Interview with Ann Magnuson

by W.C. Meier

Magnuson-BW-credIn this interview, conducted 13 June 2012, Dr. Wendy Clupper Meier talks with NYC East Village 80s icon, cult movie darling, performance artist, and chanteuse Ann Magnuson about her career, artistic inspirations, and growing up in a Christian church in West Virginia. Arguably, Magnuson’s work has been largely neglected in theatre scholarship because it transcends genre. She has enjoyed both commercial success in the categories of popular film and television (Modern Family, Panic Room, Clear and Present Danger, Making Mr. Right, Anything but Love, and Frasier) as well as the cult status of punk rock musician (Bongwater), cabaret singer, and solo performer. If you watch her perform or listen to her solo recordings—“The Luv Show” (1995), “Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories” (2007), “The Jobriath Medley” (2012)—you will see a rare performer who can inhabit many characters while simultaneously referencing moments of personal/national socio-cultural significance. She names a staggering list of influences, including: “Soupy Sales, Bugs Bunny, The Smothers Brothers, David Bowie, The New York Dolls, punk rock, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Alfred Jarry, Isadora Duncan, Broadway shows, avant-garde theatre (of the absurd), Ionesco, 50s, 60s and 70s TV variety shows, hippies, psychedelic, glam rock, outsider art, rituals, Jesus Christ, Carl Jung, The Wonderful World of Disney, especially the live action movies he produced in the 50s and 60s; my brother and our long walks in the woods of West Virginia, and the hills and hollers and mostly my grandmother Magnuson.” What follows is an abbreviated discussion about Magnuson’s faith in both work and life in art.*

Wendy Clupper Meier: Let’s start with your beginnings. You come from West Virginia, and I understand that you grew up with a fascination for, and some access to, snake handlers. Can you talk about that preoccupation and specifically the intersections you see in your own work between performance and religion?

 Ann Magnuson: Well, my grandfather was a Swedish Evangelist and a minister in the Presbyterian Church. I never knew him, he died long before I was born but my grandmother was a true believer and she was a really positive role model for me. Grandma Magnuson was also one heck of an ‘outsider folk artist’ too—she made these fantastic otherworldly looking dolls out of pipe cleaners and old stockings and fabric remnants that I’m planning to use in a new set of videos called Dream Puppet Theatre.

Between her and my very benevolent Sunday school at the ‘First Presby’ Church in Charleston, West Virginia, I had a positive experience growing up with Christianity. My understanding was that Jesus preached unconditional love and complete acceptance. Plus he loved all the little children of the world. This sort of hate-filled Christianity you see in the media these days was something I was not initially exposed to.

The churches we went to were quite middle class and staid compared to the Pentecostal folks represented on local radio and TV. Those were the folks from the hollers—with snake handling and strychnine drinking, speaking in tongues, and hyperventilating with the faith healing and laying on of hands. These folks bought the cheapest TV time early in the morning and were on the radio a lot in West Virginia. Now many people would just turn it off but I was very fascinated by it. And there was always a story in the newspaper about someone dying from being bitten at church from snake handling. I couldn’t get enough of this stuff.

I would wake up before everybody else and watch shows (the church groups would buy the cheapest time which which was usually about 6 AM) where they would be singing hymns with these particular backwoods atonal harmonies that I would sing around the house and later incorporate into Bongwater songs. I had a character named Sister Alice Tully Hall (that I performed at the Serious Fun! Festival at Alice Tully Hall) that was based on these folks.

These churches were a far cry from the more rational, non-theatrical churches my family would actually attend. The Pentecostals worshipped with wild abandon. And it was that wild abandon that really fascinated me. The hyperventilating style of preaching and the word-smithing going on was just fantastic! VERY shamanic. These people were going into trances. And you could get a ‘contact high’ trance just by listening.

