Art Work #6: Tanya Marquardt, Writer and Performance Artist

"Once upon a time I tried to explain everything that I do to people at parties," says Tanya Marquardt. "After years of watching most people’s eyes glaze over, I now say that I am a writer and a performer. But if they inquire further they find out that I dance, choreograph, direct, make theatre, work collaboratively, write memoir and plays and, and, and…." Tanya's work and career has indeed been a series of beautiful ampersands. She's studied theater, dance, and writing; she's done a show in IKEA and has a memoir, Stray, coming out from Little A—and that's just scratching the surface. In nearly twenty years of working as an artist, Tanya has acquired a lot of wisdom about navigating the thrilling and torturous roads of the art world (after reading her interview, I'm inspired to apply to about 500x more grants than I currently do). We also share the same incredible agent, Erin Hosier. Here, she talks about liminality in art, the financial shock of moving from Canada to NYC, and the freedom of self-producing. Enjoy!

What led you to study theater, then dance, then creative writing? How do your various skill sets intersect?

Theatre was really my first love, and I wanted to be an actress. For my undergraduate degree I went to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, which is a program that emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration, ensemble, and self-producing. From day one of my professional training I was collaborating with filmmakers and dancers, musicians and visual artists, and we were encouraged by the faculty to make work that mixed forms together. And I found that I loved that space between art forms and wanted my art to exist where things were risky, at times problematic, and difficult to define. And this training and interest led to me wanting to train in other art practices, eventually getting a dance certification and then an MFA in Creative Writing at Hunter College.

I feel like there is this tendency, and I think it’s present in all fields, towards definition, a snappy quip, a soundbite, a tagline that we want from artists and makers to orient ourselves to their work. I want to defy that. I welcome failure, and confusion and being undefinable. It means that sometimes my work feels very strong, and other times it roams around in a mess, but it feels real to me, closer to my life and the way I want to express myself. And also, I think liminality opens up potential meanings for the viewer or the reader, even if it comes from experiencing an uncomfortable performance or piece of writing. I also take that liminality into the process, and am continually defining the space where my skills intersect, overlap, smash against each other and meld. Sometimes the relationship is very clear, like the relationship between playwriting and memoir writing, and sometimes the relationship takes time to work itself out, like the relationship between dancing and writing. It’s exciting to live in that space, I recommend it.

What draws you to doing so many different things?

To be honest, I am not completely sure what draws me to so many different artistic expressions. Even when I was a little kid I was making up shows and writing and dancing around for my parents. So I think part of it is a natural interest, an inclination towards being an art maker. But also, I find that the deeper I work on a theme or the more I uncover about a story, the original form needs to shift so that I can discover more about the work. So a piece that starts as fiction may end up as a dance, and then a year later be a play that I then turn into a short work of nonfiction, and round and round and round. This way I can dig and find depth, which is one of the things I am interested in as an artist. So in that way my process is prismatic, it wants to shed light on all the angles.

Talk to me about the mysterious world of grant money and residencies.

I am constantly looking for grants, residencies, and production possibilities for my work. Sometimes it feels like a slog, and I find that I have had to accept continual rejection so that I won’t freeze up or crawl under a rock somewhere. In any given year I apply to 20-30 potential grants, residencies, producing or publishing opportunities. If I get three acceptance letters I have done very well, if I get five I feel like it’s one of those miracle years. Once I got three rejection letters in the same day. That’s a real boost to the self-esteem. But what I’ve found counteracts the slog is the desire to find collaborators. I keep searching for people who I want to be creative with, who I want to artistically dialogue with. And I find when I am looking in this way, the opportunities I get are genuine and because they are nurtured over time, are often long term commitments. But, I also self-produce, and this is very satisfying because no matter what I can always rely on myself to create opportunities.

You just turned in your memoir! What was that process like?

I was co-producing a show that I wrote called Transmission in 2009, based on the Orestia by Aeschylus and it had a lot of autobiographical stories in it, especially about childhood trauma. Watching the show every night was torturous, and I didn’t know why. Finally I realized it was because I had given these intense stories, stories about me and my childhood, to actors and to a narrative that didn’t exist. And I wanted to talk about what trauma did to me, to my life. And so I wrote a series of short memoirs, one of which was shortlisted for the CBC Literary Award in 2009. Knowing that autobiography was becoming a source for theatre and for writing, I applied to the MFA Program at Hunter College and was accepted for the 2010 cohort. I worked with Kathryn Harrison, Louise DeSalvo and Alexandra Styron to write an initial memoir draft about my time as a teen runaway and BDSM model, which ended up being Stray, Memoirs of a Runaway, and will be published by Little A in spring 2018. [Ed. Note: you can read an excerpt here.] Alongside writing the memoir, I also co-wrote a punk-musical-opera with Tim Carlson, Mallory Catlett and Theatre Conspiracy, which is based on the memoir and with the same title.

