by Robert Becraft
Robert Becraft: You seem to place importance on complete self- direction and performance, at times being the only one on cast. How did this uncanny theatrical approach develop?
Miranda July: I didn’t completely start out that way. The first thing I made was when I was 16, a play based on a correspondence that I had through the mail with a man in prison. I put it on in the punk rock club in my town, Gilman Street. Not that I was punk or even listened to music, but that was acceptable to me as a 16 year-old kid. At that point I wasn’t in it, it had actors, and weirdly enough they were adults. Somehow it didn’t occur to me to case my classmates, probably because I didn’t have any friends. [Laughs.] By the time I was about 20, I was in the plays myself.
RB:Despite your multi-media talents and the meticulous attention you pay to each aspect of theatre, guests responsible for integral parts of production take part in many of your performances. Zac Love composed a live score to accompany the Swan Tool, and Mitsu Hadeishi controlled the video imagery. Is a successful collaboration worth aesthetic compromises?
MF: There aren’t really aesthetic compromises. Basically, I tell them these completely insane ideas of what I want and they come up with brilliant ways to convey that feeling. I used to be more controlling with Zac, but as we have worked together for a long time he knows exactly what I like and don’t like, so I can get away with just explaining my feeling.
RB: What is the significance of live music to accompany the Swan Tool?
MJ: I guess I’ve never really thought about having recorded music, something about that seems really cheesy to me.
RB: Twills, lulls, wheezes, and whoops add breath to your sound pieces. Do tonal patters and pitch modulations act to bring together chaotic dialogue?
MJ: There are lots of times where I come to a point where language or words become dull compared to what I’m actually trying to say. At that point, it lifts off into non-linguistic sound. It is language, but it’s less experienced, so something about the newness of it, [combined with] the fact that it’s familiar, gives it a certain power. I think the privacy in the communication is what I like. I think this comes out of live performance, where I feel in that moment I can do almost anything and be understood because there’s a certain connection. SO the sound comes out of a complete sense of freedom in communication.
I love writing, and I love what language can do, and [I] read avidly, but because a lot of language is just mundane, like the kind of communication you just have every day with various people, that kind of communication almost seems like it can be replaced with sounds.
RB: Your work would seem to appeal to an audience beyond steadfast indi rock fans. Why choose two prominent, Northwestern, independent labels, Kill Rock Stars and K, to release your work?
MJ: It appeals now to a wider audience, but going back to the first play I did, because I just happened to do it in this punk music club, I couldn’t help but find out that time, around 1990 and 1992, about riot grrrl and fanzines. The do-it-yourself, I-don’t-want-to-do-because-I –can-just-make-it-up-and-do-it-right-now-in-my-room approach was completely where I was. Through that, I kept making friends with those people, and that led to being in bands, and I moved to the Northwest. I wasn’t really a particularly conscious thing.
I think it was when I was performing with the Need [while in the CB Barnes Band]. I hadn’t really thought about putting out a recorded by myself, but Slim from Kill Rock Stars called me and said, If you ever want to record something, we’d be happy to put it out.” I guess it seemed cool that I didn’t really care about having a band or something. I don’t know why they approached me, but it definitely established my career in this one vein, which was indie music. A great thing about that was it was young people. Now I’m realizing a lot of the support for performance was actually caters to a slightly older audience because tickets are so expensive. Right now I’m straddling both worlds, but I don’t see one as better for me.
RB: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being based in Portland as opposed to a larger metropolis? How can the cream and the dregs of the city’s cultural atmosphere be described?
MF: I can’t handle a lot of stimuli. I love finding out about new things, reading, and going to things, but I need it in a controlled form because I’m so impressionable in a way. I like the fact that only a few things make it to Portland and I’m forced to avidly hunt down other things I am interested in. Maybe it’s not quite as culturally aware as it could be, but for me personally, making my art it is really conducive to working.
RB: How are your works contrived? Are themes drawn from personal experience, subliminal memories, or social observations?
