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Is Chris Hardman Sabotaging the American theater or is he saving it? By Steve Erickson, Esquire Magazine 1986
YOUVE just found yourself standing in a place where youve never been. You have a name youve never known and youre involved with a girl youve never seen. Youre thinking things youve never thought in a voice youve never heard. Youre in a place of seventeen rooms, youre reading signs on the walls, signs on the floors. Music is in the background. You come to a room and theres a waft of perfume and in the comer a bed where someone is lying. Shes asleep, says the strange voice in your head. Glide over to the jewelry table, and slide onto the stool. You made it.... On the table is Louises diary. So why not? You open the diary. Louises voice is reading tonights entry aloud, about the great party you just came from but dont quite remember. Great party, Louise confides to her diary, but Jays been putting me off lately. So tonight I faced him. Did she? You dont quite remember. He keeps refusing to take me on a vacation. Im sure he could write the whole thing off as biz, so it really burns me. Im the only one I know who hasnt been out of the States. Your hand rubs the front edge of the table, and then lifts the top. The voice in your head changes to become...feminine. Jay, it coos, you look nervous. Dont be. Relax. Be confident. Now lift up the lid in the center of the table; underneath is a pool of water. Its your final dive. The treasures in there. Sure enough, theres Louises jewelry glittering in a dim puddle. Reach in your hand and lift out the diamonds. Good... close the tabletop. Good luck. You have just committed a crime of rather appealing irony. Youve robbed your blathering gold-digging girlfriend of her own jewels in order to buy her the European vacation she whines about. As you exit the room a crowd erupts in cheers. You did it! your inner voice commends. Such finesse! Such class! Bon voyage. You barely hear the footsteps of someone else behind you. In the next room, or the one after, there will be a gun. In the next room, or the one after, you may kill someone with it. In the next room, or the one after, someone may kill you. In a life of a thousand rooms, this brief chapter is a play titled Artery, written and performed by the Antenna Theater in Sausalito. Its stage is an actual maze constructed of seventeen rooms, each of which constitutes a separate three-minute scene, in which you have been the sole actor, with your thoughts transmitted to you through a headphone. With plays like Artery, Antenna now has become an emblematic leader of a new kind of theater on the West Coast. This new kind of theater might employ a set or no set, costumes or no costumes, action or no action, words or no words, a play or no play. The movement is too diffuse to be characterized by anything other than a common rush to the void, a theater so transitory and amorphous that many would not call it theater at all.

Its adventurers couldnt care less. Since their theater is one of chameleon form, its bound to no place or tradition other than their own heads and their own memories. They dont necessarily reject tradition as much as its arrogance. Theater, explains one leading chameleon, has sort of stepped into the modem world oblivious to everything else. Theater has been saying, Theater should exist because its always existed. I dont find that valid logic. The voice that makes this pronouncement is the same voice in the headphones, the voice that whispered you through Arterys act of crime. In the head of this speaker are the landscapes, voices, and faces of the Antenna Theater. His name is Chris Hard-man, and as Antennas founder, he has spent the last six years unleashing the con tents of his head with delight, abandon, and the cunning of a career saboteur. NOW HARDMANS SITTING ALONG THE Sausalito waterfront behind the wheel of a beat-up red Volkswagen with a gas cap that wont close. He stares, pensively, at a ship anchored in the water just beyond the pier. The Vallejo is a retired ferryboat of such history as to be held together by little more than historical ooze itself. Hardman lets out a long breath. God, he says, its depressing. Chris Hardman, for all the weirdness of his work and reputation, didnt get where he is by not knowing whats what. Im not a fanatic artist, he explains, Im a survival artist, which is another way of saying his gypsy tendencies flourish only when mitigated by pragmatic considerations. The Vallejo appeals to him for its tactical beauties, standing as it does apparently beyond the banalities of ownership and bureaucracy. The waters anarchic, he says, a no-mans-land. At the moment, in the midst of Antennas soaring success, Hardman and the theaters administrator, Annette Rose, his wife; their one-year-old daughter, Trent; and Roses thirteen-year-old son, Alexander, are all gypsies, evicted from their previous residence as a result of the ongoing conflict between Sausalitos