Linda Albertano knows how it feels to be different. She was six feet tall at age 13.
"Kids can be cruel," she said. "I became very silent."
Performance artist Albertano (who was to grow another four inches) will appear at the Laguna Art Museum at 8 p.m. Saturday in "Joan of Arcadia/Joan of Compton," a new work she introduced last March at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
She talked about the piece--a visual, verbal and musical exploration into differences and racial discrimination in the United States--in a recent interview at her Venice beach home.
"I feel I'm going out on a limb doing political material," she said. "It's easier for people to deal with issues that are far away from them. Apartheid in South Africa is easier to think about than the de facto segregation and apartheid in the United States."
Albertano has tried to avoid didactics, preferring humor and accessible satire to get her messages--usually concerning male/female politics--across. Thus, she gets upset when friends criticize her most recent work as being somewhat harsh.
"I've tried to make it fun, sugarcoat it, but somewhere I have to say, we're responsible for making the world the way it is," she said, her tears expressing her frustration. "I didn't try to come up with solutions (to racial injustice) because there is no blanket solution. We can't rely on the government to fix it. If we don't like it, we have to act differently, take a look at our own lives and see what we can do that's compatible with who we are."
Albertano expressed frustration with herself as well. Soul-searching seems to be part of an intense sensitivity.
"Maybe I've run up against my own limitations. I really want to bring people together, but can I do it in an hour? If I were somehow a greater writer or performer then maybe I could. But I'm just not there yet. That's very painful."
A childhood of upheaval led to a deep sense of alienation, the scars of which have contributed to themes common in her work: power and subordination. Albertano is reticent about a childhood spent growing up in foster homes in Colorado. "I lived with strangers," she said.
She describes the reunion with her mother eight years ago and meeting other family members for the first time last year as a tremendous source of happiness.
Albertano carries her height--and her showgirl proportions--unobtrusively. . She wears no make-up, her hair is vaguely punkish, short-cropped and bleached. There's a softness about her and a young vulnerability. Speaking about her newly found family brought more tears.
She won't be pinned down as to her age, giving what she calls her stock answer. "I'm a 27-year-old who's led a hard life."
A former UCLA film major, Albertano was determined not to be a part of the "Hollywood soap factory."
"I was working as a waitress and had this idea that I would fund my own films through my tips" she said. "I can't believe I was in college and still that naive."
When she left school, reality set in. Albertano dropped film making and started singing with a ragtime jazz band. Artist friends encouraged her to study with Rachel Rosenthal, "the mother of this generation of performance artists in L.A.," as well as with Lin Hixson and others.
When a friend asked her to collaborate on a piece a few years ago, Albertano was hooked.
"It was so different from just getting up and singing. It was focused and concentrated, and I realized I didn't have to be limited to one creative expression.
"I feel so eclectic. I've always felt hemmed in by the syntax of each art. Singing ragtime jazz, you couldn't step out of the boundary of the years and the style. Performance art is such a catch-all."
Still, Albertano admits that there are rules. "There are certain purists, certain cliques. I think of myself as an experimental songwriter. The language seems like the language of a song to me, the words seems like lyrics.
"Other performance artists who have a background in painting, for instance, don't consider me a performance artist at all. They deal with the contemporary issues of art. I use film and music to deal with more emotional issues."
And that brings her back to her newest work, "Joan of Arcadia/Joan of Compton."
"It almost always comes down to issues of subordination. I've dealt in the past with male/female issues," said Albertano. "This work branches into another arena that seems larger or different, but it's still who has the power and who's being discriminated against."
Albertano uses the shocking image of a tied face--her own, wrapped in rubber bands--to symbolize victims of discrimination and to emphasize that under the skin, we all do look alike.
Working with Albertano are the L.A. Rythmettes, a drum corps and drill team from the inner city. She discovered them one day--while sitting in her house.
"I heard an explosion of sound from the boardwalk," she said. "It was a primitive, great, anthemy kind of sound. I found out who their director was, a wonderful woman named Ollie Henricks, who's worked with them for years. Some of the kids are adults now, the youngest are 3 years old.
"When the Los Angeles Theatre Center asked me to develop a full-length theater piece, I knew I wanted to deal with racial alienation, and I knew I wanted to work with the Rythmettes. They're the heart of the work."
Albertano's next performance will be a short piece at the John Anson Ford Theatre on June 26, sharing a bill with Rosenthal and other artists.