I still tune in when I’m back in West Virginia although I will say that now that they’ve brought politics into it—and all the hate mongering, and the homophobia…it’s harder to listen to. But the language, the singing and the showmanship can’t be beat. I still miss watching Jimmy Swaggart. That man was a rock star! He often made me cry. No ironic tears, sister. REAL tears.

Even when they’re the complete opposite of what you believe politically there is no denying they are channeling something. That stuff is part of a tradition that obviously goes back hundreds of thousands of years ago. It’s something you can imagine reverberating through Lascaux where the prehistoric cave paintings are. I’ve been told my grandfather was a very eloquent orator but these backwoods people have their own way of speaking that is so primal and completely captivating.

 WCM: Like your personal rhetoric, I would offer that you also present your artistic work playfully (music, live performance, movies) as a series of archetypes (Gaia, Bombshell, Whore, Saint) and in that sense you both draw attention to your own feminine inspirations but also society’s easy recognition of and dependence on such archetypes. Is this an attempt on your part as an artist to politically re-address, deconstruct, or question the nature of the social constrictions placed on women historically?

 AM: Yes absolutely, I mean, “Made for TV” (1984) was specifically that. It’s a video I made with Tom Rubnitz where I play all the characters on TV during a typical broadcast day. At least typical in 1984 when TV wasn’t a round-the-clock, 500 channel affair. The channels are constantly changing and I’m on every one playing a different female character. It was an opportunity to show that these are the images and female identities that are presented to us through television and, if we don’t take contrary action, we are pretty much a slave to them.

Television is infiltrating our minds from the beginning to the end of the day. There are different archetypes in front of us at all times because the TV is always on (at least it was in my house when I was growing up), always with us, always forming our identities whether we like it or not. Interestingly enough, we got rid of TV five years ago and I feel blessed that it’s out of my life!

I also liked to take on many of these stereotypes in characters I played in my one-woman shows or various bands (like Raven in Vulcan Death Grip or the folk singer or a host of lounge singers or the fractured multiple personalities on the Bongwater albums). In “You Could Be Home Now” I played a variety of characters I knew from my hometown in Charleston, West Virginia, as well as variations of myself. These shows always had a lot of humor in them but also moments of deep seriousness—usually thrown in when folks would least expect it. It could be pretty confusing to some people. I used to call my one woman shows Connect The Dots Theatre. Like the Burroughs cut up method, I liked to rearrange the bits, the narratives, and let the audience make the connections. Mostly because that is the sort of theatre I prefer. I HATE being told what “the moral of the story is” or being led through a narrative like I’m a dummy that can’t figure it on my own. Also, because, well, I was just reading this republished interview between Burroughs and Ginsberg and they were talking about how life was just a series of cut-ups, of random combinations, and we all possess every potential but individually certain characteristics or combinations come up or come together to make us all unique. It’s the random nature of life that makes it so compelling.

It’s back to the Vedic worldview. The “play and display.” It’s described beautifully as Indra’s Net—all of creation as a vast spider web covered with dewdrops that are all reflecting the pieces of the web like a hall of mirrors that goes on ad infinitum. Each creation cycle is just one of those dewdrops and it’s an endless network of possibilities and potentialities…which all exist in different dimensions. It’s described well in the radical quantum physics “Many Worlds Theory.”

“Made for TV” presented a small slice of that and, as the atoms in the entire universe are in constant motion, the channels are constantly changing. Some people like to stick to one role, one combination, one storyline; others like to mix it up. I like to mix it up. But some people don’t like you to mix it up. They like things to be laid out very simply. That bores me. My neurons are firing too fast and furious for that.