developers and bohemians. Theyve been house-sitting a lot. In the afternoons Hardman stands on the hillside flagging down his friends who drive by: Well be moving in next week, he laughs. The friends laugh back about a second too late (Jesus, is he kidding?). Most gypsies go from neighborhood to neighborhood, taking their homes with them. Hardman goes from home to home and keeps the neighborhood. Wherever Hardman is calling home at any particular moment, youre likely to find the door standing wide open; he shows up a few minutes later. Did I hear a door-bell? he wants to know. He looks less like a gypsy than some hobo with dapper pre-tensions, who thinks Ricky Ricardo was a fashion platebaggy pants and second-hand short-sleeved shirts and a skinny little bow tie. His straight brown hair is combed back and he has the rakish moustache of a guy whos slipped out of town just ahead of a posse of angry husbands and card sharks. In the tradition of shady characters, Hardman lacks precision when it comes to the specifics of his own past. I think that happened in...1981, he says when asked when he first arrived in Sausalito. Then his eyes narrow and he muses, No, it must have been earlier1979. The actual year turns out to be 1973. He laughs at his own outrageousness. He loves hearing other people tell Chris Hardman stories. Hardman, thirty-five, served his show-business apprenticeship in Coney Island, working for a man called Sporty who was so named, Hardman remembers, because he wasnt. Hardman was twenty at the time, having come to the carnival by way of Oakwood School in North Hollywood, where he won a Kodak award for a movie about the Salem witch-hunts and tried to dissuade classmate John Landis from lying in the middle of Westwood Boulevard on Friday nights. Upon graduation, Hardman attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, studying sculpture. After two years it was off to work for Sporty, where Hardman did some juggling, fire-eating, and puppet shows. He also revamped the Dragons Cave, a moribund fun house consisting of a couple of black doors and a red light; Hardmans job was to haunt it. The carnival life haunted him back. It was cold. The way they treated their audiences, and how they thought of people as marks... it erased the kind of communication that was the only thing that made any sense to me about art anyway. Also, Sporty

was not exactly worried to distraction about the well-being of his employees. He was prone to buying $300 worth of plaster or whatever and then saying, But how can I pay you? I just bought $300 worth of plaster. Hardman left the carnival. He met a tattoo artist with whom he considered going into business. To avoid the scrutiny of the New York Health Department, which was not enthusiastic about this line of work, he and his new partner planned to work out of a bread van made the year Hardman was born. In the end Hardman decided to forgo the tattoos and drove the van back to Los Angeles instead. He did some street theater in Venice Beach, made some masks for the local Renaissance Faire, and co founded a theatrical troupe called Snake, which slithered north and based itself in a Sausalito shipbuilding shed. Snakes evolution was inspired by Hardmans carnival life and by his peripheral involvement with the seminal Bread and Puppet Theater while at Goddard. I recall seeing Bread and Pup-pet, Hardman says, and thinking theater was more than just actors on a stage. He learned that, as in film, theater might impart a drama that defied language, speaking less to Shakespeares psychological conflicts and more to Jungs mythic ones. Given these illuminations, Snake Theater culminated most spectacularly with Somewhere in the Pacific, a play performed on the beach to hundreds of people and star-ring, among others, a colossal doll, Douglas MacArthur, a setting sun, and words in the sand. All this ended in the spring of 1980 with the sudden death of the theaters composer, Lary Graber, and the final eruption of festering aesthetic differences between Hardman and Snake cofounder Laura Farabough. The Snake halved to grow Faraboughs Nightfire Theater and Hard-mans Antenna, With him, Hardman took Annette Rose, who had come to Snake via a failed marriage in Paris and employment with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She met Hardman while working for the museum on a graphics project. She suspected he was a little different when they were looking over the results one day and he suggested, Why dont we put the page numbers in the middle of the page? ANTENNA QUICKLY BUILT ITS REPUTATION with five productions, the first of which was Vacuum in April 1981. To give a cursory interpretation, Vacuum way the story of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman: it featured an actor with a mask and a briefcase, an actress with a mask and a pile of dirt on her living-room floor, and an audience that not only wrote the script but delivered all the lines. The taped voices Hardman used in the play