MJ: It’s a combination of personal experience and also the experiences of other people. But ultimately it is my-ormore than my-story. In living and trying to figure out myself every day, the byproduct is my art. Sometimes I don’t understand the work while I’m making it, but it’s like a little message in a bottle to myself. Maybe six months later, I’ll perform it and come to a realization about what it means. And it’s incredibly comforting to think I knew that all along. I think I’m slow to processing things on a surface level, but very quick underneath, so I’m always trying to catch up with myself. That constant catching-up process is through my art. It’s like a conversation with myself. There’s all sorts of layers on top of that, aesthetics, technology, or rhythm, and that’s all intimately connection to my being able to understand it as a human.
RB: What cryptic language, rituals, and movements used to convey the ineffable, is there a danger of becoming esoteric or pretentious? How do you draw the line between experimental theatre and flippant farce?
MF: To other people it might seem like I just made this up, or I just thought this was a clever way to do it, but it’s actually real. This is really happening to me. It occurs alone, and I duplicate it on stage. So it’s no more pretentious than just living is, because to me it is just living. It’s only experimental to the extent that living is experimental. I thin kits almost more pretentious If you don’t have things be experimental; it’s as if you’ve already proved your hypothesis in life. All I’m doing again and again is saying I don’t know. This is the living, breathing, and exciting experience of not knowing.
RB: Was directing a music video for Sleater-Kinney a new kind of endeavor? Did the project create any challenges, frustrations, or insights?
MJ: It’s weird to think that I made that before I had ever used a crew before. Partly it was made easier by the fact that they were old friends of mine. The night before we shot, we sat down in the living room and they were like, “So tell us what it’s going to be about.” They just completely trusted me, a wonderful thing when you’re not necessarily in the best position to trust yourself. It was like. “Well, I have the faith of these three amazing woman. Chances are, they’re not crazy.”
It kind of made Nest of Tens possible because it was a crash course in working with a crew, and working in this more conventional manner. But as a directorial endeavor, it wasn’t that hard. I probably knew what my limits were and didn’t over-extend myself. It was also driven by die-hard fans that would haul [themselves] through freezing field for the move of the band,, and I think that was made use o fin the best way. That’s the great thing with working with a band. It’s really happened and it’s not for the money.
RB: even short clips from The Amateurist reveal pervasive but latent social neuroses, lurking under retro-kitsch tableaux and costumes. While many avant-garde performances turn to sensory assault to make an immediate impact on spectators, many of your films seem to capture reality with a direct but subtle sincerity. Is something to this effect intended?
MJ: I think that goes back to where my work comes from, and why a sensory assault wouldn’t serve my purposes, which is intimately connected with just living.
RB: Is your motif to capture life?
MJ: Yeah, but probably a less emphasized layer of life. Which is more an intuitive and-I hesitate to use this word, but-spiritual level. How the spirit is processed through these mundane places that are where we live.
RB: Ultimately, what is the motif of your work? Projections of bleak existence?
MJ: There is this wonderfulness about living that is the main thing that I feel, but it definitely has drawn currents of sadness or bleakness within that. I don’t think that’s not wonderful, I think they’re just like different pitches of the same note. Sometimes, expressing the bleak feeling of it is more important in making people feel not so alone and desolate.
RB: Can dialogues in your plays be perceived as monologues, perhaps reflecting something universal but intimately personal?
MJ: In The Amateurist, there are numbers which are placeholders for feelings, in the same way that language is a placeholder of feelings, or sounds can be. The Nest of Tens, the Swan Tool, and this new movie I’m making called Getting Stronger Everyday, uses shapes, which are again a kind of placeholder for this thing that is very familiar, but without a way to exactly say it. All you can do is point at it. All my work tries to create a place for that, either through invented language, or even just little things like a gesture or intonation, which allude to something unknowable but familiar. Familiar everyday systems are the intersection between those and more secret or below-the-surface ones. That nexus is probably where a lot of my work is.
Featured Article February 1998