the mountainside was on fire around us. Tall dry grass was burning. Everyone, cast and audience alike, began to fight the blaze and, miraculously it seemed to me, we quelled it completely.

The third fire was a week later in Rome. This time the only people present were me and the only two others who had been present when the squat caught fire. The chair I was sitting in that caught fire. It started with smoke and when I jumped up flames were visible. We were in the apartment of a young woman who was part of the Roman contingent of Plexus. A pot of water from the kitchen put an end to this conflagration.

Some in Plexus have suggested that spontaneous combustion caused fire to erupt around us. I think it was someone getting their jollies and keeping things interesting in a dangerous way. I am not going to name either of the possible torches. One of them is innocent, and it has been more than twenty years. No one was hurt, and I’ve not heard of any further incidents. Impulsiveness wanes with age. And who is more impulsive than a firebug?

Tomorrow, I will write about Eve – an art opera that fulfilled my expectation

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