Being an arts columnist for an alt-weekly has never been a path to fortune and glory, but recently the rancorous discourse regarding the role of criticism — both national and local — has me reevaluating my career choices. Watching producers and performers who had previously proudly plastered positive pull-quotes from my colleagues' reviews across their posters now challenge their very right to write has made me question my own contributions. It's enough to make one want to bow out of the theater entirely, and switch to covering legal cannabis full-time instead.
Then along came Brian Feldman: Orlando's ex-pat conceptual artist and perpetual subject of Live Active Cultures since the column's inception, despite having (mostly) moved a decade ago to Washington, D.C.
Back in 2017, I covered the Orange County tour of acclaimed project Dishwasher, which involved him scouring vegan enchiladas off my Corningware, and being tackled with a hat while reciting Samuel Beckett. (You kinda had to be there.) Now he was asking me to fly up and be the final participant/performer in the sequel, Dishwasher 2: I Pay You.
That's how I ended up in our nation's Capitol last Wednesday night, surrounded by foreign embassies, staring down an Exorcist-worthy staircase leading down to the compact basement apartment Feldman has called home for the last seven years.
A single room of less than 300 square feet, every available inch of wall space covered with artwork and mementos from his productions, it has everything you might want to stage an audience-less performance art piece about washing dishes ... except a kitchen, or compliance with housing regulations.
So, for the better part of the next hour, my latex-clad hands meticulously scrubbed strawberry smoothie residue in Feldman's pint-sized porcelain bathroom sink. Surprisingly, it was only the second-worst dishwashing job I've ever had, trailing by a long distance the summer camp kitchen I schvitzed at between high school and college. As I was executing my lavations, we discussed the inspiration behind this Tom Sawyer-esque kickoff for the 20th anniversary of his often-exhausting Projects. "I just kind of wanted to take a break for a change and have the audience do the work," he confesses, also admitting, "I haven't washed my dishes since the end of August."
Finally, after a brief break, it was time for Act II. Feldman handed me the manuscript for Sweatshop Overlord, a pandemic-era one-woman comedy by his best friend, Pulitzer Prize finalist Kristina Wong. He'd selected an especially graphic passage for me to perform cold, and after only the briefest perusal of the pages, I began dramatically declaiming about the boil-like Bartholin's Cyst bursting inside my vagina. I'm pretty certain the next-door neighbor, who shot daggers at us for complimenting his dog as we exited, enjoyed every word.
Although eternally tongue-in-cheek, there's also always been a thoughtful philosophy underlying Feldman's absurdist excursions into redefining the roles of artist and observer. As someone who once created a "show for no one" that had zero available tickets (as a commentary on FOMO at Fringe), you might think he wouldn't care about feedback from anyone. But articles about the original Dishwasher helped Feldman land an acting gig in India, and I like to think we've had a mutually productive artistic conversation — both in print and in person — across the years.
In this case, I departed from Feldman holding a personalized program and poster — including a copy of the code violation notice connected to his current rent strike — as well as a voided paycheck for $17, Washington, D.C.'s, minimum hourly wage (and more than I make on some writing jobs). I also left with an aching lower back and a more intimate understanding of what it takes to survive as an independent creative in an expensive urban environment; Feldman himself has worked countless hours in bakeries and restaurants to support his art.
When all was said and done, Feldman adjudicated me a better dishwasher than an actor. Although I gave him an opposite verdict the last time around, I must concede that while my pans were squeaky-clean, my blocking and breathwork were not. Anyone who has seen me perform dinner theater would probably concur with the decision, but at least now I've got a potentially profitable new path to pursue. And to be honest, it was awfully difficult leaving all the affordable culture and fall weather in the D.C. area after only a few delightful days.
So, I've got an offer for anyone — especially people of color and women or non-binary writers — interested in adding their own voice to this ongoing conversation about the future of theater criticism. If you dream of spending endless evenings agonizing over 800 words in exchange for a similar number of dimes, please send me an email. I'm actively seeking to recruit the next generation of Orlando Weekly arts reviewers — whatever shape that takes — and I've got a platform I want to share with you.
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