Brendan deVallance has a low opinion of conventional theater. “It’s just so figured out,” he says. “They work it and work it until it’s right, and then they do it 100 times that way. Well, of course they’re going to tell you each time is different, but they’re trying to do it the same way all the time. I’m not.”
One of the best-known performance artists in Chicago, deVallance has been practicing his peculiar form of entertainment for almost a decade. In sort of a reaction against the methods of traditional theater, deVallance never rehearses or tests his equipment before a show, and his performances are usually one-night stands. “I don’t really like doing things a bunch of times,” he says. “Once you start doing it you figure everything out, and once you’ve figured it out, it becomes boring. I like things to be on edge.”
But in an effort to build a larger audience for both his work and performance art in general, deVallance has incorporated elements of more conventional theater–a set, a narrator, musicians–into his current show at the Randolph Street Gallery, My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears. He’s even developed a version of the show tailored for kids. This weekend he performs the show three times, plus a Saturday matinee of the kids’ version.
A deVallance performance is hard to describe. There are, of course, the props. The old warehouse he lives in near Cermak and Halsted is filled with props from past shows, and deVallance makes them out of almost anything: old toys, electronic equipment, duct tape. His collection includes a combination backpack-TV and a combo record player-briefcase, hats made out of blenders and stereo speakers, and masks made out of books, suitcases, and, for this show, a guitar. Two of his favorite media are cardboard (“I’m really good at making stuff out of it”) and Fisher-Price toys (“they’re indestructible”). His props, he says, “are an interesting way of looking at everyday stuff. They make you appreciate things in a different way.”
There’s also music: In one performance he sang the lyrics from “Satisfaction” to the tune of Lennon’s “Imagine.” In My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears, the record player-briefcase plays Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.”
Then there are the short monologues, on topics ranging from politics to art to food. “They’re kind of like poetry, but I don’t like to call them that,” deVallance says. “I call them rants, because I’m just sort of ranting. I don’t really write them as literature. I write them to say.”
The resulting mishmash looks like he’s just making it up as he goes along–which he is. He works from nothing more than a list of props and rants. The shows are organized around themes, and deVallance always has a point or two to make; but except for the rants, he doesn’t know what he’s going to say until he’s onstage.
DeVallance has been doing this since 1982, and his resume lists 148 performance titles. His list also includes some things anyone else might hesitate to call “performances”: the time he was dragged around the block behind a truck with a guitar strapped to his back, or the time he spent 24 hours in a bowling alley (“I don’t bowl a lot,” he told a reviewer, “but I like the philosophy behind bowling, which is making chaos out of order”), or the time he married two friends “in a wild, performance art kind of ceremony” after getting ordained through mail order.
Most of his stuff is solo; on occasion he has collaborated, usually with just one other person. My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears is his biggest collaboration yet, and marks the first time he’s ever built a set. He even made a working model of it out of cardboard; the model shows a giant TV (“fake,” says deVallance) about five feet high with a couch perched on top of it, a smaller real TV on wheels that slides back and forth on a shelf, and a giant ear that squirts blood.
The set, the “cast,” and the extended run mean more advance preparation than usual; deVallance made a longer-than-usual list and held a technical run-through–though nothing that could even remotely be considered a rehearsal. But the show should still have the spontaneity deVallance prides himself on: the narrator will both “explain and confuse things,” and the musicians will do whatever they want.
Themewise, My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears is based on the Jefferson Airplane song “Volunteers” and George Bush’s reference to voluntarism in his inauguration speech. “I try not to be blatant,” says deVallance. “When things are presented in a real blatant way, I think that’s insulting. But I do feel like I’m getting at something.”
He gets at it, he says, through familiar subjects. He watches a lot of TV, he says, and TV references fill his shows. “I feel like what I’m presenting is not complex. You don’t have to be really intelligent to decipher it. You just have to look at it and read something into it.”
But audiences raised on the traditional narrative forms of movies and TV usually find that deVallance’s stuff requires more work on their part. “It looks more like a collage, which is why I think a lot of people have trouble with it. But I think the stuff that I’m doing is much more in tune with the way people’s brains actually work.”
DeVallance thinks kids, who don’t have as many preconceived notions as adults, might be a perfect audience. “The way kids review a movie–like some science-fiction movie, or Star Wars–is by how fakey it is. You know, you hear them say, ‘It was too fakey.'” Theater, deVallance says, is fakey; his performances are just the opposite.
My Eyes Were Filled With Voluntears runs Thursday through Saturday, October 4 through 6, at 8 PM at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee; there’s also a 2 PM performance tomorrow geared toward kids. Tickets are $6, $4 for RSG members, and $3 for kids under 12. Call 666-7737 for more info on this or upcoming shows by other performance artists at the gallery.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.