Los Angeles’s Skid Row is a 20-square-block area near downtown where hundreds of homeless people sleep outside on the sidewalk every night, and at least a few don’t wake up in the morning. Food is scarce; beds are scarcer, it is impossible to buy a newspaper because there are no stores, and stray animals generally have a better chance of surviving than people. Civilization ends here; hell begins just around the corner.
Eight years ago, John Malpede, disenchanted with the increasingly commercial direction of New York’s performance art scene, began organizing “talent shows” at missions and soup kitchens on Skid Row in Los Angeles as a way of encouraging homeless people to tell their stories and get more involved in their own lives. No rules applied. People could get up on stage and do whatever they wanted. Some sang. Some read poetry. Some ranted about God. Some just rambled on unintelligibly, or didn’t speak at all.
Out of this unlikely assembly of talent, Malpede eventually formed the Los Angeles Poverty Department (or LAPD for ironic short), a ragtag band of theatre anarchists who have proven themselves over time to be one of the most adventurous and iconoclastic performance troupes in the country.
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that many of their performers are clinically insane, LAPD shows tend to be bizarre, unpredictable, emotionally supercharged affairs that walk a fine line between stark raving madness and frightening clarity. Homelessness is a precarious existence. People on the streets hallucinate, lie, cheat, steal, scream and kill – but they are also capable of telling the most brutal, honest kinds of truth, and LAPD performances reflect this paradox. Indeed, LAPD’s performance style, which is uniquely tolerant of pandemonium, has evolved in large part as a way of encompassing problems endemic to homelessness.
“We have to improvise because lots of homeless people can’t concentrate long enough to memorize anything,” explains Malpede. “Street life is chaotic. Life and death are a lot closer together, so all the emotion – sadness, pathos, even laughter, are much closer to the surface – not just rage. In LAPD, we’ve found ways to filter that chaotic street energy through improvisational performance techniques that actually have roots in other, more experimental kinds of theatre.”
LAPD has expanded its influence by working with homeless populations in San Diego, Chicago, Minneapolis, London, Amsterdam and other cities in a series of month-long residencies over the past few years. Wherever LAPD goes, it immediately beads for that city’s equivalent of Skid Row, arranges talent shows, recruits new people, guides them through workshops, and develops an entirely new show based on the material gathered in those few weeks. But in addition to improvising like crazy, LAPD has also had to find different ways to tell stories, since clear rational narratives are sometimes hard to come by on Skid Row, and time constraints often prevent them from developing pieces as fully as they might like.
“Much of our style grew out of the limitations of doing these residencies,” says Malpede. “For a while we were doing shows that had a single narrative line running through them. But when we started doing residencies in different cities, it would become frustrating because we would end up with all of these small scenes stacked up like pancakes that didn’t hold together in any conventional sense. So we began looking for ways to allow for different kinds of structuring.”
One of the methods LAPD hit upon is a way of layering images into dense, suggestive, almost dreamlike metaphors to bind formerly disjointed story fragments. LAPD pieces usually include some autobiographical references, but the anchor in reality is often tenuous, making for a disconcerting mix of the brutally real and the totally fictional.
The idea for one show, entitled Call Home, started from the premise that people on the streets were disconnected from their families. To gather material, LAPD put a phone on the street and told people they could call anyone, anywhere in the world, for free. At about the same time, Michael Lee, a member of the troupe, had witnessed a murder in his hotel and was testifying for the State of California in a trial. Not long before that, a member of LAPD, Lyn Tars, had been found murdered in her apartment.
All these real-life experiences were used to develop story threads in the show. LAPD devised a courtroom scene in which Michael Lee was testifying on the stand, while the body of a woman lay still on the courtroom floor as he talked. The body could have been the woman Lee saw murdered in his hotel room. She could have been Lyn Tars, or any number of other people. But as the piece unfolded, the woman turned out to be Michael Lee’s mother asleep, ignoring him as a child.
“I look for those kinds of resonances,” says Malpede. “It’s more like real life, where things come at you from all different angles. The funny thing is, people just assume that all the stuff we do is autobiographical. But we’re not interested in reducing people down to the tragedy of their lives, or giving street people a soapbox to stand on. We’re interested in finding out who these people really are and what makes them special. The work comes out of that discovery process.”
Malpede bristles whenever it is suggested that LAPD’s raison d’etre has more to do with social service than art, mainly because he feels that LAPD is always fighting a no-win battle against the popular notion that, as he says, “Community art is a code-word for bad art.”
“People think we’re wonderful because we’re helping the homeless, but they don’t always want to take our work seriously,” laments Malpede. “What they don’t understand is that homeless people need more than beans and blankets. They also need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The environment on Skid Row is incredibly alienating. We offer a place where people can at least meet each other, make some friends and tap into something about themselves that’s worthwhile. Those things are as important in life as anything else, and the work makes it happen in ways that are sometimes very mysterious and remarkable.
Besides,” he says matter-of-factly, “I never would have gotten into this, and I wouldn’t keep doing it, if homeless people didn’t have anything to say.”