Ashley Naftule On How To
Avoid The Performance Rut
One Of Phoenix’s Oddest And Most Over The Top Performance Artists Talks About Getting Started, Past, Characters, Some Awful Early Performances, And How To Keep It Fresh
By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine
Dec. 16, 2014 — Ashley Naftule is a true Phoenix original.
Sure, its a cliche, but when the shoe fits ... well, you know.
The 32-year-old (as of Monday, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!) Valley-based performance artist has lived in the Phoenix metro his entire life, but only recently entered into the performance art game. However, in just four years, he has gained the respect of many of the Phoenix metro’s most admired and heralded performers. Coming up in March he will once-again host First Friday Night Live: His second consecutive performance is the first for the show at The Firehouse, 1015 N. First St., Phoenix.
Though his act is usually funny, Naftule said he intends his performances to be moments to get audiences involved — while push some artistic limits — and above all else remain surprising and new.
But through all of the artistic philosophy is the time-tested parable: Avoid falling into a rut or ye shall stop being artistic.
Modern Times Magazine: Do you consider yourself to be more of a comedian or performance artist?
Ashley Naftule: I prefer performance artist. I mean, most of the stuff I do is comedic but I think if I start calling myself a comedian people will expect me to always be funny. Whereas a performance artist; people think it’s going to be pretentious and weird, but usually my stuff is pretty accessible. So I call myself a performance artist and it puts people off their guard. If I say I’m a comedian there are all these expectations of being hilarious or whatever, that you always have to meet and I’d rather not deal with that. I used to be involved with Cult of the Yellow Sign and we would go to conventions and act in character and ryle people up. So what I like doing, what I like about performing is that I like engaging with the audience. I don’t like having that divide of, I’m on stage,now be quiet and watch me. I like the idea of being able to interact with people and get them involved in the act because I don’t know what they're going to do. They could be hostile, they could be really into it, they could be funnier than me! It’s interesting to take myself out of the equation a lot and see what they do.
MTM: Besides your performance as Edmund in The Firehouse’s production of King Lear, what other serious roles have you taken on?
AN: A couple years ago I did a piece at the Pravus Gallery where I turned myself into a human voodoo doll, and had the audience poke me with needles. I think the idea I had was just testing the audience, and my ability to trust people because I was handcuffed to the chair with a blindfold on so I couldn't escape. So it was basically handing out pins to an audience of 30 people and saying, ‘do whatever you want, just don’t do the face or the hands anything else is fair game.’ What’s interesting is most people didn't try to hurt me. They would just pull my clothes out and poke through. I think the only person who tried to stab me was Ernesto (Moncada) he admitted it after.
MTM: When you perform do you prefer to collaborate with people or work solo?
AN: When I do performance art, I prefer doing it solo because it’s easier for me to control it that way. It’s easier for me to get up there and engage with the audience one on one, where if it’s other people it depends on how comfortable they are improvising so it’s just easier for me to be alone. But when I do plays and stuff I love working with other people because they always think of stuff that I don't think of.
MTM: You hosted First Friday Night Live as one half of the Cult of the Yellow Sign in Oct. 2013, and you will also be hosting in March of 2014. How do you feel about being the first person to host FFNL twice?
AN: I’m really excited I was involved with the show for the first two years, I helped write it and I helped set up the thousands of walls that they used as sets. The show has really improved steadily over the past three years and its looking like it’s at it’s best ever.
MTM: How do you think the offbeat performance art in Phoenix stacks up to other places?
AN: I think the quality is there, but I think there is not much of an audience for it. There are groups like HAL Theater Company, The Orange Theater Group, and there are a lot of people who do really weird and fascinating stuff. Maybe they aren't so good about promoting themselves, but it’s also kind of hard to promote it in general. It’s like, ‘here is this very hard to explain thing I’m doing next week. Come see it, maybe you'll like it and maybe you'll be confused.’
MTM: Do you have that problem promoting yourself?
AN: Not so much, I kind of take the P.T. Barnum approach to promoting where I just throw a lot of hyperbole and bullshit out there and people are kind of entertained by it. I always try and downplay the weirdness of it. I do surreal stuff sometimes but I never really lead with that because I think I’ll just turn people off. I’m not trying to have them come to a venue and have them expect it to inscrutable and weird cause they might not bother.
MTM: What do you consider a successful performance?
AN: I actually have very low standards when it comes to performing because I always panic right before I perform. The hour before I get on stage I am freaking the fuck out. I am assuming it’s going to go badly I’m going to forget my bit, the audience is going to hate me, I’m going to have a heart attack on stage, the mic is going to malfunction. So I have like these calamities that line up in my head so once I go up and actually perform and it goes OK it’s like, ‘fuck.’ That’s great, I didn’t die, people don’t hate me. So most of the time a good performance is if I get up there and I do my bit and it feels good.
