I soon realised when in Edinburgh, doing my one man show a couple of years ago, that one needs some kind of strong visual quirk of costume or trademark, to make one stand out from the crowd and every other precocious performer vying for attention. And let me assure you, at a Fringe Festival, there are plenty of them! Short of donning an oversize animal suit, a la Disney, or walking on four foot stilts or going around sporting a cabbage leaf as a beard… as I witnessed, there is little that springs immediately to mind for a writer!
One is in competition with professionally trained performers who tend to be naturally, larger than life with a voice and presence to match. Whilst I am by no means a shrinking violet, I do have to turn on the more extrovert side of me.
In contemplating what to wear in America, I decided to take my 50’s straw hat that I had bought especially from a vintage gentleman’s outfitters in Greenwich to wear in my Edinburgh show, Message In a Bottle, which was my tribute to the 70th anniversary of the popular Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs.
In something of a doff to that show and as a kind of novelty trademark, I decided wherever I ventured in the US, I would always be seen to be wearing the hat. I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing as it seems to age me in respect of those middle aged guys who take to wearing hats to hide their receding hairlines or baldness. But it becomes a kind of friend by the end of my time here. It has literally followed me everywhere, or accompanied me I should say. Perhaps it has even kept a little sun off me, which is an added bonus, though not much since it doesn’t have a broad brim. Today I am also wearing the official purple ‘San Diego International Fringe’ tee shirt that was kindly presented to me by Kevin, the Festival Organiser.
In San Diego, I have something of the same feelings of being an isolated performer, a one-man band, despite the fact I am not performing; I am the writer of a three-hander play. But because they are American actors and have day jobs or other pursuits to follow in the case of Loie, I am usually to be found on my own. I think this is why I am enjoying the camaraderie of the other British and American performing acts. It means I’m not isolated and alone.
Another lone performer is Devra, the San Diego based dancer and Michael Jackson impersonator. I first see her on the Tenth Avenue Rooftop perform an uncanny rendition in full gold jacket, shades and black pants costume. Facially and physically she embodies his character and as a dancer she has the moves off and since he was so androgynous and slight, it is very plausible that a woman should portray him.
The first Public Previews of the San Diego International Fringe Festival are at Sprecklels Theatre on 2nd July at 7pm. It will take the same format as the Rooftop event at Tenth Avenue Theatre a couple of nights previously, each company presenting a two-minute extract. But Bryant decides that in view of this and the present state of our show, we need to utilise this valuable time for another rehearsal.
By means of compensation, it occurs to me that I shall need to give my show an extra boost of publicity. I need to be there as the audience files into the theatre to flier them if I am to stand any chance of competing.
Now a note about the gentle art of fliering: I also learnt at Edinburgh the necessity of self-promotion, of having to flier the public and actively engage with them about your show. It is something that everyone feels obliged to do in order to build up a decent audience to the thing you have devoted a large part of your life to. Nobody who hasn’t created their own show will understand the kind of fanatical grip that overpowers you, lending superhuman powers of endurance whilst you seize every conceivable opportunity to thrust a flier into the hands of the least aggressive looking passer by and bore them with a list of reasons why on earth they should pay to come and see your show over all the others. It is an art form. Avoiding the brush of rejection to befriend, then engage your prey. And if an affable Englishman can’t charm a few American ladies into coming to see a show about Marilyn Monroe, then what can he do?
Having got a lift downtown with Ryan, I pop in to see my cast then walk up Broadway to cross over the many blocks between Tenth Avenue and First Avenue where Spreckels is situated.
I naturally assume every other company will also be there like an assembled scrum of paparazzi press photographers, swarming around a red carpet premiere, vying for attention and waiting to pounce on unsuspecting members of the public. I arrive to take up my position and am gobsmacked to find I am a lone ranger. The place is deserted.
