Choreographer and writer Jack Ferver’s new collaboration with artist Marc Swanson, Chambre, begins with Ferver, scantily clad in a gold, chained bodysuit and dark sunglasses, ranting about a former employee who had the audacity to use “my YSL discount without my permission.” He delivers these words — entitled, clueless, and even cruel — deadpan, from a sculptural assemblage of walls, doors, and mirrors that form a white interior. Ferver is known for his funny, provocative, often self-effacing performances, which are a combination of dance, theater, and social critique. Chambre is no exception. His opening words are taken verbatim from Lady Gaga’s deposition in a 2012 lawsuit when former assistant Jennifer O’Neill sought compensation for unpaid overtime and damages.
Using the self-proclaimed Fame Monster’s words as an introduction to the world of the 1%, Chambre (in which Ferver performs alongside Michelle Mola, and Jacob Slominski) continues as a performance inspired by Jean Genet’s The Maids, exploring gender and fantasy as a means of escape, particularly from income inequality. I recently sat down with Ferver to talk about a changing New York City, murderous French maids, and the Fame Monster inside all of us.
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Kerry Gaertner Gerbracht: The inspiration for Chambre is Genet’s The Maids, his tale of a pair of sister domestic workers who plot to murder their employer. How and why did Chambre evolve out of The Maids?
Jack Ferver: Marc Swanson and I had done a collaboration called Two Alike at DiverseWorks in Houston and then the Kitchen in 2012. Occupy Wall Street was going on and I was becoming more and more aware of income disparity. I have lived in New York for a while. I was really starting to feel the crunch of it … it’s just getting worse. I live in Williamsburg and there are new condos going up in front me. I have been listening to the construction forever, watching the displacement, how people who have lived there for a long time, the low-income housing by these construction sites, seeing the looks on people’s faces as to what’s going on. It’s so crushing and terrifying. I wanted to make my comment on this experience and I said, I think the next thing we work on should be The Maids. I did a production of it at Williamstown when I was 18 (with Charlie Day, who is now on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). I fell in love with Genet then and started reading all of his work.
KGG: How does The Maids connect to present-day New York City?
JF: The Maids is Genet’s commentary on the Le Mans murder case. Christine and Léa Papin murdered the mother and daughter they worked for. Lacan wrote about it, Communist newspapers very much defended the Papin sisters. So this was Genet’s mark as an artist about this thing that was happening in France — the bourgeoisie, those looking to be the 1%, working their servants as if they were the 1%. Really wealthy people would have a staff of, say, 14, but those that wanted to be really wealthy would have a staff of 2 and work them like they were 14. The reason I love The Maids the most out of his plays is because it’s the one that delves most into fantasy and how one uses it to try to escape. It’s something I see all the time, particularly in America with this capitalist notion of “If only I had that thing over there.” That’s where Chambre began, the jumping off spot for it. And then it very much veered out of Genet.
KGG: Lady Gaga most certainly was not a part of Genet’s work, but your use of her deposition is a wonderful contemporary example of this overworked servant pitted against an entitled employer scenario. Where did you get the idea for this?
JF: Her deposition is down at the courthouse so anyone can read it, and a fair amount of it was also printed in the Post. Upon reading it I felt it was so much about what [Chambre] is about — [a] fantasy of wanting to be somewhere else. [Gaga’s] whole thing is wanting to be famous, the Fame Monster that she really wanted to become. And she became it, but it came with these hallmarks of the 1%, [like] being incredibly entitled. The way she speaks to and about this woman who was her friend is chilling. It feels incredibly void of humanity. She said she felt this woman was paid by being on a yacht and hanging out with Terry Richardson. But at the same time she’s having to be a maid, a servant. She’s having to deal with the luggage, and, as Stefani [Gaga’s real name] says in her testimony, “she didn’t lay my things out enough for me.” So she wasn’t along for the ride as a friend. She was along as the help. And then the way she is talked to is brutal and speaks to the sense of change.
KGG: The timing of this production could not be better given the current US political climate.
JF: I knew I had to go into it because it’s very timely and timeless, this idea that if I have more power and more money I’ll feel safer or more important. Yet what comes with that seems to be treating other people really terribly. And we can certainly look at that in the art world, with people who become art stars and then you hear horror stories about them — the culture of celebrity. This whole thing with Donald Trump being at the top? It’s terrifying. If he wins I’d have to move. I’d feel so unsafe in this country. I already feel unsafe. The fact that this is even happening is completely terrifying to me. So I’m an artist who deals with psychology and social issues and political issues and that’s why I had to get into this.
KGG: It’s surprising these sorts of murders don’t happen more often. And yet, on some level, we all want the security, money, and relevance that comes with fame, even with the negatives attached.
JF: I don’t blame it on Lady Gaga. I certainly indict myself. Because I can see how everyone, including me, can become capable of really losing a grip on reality inside of this system. This piece is not about indicting any individual. It’s about indicting systems, and I’m trying to show the systems. I begin first with Lady Gaga then go through different systems, which include gender, sexual orientation, servitude, class disparity, celebrity, and how they interplay with fantasy, which I really feel more and more is a big formal tool for me. Theater, humor, dance, sex, violence, and fantasy are for me very much part of being an American artist.
KGG: Your play with gender is an interesting twist on fantasy. Your characters are female and they play dress up in Reid Bartelme’s glamorous gowns and costumes. Why did you choose for all the characters to be women?
JF: In Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet writes about wanting to have a theater where all the roles are played by adolescent boys with a card to the side that said, “These roles are played by men.” I feel that this is also apparent inside of The Maids, though it premiered with women. It is how Genet played with fantasy and desire for being something that you’re not.
KGG: How do you feel about performing Chambre in a new venue, the New Museum?
JF: I am excited to show it in the context of the New Museum because when we first did the workshop it was at the ICA [in Portland, Maine], then premiered it at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, in a black box theater that we made to look like a gallery. But the intention had been to have Marc’s installation be able to stand alone as well as have a performance with it. Both Marc and I were interested in exploring this seam between theater and visual art. There is a well-traversed path of dance and visual art but it feels taboo to have this interaction between theater and visual art.