I did grow up with TV so my mind kinda works like that. The channels are constantly changing. Then again, Jung talks about dreams being part of the eternal, part of a collective unconscious that has always been so maybe this kind of hop scotching around, the free associating, is more primal. I was growing up at a certain time when television was showing us people fighting in the streets for their civil rights or against the war in Vietnam, seeing the Feminist movement, the Gay Rights movement, I mean, all of this stuff was just exploding when I was growing up and the message was always diversity and liberation from confining roles. I grew up watching my mother being very confined and unhappy in the role of housewife (there are several scenes in MADE FOR TV that are direct references to that). And many of the other women my mother’s age who lived in this ostensibly perfect Ozzie and Harriet style neighborhood were very unhappy. The patriarchy was disintegrating and not willingly so that was wrecking havoc, indeed the whole country was sort of changing in terms of what women and men were supposed to be…I mean, I was watching all of this stuff as a child growing up and it was just all of this complexity, complexity, complexity.

So then, that somehow becomes part of you, or a second nature and then you actually go out into the world and especially in Hollywood and they want you to play this ONE role, they want you to look like this and say that, over and over and over again, just this one thing?!

 WCM: How do you feel about being typecast as the sassy, bitchy boss/career woman?

 AM: Yes, it’s quite a mystery to all my friends because they are always asking me why I’m getting cast as people so unlike myself. I mean, I can be VERY bossy, don’t get me wrong. But I try to avoid wearing pantyhose whenever possible. And I call those roles ‘pantyhose parts.’ Pantyhose are as confining as an Iron Maiden! (laughs) I guess you play something well once at the early stage of your career and that’s it. You’re typecast for life. It’s no news that Hollywood has no imagination. Especially when it comes to women. And EXTRA-ESPECIALLY when it comes to older women!

The Memphis-based indie film director, Brian Pera, created a role for me in his trilogy, Woman’s Picture (2011), that was riffing on just this thing…deconstructing the idea of the ‘working woman’ that is such an archetype in the woman’s pictures of the 30s, 40s, and 50s and giving it a contemporary spin. It was the best acting role I think I’ve ever been given and Brian sees it as an ongoing project—to follow these characters as they change, evolve and, shockingly enough, age! My character Miriam has hot flashes galore in the film and she is being ‘phased out’ of her job due to her age. It’s stuff you really only get to explore on an independent level.

To tell you the truth, Hollywood could never give me a role—even the ‘good roles’—that would be as interesting as the LIFE I can construct for myself. And I saw that writing on the wall very early on when I was working at an Off-Off Broadway theatre in NYC when I was a senior in college. I’d work for this pretty straight uptown theatre during the day, interning as a directing student, but spent every night at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City or somewhere downtown looking for the most avant garde theatre I could find because that is where my heart was—and still is.

You know, I’ve saved every audition I’ve been on for the past 15 years or more and I want to string all the descriptions of all the characters together into one monologue (or perhaps a chapter for the book I keep threatening to write) because they are all—tragically—identical in their myopic misogyny. It’s really quite absurd. All you can do is laugh but it’s really very, very sad. I see a lot of those roles as the feminist equivalent of Stepin Fetchit and the times I actually have played them I’ve tried very hard to bring some nuance and humanity to them. But actors are really puppets and in the end you just do the best you can and cash the check—and use the money to buy you the freedom to create your OWN nuanced performance pieces!

 WCM: Let’s segue into talking about your most recent work: “Ann Magnuson Plays David Bowie and Jobriath, or The Rock Star as Witch Doctor, Myth Maker, and Ritual Sacrifice.” This show was staged on October 27, 2011, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Now this piece was a music ritual homage to the glam rock gods David Bowie and Jobriath in a self-created medley where you were backed by a band, accompanied by go-go dancers, and where you relied heavily on ritual. I am remembering a very intense scene that involved the vivisection of several stuffed animals (laughs). Can you address the ways in which you use ritual in performance?

 AM: This performance piece was about rock stars, about shamanism and witch doctors, about ritual and sacrifice, and David Bowie and Jobriath, and I had integrated a lot of the things that I had read in the book The Golden Bough, particularly the chapter on Mayan/Aztec rituals, and we were riffing on those ideas and sacrificing stuffed animals, and throwing glitter and fake money and stuffed animal hearts to the audience as gifts from the gods. The rock star as I envisioned was the equivalent to what the Mesoamericans would do when they chose a youth who would embody the ideals of a god. And these youths would live like a god for a year and then at the end of the year they would be ritually sacrificed.

