If all the weather reports are correct, not only will Steve Cuiffo have managed to recreate Lenny Bruce's most famous performance on precisely the same date 50 years later, in the same city, he'll also have a taste of the similarly foul weather that preceded the performance. According to Albert Goldman's novelistic CD liner notes for the recording of Bruce's 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert, a blizzard replete with below-zero temperatures hit the city the day before. No one was entirely sure if anyone would brave the snow and city-wide ban on driving to gather in Midtown to hear a man who was still just building his popularity at the time. But come they did, and he apparently gave the performance of his life.
It's pretty gutsy of a young performer to want to recreate such an iconic moment on stage, particularly one by a man credited with influencing an entire generation of comedians and performance artists. But Steve Cuiffo seems up to the task.
A versatile performer, Cuiffo first worked on the stage as a teenage magician before jumping into a gig with the Wooster Group right out of undergrad. For a relatively young guy, Cuiffo seems to have already earned some acting chops. I spoke with him a couple weeks before his big show at St. Ann's Warehouse (February 4, 5 at 8pm) to talk about his interest in Bruce and in experimental performance work in general.
How much of your recreation will be taken directly from Bruce's original, in terms of both the performance and the text?
All of it. I mean, obviously there are some differences. It's not going to be at Carnegie Hall and it's not going to be at midnight—we're doing it at eight o'clock in Brooklyn. But, in terms of the performance, it's going to be exact. Because that's the other aspect I've learned as I've been working on this material—I feel there's a direct correlation between the content of what he's saying and how he expresses it vocally, rhythmically and tonally.
I've transcribed a lot of his material and when you read it you can get some sense of the idea, but you don't get the full sense of it until you hear him speaking it. That's the unique thing about Lenny Bruce. I feel like my contribution to this is also bringing it back into live performance, because now you can only listen to him on CD and see a few film clips. But his whole thing was the live performance in front of an audience, expressing these words. That's the element that I can add to it.
For my own pleasure I've tried to recreate it exactly, every intonation—it's a very technical thing. With the live audience, the new contemporary audience, and the reactions that happen, it becomes this hyper-real experience. My task for myself is to try to nail it rhythmically as I hear it in my head, but then it transforms into this new kind of performance art of some kind. Which has been very exciting in its different incarnations.
What made you want to recreate such an important performance?
Since 2006 I've been working on this material. I was working with a writer named Kirk Lynn [of the Rude Mechanicals]—the Foundry Theatre approached us and put us together to make a show that was originally going to be a one-person show. It ultimately became Major Bang: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb, which the Foundry produced at St. Ann's [in 2006]. In our initial development of that piece, we were exploring different ways of doing one-person performance and how it's been done.
Around that time I got a gift from my brother of the Lenny Bruce CD box set, Let the Buyer Beware, which had just come out around that time. And I was like, this is amazing. I had a very vague, passing knowledge of who Lenny Bruce was—I knew about the movie [Lenny, 1974, directed by Bob Fosse, starring Dustin Hoffman]. I just started listening to some of these recordings and I brought it into the rehearsal room with Kirk, who is a very facile writer and can adapt a lot of different stuff, and we really got into how Lenny would do these very long routines, doing a bunch of filmic characters. It was a very good model of a performer doing a very unique thing.
Ultimately there was a little two-minute bit that made it into [Major Bang] that Kirk wrote in the style of Lenny Bruce—kind of like, what if Lenny Bruce came back from the dead to talk about the War on Terror? During that time it kind of just hooked into me and I started listening to all of his material and the relevance of it and the timelessness of it. For whatever creative or artistic reason, it just clicked with me and I continued to pursue it. After Major Bang I began to present Lenny's actual material in different venues. A lot of people, afterwards, would ask me, how much of the material did you update, because it was very relevant. So it seemed like there was an interesting life to this material still.
Many critics and fans use the vernacular of jazz to describe Bruce's work. In the sense that he was a kind a jazz artist, do you feel like you're doing a cover of Lenny Bruce's Carnegie Hall Concert? Does that in any way capture how you feel creating this piece?
That's an interesting way of thinking about it. It's definitely a cover, but what's weird about it is that I'm not necessarily putting an interpretation on it. I am, just in the sense that it's being filtered through me as a performer—I can't help the differences and the odd things that come out.
Why only recreate this performance once? That's not typical of the theater world—to perform something only one time. Does it relate to the material? The anniversary?
This is just something that really turns me on and I really like doing it, and for some odd reason I really like to mark certain occasions. In 2002 I found myself on Westminster Bridge in London at six in the morning, as the sun was coming up, to mark the occasion of Wordsworth's poem, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, which was composed there on September 2, 1802. I was going to school there, I just thought it would be a nice thing to be there.
