It's no secret that the journey of an artist is difficult, unpredictable and loaded with obstacles. Variations of this story have been told on stage and screen for centuries but it never seems to lose its appeal. This month, Heather Litteer, the star known as the "Jessica Rabbit" of downtown performance for the sexy and sultry persona she developed during the iconic Jackie 60 club years will take her place in this beloved theatrical canon in a new show entitled Lemonade at The Club at La Mama. With a heavyweight creative team behind her (Elena Heyman, director; Lucy Sexton, dramaturge; Mike Albo, script supervisor), the show is getting a must-see buzz all over town and online. I sat down down with Heather between rehearsals to see what that buzz is all about.
How did Lemonade come about?
Lemonade was originally a poem that I started to write. I was thinking about the landscape of my life which includes all the different jobs I've had as well as the different film and performance roles during my early years living in the Lower East Side. It's the age old story of a small town girl from Georgia coming to the big city and her adventures. Some are good and some are bad and then suddenly everything just goes south. It's how art can mirror life. I also weave a thread of how my mother, Nancy, always wanted her baby to come back home and how her southern values would always creep into my own life. But I couldn't go home as my heart was in the downtown world where it's sexy and dangerous! I started adding scenes of phone calls with my mother and her old sayings of "You attract more bees with honey" or "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade" so that's where the title comes from. Eventually, the poem just morphed into a full scale show. I'd been working with the trailblazing Big Art Group for years and our touring had slowed a bit. It was just the time for me to do my own work. I had heard about the Fox Grant for years and had been wanting to apply and you need a TCG theatre company so I approached Mia Yoo, La Mama's artistic director about applying for this grant with me and she said yes! All it takes is one "YES" and your whole world can change and we won the grant! I thought I was a complete underdog and only two applicants in my category of "Actress of Extraordinary Potential" were chosen in the U.S. This meant I would have a residence with La MaMa and they would present me along with some funding through the Fox Fellowship to produce and create my very first show! I am so grateful and excited and La MaMa has been a dream to work with!
The story changed when your mother died suddenly. What direction did it head in?
Well my mother and I had finally gotten to a good place in our relationship. I think some mother/daughter relationships can be strained. I certainly wasn't the proper southern lady with the husband and the babies. Although we had an incredible dynamic I think that maybe I had disappointed her in some ways. I wasn't the easiest of daughters - I was definitely a wild card! She really just loved me unconditionally and wanted the best for me and for me to be happy. But I alway felt like I just ran away to the big city and never looked back.
After I had a failed engagement we got a bit closer and I realized that she was just a girl like me and we were both just trying to get through life the best way we knew how. And I realized how much we really were alike - Wow! There were similarities between us than I had ever realized. We would talk constantly and she would alway give me advice, talk me off the many of ledges regarding men, jobs and my future and I'd listen to her struggles about her health and work. My mother's health was getting worse and she had started on dialysis. I could see her getting weaker but I always thought she was one of the toughest woman I knew - a classic steel magnolia. I had hurt my knee in a can-can dancing accident and hers was injured from overuse - we were both avid runners our whole lives. We ended up getting knee surgery around the same time - she had a knee replacement and I had ACL reconstructive.
Then one day we were talking and she sounded a little weak. I could hear her having trouble breathing in the other end of the phone. She said she had to go and then she hung up the phone. We always said good-bye like three or four times and this time nothing. Just the sound of her breath and she said, "I've got to go I can't breath very well right now." Then the fumbling click of the receiver. That would be the last time I ever talked to her. I never got to say goodbye. No "I love you" or anything. Just the receiver on the other end - click. She had an embolism because of her knee surgery, her little body just couldn't take it anymore. After that all the memories started rolling in and I realized how much I had pushed all those southern values and her southern ways away from me but I was more like her than I would like to believe. I had just adjusted them for my life here in New York. She was a role model and the most resilient woman I've known - she would stop at nothing. She always pushed the envelope and moved forward.
So now my script changed and became so much more powerful for me as well as being cathartic. One of the driving forces behind Lemonade was gone from this earth - only in body, that's for sure. Now I had to live with my new life without her and create the show in her honor. Now there was a new ending.
You've been a star of the downtown scene since 1990. What were some of your best memories and where did you perform?
