It is said that well-behaved women don't change the world. Words to live by, and no one lives them better on stage than Sandra Bernhard. Uniquely poised in the performance art world, her art comes seemingly from being her full, uncensored self: a witty, smart, no holds barred, says what is on her mind, take no prisoners self. Love it or hate it, Sandra Bernhard speaks her truth on the world.
This sort of freedom is enviable and I asked Sandra in a phone interview where it comes from. "You either have it or don't. If you have it, then it is what you are allowed to do with it that is important. My parents were taken aback when they had me, but they let me do what I wanted. I have three older brothers. As the only girl, I was off-the-cuff, kooky, cute. I was lucky. I think you are at your best when allowed to be yourself. No direction for your personality is the best way to go."
At a time when so much pop culture is recycled, inauthentic and derivative, with Ms. Bernhard and her one woman shows you feel like you are getting something real, even if the delivery of her take on politics, fashion, art, culture (mixed with some music) can be a bit in your face. At the very least, it is obvious that critical thinking, true commentary and original thought, not (as she puts it) "second hand smoke", are as important as entertaining an audience for her.
On the phone, Ms. Bernhard struck me as opinionated, but reasonable. I asked her if there was ever any point in her career when she considered reining in her performances. "At different points I considered playing the game, wanting to be loved by everyone. Then you get back on the horse, put the blinders on and keep riding." In the end, a true artist is just that: true to themselves.
One of the keys to being an impactful artist is surviving. Sandra has been at the art of entertaining through stand up comedy, rock n' roll and live commentary performance for almost 40 years. I asked her how she accounts for the longevity of her career. "You work to establish a unique voice and persona -- culturally, politically -- and people come to you, almost as a shamanistic figure. People look to you, in a way they wouldn't to a Reverend, for your take on things and to shed light on things in a funny, irreverent and entertaining way. (Over the years) you shed your skin, getting to the deeper essence of who you are and you become more comfortable bearing your core. To be vibrant as a performer, you need to be emotionally naked and go deeper. I realized that I have nothing to loose. People come back to see me again and again. They are on my side, love me and want me to be as real as I can be."
Sandra has an incredible energy around her that reveals her depth as a performer. Her distinct point of view on most things comes less from a desire to shock and more from a sense of inner strength. As someone who is interested in a good Dinner Party, I asked Sandra if the person we see on stage is the person we would encounter if she came over for dinner. "When I am not on stage, I like moments of quiet and listening. Of course, I do listen when I am live with an audience, too. I tune in to people and the current in the room. But, I am not always crazy, fun and over the top. I am also a person who is a friend and gives feedback. I try to be present. I like to stay home, honker down, walk George the dog. Simplicity keeps it real. I like cooking a meal and renovation shows have become my passion. I try to stay away from things that irritate or derail me."
With her interest in being level and grounded, it is no surprise that Sandra is happy to be coming back to Chicago bringing her one-woman show, "Sandyland", to the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of only three museums in the United States that has a performing arts program, on December 5th and 7th. "Sandyland" blends theatre, rock-n-roll and stand-up with a little burlesque and cabaret, and tickets have been gone for a while. "I love Chicago, love performing there. I am from the Midwest: Flint, MI. I love the calm and inner strength, the stability that flows over into every bit of life. I feel my Chicago diehards are coming out for me!" she said about her two sold out shows.
Playing the MCA isn't the only good thing on Ms. Bernhard's calendar. She is returning once again to Joe's Pub in NYC December 26 - 31, ringing in the New Year with "Sandyland." Even bigger than her one-woman live shows is her new role on ABC's Switched at Birth, a role that was written specifically for her. Bernhard will play Teresa Lubarsky, a groovy art professor at a local college where one lead character, Bay (Vanessa Marano), is taking classes. Lubarsky is a role that has more depth than some of Bernhard's previous parts and Sandra seemed audibly excited by her new opportunity. "My role as Teresa Lubarsky isn't a ranting, two-liner part, but a great role of giving advice as an art teacher." Season Three of Switched at Birth will begin in January 2014 and Bernhard's Lubarsky is a recurring character.
After speaking with Ms. Bernhard for almost 20 minutes, I was reminded of my second favorite saying of all time, which comes from a Chinese fortune cookie. "Know who you are and be great at it." One's true source of power comes from being oneself. After all, you can't be any better than yourself. I know this to be true and clearly so does Sandra. 39 years into her career, she is still a success at knowing who she is and being great at it. Not a bad way to be in the world.