Ahead of her performance at Icy Gays on Friday night, transgender performer Miss Rose Wood talks about inspiration, audiences, and her relationship with New York City.
Why and when did you start performing?
There can be no doubt in my mind that the pivotal moment in my performing life was when I auditioned for The Box, an innovative club theatre combination on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Having tried many styles and types of performance, some for many years, I was changing, and had found a place that would nurture that. The conservative trend that had taken hold of much of NYC nightlife didn't welcome my increasing inclination to stronger statement. The doors of the wilder world were closing, and the new was closing doors to what I wanted to do.
I began performing at The Box six and a half years ago, and except for surgery, I've missed barely a night. The goal was to make theatre in a club setting. They were willing to have their audience scandalised or shocked, as long as it was theatre. No subject or act was taboo providing it was properly told and met their critical standards and was not simply for the sake of shock. There was a recognition of the value of a strong response - when ten would walk out and complain to their friends, thirty more would walk in the next night. Few other places were able to support this.
Where do you take your inspiration from? Your work involves a lot of bodily fluids. What’s the thought behind that? What are your processes when coming up with a new performance piece or persona?
When an artist makes work, inspiration sets their process in motion. Explaining art is something that happens much later. They say that aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to birds. I leave intelligent explanation to scholars. I think that had I a talent for singing, dancing, or spoken arts, my work would be different. The place I find that I can connect with people is the body. The body with its beautiful and horrible elements is a playing field where the mind and heart act themselves out. It's the mind and heart that render the body vulnerable, strong, filthy, addicted, exalted, etc. I like to use the body to show that the body is not who we are, and that emotional truth is far more revealing than nudity. Having relatively little in this world, my only way to be generous is to share the parts of myself that frighten me and leave me feeling exposed as I know that others will likely have felt the same thing and had the impulse to cover it.
You have been living in New York since the 1970s - there is a lot of nostalgia about that time in the city. How have the changes in the city informed your work as an artist and performer? Is there anything you miss from city life in the 70s and 80s? Or do you prefer the city now?
I arrived in NYC in the mid-70s and though I played at performing, my focus was sex, drugs, anorexia, and an array of self-destructive behaviours. I didn't successfully end my life, but watched a long parade of friends leave the planet. In the mid-80s, I started a volunteer AIDS Awareness organisation which I ran for 18 years as a part of my recovery process. I continued to lose many amazing friends and members of my community and family and the effect on me was profound. As the climate of the crisis began to change, I was once again drawn to make performance more focal and less occasional.
The New York City I came to be a part of has undergone huge change, rising costs have driven out many of the artists, and forced people to be less experimental and more goal oriented. The disasters, AIDS and 9/11 have made an incalculable impact, and combined with re-zoning and political manoeuvring, Manhattan has become even less a place for artists. In the effort to win the right of Gay marriage and adoption, a strategy of appearing as normal as possible was adopted, and when these battles were won, yet another set of ghetto walls came down. The gay community has become more integrated and the queer community pushed a bit further from centre. At times, it's odd for me to feel like an outsider in a community that I worked hard for, and in a city whose free spirit I came for.
Can you give us a little taster of what you are planning for your performances at the ICA and what context they will be set in?
In my now tiny little world, I make work that will generally be seen between 2:30 and 4am in a room full of privileged characters who've been drinking and possibly using other party favours. They've seen it all and are often quite full of themselves. It can take something quite strong to crack the shell that keeps them from interacting with what is happening around them and shine through the haze to touch some unsullied place inside them. The subjects and images that will engage them are potent by necessity. Sex is too obvious a subject to be challenging, so desire, compulsion, disease, abuse, fear of loss, emotional disturbance, as well as dignity, true identity, and self-love. The challenge is to find the language that will be heard in the context that I tell my tales.
What’s your most memorable experience from your performance career and what can the audience at the ICA expect? Will they understand your pieces without knowing the context?
I like to make work, and for the sake of growth and development, try a variety of approaches. Straight theatre, incidents, and confrontations, offer me a variety of ways to share. I don't have a single most memorable experience, but many nights I laugh as my eyes are closing and my mind scrolls through the night's performances. I've been physically attacked many times, and have been the cause of people vomiting, crying, running, raging, falling out of seats, and stomping their friends to get out of my way. This sounds awful, but I have such joy in giving people an experience and seeing them switched-on, that it is a small price for such a result.
For the ICA event, it's very early and the sterile environment doesn't support me taking the crowd into my world. It's a bit like seeing a caged animal, but don't make the mistake of thinking that you are safe. I can assure you that it would be a mistake.
Miss Rose Wood features in Icy Gays on Friday 7 June, from 8.30pm.