And in our culture we have done the same thing—symbolically—where we have chosen those who themselves crave the limelight and basically they are volunteering to be the god or goddess who bestow us with their talents (be they musical or otherwise), live like kings, then are sacrificed —usually at the altar of self-destruction—at the end so we can all feel better about ourselves.

When a Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson or Heath Ledger or Whitney Houston dies we can collectively mourn their tragic deaths in our own modern day media-fueled rituals (such as the endless replaying of their songs, their movie clips), then add them to the pantheon of dead celebrities and say, “Oh, I feel so bad for them, but I feel better about my life now, so let’s move on and pick our next victim.”  It’s what the social scientist Ernest Becker says we do to stave off our fear of death. Others must die so we can fool ourselves into thinking we will live forever. And by achieving fame we DO trick ourselves into believing immortality can be achieved.

The Bowie/Jobriath show opens, ostensibly, as a tribute to Glam Rock icon David Bowie. But it’s really a Trojan horse. It’s a bait and switch. We bring folks in promising them great Bowie/Ziggy Stardust hits—and we deliver them—but then we end with an ‘encore’ that is The Jobriath Medley1—the story of a youth who wanted to be a Bowie-like Rock God but was destroyed by an excessive amount of hype that no one could possibly live up to. It’s the story of a true artist who lost faith in himself because he was too far out—and OUT (Jobriath was very openly gay)—for his time. He didn’t succeed in the marketplace, he didn’t make oodles of money for someone, and so he was discarded. Sacrificed for our collective sins of not ‘making it.’

The whole show is a discourse on what success and failure is. Bowie was the “success” but that nearly killed him and now he’s hiding away like Greta Garbo, who was another icon who couldn’t carry the pressure of the public’s projections. Jobriath “failed” but his beautiful music lives on—specifically in a new recording we’ve made of the entire medley that tells his story—and, hopefully, serves as an inspiration to every artist whoever has lost faith in him or herself.

In the show at SFMOMA we tricked out a piñata so it looked like Ziggy Stardust and I whacked it to death in a ritualistic sacrifice. Bowie had to die so Jobriath could live again! Then we ended the show by serving communion to the congregation. Uh…I mean, audience. And it was amazing at SFMOMA how willing the audience was to play their role. Everyone was eager to take our communion wafers (vegan cookies made by a local chef). And they were QUITE reverential while doing it. One young man had tears in his eyes because, as he told me later, he so identified with Jobriath’s story.

And when I think of what human history is built upon—our stories, our myths, and the characters that re-enact the archetypes over and over again—I think of biography as sacrifice and storytelling as religious ritual. And I think that is why I do theatre. Theatre—performance—is storytelling. All performance has its roots in the shamans keeping the myths alive. As well as inhabiting the role of the animal and helping the tribe have a successful hunt. All performers are magical thinking shamans, preachers, telling a story, trying to make sense of what makes no sense—this bizarre life of ours.  And I do believe that as human beings we have this intrinsic need to tell and re-tell and to play out these story lines. I mean we do it through religious ritual, we do it through theatre, and we do it through TV shows, sitcoms, and crazy cat videos on YouTube…you name it.

All of this stuff has always fascinated me, and compelled me to learn more about the human psyche and the need for belief in the spiritual. That is why I am deep into Jung right now. And, of course, sang the praises of Joseph Campbell in “Folk Song” with my band Bongwater.

 WCM: Do you consider the theatre a sacred space?

 AM: I think all performance environments are variations of a church. Preachers are telling stories; clergy and congregation connect to something greater, something mysterious that binds us all through communion. That is what Theatre is and why the prehistoric shamans created it. It’s a scary world and people need an outlet and a space for that energy and these sacred or performative spaces allow for that.

