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Ron Ehmke: Writer, Performance Artist

(photo by Jim McFee)

You may know Buffalo Spree Associate Editor Ron Ehmke from his entertaining prose, but if you haven’t caught one of his live performances, you’ve missed out on a big part of his creative personality. An event like the Infringement Festival seems tailor-made for him, and he gave us a sneak peek at what he has planned.

What are you doing for the Infringement Festival this year?

In the spirit of the Festival I am trying out something brand-new: a completely improvised, guided tour of Allentown (or points unknown, depending on the spirit of the moment) where I’m the tour guide. When I lived on Irving Place long ago, every week or so I would overhear a loud voice saying “And thisssss is the boyhood home of F. Scott Fitttttzzzzgerrralllldd,” then look out the window and see a small crowd listening intently. It’s an inherently theatrical situation, and to anyone else on the street, the “audience” is as much part of the show as the guide. I want the people ON my tour to do most of the talking; thus the title, “Show Me Your City (I’ll Show You Mine).” I’m doing it Friday, July 23 at 6 p.m.; Wednesday, July 28 at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, August 1 at 2:30 p.m., starting in front of Rust Belt Books, and I fully intend to try wildly different things each time.

I am also bringing back two old standbys, both in collaboration with Brian Milbrand. One is Shakespeare in the Parking Space (Saturday, July 24 at 10 p.m. on the sidewalk outside Lagniappe’s), an evening of self-serve Shakespeare. As co-emcee, I provide props, costumes, and scripts, but a lot of people show up ready to recite stuff they know by heart. Our other returning project is the “Self-Infringement” box in the window of Rust Belt Books, which is filled with Fluxus-style instructions for one-person performances anyone can do.

What would you like to see more of in the festival?

Well, as you can see from what I’m doing in it, I am a sucker for audience-driven stuff on the streets. It’s kind of the next step past audience participation, which can tend to be a little exploitive sometimes, because the artist usually knows where he or she wants the thing to go, whereas I enjoy more open-ended situations. Not all the time, but in this very unique setting—where, by now, audiences are primed for anything and the neighborhood has seen just about everything—some pretty amazing things can sometimes happen when an artist turns over his or her tools to chance. More than anything else, I want to be surprised when I stroll down Allen Street in the last week and a half of July.

Last time I saw you perform, you were a judge in front of Gallery 164 on Allen Street trying BP for its crimes in the Gulf of Mexico. How does what’s happening there resonate with you?

Well, I grew up half an hour from the Gulf, so that whole situation hits very close to home for me in more ways than I can count. (I’d say I have always had as complicated a relationship to the South as any Faulkner character.) It’s troubling to hear reports that the residents want drilling to continue, but then that also doesn’t surprise me. FYI, that performance—which was a tremendously moving experience for me to participate in, all credit to Beth Elkins and Brad Wales—will be restaged in a revised form on Friday, August 6 at Gallery 164, so folks have got another chance. Wish we could say the same for the ocean.

That was also one of the few times I've seen you perform not in drag. What is it about drag that keeps you coming back?

I can’t tell you how hilarious that question is to me, because my “Ronawanda” character actually started out about 10 years ago as a private joke and/or political statement about how the only way solo gay male performers can attract an audience in this era is to dress like women. I don’t really think of what I’m doing when I put on ridiculous clothes and talk in a funny voice as drag; I don’t actually think of the character as necessarily female, either. It’s more about adopting a persona and living inside it for a certain period of time. For at least 15 years before I came up with Ronawanda I mainly did autobiographical monologues dressed in my street clothes, and I kind of hit a dead end with that approach after a while. Silly clothes give me license to be bigger onstage than I am in real life, and that larger-than-life quality of theater is what has always fascinated me as an audience member in the first place.

Is there such a thing as creating art without politics for you?

No more than there can (or at least should) be a day without sunshine! But it’s not just politics, which can get very dreary onstage in undiluted form; magic is equally important to me, by which I mean creating an alternate universe for an hour or two, in which people can dream, laugh, and have fun together. A friend of mine once had a theater company he called “3 P Productions,” which stood for Poetry, Politics, and Popcorn—i.e., the three basic elements of art as he saw them—and that is a threeway I can totally get into.

Tell us what else you’re working on, when you’re not at work.

You make it sound as if my life is nothing but work, when I really strive to make it all as much like play as possible! What most people don’t realize about me, If they only know me from the writing and performing I have done over the last 30 years or so, is that deep down I am an extraordinarily lazy person. I like to sleep a great deal. I enjoy gardening, but it turns out to be just another form of work, so I’m returning to everyone’s original hobby, masturbation, instead. My motto is: better to get it out of your system when you are alone, rather than forcing paying audiences to suffer through it, either literally (ewwww) or figuratively (yawn).

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