There have been so many different places that I loved but Jackie 60 was my home where I found my New York family. I always like to say that Jackie is where I got my PhD. The Jackie Factory and Mother was our club house. I was brought in by my dear friend and fashion designer Kitty Boots one of the Jackie originators to be part of The House of Domination. And I got the name Jessica Rabbit. It was like my Dom Drag name.
I danced and writhed my way through those years dressed in an array of different costumes weekly made by Kitty. Tuesday night was THE night. There were theme nights such as Bettie Page Nights, Cyber Sluts, Teenage Runaways, Virtual Peep Show, The Kinsey Theory Night, The Hooker Ball, The Shoe Ball, Pooped Out Party Girl, Lenny Bruce (I played Honey Bruce), Courtney Love, Savannah the Porn Star and even Heidi Fleiss and more. Each week was different and everyone dressed up as there was a strict dress code and most everyone worked the looks each week or you else might not even get in! The Method Go-Go, The Jackie Playhouse, The House of D girls and the fierce MC's were all performances and they were all smart and sexy with a innovative approach. I learned so much about culture and how to perform from watching people like Joey Arias, Sherry Vine, Bobby Miller, Penny Arcade, Paul Alexander, Richard Move, Hattie Hathaway, Basil Twist, Rob Roth, Kitty Boots, Marti Beaut, Chi Chi Valenti and our House DJ Johnny Dynell. We danced, danced, danced. There was nothing like it, it was a place where artists could hang and express themselves and just be without judgments. Live out your wildest fantasy and in the most supportive environment. The legendary power couple Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell were the brains behind Jackie 60 and they became my NYC Mom and Dad. I was their daughter and still am. I cherish these times and all of the friends I made so dear to my heart. We are still a family and in close contact.
What is like to be an artist now in the hyper-gentrified NYC? Is there still an audience for what is considered 'downtown performance"?
Yes, There is definitely a scene out there. You just have to be willing to go to Brooklyn. I can always find things around the LES but the landscape of Manhattan has changed. With rents going as high as the new buildings, if you aren't a millionaire, banker or have family money or have rent stabilized apartment (like me) it's hard to find an affordable apartment so the traditional "downtown artist" vibe has expanded to Brooklyn and beyond. But once you have that "downtown" state of mind it doesn't matter where you are. You will find it and it will find you, it's a way of life and an attitude. To be open and free and trying new things with an approach that isn't so mainstream. Take chances and color outside of the lines! That is one of the reasons that I chose to work with La MaMa and I think why they chose to work with me, we both have that mavrerick aesthetic.
In Lemonade you have a sex scene that recalls a controversial scene you did with Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For A Dream which you claim ruined your career. Tell us about it.
In the late 90's I got a part in a film called Requiem for a Dream. I played opposite Jennifer Connelly in the tragic ending sex scene where it shows what length a junkie will go to get her fix. This 'ass to ass' scene became one of the most horrific and popular sex scenes in film today. This is the kind of scene that will be burned in your brain forever - "ass to ass" is even in the Urban Dictionary. After this I was just typecast in role after role as the junkie or the whore. It has followed me around for 17 years like a horror movie monster that just keeps on coming and won't let go. Recently I ran into the director at Cafe Mogador and he dismissed me like I was insignificant and walked away. I just don't really understand how humans can be so callous. I went to great lengths as an actress to make that scene work as did Jennifer. I had more hopes that more work would have come out of that film and I guess that was naive on my part. The misogyny in the film industry is rampant and I will bring up these issues with some tongue-in-cheek dialogue within Lemonade and face all those horror movie monsters and let them free.
Where do you want Lemonade to take you?
Lemonade has already taken me on a fantastic journey. I'd like to tour the show in both the U.S. and abroad but one step at a time! I've learned so much as a writer and about myself and how I've grown as a woman and a performer. It's already so sweet! I'm excited for an audience to see me stripped down to the bare bones where I can tell my little slice of life! My hope is that I can inspire another human being to never give up hope and just keep pushing forward. We are not alone and women - and all people - can take their power, own it and don't let it own you! The show is full of universal stories that everyone knows such as family conflict, loss and how to deal with what life hands you. This is just my journey of how I made lemonade out of what I was handed and it's something we can all relate to.
Written and performed by Heather Litteer
April 14 - 24, 2016
The Club at La Mama
74A East 4th Street
New York City
$18 adults / $13 senior/students