Interview: Jillian Billard
Photo: Olimpia Dior
For over a decade, the work of performance artist Ann Liv Young has been met with controversy and confusion; labeled by critics as shocking or scattalogical. These descriptions are not exactly wrong: Young is certainly known to offer her audiences full frontal confrontation in both the physical and psychological fashions. But to call the work “shocking” just seems too easy a reading. Sure, she’s shat herself on-stage, rolled it around in purple glitter, and sold it to audience members (all while wearing a poofy princess dress, I might add). But if the work is so revolting, why do audiences show up? Why do they stick around? What is really going on in this work, and is it worth a closer look?
Young has been interested in the relationship between the audience and the performer since she was a young aspiring actress and dancer, studying Stanislavski technique and taking rigorous ballet courses. She is no stranger to the stage, and possesses an obvious ease when she performs. But she’s not interested in creating works that are easily reckoned with. She wants the audience to work for it; fearlessly holding a mirror to the inescapable id that lies within each of us. Ann is committed to making people think and feel and gain a deeper understanding of themselves, even if it’s at her own expense.
With all of this in mind, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to speak with Ann. What I discovered was a woman with a boundless sense of curiosity; a kind and compassionate sensibility; and a devoted mother, who talked extensively about her two beautiful, wildly intelligent daughters. Hearing her explain the thought process behind her work, her devotion to her practice, and the ways in which she incorporates it into her daily life was in no small measure entrancing and enlightening.
Let’s start from the beginning. Can you talk a bit about your childhood, and how you became interested in performance?
I was super into dance when I was little. I started taking dance lessons when I was 5, quit for a bit, and then picked it back up when I was 8 and just fell in love. I also did a lot of theater when I was young. I was always filming a bunch of weird home videos with my friends.
My childhood was pretty difficult. My mom worked all the time, and my dad struggled with substance abuse. I went away to art school when I was 14, which I’m sure was in large part an attempt to escape my home life. At school I got a lot of attention for the things that I made, and my teachers were extremely encouraging. After that I went to a conservatory in London, where I learned about performance and composition. Realizing that the conservatory wasn’t for me, I transferred to a women’s college in Virginia called Hollins, where I studied composition and choreography. That’s where I really started to make shows. I moved to New York right right after I graduated and was lucky to get booked right away. I had my first show in Europe when I was 22, and started touring pretty extensively when I was 24. I found that I was actually able to pay my bills, just from performing.
Would you say that you started out with a more traditional approach to acting, dance, and performance?
Yes. I was taking whatever classes you take when you grow up along the water in North Carolina—jazz and tap and (not very good) ballet. I acted in a lot of plays when I was young, but I wasn’t exposed to super hardcore acting technique until I went to art school, where the curriculum was rigorous and the competition was intense. Many of the teachers taught the Stanislavski method, and I was super into it. After school I auditioned for a bunch of dance companies and plays; and while I would get in, I never felt fulfilled. It felt great to stay in shape, of course, but I just wasn’t making the stuff that I wanted to make.
I started to direct my focus towards making my own stuff. I finalized a few different shows and began touring in Europe. Early on, my performances were more dance oriented. I was interested in challenging the structure of dance; particularly what is and is not acceptable within the medium. I wanted to investigate and the relationship between the viewer and the performer. I’ve always been interested in the responsibilities of the performer, the composer, the audience. My goal was to put these roles to the test as much as I possibly could within some type of structure.
You’re most known for your works that create a direct confrontation between viewer and performer. When did you really start to break down those barriers?
I think that I was always doing it, but in very different ways. Melissa is a Bitch was an early piece which is very confrontational with the audience, though I never actually address the audience verbally. I think it was confrontational in the way that the movement was super rigorous and intense. All of the performers in that show was full-figured and curvy, and wore tiny green bikinis. The choreography is all full frontal and sweaty, and the performers look directly at the audience, often making intense eye contact.
I think the direct contact between performer and viewer started to get more literal when I made the character Sherry, who obviously directly addresses the audience verbally. At the time I created Sherry, I was feeling really frustrated by what people would write about my work, particularly as a young mother who makes work that is challenging for a lot of people. Writers feel like they can just write whatever they want about you, which was hard for me because I couldn’t respond to them or create a dialogue. So I came up with this character that directly addresses people verbally so that I could start to talk about this stuff.
