By Nico Grelli, House Manager and Box Office Attendant
April 20, 2020
“Kitchen Memories” is a new series of first-hand reflections on past programming. Spotlighting a diverse range of perspectives from our community—including those of current and former staff members and artists—these posts reveal the ways that The Kitchen’s events, performances, and exhibitions have informed these individuals’ work and thinking.
50 Million Buffalo used to roam these lands. What’s this bullshit? What’s this bullshit?
IN THE FALL OF 2017, Stanley Love Performance Group (SLPG) was the first large-scale show that I worked as House Manager at The Kitchen. It being my inaugural show was special for me from the jump-off, and it has only cemented itself as such over time. The fact that the group returned to be part of Charles Atlas: The Kitchen Follies—another one of my favorite shows over the years—only served to deepen my geekery for them and Stanley. I don’t even remember doing much house managing during those shows, because what stands out in my memory is abandoning the theater lobby and watching as much as I could every single night from the aisles beside the risers.
I am not certain that I am worthy to write about Stanley, when there are many who knew him and who spent far more time in his presence and friendship, working with him and watching his work over the years. I write this mostly as an adoring fangeek. It’s difficult for me even to separate my admiration of SLPG (founded in 1992) from my admiration of Stanley because the former, when performing, was like a joyous and punk-rock realization of a collective consciousness. An outward projection of Stanley’s interior cosmos. When I watched SLPG, I felt as though I experienced an extension of Stanley’s own bright light in every performer, and yet somehow, I also saw each of them as their full, unique, human, and whole selves.
I HAVE OFTEN DESCRIBED SLPG’s work as some version of this phrase: The Transcendent Art of Complete and Unabashed Earnestness and Idiosyncrasy. I don’t know if Stanley would have approved of that description, nor any of his ensemble for that matter. But I admire the fact that their performances left me searching for words even though they would never fully be able to do justice to the experience.
The title of the 2017 show at The Kitchen might sum up SLPG’s ethos better, and it gives a little taste of the performance experience: “Brings Swings, Sings Chimes Rings Wings, Flings Zingahlings-Spirit Party Things.” Something lightens in me just typing that out. Like not just in my brain, but in all my chakras, and in the smile on my face, and then I breathe deeper than I’ve been able to in a while, and then I feel like someone gave me the best hug of my life, after a great cry over all the unforgivable fuckery of the world. That’s a little of what it felt like to watch a SLPG show.
SLPG’s work walked such a fine and marvelous line between being exuberantly silly and utterly serious, avant-garde and pop, gender-expansive and gender-less, meticulous and come-what-may, tender and tough, literal and paradoxical, spiritual and political. It was like you showed up at a groovin’-ass party of delightful freaks and geeks, then realized you actually had entered something far more sacred and complex, and there was no going back. And you would leave the performance a little changed, a little healed, and a little deconstructed. The group’s aesthetic had deep layers beneath its surface, but without inclination to prove or boast about this depth. The artists just wanted you to join in their celebration of movement through all kinds of human bodies and experiences—whatever else happened to you was up to your own funky soul to work out in its own time.
THERE WAS SOMETHING in what Stanley was doing that felt like a key ingredient that I had been longing to incorporate into my own work as an artist. Oh, I have an even better, more specific food metaphor than that (I’m Italian, forgive me, it’s at least 80% of how I relate to all things): It was like finding that right flour/water/time/temperature combination that got my sourdough starter to live. The inspiration I drew from Stanley became an essential, core thing that I could always return to and build on as long as I kept it alive. The flour might have been joy. The water might have been the pain mixed in among the joy and the capacity to hold space for both. The time perhaps also was time, but with patience. And the temperature was a never-ending experiment, with passion for the experiment itself more than for its results. There’s a spiritual science to it. An emotional mathematics. It’s the Buddha reminding you to smile, even when you suffer.
I love our artists at The Kitchen, but I l always looked forward to Stanley showing up in particular. If we had invited friends and alums to an event, I would stand by the door hoping to catch a moment to chat with him, to see what fabulous outfit he was wearing, to have a laugh and hug, and then to watch him dart around to others like a sweet hummingbird. It was because of Stanley that I began feeling more comfortable in the ways I was beginning to express my gender-queer identity—because being around him and his ensemble, I felt seen as whole and encouraged to emanate more from my own center.
One day while doing tech for The Kitchen Follies, Stanley was standing in front of me at our box office desk. I looked up and said “hey Stanley.” He placed something down in front of me and said “this is for you. It’s quartz. I could tell that you needed it. Wear it. It will clear what’s blocking you.” And as I said thank you, he raced back off to his work and his ensemble. I wore that quartz for months, at a time that I was going through a depression—something I had not shared with him or anyone else at The Kitchen. I could feel the power in that stone like no other I had ever worn or interacted with in my previous lo-fi, witchy endeavors.
I BUILT MYSELF BACK UP in those subsequent months, and I am grateful for Stanley’s ability to see more deeply than some, and his willingness to do something so generous and kind, to offer a bit of healing. He also invited me to come and rehearse with SLPG, which I was so delighted by. I had danced for much of my twenties, and in recent years had stopped mostly, aside from occasionally doing choreography for my students’ shows. Unfortunately, my teaching and gig schedule kept delaying my availability to join a SLPG rehearsal, and then this past summer (2019), while visiting home in Oakland, I found out that Stanley had died. That his passing broke my heart the way it did can only mean an even more profound and devastating heartbreak for the many who knew him far better.
I can write with almost full certainty that since seeing the SLPG shows at The Kitchen, I have listened to songs featured in them—specifically, Donna Summer’s “State of Independence” and The Bee Gees’s “Nights on Broadway”—nearly every single day, with only rare exceptions. And when my heart is in need of a balm from despair or worry, the footage of the Spirit Party Soul Train line sometimes is all I need to recharge my existential batteries.
Rest in power and dance among the cosmos, dear Stanley. Thank you for your light.
Nico Grelli (they/them) is a writer, director, musician, and award-winning actor. Nico is a member of Theatre Breaking Through Barriers and Epic Theatre Ensemble, and teaches often with The 52nd St Project and Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Nico is the creator of all things Pier Valentino, including Show Without End! and The Imaginary Friend Cabaret, which have been developed with the support of The Tank, Grange Hall Cultural Center, and The So-fi Festival, and featured often by ECHT at 61 Local and Symphonics Live at Bowery Poetry Club. Pier Valentino video content can be found on Instagram at @pier__valentino (that’s two underscores!), and on the Youtube Channel Pier Valentino’s Show Without End! More info on Nico at www.nicgrelli.com.
Nico also has been a House Manager and Box Office Attendant at the Kitchen for almost three years.