While I’ve been missing my friends, my family, and the sweaty, loud strangers in the bars I used to frequent on non-quarantined weekends, Marlene Strang and Leanne Schmidt, AKA the Ladies, have had something up their loudly patterned sleeves to keep the Phoenix performance scene alive during COVID-19. When the Ladies reached out to invite me to their newest show, Ladies in the Headlights, it immediately became the highlight on my calendar amidst working from home (and doing everything else from home). As someone that suffers from both introversion and FOMO, the level of anticipation I felt without even a shade of dread over the impending requirement to leave the house was a novel experience. But then, everything about the past two months has been a novel experience, no matter how mind-numbingly boring it feels sometimes.
Considering their history of performing in hotels and bookstores, and the necessity of social distancing, a drive-in, pop-up parking lot performance from this comedy-dance-theater-90s throwback duo makes as much sense as anything can these days. When my brother and I arrived at Chestnut Fine Foods & Provisions in Phoenix, we were greeted by Steve Wilcox in a tight, tiny red outfit, who waved us into our parking spot. In accordance with the emailed directions, we turned the car’s brights on and set the radio to 88.1 FM, where we heard… static. I was later informed by a different audience member that they heard “smooth jazz swanky bachelor pad music” coming from 88.1 FM, but the soundtrack that ended up accompanying mine and my brother’s viewing experience of Ladies in the Headlights came from a station one frequency up. It was Christian rock but hey, at least it was music.
Photo taken by Michael Simon
As serenades about the “great I am” came out of our radio, the Ladies began the show. They kicked, waved, and pantomimed washing their hands, putting on makeup, and performing at-home workouts. In their prior shows Ladies Gone Mild and Let Your Lady Out, Strang and Schmidt dramatized mundane daily tasks from the lives of the 90s mom personalities they take on as performers. In these unprecedentedly boring times, the Ladies took this theme even further. They exaggerated the tedium of days inside until it looked almost like fun? Maybe the next time I scrub my hands while singing “Happy Birthday” twice through in my head after checking my mail I’ll remember this performance and do a little boogie. I might even exchange my dead-eyed, obligatory daily workout for a spirited dance party cardio set inspired by the choreography the Ladies performed.
The Ladies started the show wearing thick, rubber cleaning gloves, which they menacingly peeled off their hands mid-way through the show while making eye contact with us through our windshields. Following this threatening gesture, the Ladies began running up to our cars horror-movie style. I’d crane my head in response to a knock on the rear windshield only to turn back around to see a face pressed against my passenger side window. My girlfriend said about these moments, “That was the closest I’d been to a new human in weeks.” Laughs turned to startled screams and back to laughs when I realized the perceived threat was just a part of the show. The relief after each jump scare a welcome break from endlessly mounting anxiety from the pandemic.
Photo taken by Michael Simon
Strangely enough, in this socially distanced show I noticed the responses of other audience members more than I ever have in a traditional live show. As I turned around in my seat to see where the Ladies would go next, I was also seeing the people in the cars next to me and how they jumped, screamed, and laughed at the show. My brother mentioned, “I don’t remember the last time I noticed another person’s reaction to a movie or play I saw because I was always so focused on looking forward,” and even though in a theater I’d be sitting only inches away from my fellow audience members, I don’t either.
While Ladies in the Headlights was the first show I saw in person since the pandemic started, I’ve tuned in to plenty of live virtual shows over Zoom. Even though these approaches to performance are under the constraints of social distancing, they’ve made it easier than ever for us to connect and relate with other audience members. Whether it’s glancing in the windows of the car next to me, or watching another person watching the show through their video feed in the Zoom gallery, the nature of these shows has made the voyeuristic observation of the non-performer incredibly accessible. I know that in large part this is due to the mechanisms of how we “attend” shows now, but I also wonder if I’m unconsciously putting in more effort into seeing others because connection has become so scarce. If I had seen anyone besides my brother and my girlfriend in the weeks leading up to this show would I even care to notice what kind of chips the person in the car next to me was snacking on?
Photo taken by Michael Simon
As I twisted my body around in the car to follow the Ladies running and dancing around the parking lot, I felt more in the present moment than I had in weeks. Having to shift positions in order to keep up with what was going on created the kind of interactive, immersive experience that the Ladies are known for providing. I’ve gotten so used to multitasking while interacting with others online that I’d almost forgotten what it feels like to give something my undivided attention but the Ladies managed to completely enthrall me in their performance in a way that I’ve missed so much during this pandemic. The Ladies, with their unfaltering grimaces and wide eyes, managed to bring together an audience starving for liveness and provide drama, laughter, the element of pleasant surprise, and unintentionally (or maybe not) connection with our fellow observers.
Dienae Hunter is a dancer and performance artist currently trying their best in ASU’s Creative Enterprise and Cultural Leadership Master’s program. Their preferred medium is sexy food and their favorite way of working is collaboratively with fellow queer hotties. Follow them on Instagram at @realdnahunter to see pictures of their tiny dog Claus.
Photo taken by Sofia Dotta