Just because I make shows where I seem unstable or crazy doesn’t mean that that’s how I am at home or as a mom. It was really hard for me to express that, so creating Sherry was a great tool. She gave me a voice to express myself directly to journalists and say “hey let’s actually think about this.” When you watch a movie you understand that a person is acting. Why can’t it be the same with me?
I don’t read anything about myself anymore. I haven’t in 5 years. I don’t worry so much about what people think of me as a mom because my kids are the most important thing to me. You just have to know that you’re doing the right thing and you don’t need to be held up by other people. It’s nice to feel like I’ve gotten to that point.
Has being a mother changed your way of creating?
No question. I mostly work in my house and so my kids are around—unless it’s a show that’s not appropriate for them to see because it contains violent elements—so they see my work all the time. I often rehearse with Akiko in the room with us. That can be tough because she really wants to be a part of it. I have to figure out ways to make her feel like she’s involved and is seen and heard; but she also has to understand that this is my job and I have to focus and concentrate. It’s a lot of compromising and problem-solving.
My older daughter Lovey is super interested in performance. I was not expecting that she would be so into it, so it’s been really crazy for me. When I was casting Elektra Cabaret, she told me that she wanted to be in it. I wasn’t sure that it was a good idea, but then she said “I can be Iphigenia’s ghost.” I was like “how in the hell do you even know who that is?” Her dad, Michael, reads a lot of Greek tragedies to her. The fact that she had grasped who this character was; and knew that the character died and therefore should come back to life as a ghost, well, I couldn’t say no to that.
She also really wanted to be in Antigone. That one is a really heavy, tragic, and intense show about suicide. I told her this and she was like “I know what it’s about, and I want to play Antigone.” She’s such a hard worker and is so devoted. She is so engaged and creative and fun and smart; and she has a such a beautiful empathy toward other people and their process. Every day I am blown away with gratitude that I get to be her mom.
My little one, Akiko, is like a tiny Sherry. It’s terrifying. I feel like I’m totally getting what I deserve after all these years of audience abuse [laughs]. She’s super confident in her choices which is amazing. She has no fear; she climbs on everything and her costume and makeup choices are outrageous. She has this intense aggression and assertion that most people want to drive out of little girls. I’ve tried to encourage her to be her wild and crazy self. I think it’s important to encourage her to be who she is so that she can develop into who she wants to become. She doesn’t steer away from conflict, which is highly impressive. But she’s also super sympathetic and if you’re hurt or crying she’s the first one to try to help you. It’s crazy to have two kids that are so insanely different. Akiko is insane in such a beautiful, powerful way. She’s our little monster.
It’s really beautiful how your daughters embody two disparate affectations of your work, and that they are so involved in it. Can you talk a bit about your recent performance with Lovey at Transville?
That was a really short thing I made with this new character named Tria, her husband Tim and their daughter, who is nameless. I grew up with a mom who was creative and hardworking, but she wasn’t super involved in my life. She was always really proud of me, but it never felt like she was really a part of it. I wanted my relationship with my daughter to be different.
Lovey knows that I would never push her to do things that she didn’t want to do. I really try and let her tell me what she wants. I thought it could be really interesting to make a show where we explore this role-playing exercise where I act as a super controlling stage mom, with each of us knowing that that’s not how our relationship operates. I was interested in how could I as Lovey’s mom, and also her director in many instances, could push her into new territories as her real mother pretending to be this other kind of mom. It was essentially to challenge both of us.
I’ve been wanting to make a show for a long time called Family Theater, where I take my home life and put it on stage. I think this project is the beginning of that. I was amazed at how well Lovey took direction and just went for it. She’s a caretaker in a lot of ways. She often steers away from conflict, so it was interesting to see her push the audience and get up close to them. She really went for it. She hasn’t really done anything like that before—most of what she’s done was scripted, with far less improvisation—so up until now there’s always a existed a distance between her and the audience. This practice is really preparing her to play Antigone in the fall, because Antigone is this super erratic woman. Lovey constantly blows me away with her performance ability. She always commits to it. She’s only 10!
It's really important for me to ask difficult questions of the audience, of the performers, and of myself.
Are most of your works rehearsed or improvised?