I have a weird thing about that—capturing the spirit of things. I mean, I've been spending so much time with Lenny Bruce, I definitely want to mark this occasion. I even looked into how you get a gig at Carnegie Hall. I was like, what's it cost to rent Carnegie Hall—oh, $30,000 for the night, 2,800 seats... (Laughs.) Then I was like, well, I've done stuff at St. Ann's, so I talked to them and they went for the idea. But I was going to do something, even if it was on the street at midnight in front of Carnegie Hall, which, who knows, I may still show up there at midnight.
Let's talk for a second about how you got to this moment, as a performer. I've seen you acting in the Wooster Group's North Atlantic, I've seen you perform as a guest artist with Radiohole, I've seen you in projects like One Million Forgotten Moments, and I know you also do magic and have incorporated magic tricks into much of your work. What led you to experimental work? And how did you get into magic?
The quick version, I guess is, that magic was first. I was about six years old when I first got into magic—kind of like, maybe, most young boys at that age, they get the magic set. I had an older brother and an older cousin who did magic. So I got into it at that time. And then for some reason, at the point where normally one would phase out of magic, maybe—when you're battling between your ninja phase and your magic phase, I kind of just stayed with magic. I started reading books about it and finding more and more advanced books. That was the first thing. It definitely relates—I'm jumping ahead—to this kind of work that I do on Lenny: the precise, technical work is very satisfying to me. Same thing with Wooster Group—super technical, which I find, when I'm doing it, is super freeing as a performer. It's a paradox that I only discovered in working with the Wooster Group—how being so specific can open up a whole world. I was like, ah, this is the key to everything.
So, anyway, I was into magic, and then in high school I got involved with the theater. I had a great theater teacher in high school, Barbara Litt, who I'm still in touch with and who comes to all my shows, which is very nice. But magic also kind of became my profession then.
Is that still true now—that you make your living as a magician, primarily?
Doing magic, which is still performing, enabled me to do all the theater work. I didn't have to do commercial theater to make a living, I was doing work with the Wooster Group, Radiohole—it was more for me. So, I was always doing magic as my profession—even in high school, I was doing parties, making money, and I continued on through college. But it was in high school that I got into acting. Then I got into NYU for theater—I studied in the Stella Adler Conservatory, in the Tisch program.
But that first week at NYU, I'll never forget it, I went to Orientation Week and was like, oh, there's a production of Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones by the Wooster Group. So I go down to the Performing Garage. Actually, Paul Lazar was Smithers in that production, and obviously I've since worked with him in Wooster Group, and he's directing the Lenny Bruce piece at St. Ann's. So, he's become a great friend and a great model. But anyway, that moment of seeing this production of Emperor Jones in 1995, I was just like, holy shit, what is this? And that was my first week of going into Stella Adler actor training.
I would have guessed as an NYU undergrad you would have been more connected to their Experimental Theater Wing than the more traditional actor training path.
That's the thing, in high school I was really into the Stella Adler thing. I found out later actually that Kate Valk [one of the founders of the Wooster Group], when she went to NYU, she was at Stella Adler and did the Experimental Theater Wing after that. But anyway, the point was it was this opportunity to see this great company and this aesthetic that I had never seen before. I think from that day on I was writing letters to Kate Valk every once in a while and ushering at their shows, knowing that somehow I someday wanted to be involved with them.
I did two years at Stella Adler, then I went to London for a year, from 1997 to 1998, to study at the British American Drama Academy. That's when I was really writing the letters to Kate, because the fourth year at NYU is when you can get your professional training, and I wanted to get an internship with Wooster Group. I remember having a meeting with my advisor, and I was like, for four years I've been wanting to work with them, I really want this internship. And he was really trying to steer me away from going there because I guess several people had tried an internship there and it can be notoriously difficult. I was like, I don't care, I want to do it.
Why is it so notoriously difficult?
For me it wasn't. It was the most perfect fit of my life. But, I mean, it's a very particular culture in there, and you can either fit into it or not. Every aspect of that place is completely unique, it's very hard to explain just how the shows are made. Liz LeCompte [also a founding member of the Wooster Group] is a genius, and the performers that are involved are just so committed on a level that I've never seen in any other theater production. It was super inspiring, a very creative environment, and I was willing to do anything. I was literally the janitor there for a year and a half on the weekends. I was supposed to do my internship two days a weeks, I was there four days a week, and then working there on the weekends, when nobody was even there, mopping the upstairs and the downstairs, just because the feeling of that space was very exciting.
At the end of my internship, I still hadn't graduated yet and there were readings for a remounting of North Atlantic that I got invited to as an intern, which was super exciting. And then there were some readings that I heard about that I wasn't invited to. So there was this up and down. But then, ultimately, one day, I was there answering phones and Liz, seemingly off-hand, comes up to me and is like, oh, I wanted to ask you, do you want to be in North Atlantic? And I was like, holy shit. So that's how that happened.
