In the lead up to Theatr Iolo’s curated double bill of shows at Chapter this week, Greg Wohead on his hit one man show based on seminal Elvis Presley Comeback Special concert video from 1968.
When you watch something as many times as I have watched Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special – I’ve probably watched it more than a hundred times over the past two years – you start to develop an intimate, familiar relationship with it. I haven’t had this kind of relationship with a video since Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1989.
The ’68 Comeback Special was considered groundbreaking for its authenticity. Most of it was meant to feel like a relaxed jam session. In a way, my repeated viewings started to trip this authenticity into something completely inauthentic. It wasn’t that it was any less powerful or impressive, but more and more I started to become aware of how constructed it seemed. The looped watching pattern made everything predictable and fake.
There’s a moment in my previous solo performance, The Ted Bundy Project, when I casually introduce the show. I look audience members in the eye and smile at them, trying to reassure them and to make them feel safe.
Only, the atmosphere is uncomfortable because this ‘introduction’ happens near the end of the show, I have put a pair of tights over my face and I’m repeating word-for-word, beat-for-beat the introduction I gave at the top of the show. The first time it felt real. People giggled and relaxed. The second time it feels fake. People avert their eyes and shift uncomfortably. For me it was a real theatrical moment in the most interesting sense; a moment when the ‘real’ and the rehearsed collide in a way that actually changes the air in the room. The very twiceness of the moment trips it into the realm of the peculiar.
It’s this idea of the redone, the repeated, the rehearsed, that sent me into a reenactment of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special. With my new performance, Comeback Special, I’m interested in all the other things going on aside from the ‘real’, and I’m interested in holding all those things at once. In a reenactment of the ’68 Comeback Special, I move my hips as if I were Elvis. The audience members look at my hips moving as if they were members of the 1968 audience. But also, I’m actually moving my hips, and the audience here and now is actually looking at them. In constantly trying to hold those ideas at once, we are nudged off both of them and fall into the gap between.
I’m most interested in this in-between space. The space where things become inverted, we can’t pin anything down and it’s beside the point to try. But it doesn’t mean we stop the motion of reaching.
To me, it feels both radical and nonsensical to try to arrive at a place of in-transit. While it might not necessarily be detectable in the finished performance (it’s a piece of art, after all—not a book report), one of the most influential pieces of text in making this show has been a short bit of writing called Queer Masculinities of Straight Men by Robert Heasley. I have had a growing and shifting relationship with this text since I first came across it about two years ago, but there is one thought of Heasley’s that I love, and the way he articulates it still fires me up:
“‘Traditional males,’ on the one hand, are the ones society understands; even if there are problems associated with the image, there is acceptance and legitimacy accorded to the typicalness of his presentation. The ‘nontraditional’ male presents an unknown, unfamiliar package… ‘Non’ has no history, no literature, no power, no community. ‘Non’ requires an invention of self.”
For me, Comeback Special is an attempt to invert the ‘non-‘; to fill the negative space with invention of the in-between; between me and Elvis (a slippery symbol of masculinity), between past and future, between me and you, between where we’ve come from and where we’re going. And to make the in-between space a place to live—however slippery, chaotic, confusing and plural. I want us to lean into the double negative. The language of possibility.
It’s not the original Comeback Special. But it’s not not.
I have performed Comeback Special in several places around the UK since its London premiere in March, and while for me there are all these personal and political ideas embedded within the work, it’s also just a fun time. For an evening we all get to imagine we’re someone else in big or small ways; a screaming audience member, a loyal bandmate, a sexy musician. All the lines between who we are now and who they were then begin to blur, and that’s part of the point. Come with an open mind, a spirit of fun and a willingness to embrace the blur, and I’ll take care of the rest.
Greg Wohead is a writer, performer and live artist originally from Texas. He makes theatre performances, one-to-one pieces and audio work. He has shown and developed new work in the UK and internationally at places like Battersea Arts Centre, Bristol Old Vic Ferment, Orchard Project (New York), MAKE (Ireland), Bios (Athens), LAX Festival (Los Angeles), Fusebox Festival (Austin), Mayfest and Forest Fringe. He is an Associate Artist at Shoreditch Town Hall and The Yard.
(Images credit Richard Easton)