It depends. The Sherry stuff has a very loose structure. Elektra and Elektra Cabaret were highly rehearsed. Antigone is super rehearsed with some moments of improvisation. Sherapy is always improvised. Cinderella has a lot of improv but also a lot of structure. It all varies from show to show.
What do you find is the difference between an improvised piece and an extensively rehearsed performance, in your experience?
I love both forms. I love doing very structured stuff because even though you’ve done it so many times, you can still find freshness in it every night. I love improvisation because it’s based on who is in the room, so it’s always different.
I have an intense passion for directing people. I could just sit in a room all day and watch people perform and offering them direction. It puts me in a very calm, relaxed space. It feels like my brain is getting exercise that it needs. I learn so much about people by watching them and seeing how they receive direction. It’s also really helped me with my Sherapy, because it’s made me more in tune with people’s unique ways of understanding things.
Where did you derive the inspiration for your character Sherry?
Sherry is based on my mom and dad; she’s really a conglomeration of the two of them. She’s since evolved into a reflection of an audience, and the social climate in general.
I was in Amsterdam touring Snow White while pregnant with Lovey when I first came up with Sherry. They gave me a tiny room to practice in, which was challenging because the piece has so much movement and we needed a lot of space to rehearse. The set hadn’t arrived yet, and I was super sick and exhausted.
I decided that I was going to write a new part to tag onto the end of Snow White. I wanted it to be like an open Christian radio show, and I (as Sherry) would be the host. Sherry comes from a Christian background, but she’s also very open to new ideas. I really wanted to embody a character that could show up to a venue and figure out what to do when the set is lost. I wanted her to be able to make a super effective show no matter what the conditions were. In a lot of ways, Sherry was imagined as this theatrical superhero who could withstand whatever was thrown at her. I wanted to do that for so many reasons; for financial reasons; because I was having a child; and because I was exhausted from touring so much. I needed to create a character who could protect me—from what people think of me, what people write about me. In a lot of ways, Sherry is the perfect woman.
Why did you decide to make Sherry a therapist? On your website you offer one-on-one Sherapy sessions. Can you talk a bit more about these sessions?
I do them in all different places. I do a lot of one on one, couples sherapy, and family sherapy. People usually just email me asking for a skype session, or people will invite me to their home. Sometimes people will ask for a truck session, so I’ll drive the truck to their house. It’s kind of like a house call. A lot of Sherapy sessions happen at festivals, mostly in Europe. I’ve been flown to a number of festivals to set up an office for three or four days. I usually do 25 sessions a day. It’s almost like they’re buying a ticket for a theater show, but it’s in the form of a therapy session.
Is it exhausting, doing that many sessions in one day?
Yes. It is extremely exhausting, but also totally fulfilling. I usually have a terrible migraine afterwards and have to go eat food right away and then lie down for an hour, and then I feel totally fine.
How do you find balance between these strenuous character experiences and taking care of yourself?
After I had Akiko I started having a lot of health problems that I had not had before. I started feeling like I was going to pass out during performances, and afterwards I would get a massive headache; they were so bad I couldn’t even talk to people. I would have to go sit backstage in a dark room by myself. I thought that it was just exhaustion, but it started to get so bad that I was eventually unable to work for three years. It was horrible.
I tried to work through it, but it was really difficult. I went to see a number of doctors who told me I had this weird inner ear disease, where you’re basically missing a piece between your inner ear and your brain. It’s called superior canal dehiscence syndrome. The only way to fix it is to have a craniotomy, but there’s a possibility that you can become deaf from the brain surgery. I was trying out a lot of holistic practices such as cutting out gluten and sugar from my diet, attempting to alleviate stress, and sleeping more. I felt better physically, but I was still sick. I couldn’t walk because I had terrible vertigo.
I decided I would do the brain surgery, but I wanted to be absolutely sure there were no other options. Michael found a neurologist in Boston, who deals specifically with superior canal dehiscence syndrome. He told me that I did have this hole in my ear, but it wasn’t causing my symptoms. He concluded that I had what was called migraine associated vertigo, which is extremely debilitating. It’s related to your hormones, so it made sense that I started to get it when I had my second child. I just started weeping and hugged him. I was so relieved to finally know what was wrong with me. I felt like I had lost three years of my life.