MTM: Why did you wait until you were 27 to begin performing?
AN: I never really thought of myself as a performer. I wasn’t a theater kid in high school or anything like that. I wrote stuff, but I never thought I would be onstage performing shit. I was very shy, I used to skip school to get out of doing public presentations. But then I saw Hi My Name Is Ryan, Ryan Avery’s documentary and I remembered watching it thinking, ‘shit here’s someone who is half my age who is doing 20 to 30 bands, doing god knows how many things and he has no fear at all.’ He doesn’t care if its a failure or success, he’s just doing it. So I thought I’ll try an experiment, I’ll perform a couple times and if its terrible I won’t do it anymore. I did it, it was scary, but it was fun and I kept going and going and now I can’t stop.
MTM: What was your first performance like?
AN: It was with Kevin Flanagan at Space 55. We were doing the “7 Minutes in Heaven” variety show and we came up with this bit called Drinking with Panache and Gusto. So the idea was like a fake public access show where I was Panche a very refined wine-tasting critic and he was a Gusto, who was a hobo off the street. So the whole gag is on stage for 7 minutes just drinking wine and being complete idiots and it was fun. It came together really well and at the end I said I want to do that again.
MTM: Did you continue with those characters?
AN: No, we did other stuff, we did different stuff both together and solo. I don’t think we ever did Panache and Gusto again, and I don't like to repeat myself too often. There are certain characters I reuse. There is this character Lorenzo who does dick pics. I’ll bring him back sometimes but I like doing different things, I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. There are some performers in town who do the same thing consistently who are good but they do the same thing over and over again. I don’t feel the need to see them again because I know their routine.
MTM: Which characters do you bring back?
AN: I did a thing at the Hurly Burly show, the Baron Leopold Von Topagrapha. The idea was like I was an eccentric gentleman adventurer and I would go up to the audience and be like give me a suggestion of a country and I’ll tell you a story of what I did while I was there. I would make up these stories about flying zeppelins and killing smurfs, just deranged nonsense. It’s kind of like around the world in 80 days on acid, and that was a bit I had a lot of fun doing. There’s also Lorenzo Lama the cowboy artist. The first performance I ever did as him was “how to make a good dick pic.” Like him giving advice on lighting, and composition, and costumes you can put on your dick. He had a thing of drawings like a Star Trek dick and a Harry Potter dick with a scarf and other suggestion on how you can accentuate your junk.
MTM: What shows do you feel like you fit in best at?
AN: I think the variety shows tend to be easiest because at those shows it is more encouraged to interact with the audience. There is no expectation of, ‘here is the fourth wall you can't break it.’ A variety show is more like, ‘folks we are here to do something,’ so it feels looser. But I don’t know, I like doing different shows. I like not always being in my element. Variety shows are very much my comfort zone so I enjoy doing them. But I don’t always want to be doing just those. I’d love to do more burlesque shows and stand up nights. Just doing more stuff that’s a bit more out of my comfort zone so I don't get stuck in a rut.
MTM: Have you done standup?
AN: I did it once and it was horrible. It was ass, it was the worst thing I’ve ever done hands down.
MTM: What is the difference?
AN: I think it’s the audience, the audience at a poetry open mic the audience is quiet and respectful and let you do your things. If you do a stand up night, audiences are much more (expressive). If they don’t like you, they'll tell you. There is more of a culture of heckling and I honestly don't mind being heckled but there's an expectation if you go up there and you suck, you are going to know it immediately.
MTM: Do you think you’re a good performer?
AN: That’s a hard question because if I say yes I will sound like a dick. But I do think I’m a pretty good performer: I know I can be better. I know I can always do better than I already am. As an actor it’s hard for me to do more serious parts and to not always be funny. So I know I have certain ticks I am trying to get past but I can figure out at least 10 people who are better and if I think hard enough, I can think of 20.
MTM: Besides Ryan Avery, what other local performers do you draw inspiration from?
AN: Pete Petrisko, he has done this huge body of work but he's always doing new shit so he’s not totally stuck in his past. Kris Danowski, Kim Porter, she’s a playwright, amazing women. Dan Hull, Charlie Steak, Kevin Flanagan, we aren’t really friends anymore but he is still in my opinion one of the best writers and performers in town. Kevin Patterson, when he’s on he’s just so on. Before I started performing I spent two or three years just watching, and K.P. he gave me some of the best advice of my life, “never refuse a mic.” He inspired me to perform all the time. Ernesto too, he does a lot I think sometimes he does too much. But think that’s a common Phoenix problem we all do too much. So many people in this town who are crazy talented Phoenix is highly underrated in that respect. Ian Murdoch and Aaron Johnson too.
Jeff Moses a senior contributor at Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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