'What the Bewilderness is," says Flash Rosenberg, "is something more complex than just plain old wilderness, which is the great outdoors. This is the great indoors. It's about what happens inside of a person when you sit inside and worry and wonder about everything, about why things are the way they are, about who you're supposed to be, who you're supposed to love, what you're supposed to do. And not 'supposed to' by somebody else's lights, but by your own. And once you start questioning all that, you start questioning the things around you and what they might be used for, and how they can look."
How things can look: Rosenberg has been fascinated by the question for years. She has investigated it as photographer, cartoonist and performance artist. Now she's in town presenting the fruits of her labors in Camping in the Bewilderness, a solo show at the Shimberg Playhouse of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The show has already been featured at New York's Gotham Comedy Club, The Bottom Line, The Jewish Museum, The Joseph Papp Public Theatre and elsewhere. In it, she uses her own cartoons and photographs, and comically presents what she calls "the autobiography of a surreal person."
What she doesn't present is just another conventional monologue. Rosenberg describes her show as "part movie, part play, part photo show, part comedy routine." She explains that in the course of about an hour and a half, she walks in and out of hundreds of projected images, and, working with the audience, discovers the unexpected. For example, she'll show an all-white slide and talk about the speed of light. It's a concept that doesn't work for her, she says, though Einstein got some mileage out of it.
Then suddenly, after a few jokes, she gets serious: "I want to know something far more complex, far more difficult. I don't think we're ever going to find out the answer. I want to know not the speed of light but the length of matter. If someone breaks up with you and it hurts — how long will it matter?"
This technique — of moving from more or less familiar humor to something more momentous — she compares to "in photography, when you can zoom in and wide angle out." She also compares it to the way Woody Allen presents humor: "He'll do something tiny tiny tiny and then cosmic." Most of all, she suggests, she wants her audiences to think, so that ultimately "their brain laughs."
There are some techniques she won't use. "You know, you can go to a comedy club and hear a comedian kind of rant on and on, and you feel a little dirty afterwards, but you were really laughing hard. You feel kind of less than yourself when you leave because it's at somebody else's expense — somebody's making fun of somebody. ... I'm not judging it; I'm not saying it's wrong. Hey, I laugh at it too. But I sort of enjoy that people leave the theater and they feel smarter; they don't feel put down."
The genesis of Bewilderness is as unlikely as any of Rosenberg's anecdotes. She was doing a show at an art gallery in Philadelphia and, not knowing much about performance, waited until the night before to try to memorize an hour's worth of material. When she realized that there was no way she could remember it all, she did the next best thing: "I started writing it on my arm with a Sharpie, little notes, and ended up writing it all over my body." When she finally got in front of an audience, she removed her jumpsuit and, wearing nothing but underwear, proceeded with her show. Loving it along with the rest of the crowd was the station manager at the Philadelphia public radio outlet, who suggested to Rosenberg that she do something similar on radio. "And I figured, anyone who's ever seen me in my underwear and suggests I do radio, I'm listening to him, you know?"
So for five years on Philadelphia public radio, Rosenberg did 60-second "Flash Moments" — comic "photos for radio" on any subject that occurred to her. Becoming known as a radio personality led to invitations to perform at nightclubs and other venues. After one such performance, someone suggested that she present her work at P.S. 122 in New York. She did, and then, a couple of years later, made her move to our Theatrical Capital. After the predictable struggle to survive ("I was able to get by and then progressively get more and more work and be out of the terrible crisis I was in when I first got here") she set about turning her "Flash Moments" into a full-length presentation. What first emerged was a show about being bewildered by an urban environment. But the show kept evolving — and always will, Rosenberg suggests — until it reached its present focus on photography and the art of seeing.
Oh yeah, about the name "Flash." As she explains in her show, she was hired one night to photograph an architect's Halloween party in Philadelphia. The client insisted that she come in costume; so she came dressed in duct tape as a Censored Photo. The party turned out to be a major social event with 4,000 guests and Rosenberg waited patiently to photograph the winner of the best costume award. As it turned out, she won. "Next, newspaper photographers come rushing up to take my picture. They ask, 'What's your name?' I hesitate ... I can't say I'm Susan Rosenberg from Newark, Delaware.
"I'm a college professor of photography. Suddenly a friend shouts, 'Her name is FLASH!' And the name stuck."
And her father said, "Susan, if I would have known you were going to turn out the way you turned out, I would've named you Flash."
And her mother said, "You tell them I gave you the spirit that earned the name."
Ladies and Gentlemen, Flash Rosenberg.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.