Reasons to remember
Ain Gordon gives a reading at a workshop at the Vermont Performance Lab last summer.

Reasons to remember

In ‘Radicals in Miniature,’ Ain Gordon recalls forgotten heroes and mentors of alternative culture in the 70s and 80s

PUTNEY — Radicals in Miniature, a new work incubated at Vermont Performance Lab, pairs a gay and straight man of different generations to conjure many of the forgotten players who shaped urban creativity in the 1970s and 1980s, but were lost to AIDS or faded from the cultural record.

For award-winning playwright/director/performer Ain Gordon, Radicals in Miniature is a deeply personal work conjuring seminal but forgotten figures he met while coming of age in New York City's audacious artistic and gay fringe culture of the 1970s and 1980s.

Co-created with composer/percussionist Josh Quillen, who brings his own Ohio panoply of ghosts to the stage, the work poetically explores the influence of these undersung characters - who endured the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and propelled “alternative” culture forward, including punk drummer David Hahn, dance reveler Elaine Shipman, club performer John Sex, disco artist Sylvester, and more.

On his website,, Gordon writes, “Radicals in Miniature is a series of performance-odes to a cabal of personal icons who impacted latter-20th-century 'alternative' culture only to lose their toehold on immortality.

“Many of these figures were felled by the disease that capped the era. Others couldn't navigate the winnowing force of the latter 80s' 'professionalizing' what were once creative margins. Still others never even imagined consolidating their personal radicalism for the growing consumer culture - they disappeared when their 'life-performance' ended.”

On June 15 and 16, at 7 p.m., at Next Stage in Putney, VPL presents the first performances after its successful premiere in New York City of Radicals in Miniature, performed and directed by Gordon in partnership with Josh Quillen and dramaturge Talvin Wilks.

A unique identity

Quillen has forged a unique identity in the contemporary music world as an all-around percussionist, expert steel drum performer, and composer. A member of the acclaimed ensemble So Percussion since 2006, he is also co-director of the percussion program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and is director of the New York University Steel Band.

Gordon is a three-time Obie Award-winning writer, director and actor, a two-time NYFA recipient and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow in Playwriting. From 2011 to 2013, Gordon worked in VPL's Lab to research and develop Not What Happened, an evening-length theater work that delved into Vermont's 18th-century history and explored the politics and ambiguities of our relationship to our past.

Sara Coffey, the founder and director of VPL, writes that “the idea for Radicals in Miniature emerged in the fall of 2015 while Gordon was in residency at Marlboro College. Gordon co-taught a class, 'Politics of Change.' The class focused on radical movements of late 20th-century America.”

According to Gordon, “The initiating idea for Radicals in Miniature was when I began to consider that as a middle-aged gay male there were a bunch of forgotten people who influenced and mentored me.”

“These were artists working in what we now call performance, but then had the more nebulous title of experimental theater. Many of these seminal figures are now dead or are dying, and in a culture that is increasingly overloaded with artists working in this field, I was afraid they would remain lost figures.”

Gordon felt the urge to devise a tribute to these figures, who were influential, not only for himself, but for the whole field of performance, yet whom now people no longer knew about.

“These are men and women who were once thought amazing, but now they are gone and no longer talked about,” Gordon says. “Since this turns out to be a very large number of people, I decided to focus on those with whom I had a personal relationship, however fleeting.

“I also wanted to highlight the artists with the most marginal visibility on the internet, which is our new way to achieve posthumous immortality. Since a lot this work was created before the internet, many of these figures simply are not to be found there. To uncover them I needed to go further into holes of visibility.”

'Midlife crisis No. 7'

As he started considering this work, Gordon was having what he characterizes as his “midlife crisis No. 7” and he began to rethink “the ladder of ambition.”

“For each artist that is today celebrated, many others have have been forgotten,” he says. “There was a lot of artists who thrived in the radical atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s that inspired me and the work I do. While a few of these pushed their work into mainstream culture and are now celebrated for what they do, other did not. In fact, these others would have found it difficult to do so.

“By and large I am speaking of artists whose work inherently was located on the margins of culture in the 1980s. Many would have difficulty re-figuring what they did to pursue a mainstream success that was opted by others such as, say, a Cindy Sherman, Keith Herring, or Laurie Anderson.

“I am not saying that these artist could not hold onto their integrity when they mainstreamed their work, but many others felt they could not. Such mainstream acceptance was not what they signed up for, and so they walked away.”

Most of the artists Gordon was considering came from the Manhattan scene. To add a different perspective in this project, Ain enlisted the collaboration of Quillen.

“Josh is straight and I am gay; he is of a different age, from a different part of the country, and so had a different frame of reference,” Gordon explains. “I am a New Yorker and I wanted a view outside my geographic urban bubble. Josh did his own research: some of my figures he knew, others he did not.

“He also had his own stories to tell of life in a small town in Ohio. For instance, Josh has the memory of a gay man in the town he grew up in whom his mother knew. Each of the artists we chose for Radical in Miniature has his or her own story for us to tell.”

Since the intent of Radicals in Miniature is to recreate as much as possible the artists and their work lost to history, Gordon explains that with each portrait an attempt is made to find some artifact of their past. “A dozen desk computers will fill the stage to present pictures and images,” he says. “We gathered internet archival material. Even some video exists for a few. We show what we could find of them online.”

Gordon realizes that at best Radicals in Miniature can highlight only a few lost artists. He says, “Josh plays steel drum in a musical interlude while reciting addresses and telephone numbers of some of those not included, [as a way to] honor their importance also.”

Gordon emphasizes that Radicals in Miniature is not a somber show.

“This is no sadness fest,” he says. “Believe it or not, it actually is a very funny evening, and through celebrating these wondrous artists, we have a lot of fun.”

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