were of actual salesmen and housewives, compiled from questionnaires from the community and interviews conducted around town. The question was, explains Hardman, how much of our audience could we en-tangle in the preproduction? No playwright could compose, in a way that anyone would believe, the pretty little speech in which a real salesman alerts the potential customer to the nightly accumulation of dead skin in her own bed. Do YOU want to sleep in a bed of dead skin? the sales-man asks in horror. A vacuum cleaner can suck that old dead skin out of your life. America, a sales manager proclaims to his troops, is not to be persuaded by what it needsbecause America is the greatest country in the world and there is nothing that it needs. America, and Americas housewives, are to be persuaded by what they deserve to want. Vacuum opened to acclaim, touring Europe and appearing the next year at Manhattans Performing Garage. Still, within three months of Vacuums debut Hardman was on to something new. While taking in the great artistic masterpieces of Europes museums he was entranced by the Sony Walkman he wore. Beyond the museums embalmed little commentaries, he fantasized ways in which the Walkman could make interaction between art and audience looser and more unpredictable: Cezanne fruit bowls viewed to the nasty sonic joys of Parliament-Funkadelic, or the Mona Lisa to Sonny Rollins. More fascinating, however, was how the Walkman isolated experience: when Hardman took to wearing it all over the city, he was struck by how there was no sound to your own footfall. You a camera, aware of what it sees but not of itself. There was a moment in a Parisian downpour when I swore I wasnt getting wet. Whats an audience, after all, but tourists in a theatrical space? he reasoned. For a new play called High

School, scheduled to open the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Hardman decided to suit up the audience in Walkmans. He also jettisoned the conventional proscenium of Vacuum and headed for the real thing: a San Francisco-area high school. The audience was led on an odyssey through classrooms, girls rooms, the lockers, past the dreaded principals office and mirrors over the sinks made of metal instead of glass, a secondstory window through which a boy sees a beautiful girl and throws her a flower, on to graduation itself. All was accompanied by adolescent Sensurroundsounds of student fights, the woodshop, the droned Pledge of Allegiance, and a Walkman narration nonpareil by Hardmans chosen tour guide, an authentic high school graduate by the name of John Sims. See these hedges here? Sims would explain, exhorting you to touch the shrubbery. These hedges are incredible. Its all soft and nice and everything? Now, the reason this is so weird is cause its like they took a piece of plant and shaved it into a sculptured. You know? Thais what high school is like. They do crap like that to us, you know? The sequel to High School, Pink Prom, was a production Hardman valued for the ways things went wrong: the Walkmans were all out of sync by four or five minutes, resulting in the spectacle of everyone doing the same thing but in different time framesclapping to songs that hadnt played, pointing to apparitions, that hadnt yet appeared. The tech got me on that one, Hardman admits of Pink Prom; but being Hardman, he learned something from it about disconnection. The subsequent manifestations included Artery, the crime theater of the seventeen rooms, and its corollary, Amnesia, in which the audience/actors were amnesiacs on an assembly line of distant recollections, and were doled out bits of identity by masked psychiatrists. Though everyone was aware of everyone else, all were confined to their particular Walkman spacesanother maze, in other words, but without the walls. Vacuum and High School went on to win Bay Area Theater Critic awards, and in New York Artery sold out its new run before the first performance. The New York Times hailed Hardman as an original theatrical conceptualist. The Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival invited him to stage Amnesia at UCLA. The new Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles premiered Adjusting the Idle, a Hardman panorama about Americas love affair with, or bondage to, the automobile. The San Francisco Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts begged him to take their money. Hardmans success was not unequivocal. Los Angeles Times critic Sylvie Drake called his work forgettable Amnesia. The San Francisco Examiners Nancy Scott first declared Amnesia perfect for audiences who enjoy feeling bewildered, apprehensive, and foolish, then two weeks later conceded: Hardman has jumped from now into the next centuryHis experiments may lead to a radical alteration in the relationship between the artist the audience. The writer added, There are elements in his work that scare the hell out of me. LETS SAY HARDMANS LIFE IS A HARDMAN play, as performed in a Hardman maze of