I begin to wonder if I have the wrong night or venue when I am joined by Devra, who, as a seasoned performer obviously knows the importance of fliering and doesn’t miss a trick in this respect, loitering outside most theatres pre and post shows handing out her fliers. We chat and she tells me she will be fliering the ‘Gaslamp District’ later on as she doesn’t want to waste time watching the second half of the Preview since she is done in the first half! Would I like to join her? Again, in my spirit of saying yes to everything, I happily consent as I want to explore more of down town San Diego away from the familiar beaten path of the theatres and experience what it would be like to flier with ‘Michael Jackson’.
We agree to meet up in the interval.
There are very few members of the public entering the theatre and I begin to be concerned I have somehow missed them.
I step though the mini doorway cut out from one of the huge double barn stage doors and walk to the wings of the theatre. There is a hive of activity behind the flats and I find myself staring at the darkly lit, back stage magic of a Laura Knight painting. There are ballerinas flexing and en point, gracefully dipping like swans breaking the surface of water and rising again. On one particular ballerina I am transfixed. Unusually tall and graceful, wearing a black bodice and tutu with white tights, she has more the appearance of an elegant ostrich, only with far shapelier, powerful legs that completely captivate my attention. I see the Haste Theatre girls in their unusual costumes and the Tin Shed Theatre guys and Doctor Smochter cast as I make my way onto the stage to find a seat. I am astounded to see a fairly full house of around 150 seats- some obviously made up of performers but I realise the audience must have entered the theatre via a different route- from the front perhaps? And I sneak up stairs to the back row as the previews have already started and the stage is in pitch darkness!
It is again a revelation seeing short clips from this year’s fare. A sensational black and red costumed troupe that are magnificently Spanish looking with a great flair for dance and theatre and a very strong cabaret type musical troupe who are performing a Kurt Weil Opera with great aplomb! A New Yorker called Dacyl, acts her balsy comic one-woman show, Will Work For, about her increasingly desperate attempts to find work and survive redundancy in post recession New York City.
The variety is stunning. Then the ballerinas make their debut and the one I was captivated by is on my side of the stage spinning and dipping seemingly in front of me with that long perfect poised neck and flashing dark Eastern eyes.
I am handed a programme with the companies performing listed in Two Acts and am dismayed to read that we are down on the list to perform tonight in Act 2, despite not being here. I mention to someone that we wouldn’t be performing but I was told later that my name was called out and everyone waited but nobody appeared.
At the interval, Devra comes over and asks if I am ready? We hit the road.
It is a real eye opener accompanying someone who is the reincarnation of Michael Jackson and particularly in America, the kind of blind adulation that he still engenders from beyond the grave.
“Michael” people call out transfixed, questioning their knowledge of his death when he is clearly re-embodied in front of them.
“We thought you were dead, Michael,” the more daring add, as if in humour.
“We love you Michael” others chant. People stare in star struck wonder and want to come and talk and Devra is ready for this.
Then she hands them a flier for her show.
“Is it a Michael Jackson Show”? They enquire.
“No, it’s a show about my life” she responds honestly “but it starts with me doing Michael”.
“Do you sing”? They ask?
“Do you dance?”
“Yes. I’m a dancer so that not exactly difficult for me”.
She explains to me the contrary nature of this business of her duality in that
”They think they’re getting a Michael Jackson impersonator. That’s all they want you to do! But this is obviously about my life, which is when the real die hard fans lose interest.”
“There is a Michael Jackson Tribute Show coming up in San Diego a week on Sunday which is going to be massive. I was thinking of fliering it post show and see if I can capture a few that way.”
I feel for her because in a way she is trapped by the huge following of his fans that are blind to a show about anything other than Michael. Who after all wants to hear about your life?
“Can we get a picture with you?”
“Okay”, she sighs, “Well I usually say for a tip. Otherwise I’d be doing it all night.”
So she patiently stands by while these fans arrange themselves around her grinning like they’ve just been reunited with the dead!
