Karen Finley
Karen Finley
"Since September, we're constantly telling sad stories," says Karen Finley. The internationally renowned performance artist is now presenting her latest work-in-progress, The Distribution of Empathy, at The Cutting Room. The piece deals with emotional fallout, post-September 11. However, it is not an activist piece; according to Finley, "there's no rhetoric or political browbeating" in it.

Those familiar with her past work may find this surprising. Finley is perhaps best known for her controversial performance work of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which helped cause a funding debacle at the NEA when she and three other artists (Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller) were denied grants from the National Endowment for the Arts despite unanimous approval by a peer review panel. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, along the way, Finley and the other artists became spokespersons for freedom of expression. "I'm looked on as a political performer," says Finley. "As an icon in terms of free speech. Even though my government may not look at me that way, other countries bring me in as an American asset."

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THEATERMANIA: How would you describe your new show?

KAREN FINLEY: It's about the politics of emotion, of distributing emotion, and the grandiosity, the depletion--everything that New Yorkers felt after September 11. Besides the horror, there was the emotional burden of either being the victim or having to accept others' love and pity.

TM: Can you talk about your creative process?

KF: I'm building the piece while I'm at the Cutting Room. It's all scripted; I've been working on it for months, and I've organized it. What I don't like in theater is knowing how to perform it when you go in. I like the liveness of me performing the work and then finding out the reaction while I'm doing it.

TM: I've seen a number of your shows, and oftentimes you work with a script in hand, even during the non-workshop performances. Can you talk about why you choose to do this?

KF: The whole notion of memorization or character bores me. I think we're past that--the idea that you know a person is talented and the show works because there's memorization, because there's character. There's this whole notion of momentary disbelief, and I'm actually interested in the opposite. We all know it's fake. So, I find that I'm reacting against those kinds of conventions.

TM: But you use character work; a number of your pieces are written in a fictional voice.

KF: They are all my voice, because I'm doing it. The whole notion that it's someone else, I don't believe in. I believe that it is all within, there's a self of it.

TM: But, at the same time, you wouldn't necessarily claim that all the voices are autobiographical; or would you?

KF: Well, I think that's fascinating. I'm just starting to work on this idea and I'm confused about it myself. I'm really interested in that whole idea with actors or people where they don't take responsibility, where they say, "It's not me" or "It is me." But, in my work, I just don't even care. I don't even care if it's me or not me.

TM: How would you describe your performance aesthetic?

KF: I think that theater can be more radical. I love The Producers but I'm interested in conceptual processes in the mind and in the heart, and there isn't necessarily always a physical manifestation for those two energies. That's what my challenge is, really.

TM: Would you say that this is a recent shift in your performance work, or has there been a gradual evolution since you started in the club scene?

KF: I think it's gradual. I think it's more being aware intellectually of what the processes are. It's also a reaction to getting older and seeing what's out there commercially, and just being able to really find what I'm about.

TM: You were originally scheduled to perform this show at P.S. 122. Why did you change venues?

KF: It was the contracts. Just from how it was working there, I knew it wasn't a kind of situation where I could work and do my piece. They had something in the contract that if I was to be on stage longer than a certain time, I was to be fined $100. I just felt that I couldn't go into a hostile kind of environment. Who knows? Maybe the relationship is just over. Things will change. There are internal events that happen in spaces from time to time, and maybe that's just happening there.

TM: How is the environment at the Cutting Room different?

KF: The audience can relax. You don't have to reserve tickets, just come in. You can have a drink, and I even serve food. It's more of a bar/lounge.

TM: What has the audience response been so far?

KF: Good. I think people can relate, because a lot of the emotions and feelings can also just be places to finally expose unresolved childhood traumas. The performance is basically about how your mind and heart are trying to figure things out. I think that's why people really like the piece a lot, because they understand this process of what I'm going through, which is just trying to make sense of a terrible time.

TM: What are your future plans for this show after the workshop period?

KF: People are booking it already. I'm starting it at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and also performing it in Provincetown. I got a call from Canada; they want it. I'm meeting with a producer about doing it in New York more. There's a real feeling to it; it's exciting, because I am doing it in this New York situation for New Yorkers.