We were in rehearsals before I even graduated NYU, for that first phase. And then we did the summer off and then another phase of rehearsal that following fall, in 1999. Then we went on tour with it for a couple of years. And that kind of changed the course of my life.
That's a pretty big gig to get right out of school.
You're telling me. It was awesome. It was a total dream. And it was even better once the work started—that exposed me to these different ideas of how to work on something, that technical aspect of being as specific as possible. And I obviously met a lot of great people along the way who I'm still developing relationships with and working with. That whole community that came out of the Wooster Group is an amazing thing—you've got Radiohole, Elevator Repair Service, Jim Findlay and the Collapsible Giraffe.
In terms of the performance practice you've developed in working not only as a magician, but also with a company as rigorous as the Wooster Group—how has that allowed you to build a show like this Lenny Bruce piece, where every second is mapped out?
It gives me the ability to allow that magic of theater to exist. I know when I go see something, I want to feel like I'm in good hands. With magic, for example, I do a lot of slight of hand card magic, which is kind of the real deal. There's a small handful of guys that are really doing technically difficult things with slight of hand and I just love that. I'll spend years working on a technique before I ever present it to somebody because it needs to get up to that level of total comfort. That idea of getting something so ingrained that when introduced into a new environment it can transform into something else.
With the Lenny Bruce performance, knowing that I know the material so well, it's almost like I can hear it in my head. That music analogy you gave was great, it's kind of like when you have a song you like and you can just sing it—it's very much like that, except it's the entire Carnegie Hall concert. I just hear it and I can sing it. And for me that's fun.
It's interesting that it's the performance that allows you to accomplish the technical task. Your interaction with the audience, along with your skill, of course, allows you to perform the trick without them understanding what's happening—to want to believe in the magic of the experience.
You know, I can be in my rehearsal room working on Lenny Bruce, getting technically more proficient at it, but it's nothing until it's in front of an audience. Even more so with magic. Magic only happens in the minds of the viewers. And I can kind of feel that happens to some extent with theater and performance.
Would you ever let the magic go at any point, if performing covered the bills, or do you think it feeds you across disciplines?
I couldn't possibly conceive of not picking up a deck of cards every day.
Do you literally do it every single day?
Absolutely. There's a deck of cards within arm's reach all the time. I'm beyond going out of that phase. A well-constructed card trick is a beautiful thing. And I'm also really trying to incorporate magic into everything I do. It's not so present, obviously, in the Lenny Bruce piece.
I noticed you doing a small slight-of-hand trick in the Wooster Group's North Atlantic.
Yeah. That's another great example of how Liz LeCompte really works with everybody. I would do tricks in front of her and she just loves them, so it's exciting for her to make it fit into the piece. In [the Wooster Group's] Brace Up!, there were little cards tricks going on. Major Bang was an experiment to incorporate magic into a theatrical show without necessarily a present character of a magician—to use magic effects as you would lighting or sound effects. And currently I'm working on a new show with Goeff Sobelle and Trey Lyford that is about magic and magicians. Some of it is physical theater-based and some of it is magic-based.
Rather than addressing the Las Vegas magic show, it's more addressing the club magicians. When I talk about me growing up doing magic, I would go to the Society of American Magicians club meeting once a month. And you'd meet all these great characters. It's a great subculture, like any kind of community has. So, the show is an exploration of that world, in the context of a magic show put on by those characters.
Are there are projects you're working on at the moment?
An ongoing project that has been super exciting for me has involved working with the set designer, Christine Jones, who did Spring Awakening and American Idiot. She has this project that's kind of her passion project, called Theatre for One where she's designed this booth that has room for one seat and room for one performer. It's an exploration of what can work in that environment.
For me it was again about how can I incorporate magic, because that form of magic has been done for centuries—the one-on-one experience. So to have this beautiful lush red velvet theater that has one seat was really fun. We were at the Ohio Theatre for a bit. We had a residency in Times Square. I think we're hopefully going to do more incarnations of that and develop some new material this coming year.
Also, I've done a few films lately—small, indie films—and that whole process is very strange to me, the performance aspect of it. A film just came out that I did a few scenes in called The Unlovables, directed by Ilya Chaiken. I really enjoyed working with her, but the whole performance experience, it wasn't better or worse, it was just very different from doing a live show.
I would think that working in film would be a very strange experience for you because of the role of the audience we talked about earlier, particularly in magic. Who are you getting a reaction from on a film set?
For me the thing I found in it, going back to the technical thing, was the task of hitting that very specific mark and having to match takes up. That whole task is a very tangible thing for me as a performer. For me the emotion follows that, always. Acting from the outside in—putting a mask on first is an instant key to the inside of the character. Working on Lenny Bruce, putting that mask on, trying to get it exactly has opened up that character for me in a way that will definitely hopefully relate to the audience. So where I came from with Stella Adler to now is the big difference.
(Photo credit Ken Regan)