I discovered that the New York theatre world is not really a safe place to tell my stories. When I did “Rave Mom,” (at P.S. 122 in 2001) they invited these uptown theatre critics who were NOT the audience for my kind of thing and they had a real hard time with it, especially the middle-aged white men who didn’t want to hear about a 40-year-old woman taking ecstasy and going to raves and Burning Man and sleeping with men half her age.

I KNEW we should NOT have done this show right after 9/11. I knew New Yorkers were NOT in the right frame of mind for a show like this but I was talked into it by the director and PS 122. Except for a few who really did ‘get’ it, I was lambasted and it was very traumatic. They completely misunderstood it. They thought it was some trivial account about going to parties when it was clearly about the grief I felt after my brother died of AIDS (after many many friends of mine from NYC had died over the past decade) and my desire to find some kind of escape and transcendence from the trauma of that grief. Ironically, exactly the same kind of trauma and grief that came from 9/11 that was supposedly going to change everyone forever.

“The end of irony” was one popular slogan at the time. “We’ll never laugh again.” But what did people do? What traumatized people always do—burrow deeper into their defenses. Materialism and luxury porn became even more pronounced after 9/11 than it was in 1999—which was the “irrationally exuberant” year of excess that “Rave Mom” chronicled.

But you see, I had been caught in a box where I thought I could have the same performance career as Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo, or others. The producers felt that way too: “Just do the show, and then it gets a great review in the New York Times and then it runs on Broadway.” This was the template and it’s insane because everyone is so beholden to ONE entity: The New York Times. (Thank God the Internet came along and has changed the landscape—slightly.)

But it’s okay. I’ve had “success” and I’ve had “failure” and it’s important to learn that neither is to be taken seriously. But you do need to learn from experience. It’s important, as a performer, to know your audience and know the business realities of the context you’re performing in. And to have the right producers who treat you as an artist and not a product.  And, as Rickie Nelson sang so poignantly in “Garden Party,” to remember that “you can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”

I still think “Rave Mom” is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Maybe I’ll expand the whole thing and present it as a book one day. I’m thinking a book is really the way to go now. Or just toss all the text up on the Internet and then retire to Joshua Tree.

 WCM: At this point now we might want to address your work as you see it in terms of danger, fun, rules, and power. If we are talking about the perfect sacred place for performing where the context for the subject matter works, the players who are involved and those present along with the performer are able to ‘connect the dots’—your caché is, of course, the performance energy that you give—and there might be some sexual and/or historical references, but it is all done in fun and with laughter, because then the audience has to decide if it is parody but also if there is a seriousness to it or a reverence they wish to accept in it as well.

 AM: I think we are all seeking a communal experience. That’s the reason we go out, whether it’s to see bands or to go to art openings or shows. I know that I am seeking a communal experience that is about celebrating life and life’s energy and that energy has many forms. My favored form is laughter—which can be quite an orgiastic experience. I don’t mean sexual, I mean that melding of souls where everyone is having so much fun they are laughing themselves sick. Laughing is like having sex without the physical consequences. I personally have always been attracted to those who can make me laugh: Soupy Sales and the Smothers Brothers, for instance. Not to sound pretentious or naïve, but I believe we are all here for a common goal and that is to come together and alleviate our suffering. And hopefully do that through the shared expression of Fun! And these shows, call it art or entertainment or ritual, are really just an excuse for that. It is just an excuse for us to share the “play and display.” In the end, it really is all about having the opportunity to play and display. Together.

 WCM: And on that note, I would like to thank you, Ann. Thank you for playing along.


1.  Born in 1946, Jobriath was an American glam rock musician and actor. He was the first openly gay rock musician to be signed to a major record label. In 1983, Jobriath became one of the first internationally famous musicians to die of AIDS.