“Michael” and in that one name there is the recognition, the lament, and the question that they could possibly be seeing their hero resurrected before them as real as life. “Are you a ghost?”
I suppose Devra has heard them all by now. Yet its part of her show, part of her.
“I never intended to become a Michael Jackson Impersonator,” she confesses in her show, Woman In the Mirror: A Dancer’s Journey. And in fact she has been a lot of other things in her time. A brave, woman of integrity who, in trying to stay loyal to her roots and love of dance has had to move sideways, crab like, to cover a lot of the seedier sides of the business in order to continue her love of movement, exercise and mastery of her chosen profession she trained so hard for.
Seeing her show made me humbled for the hoops she has had to jump through, for the way she has reinvented herself time and again, moulded herself to the economic vagaries of her profession and lived to triumph over the verisimilitudes life can throw at a dancer, at such a transient career.
Now in her fifties, she seems to celebrate the flexibility and pliancy of her figure as a testament to her life story and journey. It is a poignant show, which seems to me to express a woman at a crossroads in her life, uncertain of the next route to take. As if she is balanced on the threshold of the next period when the body must, by definition, start to lose its perfection and the finely tuned machine starts the inevitable slow journey towards decline.
As with all these one person shows what one marvels at, in the end, is the sheer confessional honesty with which they are told, and the fact here is a snap shot of a person’s life.
She tells me that she hired the Tenth Avenue Theatre to put on her show before the Fringe at considerable expense and is reprising her show at the same venue to be included as part of the Fringe.
As we go round she graciously introduces me to the crowds and says I have a show about Marilyn Monroe for me to flier too. There is a glimmer of recognition on their faces before focus pulls back to Michael. Image peddling two of the greatest icons of all time through the restaurant and café littered streets of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Avenue to seated diners and booking hostesses at lecterns is one of the more unusual of my American adventures.
I am never going to experience this again I tell myself and see it as a unique insight into the kind of surreal fanatical celebrity fan worship here.
One black girl leaves her friends and comes trotting out of a restaurant to get Devra’s number for a private party- her birthday. It’s all about her. She’s not interested in Devra as a person only the image she represents in front of her and the power of that lingering icon continues to play in the minds and hearts of black America out of proportion to what kind of man he was and his dubious private life, which could so easily have been found to be suspect, had he lived to be investigated properly.
“Hey Michael! I want to hire you for my Birthday! Yeah, I’m gonna get you to come on over and entertain me and my friends. Do you sing? Can you sing? Oh my God, I want you to sing for me! I’m going to book you for a private party. Oh, you don’t sing? Oh, that’s too bad! So… what do you do exactly?”
I’d be surprised if she got one person or couple to attend her show through those exchanges. And I realised I was no competition when faced with her and though it was a real eye opener and a chance to check out the Gaslamp District café’s nightlife, it was a futile exercise as most people just wanted to eat and indulge in a little free diversionary restaurant entertainment as they hoofed their steak, beef burgers or Mexican tacos in the warm open air.
It was like feeding time at the zoo. This is the tourist area of San Diego, the place to hang out and be seen. Each Avenue from the Fourth to the Sixth, sixteen and a half blocks of café’s, bars and restaurants, largely created in the 1980’s ‘historical gaslamp’ themed redevelopment, to sit and eat outside and watch the world go by. Originally this area was know as ‘New Town’ when it started to be developed in the 1860’s by Alonzo Horton, the real estate developer who arrived in San Diego in 1867 and purchased 800 acres of land to build on.
The sprawling modern shopping mall, Horton Plaza commemorates his name and the part he played in developing modern downtown San Diego. By building the wharf directly at the harbour end of Fifth Avenue, Horton opened up the immediate area to visiting sailors on leave.