rooms. Weve just walked through the Hollywood Childhood Room, the Aborted Academia Room, the Coney Island Room, the California Wing, several cubicles of which have been dark for a long time. On our Walkmans we have heard an epic sweep of sounds: the dim parental voices of his screenwriter father and his anthropologist mother, a sound-track snippet of The Greatest Show on Earth, the bickering of temperamental artists, the point-counter-point of the critics, the sustained explosion of applause. At the Sausalito Room the theater spills out onto the Sausalito Wharves. As handicraft heaven and tourist town, Sausalito schizophrenically divides the sound of our headphones between the fast-talking Developers in our right ear and the Hill and Waterfront People in our left. Hardman is standing out on the wharf with the Hill and Waterfront People. He has been meditating on the prospects of the good ship Vallejo, leaping from the roof of one houseboat to another, peering into hatches and looking for friends. He meets a couple of guys who refurbish boats and carry around a sixpack. Hes drinking a beer. They stand admiring a boat one of them just revarnished; your Walkman tells you it was built in England in 1939. After twelve years here, this is the room where Chris Hardman belongs. Hes taken Sausalitos conflicts as his

own; some years ago one such battle to stave off the Developers landed him in jail. During the next skirmish, he used Hardman theater tactics: as the bulldozers pushed on to still another patch of old Sausalito, Hardman surrounded the site with cardboard reproductions of dispossessed parents holding their infant children. The bulldozers refused to run over parents and infant children, even cardboard ones. Two years ago Hardman ran for the Sausalito city council. He fulfilled a campaign promise to shake every hand in town by outfitting his volunteers with masks of his own face. As ancient Egypt woke one day to the curse of God in the form of toad legions, Sausalito woke to an army of Hardmans on the side-walks, malls, wharves, and parking lots. Perhaps grateful to see an end to it, the town responded by nearly electing him. His 1982 performance of Moving Sculptures did something similar, with more unsettling audience reactions. Choosing thirty-five, citizens of the community at large, Hardman created thirty-five wooden replicas to full scale and moved them around town, retracing the usual routes of their prototypes. On the way to work, to the bank, walking the dog, taking the ferry, neighbors might look out their window at any given moment to see the woman next door returning from the marketexcept that it was not the woman next door. For three months the people of Marin County occupied two temporal terrains: the one of their everyday life, and the one of that life as populated by their own images, inching along the routine of a single day over the course of ninety days. It was as though the good citizens of Marin had taken leave of their own shadows. Two of the sculptures were violently assaulted. This is what rescues Hardmans art from the precipice of the glib, over which like work topples. It also points up the insidious contradictions of his art. On one hand Hardmans theater insists on making the audience not merely an active party but often the primary participant; on the other hand, the audience is active only and utterly on Hardmans terms. When everyone in the audience dons a mask during one of Hardmans plays, they exchange their own faces for faces of the directors creation, much like his campaign workers; in Artery they exchange their very thoughts for a voice in their heads telling them what theyre thinking. One can argue that the audience is actually rendered more passive than active by a Hardman piece, in the sense that its been duped by the frenetic motion of an active role into sacrificing its intellectual and emotional independence. But theyre not wearing electrodes, after all, Hardman argues. And Hardmans ambitions are those of any artist worth his salt down through the ages: to persuade his audience to surrender their reality for his. Nobody, however, is more scathing about the means at hand than Hardman himself. Walkmanology, as he calls it, may just turn out to be the most evil, powerful entertainment instrument ever devised. With it, we can be each others Big Brother. Facing such a situation, Hardman has come to this dilemma: how to preserve the audiences right to make a choice. In Artery he was gratified that some members of the audience rebelled at picking up the replica of a gun, and now hes thinking about a play in which each member of the audience chooses his or her own scenarioarriving at a moral position not as an observer in a Brecht show, where were analyzing the behavior of somebody else, but where wed be suddenly analyzing our own behavior. His risk in this is that when a work of art expands to accommodate many visions, it then loses its own. Then youre building a world, Hardman agrees, instead of a