According to The Los Angeles Times, “Rachel Rosenthal bills herself simply as a performance artist. That’s about as accurate as calling the Taj Majal a house. The woman is a monument and a marvel. She is a force of nature…She is timeless, ageless, gutsy, quirky, exotic, potentially poignant.”
Back when I was in grad school at the University of Nevada Reno, Rachel Rosenthal came to visit. I didn’t know what to expect, but attending her performance came highly recommended by my friend Helen Jones who ran the Women’s Center. “Don’t miss it,” she said. And I was glad I didn’t. I can still feel the energy with which she filled the room, even if I don’t quite recall the particulars.
Flash forward many years later when another Helen, this one Helen O’Neil, invited me to Rachel Rosenthal’s 83 birthday celebration and book release party.
The DbD Experience: Chance Knows What It’s Doing! DbD, or “Doing by Doing” describes her signature method of teaching improvisational theater. In the 130-page book, the Obie winning performer explores improvisational theater and its relationship to life, offering a blow-by-blow account of what happens in her 34-hour DbD weekend intensive workshops (currently still happening on a bi-annual basis in Los Angeles). This mix of memoir, teaching manual, and manifesto was edited by Kate Noonan and is set for US release December 15 2009 by Routledge (ISBN 978-0-415-55102-1, http://www.routledge.com).
“Chance is the core of improvisation,” says Rosenthal when crystallizing the point of her teaching methods, “The DbD Experience is about breaking down borders, opening up to the givens, activating the moment, and paying attention to what is.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I told her. “Unless of course I win that wine blogging contest and go to Portugal–haha!” Well wonders will never cease–I did win that wineblogging contest, went to Portugal, and was just too severely jetlagged to go to LA the day after I returned.
The press was dubbing it “The Cultural Event of the Year” so I was expecting an over-crowded, stuffy event to honor Rachel Rosenthal’s decades of theater and performance art. All I knew was that Rachel did performance art in the 60’s and had a shaved head.
The hosting gallery, Track 16, in the Bergamot Station, Santa Monica CA, avoided décor with just plain white walls. Half the gallery was dedicated to the works for a silent auction that benefited Rosenthal Company’s TOHUBOHU! This new performance troupe, bills itself as an “Extreme Theater Ensemble” where nothing is scripted, rehearsed or repeated.
The event also premièred her new book The DbD Experience – Chance Knows What it’s Doing!, a mix of memoir, philosophical musing, and teaching manual. Here she explored improvisational theater and its relationship to
life, offering a blow-by-blow account of what happens in her DbD weekend intensive workshops.
Among the 83 pieces were works by John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Robert Rauschenberg, Lita Albuquerque, Eleanor Antin, Judy Baca, Ed Moses and June Wayne. A Ed Ruska was going for $1,000; a happy celebrant won a large painting by The Unknown Heartist, for only $70, which several us felt was the superior piece. Many of the artists who contributed the art to the silent auction were in attendance.
Balloon sculpture, Pali X-mano, (www. pali-x-mano.com) whose works float around Burning Man and Santa Barbara Soltice, was there in his fun spattered pain over-alls, showing off his portfolio, which included a 20¹x20¹ tentacle
balloon that housed a 4-piece band.
Stand out art came from Photographer Lennybruce Lee, Llyn Foulkes collage “Letters to Rachel,” and metal and glass sculpture by George Herms.
While I never saw the Rauschenberg, I did see Clint Steinhauser’s beautiful necklace, “Rachel’s Head” which really showed the love these artists have for her and her powerful inspiration.
This was turning out to be more of a real Birthday party with people cooing over the birthday girl and chiming about her experiences with her.
There was a big cake from the Cake Divas, towering a top the 20 foot table lined with petit fours, gold sprinkled cookies, Croquembouche and chocolate cookies with handwritten ŒR¹s.
The Bar had a lovely supply of Hogarten Beer, White Cosmos and Bitch Bubbly. While Bitch, a grenache from Grateful Palate Imports, is considered by many a for the “label only” wine, the Bitch Bubbly was a lovely very dry Rose which complemented the desert table.
John Fleck MCed. Performances of mime, vaudeville, and song included Amy Knoles from the California E.A.R. Unit and Jean Paul Monsché of the Mad Alsacians. All rich with accolades to Rachel, with her concluding, that she hoped we all had a lot of money to spend.
The receiving line was long and diverse: Rosenthal’s fame rose in the 1950s as artistic director and performer in her totally improvised “Instant Theater.” In the 1960s and 1970s, she was a pioneer in animal rights issues, and was a founder of “Womanspace,” a hotbed of feminism. Among the guests were her fellow comrades with the look of past battles in their eyes, while young students knelled down beside her with their glowing faces.
And then magically there was a break in the line. I turned to Rachel and mentioned that I just had turned 50 and it was amazing to see her here at 83. She just held my arm with both her hands, looked at me and smiled. Then I felt this great wave of energy. After a timeless moment I walked back to a chair. I sat and absorbed the whirl of joyous energy, strong enough to alter the Bitch Bubbly in my head. And I thought, Wow! does her art carry this energy across to an audience?
The evening closed with Alberto DeAlmar, playing Flaminco guitar in front of the Dosco Indian food truck, while the last of us danced and clapped.
Like The Los Angeles Times says of Rachel, “Rosenthal bills herself simply as a performance artist. That’s about as accurate as calling the Taj Majal a house. The woman is a monument and a marvel. She is a force of nature…She is timeless, ageless, gutsy, quirky, exotic, potentially poignant.”
I believe ‘em.
Happy Birthday Rachel!
Accounts of Rachel Rosenthal’s Birthday party from the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly help to illuminate this force of nature:
as do these photos from ARTinfo’s recent shoot:
and these images from the birthday bash:
Watch this space for an upcoming review of Rachel Rosenthal’s new book, the upcoming performance in February and more.