[His new one-man show at P.S. 122 Skewers all that we hold sacred J. Lo, hipsterdom, backup dancers, and tequila. And he's sponsored by Adidas. Mike Albo is an author as well as a performer. He wrote his latest book, The Underminer, with his long-time collaborator Virginia Heffernan. The spoke one recent afternoon in Brooklyn.]
VIRGINIA: What do you tell people when they ask what you do?
MIKE: Sometimes I say I'm a freak. I wish
I had enough balls to say I was a poet. If you want me to get really fruitcake-y, I'm
a Gemini sun, Gemini rising so astrologically I was put on this earth to communicate. For me, everything comes back to, "Please tell me that we're connecting, that we're thinking the same thing." That's what I do on stage a lot.
VIRGINIA: When we lived together in the mid-
'90s, we used to have this ever-expanding folder called "Things to make fun of." It was full of press releases, ads, and other schlock all evidence of how weird American culture had become. I think that's the source material for your work.
MIKE: I'm both disgusted by consumerism and reverent of it. For my second one-man show in 1999, most of the inspiration came from working as a fact checker at Paper. I've never considered myself an outsider taking apart the consumer system I'm a part of it. I have a lot of sympathy for people who write promotional copy and magazine captions. It's really hard work.
VIRGINIA: Describe one of your solo shows for someone who has never seen one.
MIKE: They're usually a series of vignettes that don't last longer than ten minutes
each. The show is like a pop album
I understand that no one has an attention span. I keep things jumping around, switching channels. I'll do characters like
"Toni Testa," J. Lo's personal assistant,
or "The Underminer." Sometimes I'll tell a story in my own voice, sometimes I'll dance. I did a whole Flashdance thing with water and a chair once.
VIRGINIA: Your other gig is the Dazzle Dancers
your disco dance troupe. How often do they
MIKE: We'll accept five gigs in a row, and by the fifth one, we'll want to kill each other. Then we'll stop for a while. We never learn our lesson.
VIRGINIA: When you started the Dazzle Dancers, you said that you wanted to find the little dancer boy in you again.
MIKE: Yeah. In 1994, my friend Greg and
I were trying to figure out what to do for Wigstock. We didn't want to be in drag,
so we decided to be backup dancers. To me, being a backup dancer is the same as being gay. As a kid, I wanted to dance and be expressive, but I had to do things like
play team sports. I looked to the backup dancers behind Laura Branigan to show me something cool something that wasn't
about football. I wanted to get out of that inhibited mindset.
VIRGINIA: The Dazzle Dancers don't seem to have many inhibitions.
MIKE: Our motto is, "Having fun is a political act." And I mean real fun, like dancing naked. Our nakedness is not about shoving our sexuality in someone's face. It's political because in our country, the nude form has to do with money. We're not the same as a blowjob-face pop singer who is desperately trying to make money.
VIRGINIA: I think your performance style grew out of the torturous poetry readings we went to when we were undergrads at the University of Virginia.
MIKE: Back then, we were so enamored of that very quiet poetry style. Our goal was to get published in Ploughshares. We were trying to boil down our expression to little New Yorker poetry squares.
VIRGINIA: There was a pervasive way of reading poetry that was killing us, killing everyone. It went something like, "And she gave me a phone number with the robin's egg. Yours." [laughs] I remember the first time you decided to try something different. You came up to me before a reading and said, "I think I'm gonna do this in kind of a weird way." You read a love poem.
MIKE: Instead of trying to decorate the
emotion and neatly package it, I wanted to fling it out there. I realized I could play with the whole theatrical form of poetry and have a lot of fun. But there have been poets breaking the form forever. I was really inspired by Karen Finley, Diamanda Galás, and John Kelly people who would get on stage covered in blood and scream and howl about AIDS.
VIRGINIA: In the early days you always used to get drunk before going on stage to get into "performance art" mode. Then we hit a certain age, and it seemed like no one was allowed to...
MIKE: ...drink or do anything fun.
VIRGINIA: Actors were supposed to be really pure and think of their bodies as their instruments.
MIKE: For my second solo show, Spray, I was nervous because I was doing a month-long run for the first time at P.S. 122. I did the whole, "I'm an actor, I drink lots of water, and I don't have dairy products before I go on stage" thing. That showed me it really is about me, not the alcohol. But I have to say, nothing beats a good tequila on the rocks before a performance.
VIRGINIA: Where did you first perform in New York?
MIKE: At the Elbow Room, with people playing pool in the corner. Not only did I used to get drunk, but I had terrible digestive problems, so I'd have to be really near a bathroom.
VIRGINIA: You used to perform in coffee bars a lot.
MIKE: The great thing about New York is that there are so many places to perform. I love that goofy warm drama crowd feeling when you're backstage with a bunch of people, and they're like, "That was really good. We're doing something great together."
VIRGINIA: Our book, The Underminer, is about the kind of person who is always trying to pull the rug out from under you. You would never get that backstage feeling from an underminer. When did you start noticing the phenomenon?
MIKE: Undermining has been going on for
centuries, like vampirism. It's pretending to be friendly and supportive, while totally dismantling somebody at the same time. For example, my friend Pam got a haircut, and
a week later, one of her friends asked her, "Do you still like your new haircut?" Our book spans the decade from the early '90s
to 2003. It focuses on two characters an underminer and a victim. The underminer keeps popping up throughout the victim's life, starting in college. The poor victim tries to be in a rock band, then tries to be an artist, then a writer, but the underminer is there to destroy the victim every step of the way.
VIRGINIA: How do you spot an underminer?
MIKE: It has more to do with how you make yourself vulnerable to one like when you ask for advice or talk about someone you secretly like.
VIRGINIA: It's when you're the least art directed.
MIKE: And hipsterism has only made underminers more prevalent. You always have to look ready for your album cover shot. You can't say, "Oh my God, I've loved you all along." That would interrupt the image. You have to talk through your coolness.
VIRGINIA: We hope this book will expose the underminer's evil voice, so that people who have been oppressed by underminers...
MIKE: ...will finally be free. And it seems to be working.
VIRGINIA: You've found that in your performances, right?
MIKE: Yeah. I've done the underminer character in New York and L.A., and it was a big hit. It went over amazingly in San Francisco. I don't think it would have worked there before the dot-com boom. It really works in cities where real estate values have skyrocketed, and money has poured in.
VIRGINIA: It appeals to those of us who got left behind in the '90s, while people around us got absurdly rich. What's your upcoming show at P.S. 122 about?
MIKE: It's called My Price Point. It's been nearly four years since my last solo show, and since that time, there's been a shopping explosion.
VIRGINIA: You must have lots of new material from your last job as a fashion writer for Cargo.
MIKE: I'm reading something now called, "Stars Weigh In On Problems With The Paparazzi." Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar says Robertson Boulevard in L.A. has become an increasingly difficult place to shop.
VIRGINIA: Celebrity shopping dilemmas. That's great.
MIKE: It's also priceless how gay people have become these weird, telegenic minions for straight people, telling them how to dress and act. Every day at Cargo, agencies would pitch these gay guys as the next hot stylists. They'd say things like, "Steven Sarbo knows everything there is to know about skin. And so-and-so knows everything there is to know about shoes." Or foreheads. So there's all this new stuff. But it's not easy to mount a show.
VIRGINIA: Isn't Adidas sponsoring it?
MIKE: Yes. It's a huge challenge for me because all I do is make fun of consumerism. With Adidas as my sponsor, I have to admit that that's what it takes for people to express themselves in this country. Collaborating with a gigantic consumer icon like Adidas might actually represent one of the last shreds of optimism left in the world.