Secret Lives, Gymnastics, and the Absurd
Anna Azizzy plays every character in ‘The Secret Life of Gym Girls’
Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2019–20 CSA Performance Series season.
Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review or a post-show discussion with the artists for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.
Beneath the watchful, stony gazes of Discobolus, Athena, and Apollo — their bodies elegant and graceful — and Nicole Eisenman’s roughly-defined, plaster sculpture, Prince of Swords with its slumped back and singed hands, stands interdisciplinary artist Anna Azizzy. They’re in a bathing suit, emulating the act of swimming in the middle of the immense sculpture hall at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (The museum is open late tonight, a handful of activities and performances activating the large museum.) There is a screen behind them. Rear projection places a number of characters — young gymnasts between the ages of 9 and 16, all played by Azizzy — into a luxurious swimming pool scene. As Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 You” plays, the girls have an impromptu diving contest where the loser has to eat a large dish of steamed shrimp. This is just a quick peak into the surreal and absurd world of Azizzy’s evening-length multimedia performance, The Secret Life of Gym Girls, which premieres at the New Hazlett Theater on December 5 and 6.
Check out the tagline: “While together at the gym, they are seemingly happy in their world. Apart, their queer and unusual desires are revealed.”
The Secret Life of Gym Girls builds on Azizzy’s undergrad thesis project For Retired Gymnast, an 18-minute video piece. “It’s the same cast of characters, the gym girls, their coach, and their mom, still struggling to keep their most shameful secrets from the rest of the team,” says Azizzy. “I have a huge web of all of these characters’ lives mapped out. For Retired Gymnast took a nibble out of that, and The Secret Life of Gym Girls takes a big bite! The gym girls have been such an important tool for me to process and practice my own identity, my queerness, my shame, and I’m certainly not at the end of that process.”
And everybody has a few secrets. Harper Frances, 13, literally hides her budding interest in Meredith Monk, noise, and freely improvised musics under the bed when her friends visit. Harper’s mom has literally and figuratively been having her “portrait painted” every week for the past 15 years.
“The whole show is about what is allowed to be shared vs. what must be private. What is appropriate vs. what is shameful. And the struggle to attempt to maintain those standards when they are in conflict with who you love or what brings you joy,” says Azizzy. “I love humor, the way it can catch your attention and bring you closer before you can quite agree or disagree with what’s being said. When the gym girls are together, everything is bright and loud and fast and fun! Then when the characters are finally alone, in moments of reflecting, sitting in their shame, daydreaming, the bottom drops out and we’re left with what feels quiet and slow and sad.”
Technically, Azizzy creates a digital world, mixing 2D and 3D objects and surfaces, using life-size props and scaled-down models, photographs, video, and animation. “I use green screen, [Adobe] Photoshop, and [Adobe] Premiere for everything. I’ve been scolded for doing all my animation with Premiere keyframes instead of exporting into [Adobe] After Effects, but I love the wonky results you get with Premiere! I certainly push Premiere to its limit, building up too many layers of characters and animations!”
The level of planning a predominantly one-person show is ambitious as Azizzy is performing, filming, and editing each of the characters and set pieces. “As soon as I choose a character’s costume and film it, that’s the costume that they are wearing until showtime.”
There are aesthetic overlaps with artist Suzie Silver’s work, which makes sense as Azizzy, while attending Carnegie Mellon, participated in Silver’s Pop Cabaret performance arts classes and events at The Andy Warhol Museum. Azizzy also credits artist Angela Washko — whose video game work is quite awesome — for the introduction to green screen and video editing.
No stranger to performance, Azizzy has embarked on regional tours, operated the Side Split Variety Show, and even performed in the 2017–18 New Hazlett Theater CSA season with H. Gene Thompson and Arvid Tomayko, but the large scope of The Secret Life of Gym Girls hasn’t been possible before. “This show is actually something that I’ve been wanting to put on for two years now,” says Azizzy. “I dreamed of turning For Retired Gymnast into a stage production, and now I have a place to do it.”
Azizzy will have a few friends on hand to help. “In this production, the quiet moments will be accompanied by a small choir singing lullabies from an album I wrote a few years ago titled Lullabies for Retired Gymnasts. The lullabies are mostly mournful, covering topics such as mental blocks, muscle memory, and trusting your coach. I’m really excited to see how bringing in a live choir to sing these songs will create an even further break from the ultra synthetic, digital, and over-the-top world that gym girls occupy while together.”
The Secret Life of Gym Girls premieres on Thursday, December 5 with a second performance on Friday, December 6, 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.