theme. For any artist who rules his art like a king, such a democracy of values is the road to abdication. IT MAY ALSO BE THAT HES IN IT FOR THE laughs. Does Hardman sit around the docks of Sausalito at night thinking to him-self, Golly, what theatrical confection can I whip up next that will perpetuate my ever-present themes of deception and revelation and disconnection? No. Hardman creates shows he himself would like to see, and that other businesssay, disconnectioncomes naturally. Hardman carries his disconnection with him. Theres an element of removal about him, both personally and artistically. On the opening night of a show, in the companys maelstrom of chaos and panic, he may be found listening to something on the Walkman, a small de-tail he wants to get right, putting his finger to his lips when anyone bothers him with some trivial concern like the sets catching fire or the state tearing itself from the Western Hemi-

sphere and floating out to sea. Later, when hes watching the performance on videotape, its as though hed never seen it. Theres an expression on his face that says, Why, this is amazing. What will this Hardman guy do next? Hes crazy about his new daughter, Trent, but when she edges across the bed he watches her the same way, from the comer of the room with his hands in his pockets, a big carny smile on his face. He brings little air of crisis to the gypsy nature of his familys life; he locks himself out of offices and cars with unruffled amusement. Actually, says Annette Rose, this makes him easy to work with, easy to live with. Its to Annettes credit that Hardman can dispense with small irritations; in the Hardman Life as. Hardman Play, this is the Annette Takes Charge Room, where she commands the dates and places of a man whose art intends to jimmy perceptions of both. She runs Antennas business affairs as well. Its to Chriss credit that the job is a pleasure. Do you know how exciting it is, she asks, to love a project and get almost every penny of every grant you apply for? Amid all the activity, Hardmans removal from things seeks its own passionate compensations. I get bored if things dont happen fast, observes the man who puts his epics together not in months but in weeks. A faint curiosity about his culture surrounds him, accompanied by a faint disappointment that he doesnt have the time to check it all out. Ahead of the times in his own art, hes slightly behind in other areas. Ask him what movies hes seen lately and he says Reds. Come into town as a stranger bringing news of somewhere else and hell ask you a lot of questions. Your answers are almost bound to seem lame. He nods politely, not with satisfaction. In the meantime, what will this Hard-man guy do next? The fall of 1986 he will begin a series of media projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; ever aware of his own disconnection, Hard-mans taken to prerecording his speeches and listening to them on a Walkman as he then repeats them to a baffled audience. Sometimes he has other people deliver the speeches while he sits and listens with everyone else. This past November he presented a relatively traditional work called Russia to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Russia has something of a plot. The themes are international paranoia and the radio-active resolutions such paranoia might en-gender. To a public that considers a David Mamet play about real estate greed to be weighty, Russia sounds positively granitic. Nuclear war, Hardmans friends speculate, is a subject that has become more important to him since the birth of his daughter. This year, Antenna plans to present a new production, Dracula in the Desert. Someday, Chris Hardman says, Im going to take people into a performance and have them play against other people, people coming into my performances as friends and then assuming new roles, until even their cross-talk as friends becomes suspect. Dangerous as such ideas are, they do not necessarily represent the theater of tomorrow. In a life of a thousand rooms, there are a thousand theaters, of which Hardmans is only one. To a generation of artists who speak of information the way past artists spoke of style or motif, modern interpretations of Oedipus Rex may be, as Hardman puts it, just culture eating its own culture. But in the best of all possible tomorrows, theres a tense symbiosis between Oedipus Rex and High School, a dynamic between theaters past and future. Consider Hardman, then, as a man who became a tattoo artist after all, splashing his plays across the earth until it wears them like its own flesh. I believe, he claims, people would secretly like to stand up and, like somnambulists, drift into some dramatic dream world, there to be swept away by a total tangible theatrical situation. Just dont blame me if, after they get there, they decide not to return. Thatll depend on how good the show is. Or how bad the world is. STEVE ERICKSON is the author of Days Between Stations, which was published last spring.