By the 1880’s to 1916, the area became known as the Stingaree, a derivation of “stingray” and was notorious as the contained or “restricted” vice district, home to drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and gamblers in the many saloons, gambling halls and bordellos. Between 1887 and around 1896, the famous former lawman, Wyatt Earp owned four saloons and gambling halls in Stingaree, one on Fifth, one on Fourth Street, and two others near Sixth and E. During the height of San Diego’s real estate boom, Earp was said to earn up to $1,000 a night in profit.
The Oyster Bar on Fifth Avenue was one of the more popular saloons in the Stingaree district. One of the reasons it drew such a dedicated clientele was perhaps the brothel upstairs named the ‘Golden Poppy’. Apparently each room was painted a different colour and each prostitute wore a matching dress.
By the 1950s-1970s the decaying Gaslamp Quarter became known as a “Sailor’s Entertainment” district, with a high concentration of pornographic theaters, bookshops and massage parlours. I suppose it was the equivalent of London’s Soho district in the same period.
Devra and I are literally trawling the empty streets for punters. She explains at 8pm or 9pm we are a little early. The area really doesn’t start to get busy until 10pm and it is a Wednesday night after all!
In fact she even changes pace to a slow-motion meander, giving people a chance to register her and react. Then she gently approaches them in Jackson’s quiet manner. I am feeling increasingly like her bodyguard.
“Hi, how are you guys doing?”
She gets a polite “Good, thank you” and then “Oh my God, it’s Michael.”
The occasional “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come back to haunt you” she retorts.
“Can we get a picture?” they ask. It was as if she was one of those performing monkey’s one used to have one’s photograph taken with at fairs.
We wouldn’t get any of these people interested in attending some fringe show about someone’s life or a play about Marilyn Monroe. They are here to have fun and food. It gets a bit much when we encounter a wedding party outside the columned canopy of a hotel taking photos of the various guests and happy couple. When two older guys spot Devra, its imperative ‘Michael Jackson’ should form part of the Wedding pictures. So although obliging and mentioning a tip, Devra is pressed into every conceivable coupling in this photo shoot while I stand on the sidelines with a stupefied grin on my face. When it’s over they shove a dollar or two at her and don’t want to listen to her about her show. She has fulfilled her purpose.
I suspect that under all this is the simple overwhelming desire for Devra to be loved for who she is, not for what she has disguised herself as in order to be accepted or appreciated? In this respect it is like selling out to the common denominator, popular culture versus high art of ballet and dance? Every American knows who Michael Jackson is but how many of them go to ballet? It’s another example of a woman hiding behind a façade in order to be accepted or compete in her field, like Sitwell or Monroe. Devra has chosen to adopt a recognisable shell through which she can articulate her life, resonate with others and give it meaning.
Talking to her later I suspected that she got most work while he was still alive? “Actually the best months were those following his death” she said “and since then a steady falling off of bookings”.
As we walk back to her car we bump into Jon, the young, fast-talking Australian comic, another sole performer, who is apparently on tour with his show. He has an agent and is making ends meet, like Devra, earning a living through it. I was intrigued, what a fascinating life. He asks if I might be interested in a road trip to Mexico? It sounds like a great idea as I want to travel after the Fringe and I regret not pursuing it. But I think he is after an adventure with border control culminating in getting locked up in jail so he can write about it in his next show. He is one of those loud, personality types that you encounter on the Fringe that you definitely have to ensure you have a strong presence to match up to, lest you are drowned by their overwhelming bravado. By this time of night I am tired and almost ready to switch off.
Talking of common denominator, he has hit on an incredibly popular novelty that he’s turned into a world touring show, Pretending Things Are a Cock, which just goes to show how far a simple knob gag can take you! An entertaining evening closes as Devra kindly drops us both off at our respective lodgings.
The next day exiting the Tenth Avenue Theatre after my show, an older red haired lady with a face full of freckles and piercing pale eyes is stood to the right of the door fliering.
“Hello David” she says. I look distractedly blank at her. “You don’t recognise me, do you?”
“Er… no” I reply.
“It’s Devra,” she says with a knowing grin, completely transformed.