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Theatrical Look at Life on the Edge : Performance art: Linda Carmella Sibio hopes 'Combustion,' at L.A. Fringe Theater, will break barriers for artists, homeless, mentally ill.


There is, to paraphrase Napoleon, only one step from the sublime to the insane. Performance artist Linda Carmella Sibio--like artists from Van Gogh to Artaud--walks that fine line all the time.

"There are parallels between the mentally ill, the homeless and artists," she says. "Artists who are serious artists today are also on the marginal edge of society and misinterpretation."

In "Azalea Trash"--running at the L.A. Fringe Theatre through Saturday--Sibio plays 14 different personas. Her boyfriend calls and asks her out, but won't say where they're going. This triggers a fashion crisis, and Sibio goes reeling through costumes and identities, aided by music by Carnival Art and a film by Everett Lewis ("The Natural History of Parking Lots").

The work is in the tradition of artists questioning notions of "sane" behavior, according to co-director and co-producer Alan Pulner. "Arthur Rimbaud said that a poet had to accomplish a total derangement of all his senses," he says. "That idea influenced Cubism, Expressionism and various strains of modernist art.

"Those artists looked for breaks in the normal ways of perception," says Pulner, who directed "Azalea Trash" with Curtis York and William Fisher. "We're creating a personal language that trespasses the bounds of accepted behavior, finding emotional states that are far out of the ordinary and the extremities to which they can go."

Pulner sees similar types of prejudice effecting the artistic community. "The mentally ill have always been marginalized by society," he says. "Now there's a trend to do the same to artists, to those who are exploring alternatives to the status quo."

Sibio, a former student of Rachel Rosenthal, admits her own "history of mental problems." Her last work--"West Virginia Schizophrenic Blues"--was based on a true story of her schizophrenic mother.

"When I was doing my research for 'West Virginia,' I realized that I was already using structural things in my work that relate to mental illness," she says. "I'm interested in how this kind of illogical thinking fits into the world, how the past and present intermingle. Maybe there's a creative door there."

The intentions of Sibio's work, says Pulner, differ from that of most stage fare. "In traditional theater, these extremities have been used to get out the character," he says. "What Linda is doing is taking these states in their rawness, before being shaped into character.

"In (theater), you watch the slice of life from a distance. You empathize, but you don't experience a break in reality. With Linda, you experience the breaks. The hope is that the audience too will start breaking through."

To encourage such "breaking through," Sibio and Pulner are also organizing other, non-theatrical, encounters between artists and lay-persons. Last Sunday, in conjunction with "Azalea Trash," About Productions and the Zeta Collective presented "Spontaneous Combustion: a panel on art, creativity and mental illness" featuring Sibio and an array of art and mental health professionals.

Featured during the program was a performance by Michael Harris, Drake Richardson, Joseph Campbell and Kenny Provanzagan, developed under Sibio's tutelage at the Los Angeles Men's Place (L.A.M.P.), a facility for mentally/emotionally disabled adults on skid row, where she is artist-in-residence.

One recurrant theme of the event attended by several-dozen artists and interested others was, in Pulner's words, "the oppressive way the term 'normal' is used in our culture.

The impact of the "Spontaneous Combustion" panel, says Pulner, "was not so much the issues, but that it helped start breaking down the divisions between handicapped artists, the artistic community and the larger (population)."

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