Bitten by the Fuckdog

The last time we heard from former Chicagoan Gary Cole, in 2001, he was launching StageDirect, a business that films fringe theater shows and markets videos internationally; Chicago’s Neo-Futurists are among the troupes he’s taped. That venture hasn’t taken off financially yet, he says, but it hasn’t been foremost in his mind. With the presidential election coming up, Cole–a die-hard Republican–wanted to talk about his adventure in Bushland.

It started a year and a half ago, when he thought he’d make a run for Congress in Oregon, where he’d been living since 1991. A longtime Bush supporter and party fund-raiser (he was the state’s Republican finance chair in 2000), he figured that as a moderate he might be able to win back a seat the Democrats had held for 30 years. He hired a team of east-coast political consultants to look into his chances and says it took them all of ten minutes to reach a conclusion. They went on the StageDirect Web site, noted that his company’s inventory included Straight, a play about the movement to turn gays and lesbians into heterosexuals, and another play with the catchy title Poona the Fuckdog, and told him to forget it. You don’t have a prayer of winning a Republican primary, they said.

Cole, a playwright, lawyer, former CIA employee, and cofounder of CoHo Productions, a not-for-profit Portland theater company, had an itch to go back east and wondered if there might be a job for him out there that wouldn’t require election. “My friends in Oregon and I started talking about the NEA,” he says. “After the disillusioning experience with the congressional race, I didn’t want to embark on a fool’s errand, but they didn’t think it would be an issue.” After all, Cole says, both art and the Republican Party are supposed to be about personal liberty.

It looked like he was in luck: there was an opening for a deputy chairman for grants and awards–the number-three job in the agency, responsible for the day-to-day operation of the roughly $60 million grant program. Cole thought this would be dandy and believed his experience in art, business, and law made him eminently qualified. In the spring of 2003 he applied for the job and says Oregon senator Gordon Smith pushed for him. That May he went to Washington for interviews with NEA head Dana Gioia and the White House personnel office. Soon afterward he got an e-mail from Ann Guthrie Hingston, director of the NEA’s office of congressional and White House liaison, telling him he was Gioia’s choice for the $131,000-a-year job, subject to White House approval, and on June 9 he got a congratulatory call from her announcing that the position was his. “I was ecstatic,” Cole says. “This was my dream job, the culmination of 20 years of hard work in the arts and Republican politics.” In Chicago at the time for his brother’s wedding, he dived right in, celebrating the appointment with his parents and making an offer on a house in the D.C. area.

But two days later, just hours after he’d had a nice phone chat with a woman from the NEA communications department about his background, Hingston left a message on his answering machine saying that something had come up. The next day she called to say they were pulling the offer. Cole says she wouldn’t say why, but it wasn’t hard to catch a whiff of the reason. “I’m virtually certain about what happened,” he says. “The woman in the communications office said she had been on our Web site,” and he says two friends in positions to know told him later that the Fuckdog and Straight had struck again. “Wednesday I was their guy; Thursday I was toast.” An NEA spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

Cole’s living in North Carolina now and trying to take StageDirect in new directions. As for Straight and Poona the Fuckdog, he says, “These two productions were favorably reviewed by publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times. We’re the furthest thing from some purveyor of obscenity. To be branded as beyond the pale was inconceivable to me. I subscribed to how Bush presented himself–as a sophisticated, compassionate conservative. It’s painful.” He says he’s still a Republican, but he won’t be voting for Bush this November.

What Concert?

After a flurry of publicity earlier in the week, a crowd of only about a half dozen gathered at Louis Sullivan’s stock exchange arch behind the Art Institute last Saturday to hear the Richard Nickel Transaction Ensemble perform the first part of a protest concert. Ensemble leader Steven Tod says the group had been trying for a year to get permission to play a requiem for their namesake in the re-created stock exchange trading room inside the museum, without success. (Nickel, who dedicated his life to photographing and preserving Sullivan’s buildings, died in 1972 when the floor of the trading room at the stock exchange building he’d attempted to save caved in on him.) So the ensemble was playing under the arch, where it had to compete with a sax wafting over from Monroe Street and the unrelenting rush of the adjacent triple fountain. The group had planned an improvised work to be played on bottles, but the sound of breath hitting liquid in five partially filled containers was barely audible.

The second part of the concert was another matter. The musicians strode through the back doors of the museum and into the stock exchange room, videographer in tow, where they began to play an improvised five-part requiem on the grand piano there. Tod says Art Institute officials told him there was no money in their budget for a concert, even if the musicians didn’t want pay; now they simply took possession of the space, lining up in front of the keyboard and sending trembling high notes and crashing chords up the wood-paneled and stenciled walls to the coffered ceiling for a quarter of an hour.

Tod says the first part of the concert was a tribute to Nickel, the second part a question for the Art Institute: “Why isn’t Nickel’s name mentioned in the trading room exhibit?” Art Institute officials, however, turned a deaf ear. Visitors wandered in and stayed to listen; a security guard took a look and walked away. The Art Institute “honors Richard Nickel” and has shown his work, says museum spokesman John Hindman. But “we don’t present concerts in the trading room. And if we were to present an event related to Richard Nickel, it would be related to his art–photography–not to music.”

The Wake That Wasn’t

SOS: The production of Flanagan’s Wake that was scheduled to open September 11 at the Royal George is itself a candidate for a wake. Mia Fiorella, the show’s booking agent, says it’s been abandoned by its producer, Vicki Quade, and is looking for a new home. “We had a director, and the show was cast,” Fiorella says–but in August Quade advised her that they’d have to delay. When Fiorella pressed for an opening date, Quade replied that she was too busy to focus on it.

Quade says she was “trying to do too much” and “didn’t want to shortchange it. They wanted to open very quickly; I couldn’t meet their deadline.” Fiorella hopes to raise the show from the dead and says if anyone’s interested she’s at 312-804-6603.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jerry Marciniak.