Recap: Ladies of the Lower East Side

Posted on: February 15th, 2012 at 6:18 am by

Penny Arcade claims to have invented performance art, and follows the claim with “I’m sorry.”

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Rachel Shukert, Reverend Jen and Michele Carlo

Last Thursday night, three quintessential Lower East Side performers proudly spoke about their work, offering no apologies.

“Ladies of the Lower East Side,” part of the Tenement Talks series at the LES Tenement Museum featured authors and performers Reverend Jen, Rachel Shukert and Michele Carlo reading from each of their memoirs, followed by a discussion of how the Lower East Side has inspired them.

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Kevin Baker, with elf ears in tow.

An elf-ear clad Kevin Baker (author of Dreamland and Paradise Alley, among others) introduced the speakers as “women who make art their life and their life their art.”

Rev Jen (author of the recent Elf Girl, along with Reverend Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood, and Live Nude Elf, and inspiration for Baker’s aforementioned aural appendages), moderated the discussion between her and her friends Shukert and Carlo, all of whom had met through the Lower East Side performance scene.

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Memoirs for sale

The somewhat raucous crowd was extremely engaged, interrupting with questions before Rev Jen opened the discussion up to Q&A, resulting in a comical scolding.

Shukert read first, with a comical tale from her memoir, Everything is Going to be Great, about auditioning for, and subsequently getting, a role in an overly-demanding and underly-paying avant garde play. The director, whose name was concealed to protect the very, very guilty, was a well-known fixture in the theater world who sounded, well, more than a little insane.

Up next was Rev Jen, reading a passage from her memoir Elf Girl in which she helped start the “Lower East Side Decency Squad,” a send-up (which got taken seriously) of then-Mayor Giuliani’s “Decency Squad.” Proposed in 2001, Giuliani’s board would have determined whether works of art were decent enough to be displayed in city-funded museums. Rev Jen’s satirical group took it further, dressing conservatively and protesting in front of the Metropolitan Museum, urging removal of all the nude paintings and sculptures. “More Rudy, Less Nudie” was their slogan.

Michele Carlo then read from Fish out of Agua, her memoir about growing up in Washington Heights and discovering the LES performance scene, where she created the character Carmen Mofongo. “Everyone comes to New York from somewhere else to be themselves, but,” she queried, “where do you go, if you are already from New York City? The Lower East Side did it for me.”

Why New York and why the Lower East Side? Rev Jen cited Edie: An American Girl as her inspiration for migrating from Maryland. Carlo recalled that Please Kill Me was the book that lured her downtown to the Lower East Side. Shukert noted The Warhol Diaries and Franny & Zooey as influential, along with gritty New York City movies like Taxi Driver. However, what clinched it for her was a childhood trip to New York with her parents. While eating at a McDonald’s in Times Square, her mother was mugged by mimes, who stole her purse. At that moment, five year old Shukert thought, “Wow, I really want to live here!”

When asked if they miss “the good old days,” Carlo observed, “NY is never going to be as good as it was, and it’s never going to be as good as it’s going to be.”

After that, Rev Jen said that she had to wrap things up, because “Reverend Jen Jr,” her chihuahua who was in attendance, “was getting really tired.”

All Tenement Talks can actually be streamed live here.

Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

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