Allegory of the Star: An Interview with Anna Grahm

 "In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood."  Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle


INT: The last time I saw you perform you were lip-synching Disney duets with a battery operated dog. Why did you choose to lip-synch instead of using your own voice?

AG: That's how I started originally, in a piece called Duet For Disney and Barking Dogs or 101 Damnations. But now I actually sing myself sometimes, which allows for my own interpretation of the song.

INT: What's the difference between the lip-synching or mirroring and using your own voice?

AG: Well, there's the inflection of the voice, which can change the meaning of the song entirely.  In my new show I hang upside down in a straightjacket while I'm singing. Have you ever tried singing upside down? It’s hard because you really can’t swallow and sing at the same time. It changes the voice, and gives the song a whole different mood, a bit more gasping gulping and gurgling.

INT: Being bound and upside down must make it difficult for projecting the voice.

AG: Yes, extremely! Especially since I use a lot of hand gesturing in my performances, so that's part of the challenge.

INT: What does inverting yourself in this manner imply?  When we say someone has their "feet on the ground," we infer that they are well grounded, sane, rational, etc. Does being wrong-side up suggest madness or some sense or state of confusion or disorientation?

AG: Actually, it's a homage to Houdini, the magician and escape artist. Houdini wanted to defy gravity or the laws of physics, to go beyond what is humanly possible, and in his case, against what seemed like unbeatable odds. He even promised he would try to return from the dead and communicate with the living.

INT: So might this urge to defy gravity also be a challenge to the sense or spirit of seriousness, a sort of release from the "weight of the world," or possibly a desire to transcend the self?

AG: There is a playful or nonsensical aspect to hanging upside down, but this is not really about escape or transcending the self. It's about self-realization, and the possibility or impossibility of realizing one's full potential, the challenge of an artist trying to overcome constraints.

INT: Could you talk a little about your background and how it has influenced your work?

AG: I grew up in the town of Niagara, a sub-ghetto of the working-class tourist town of Niagara Falls, famous for honeymoons and Houdini, home to the Mayor of Munchkin Land. I was actually named after the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Anna Edson Taylor. I was bored with school, so I skipped class a lot and hung out at the museums. My favorites were, of course, the Houdini Museum (they had a hologram of a talking Houdini head in the window), and the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum. Ripley's had a two-headed goat, a replica of the capital building made entirely out of pennies, and all sorts of other “miraculous” objects. These places and things have something to do with the extraordinary, you know, a spectacle of celebrities, freaks and incredible feats.

INT: Why did you choose to sing the wishing song over the vast collection of other Disney songs in your repertoire?

AG: Well, at first I was also going to sing the heigh-ho song. You know, the one where all the dwarves go happily marching off to work in the mines, to "dig dig dig dig dig dig dig the whole day through." They dig up everything in sight looking for that elusive treasure, alhough they don't know why or what they are really digging for. They just "dig dig digga dig dig." 

INT: I see. Digging as habitual, oblivious digging. And the dwarf as digger is a creature of habit, or hobbit (laughs).

AG: Yes, but then I decided to sing “Wish Upon a Star" because I thought it was more appropriate for the set. I'm hanging over this star-shaped fence, while I sing. Then I drop a coin from my mouth into the star, like tossing a coin into a wishing well, wishing on a star like the song says (laughs). The song was originally sung by a cricket to a puppet who wished for authenticity, and to be rid of his strings.  

INT: The belief that you can wish for something and make it come true, get whatever you want by wishing for it, no matter who you are, is a very romantic notion.

AG: Yes, and I do it with a touch of Barnum and Bailey.

INT: So is belief associated with magic or some invisible or illusive power? There's the belief that if you work hard enough and are honest you will realize your dream. But how hard is hard enough? And aren’t you confusing wishing with willing?

AG: I'm not sure. Perhaps the two are synonymous.

INT: So are you embracing the idea of wishing as power or willing something, or wishing as a relinquishing of one's power or self to some higher authority, or divine granter of wishes? You know, like winning the lottery.

AG: Honey, how can I embrace anything if I'm wearing a straightjacket and bound by the feet?

INT: Yes, I forgot about the coat. That gives the whole thing a touch of psychosis (laughs). What does the fence imply? 

AG: The star is a fence without a gate.

INT: So are you locked in or locked out? Being locked in might suggest being stuck in a perpetual wishing. You know, not being able to get out of the box. I might also add that the audience cannot get inside.   

INT: Then again, the fence might refer to some sort of social barrier, something beyond the control or choice of the individual. What are you planning next? Any new projects in the works?

AG: I'm making a film called “Thirteen Anna Grahms.” It stars myself and 12 other identical characters, played by different people of course. They're all me. It's a sort of Friends sitcom meets 50's sci-fi.

INT: Sounds like multiple personality disorder in reverse.

AG: Can I tell you a dream I had last night?

INT: Sure.

AG: I was trying to maneuver a wide car through a narrow street, but the car was too big for the road. The road turned into an even narrower footpath banking a stream through the woods, so I had to abandon the car and go on by foot. I'm in the woods worrying about bears and other wild creatures, when down the path comes Mr. Softie. He's playing that happy, tinkling little song over and over (come to think of it, it sounds a little like the heigh-ho song). Then all of a sudden, I'm Annie Oakley with a shotgun, aiming for the sound box…