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Wisconsin Film Festival 2012: Filthy Theater: A Film About Joel Gersmann looks back at a provocative Madison artist
Gersmann's work was known to alienate and amuse his company's small audiences.
Gersmann's work was known to alienate and amuse his company's small audiences.
Credit:Daniel T. Levin Films

In the summer of 1993, director Dan Levin attempted to make a film about Joel Gersmann, the playwright-provocateur who founded Broom Street Theater, and whose work was known to alienate and amuse the company's small audiences. Finding himself unable to relate to his subject, Levin abandoned the project, and the footage of one of Madison's most enigmatic and prolific artistic figures was shelved for 12 years.

After Gersmann's death in 2005, Levin began combining the footage with present-day interviews with people who knew Gersmann well. The result is the documentary Filthy Theater: A Film About Joel Gersmann, a film record of a life dedicated to art and theater, and an exploration of Gersmann's intelligent and original style.

I talked to Levin about his relationship with Gersmann and the journey he took to complete his documentary.

The Daily Page: What is your history with Joel Gersmann, and when did you decide to make a film about him?
Levin: I acted in some of Joel's shows in the early 1980s, when I was a teenager. I also acted with him in a few shows. I found him to be this fascinating figure. Then I went away to college and graduate school, and around '93-'94 I was into filmmaking and had made some films, and I figured Joel would be a really interesting person to make a film about. So I shot some 16mm film of him over those couple of summers.

I did the best I could, but it was a tough shoot. I found myself getting nowhere and didn't feel up to the task. He was doing a show at the time called Sexy Priest, a satire about the molestation scandals in the Catholic Church. I found it very difficult to look at, and I also had a lot of difficulty interviewing him. I shot four interviews with him, and the first couple were just dishearteningly awful. Standing behind the camera, I couldn't get much of a reaction from him. Finally, the last interview I shot was interesting, but he just kept going on about "art is dead in America," and "there's no point in being optimistic." And I just couldn't handle filming it anymore.

The film sat in a box for 12 years until 2008. [Joel] died in 2005, and a little while after I started to realize that I had this resource about an artist who created a lot of art. He didn't do a lot to disseminate it, and he didn't do a lot to bring critical reaction to it, so his record is one that may not be remembered. That was my motivation to continue with the project.

I also thought it'd be interesting to do a film about someone who you just couldn't figure out the first time around. I had to come up with a way to understand him, and after he died it was necessary, obviously, to contact people he knew. I think I found more of an emotional core to the film by looking through the lens of some of these people who really gave a big hunk of their creative life to him and the theater. He was really important to them. That's how it developed into something interesting to watch.

In those initial interviews you did with Joel, was it disheartening for you to find yourself not understanding someone you used to look up to? Did you see a change in Joel from when you first knew him?
I think there was more of a change with me and my own goals. I doubt he changed all that much. When I was in his shows, I was happy to listen to his orders and just be a part of something creative. That was a great experience, and I was totally happy to be a part ofhis creative process.

When I came back, however, it was necessary for me to figure out something creative to do with his ideas, and I just had an incredible amount of difficulty doing it. Part of it was, I just wasn't up to the task of understanding him. Maybe I wasn't old enough, maybe I wasn't mature enough. Maybe I wasn't willing enough to challenge him and get into it with him, although I think that would have ended badly.

I could have said, "Why on Earth are you telling me that it's hopeless doing art or theater?" when he himself was doing it. Was it just a put-on? Was it rogue cynicism?

People have reported discussing this with him, and a lot of people were able to handle [his views] better than I was, because they were just more mature. They knew how he blew off steam; they understood that what he said didn't have to be taken so literally. People understood the contradiction in him and weren't as bothered by it as I was.

You said the play he was producing at the time, Sexy Priest, was something you had difficulty watching and understanding. It's seen in your film. What were some of your thoughts coming back to the footage after so many years?
When I first shot the film, that play in particular was hard to deal with. It was just hard to watch. I could barely look at it. What I needed to do, coming back to it, was contextualize it, show that it was a really intellectual venture he was engaged in. It wasn't just making people uncomfortable or rattling their cages. It was satirical.

He always had a real intellectual context for everything he was doing. He was very well read, and a very educated person. The things he made didn't come from nothing, or from the desire to upset people. They came from an appreciation of the history of theater, the history of satire, to comment on current events and possibly push theater forward.

Had you kept in contact with Joel much over the years before his death?
No, I did not keep in contact with him. After that summer of '93-'94, I found myself having such difficulty dealing with his general pessimism that I didn't get back. I was trying to start my own career and do something creative with the belief that my efforts would be rewarded, and it was hard to reconcile that with what he was saying and his attitude.

I imagine it was especially hard coming from someone you had an enormous amount of respect for.
It really was. And it was because I respected him so much and thought he was such a brilliant man. I also think I took it more seriously than I should have. But the process of coming back and shooting this film has helped me get to a place where I could make a film that would allow others to understand him. That's the important thing. And I think the film follows that progression. It shows those early interviews in '93-'94. It shows the play he was working on, and it's a little painful to watch in certain ways. But then it begins to take off beyond my initial reactions, and you understand the contributions he made to the theater.

What do you hope people take away from the film?
I think one of the things people will find exciting is an answer to the question, "What do you do with a negative reaction in art?" You have the sense that what Joel is doing is interesting art, even though it's sometimes difficult to watch. So how do you try to appreciate it and understand it? A lot of great art is like that.

It's hard to know to what extent Joel's work is truly great, as it didn't get much critical response or analysis. But that's kind of what good art is. It rattles your cage. He created art for its own sake, and he wasn't really interested in audience reaction. What kind of art is like that? And what happens to that kind of art?

It's an important kind of art, because that's the kind that potentially changes things. So that's what I hope the film does. It'll rattle your cage a little bit, but then it'll hopefully help the audience come to a place where they understand or can think about this kind of art that is very abrasive, sometimes.

It's an optimistic film in that, like in life, sometimes the hardest things to deal with are the most interesting things to think about. It pushes you in a way you may not be ready for, and maybe those experiences are the ones that are the most important.

Filthy Theater: A Film About Joel Gersmann is screening in the Wisconsin Film Festival at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, in the Union South Marquee. A post-film Q&A session with Levin follows.

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