Joyce Scott and Lorraine Whittlesey could hardly be more different on the outside - one large, one skinny, one black, one white, one from B'more, one from Oyster Bay and Manhattan. Yet when they're together on stage, something clicks.
Sparks fly. Eyebrows rise. Smiles of recognition materialize. Teeth occasionally gnash.
Scott and Whittlesey are visual artist and musician, respectively, each of whom has a highly successful independent career. Whittlesey's the slinky, blond, piano- and synthesizer-playing composer. Scott, whose fabric-and-bead artworks are nationally acclaimed, is the one with the mouth. On stage, one minute she's belting out jazz hits, the next she's using political-scatological-unprintable humor to make a point.
Put Scott and Whittlesey together and you get far more than the sum of the parts: wickedly funny, wildly subversive performers whose evening-length acts are part theater happening, part pure stand-up comedy. Take their songs about Bill Clinton in Harlem catting around with girls young enough to be his daughter ... or the way poor people's taxes keep going up, up, up, while rich people's taxes go down, down, down.
They've been performing together for more than a decade now, and they know each other so well that either can instantly pick up on the other's riffs. When Scott (who recently won a Governor's Arts Award from the Maryland Citizens for the Arts Foundation and the Maryland State Arts Council) breaks into song, Whittlesey knows just the chords to back her up. During an interview, they practically finish each other's sentences.
We caught up with Scott and Whittlesey last week to talk about where their art is going and what they're trying to accomplish:
What exactly is a performance artist?
Joyce: It's obviously a person who is talented, gifted and creative who performs. Music, theater, drama - the whole gambit.
Is that the same as a musician or a singer or an actor?
Lorraine: All of the above.
Joyce: Lorraine has a background as a classical pianist, working with musicians from Tin Pan Alley to the classics, plus a strong basis in improvisation. So if I'm out there, Lorraine is right in sync. Ours is like the variety show way of working where you know each other well enough to take liberties with each other. I could say something and she'll play it right back to me.
I'm not saying these aren't scripted shows. We spend lots of time rehearsing and figuring out what we're going to sing. That structure gives us the ability to improvise. Folks watch what I do and they think, "Oh, Joyce is just out there." But actually you have to be very disciplined to be able to do that - lest you really tempt failure big time.
Lorraine: To have that ability to really be there and connect with the audience takes a lot of work; it doesn't just happen.
You two seem so different from each other, how did you get together?
Joyce: I'm very much a Baltimore girl that's on the cusp of the South, Southern parents, African-American, someone who was raised in the Pentecostal church, and who sees things visually. I've sung since I was a child, but even so a lot of my stuff, even the music I perform, comes out of a visual approach. That's different from Lorraine, who is approaching it as a musical person.
Lorraine: I've been very involved in performances most of my life. I was in a lot of different bands and was on TV a lot as a child. I was a member of the Howdy Doody "peanut gallery." When they had the NBC 75th anniversary, they showed one of the episodes I was in.
Joyce: Ever think you'd meet a person who was in the Howdy Doody peanut gallery? It's like being on the Mickey Mouse Club, it's like, "Were those really real kids?"
Lorraine: Yeah, definitely, it was a lot of fun. We were paid in bags of candy because our sponsor was Mars. So when you're like 5 or 6 years old and you get this big bag of candy when you finish your show, you think this is the best thing that can possibly happen.
How long did you do it?
Lorraine: Three years, about. They'd rotate different groups of kids, so it wasn't every day. I grew up in New York City so I went to a lot of performances ...
Joyce: Tell him what your dad did.
Lorraine: My dad was a director at Rockefeller Center, and so I was in an environment of theater and shows and all kinds of things. I was very lucky to grow up involved in all those things. I ended up going to a lot of Saturday live shows when I wasn't gigging. My parents really liked musicals and clubs that were big in the 1940s and 1950s in New York. I was classically trained because my parents were always hoping something would stick.
Did you go to a conservatory?
Lorraine: No. I studied TV and film scoring at UCLA. Before then, I lived in a convent. 'Cause when I found out how much fun everything was when I was 13, my parents sent me to a convent, a boarding school where all my female relatives had gone. Strange, but true.
Joyce: Doesn't it make a difference, though, when you hear that and then you think about what's happening on stage? I mean, mine is a very different background and how we can still make a real comfortable blend?
Well, what's the main point of your performances?
Joyce: Making money! [laughs]
Lorraine: Show me the money!
No, really - is it political, feminist, what?
Lorraine: The point is, because we can. We do it because we can.
Joyce: Exactly. It's an opportunity for me to sing and ...
Lorraine: I get to work with Joyce. And when you first work with someone, you never know how it's going to work out. You've got to get a sense of the person after you talk with them for a while. I knew that, years ago, she had been with the Thunder Thigh Review [a skit in which Scott mocked America's cult of thinness], I knew she was involved with performance art, and after we worked together once or twice, we just decided this is good, it works, we cover all the bases ...
Joyce: I don't even know that we ever decided, we just kept moving, 'cause why not? For me, I need to sing - singing is breathing to me, it's an actualized way of living in a fuller way - so I love doing it and I want to be out there. The great thing about singing is that when you're doing it well, others get that breath, they get a secondary hit. It's fabulous.
With all the things you're both doing, where do you find time to keep all these balls in the air?
Joyce: They keep falling and hitting me on the head, I'll tell ya.
Lorraine: They hit me in other places. [laughs]
Joyce: She said that, I didn't. [laughs]
In the works
Joyce Scott and Lorraine Whittlesey are busy with more exhibitions and performances, both together and separately:
Joyce Scott and Axel Russmeyer: Ultimate Beadwork, Infinite Possibilities. Scott and German beader Russmeyer show jewelry at OXOXO Gallery in Mount Washington, 1617 Sulgrave Ave., through May 31. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call: 410-466-9696.
Sculpture at Evergreen. Scott is among 10 artists in a show of site-specific sculpture that opens June 6. Hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1-4 p.m. For more information, call: 410-516-0341. Admission is free.
Ebony and Irony V: "Unleashed." June 14-15 at Swirnow Theater in Mattin Center on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University, Charles and 33rd streets. Performance at 8 p.m. Admission $10 adults, $8 students and seniors. For more information, call: 410-516-4695.
"Dynamic Duo Does it Again": A benefit performance for Baltimore's Creative Alliance, Sunday, June 23, from 3 to 6 p.m. at Whittlesey's home in Roland Park. Tickets are $40; call 410-276-1651 for details.
Also coming up: "Divalicious," a benefit for the Women's Housing Coalition at Center Stage Sept. 14, and a performance during the city's Vivat festivities celebrating Baltimore's Russian sister city of St. Petersburg, next spring.