The neurologist put me on a special migraine diet and medication. I started to get better within three months. It’s been a year and a half now, and I feel like a completely different person. But I still have to take really good care of myself. I have to sleep a lot, and really try to minimize stress. I feel like i have PTSD from it, because when I start to rehearse I’m constantly wondering when I’m going to start to feel dizzy. I have to remind myself that I’m not going to. I’m in therapy which really helps and am taking it one day at a time.
I just remind myself why I want to be an artist. Being an artist means making stuff when times are hard, as well as when times are great. It’s just what you do.
I want to make stuff that's hard to untangle; stuff that asks hard questions and sits with you for awhile. Stuff that maybe audiences don't always understand right away.
I love the idea of creating a character who is your personal caretaker, and who protects you. How much of you do you think is in each of your characters? Do you find that you lose yourself when you embody these characters?
I feel like I’m always there as the conductor. I never lose my voice. My role is really to control the situation and to orchestrate what’s happening. I never lose that sensibility, nor my sense of aesthetics. But I do definitely go into a crazy Sherry-zone. There are times when Michael will be like “you know you did this and this…” and I don’t even remember doing or saying any of those things. It’s not so much that I disappear, I just get hyper focused. It’s really fun to leave yourself for a little bit.
I’ve read that you don’t consider your work shocking; but rather as an exploration in breaking down perceived barriers to bring about something fresh and new. How would you characterize your work?
I think a lot of people call it shock art, and I understand that. I understand why someone would look at what I make and say “oh she’s just trying to get attention.” I think that once you get to know me as a person, you realize that that’s not at all what I’m doing. I think also once you work with me, it’s very clear that that’s not what I’m doing, because I really demand a lot from the performers. So much of what I make is really influenced by my performers. It’s really important for me to ask difficult questions of the audience, of the performers, and of myself.
We as a society are obsessed with power and sex. That’s a lot of what I deal with, simply because that’s what everyone is infatuated with. With Melissa is a Bitch, for instance, it could be read as me using a type of female body to be shocking, or a certain loud music to shock people. With Sherry, it’s all about her language and the way that she speaks to the audience. No matter what I do people are going to read it as shocking. And for me that’s okay, but it’s definitely not my goal. If it was my goal, my shows would not be as effective. I wouldn’t be able to withstand this as a career if that was my goal. That’s just empty. You see a show whose goal is to be shocking and it becomes very one-dimensional.
I want my shows to sit with people for a long time. Some people hate my performances and are so angered by them, and then six months later they write me an email saying that it’s changed their life. I want to make stuff that’s hard to untangle; stuff that asks hard questions and sits with you for awhile. Stuff that maybe audiences don’t always understand right away. Some people call that shocking, and that’s totally okay with me.
I think that that’s an easy immediate reaction. It takes longer to reckon with or realize what it is you’re actually tapping into. I’m curious about your use of pop music and pop culture icons, such as Disney princesses. What is your thought process behind incorporating this pre-teen femme aesthetic?
I think that my aesthetic is, unfortunately, the aesthetic of a twelve-year-old child. I think that probably stems from my childhood, which was great in a lot of ways because I was completely immersed in dance and theater and I loved my friends; but i definitely felt like I had to take care of my parents in a lot of ways. I feel like there was a part of my childhood that I didn’t get to enjoy or appreciate or hold onto. I’ve always assumed that’s why I’m so into that aesthetic. Like when I go shopping with my kids, I always want to buy myself some kid’s toy—like a barbie horse or something—because I genuinely love the object. I just assume that’s probably because I didn’t get to hold onto my childhood for very long. I had to grow up very quickly. In terms of color choices, I’ve always loved bright colors, particularly pink. My mom has a similar design aesthetic, but hers is a lot more “Southern hotel.” We both love objects, so I probably got that from her.
In terms of pop music—I’ve always felt like what I make is kind of weird. It seemed a bit inaccessible to a lot of people. I really want to make work that was more accessible to a wider range of people, so I decided to incorporate widely-known music. I thought “well, what if I take this song that everyone hears constantly on the radio or in the grocery store—even though it might not be my personal favorite song—it might help pull people in.” A naked woman holding pig is an image that some people might not immediately be drawn to. Using pop music was my way of captivating audiences quickly, to help them relate to the work.