Writing Stray has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and it took almost eight years from the initial writing to getting a publishing contract. Basically I wrote. I wrote for a very long time until I had a manuscript, and then I copy-edited it and reworked it until I felt I had a complete manuscript. While I was doing that I was doing a ton of research on potential agents, and I spent a lot of time finding a shortlist of agents that I thought had an interest in memoirs about darker themes, like trauma, and who I thought might make interesting collaborators. I know we both have the same agent, Erin Hosier, and my query letter and manuscript spoke to her and we had coffee, and the rest is history. Erin worked her ass off, and after a hit and miss process, Little A was the perfect match for the work. Erin and the manuscript landing at Little A all happened at the beginning of this year, and sometimes it still feels like a dream.

How do you pay the bills? Do you have a primary gig of sorts?

I’ve been a working artist for almost two decades (holy sh*t), and in that time I have done a lot of stuff to pay the bills. For most of my twenties I was very lucky and made the majority of my money acting, directing, and writing in Canada. But in that time I did work as a barista, a babysitter, a sandwich maker at Quizno’s, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and as a cashier in a couple of sex-positive sex shops. It was a huge financial shock when I moved to New York and discovered that no one cared about the work I had made in Canada, and that I was starting over. I worked for a long while writing grants for the major gifts department at Hunter College, my alma mater, and for about five years that was how I made the bulk of my money. It also consumed much of my time, and though I did work on my memoir I didn’t make much art, which was horrible. Luckily, I eventually realized this and quit my job. Now I make about 50% of my money writing, performing and creating work with other theatre and dance companies, and about 50% of my money teaching performance, creative writing, and composition at Hunter College, where as a city employee, I get dental and medical insurance.

Do you feel like you’ve reached a place in your career where you can pause to take a breath, or are you still on that constant hustle?

Constant hustle. For example, today feels like a slow day, but let me walk you through it. This morning I woke up at 8am because I needed to email a link to some performance documentation to four different places before making breakfast, then I attempted to set up a meeting with a potential collaborator before going to see my immigration lawyer, where I had to hand in a stack of seemingly unending documents to begin processing my Green Card. Then I came home where I started researching a new project, confirming my meetings for the weekend (no days off), and wondering whether or not to go to a few openings tonight after I finish writing this. And that’s a slow day because I have no outstanding deadlines, rehearsals, or teaching responsibilities on top of this. Question: is there any artist who doesn’t feel like they are hustling?

What has your favorite project been so far and why?

This is a really tough question because I have been fortunate to know so many wicked artists. I performed a site specific show in IKEA once, that was pretty amazing. I was robbed while dancing in the street. An architect and an industrial designer made a stage that moved like a sailboat in a park and I danced on it while the sun set. I once put a heart shaped box on a park bench for the fourteen days leading up to Valentine’s Day with a sign on it that read “For You” and the box was filled with a crappy gift and a DVD of me making that gift on the same bench where the box was left. That was fun because Emma, my collaborator, and I would get coffee across the street and watch strangers pick up the gift and it made us feel closer to them. I was in an experimental circus for a while, and got to perform in a circus tent. A show I made about my life as a sleeptalker was turned into a podcast story on NPR’s Invisibilia.

How does someone in your line of work most need to be supported?

I need time and space to create, which means I need to be paid a living wage and have access to a studio space, or an office if I am writing. It means that I need to meet and engage with other artists so there can always be a creative feedback loop, and that those people get paid if they work on a project with me. It means that I need time to travel, and take my work other places, where I can get time and space to create through the adventures of living and engaging with the world. It means that I advocate for others to have access to time and space, and to make space for emerging artists and risk-takers who continually inspire and move me to live and become a stronger artist.

And just for fun: what would your dream (work) day look like?

If time and money were no object, my dream work day would consist of me waking up early and going to a dance class or a yoga class and then having the afternoon free to work in my studio, whether to make dances, make theatre, or write. Sometimes I would be alone and other times I would be working collectively. In this dream, I would own my studio and be able to pay my collaborators handsomely for their time. In the evening I would read and walk about and go see work. I suppose in this scenario my work would magically get produced or published without me having to hustle too much. It’s a warm and fuzzy dream, and very self-centered, where I would live outside of time or responsibility. So it feels far off, like something just out of reach or pretty unrealistic. But it would be a perfect work day.

Thank you, Tanya! Read previous installments of Art Work here