Odd Jobs is a column exploring artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs. For this installment, I spoke with Jade Gordon. She earned an MA in Applied Theater from University of Southern California (USC), has taught at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and the Stella Adler Academy, and is a co-owner of Wombleton Records. In 2000, with Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, she formed My Barbarian, an art collective that uses performance to explore social difficulties, theatricalize historic problems, and imagine ways of being together. My Barbarian has presented its work in many museums—including the Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—as well as at two Performa Biennials, two California Biennials, the Biennale de Montréal, and the Whitney Biennial. The collective has received awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Art, Creative Capital, Art Matters, and the City of Los Angeles.
Jade Gordon: Before we started My Barbarian, I was an actress on TV. I was on That 70s Show—not like a series regular, but I did a lot of television, and I did a lot of indie films. I had dropped out of college to be an actress. I had come back from going to school on the East Coast, was auditioning, and doing acting stuff. And around that time, I met Alex and Malik through a mutual friend.
Calder Yates: I hadn’t realized you guys started off as an art band.
JG: For lack of a better word, we were a band, but it was really about access to performance space. We started out performing at little gallery spaces or at people’s houses. But we realized that when you were a band, you get access to a stage, you get paid or get free drinks, an audience is built in, and you have an hour on stage to do whatever you want. You don’t have to produce the event or rent the space like you would with theater.
CY: And this was before you went back to college?
JG: Yeah, I was waiting tables—for thirteen years. And I was a really good waitress. I really hated it, but I was very good at it. It was like going to aerobics class every night. I would be sweating; I had Michelle Obama arms. I was really fit. But I was drinking wine all the time, I was tired, and I didn’t really want to be a servant.
JG: Yeah, and it was always a little weird, having had a little bit of success in film and TV. People would say, “Hey, I saw you in that movie,” or “I saw you on TV… Oh, you’re still working here?” It was always an identity crisis. Also, I have two little kids now, and I remember thinking, years ago, “Gosh, what would I do if I wanted to have kids. I couldn’t really be a pregnant waitress, but maybe I could, and people would feel sorry for me and give me tips…”
CY: So then what happened?
JG: The three of us decided to go back to school at kind of the height of My Barbarian. I still needed to finish my undergraduate degree. I remember going to a My Barbarian rehearsal in tears because I was 28 and in a geometry class that was a nightmare, and I couldn’t do it, and I remember crying, “I’m almost 30—why am I crying about my math test? I’m preparing for a museum show!” I finished my undergrad in theater at USC and went straight into a master’s program in applied theater, also at USC.
CY: How lucky that you, Alex, and Malik met and had these long-term interests that aligned.
JG: That’s a really good point. It’s like the stars aligned and brought us together to work. We’ve been able to figure out a language and an intuitive way of working together. Our first show was during my big birthday party at the Grand Star Restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown. I met my husband that same night. My Barbarian is like my second marriage.
CY: After the serving gigs and grad school, then what?
JG: I started working with people in the community: low-income seniors at a housing facility, kids in a special-education program at Fairfax High School in L.A. I also studied mask making and mask performance in Northern California, and so I started incorporating masks into My Barbarian’s practice. Right now I’m a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed, and I work with an activist group of high-school students in L.A. I’m volunteering to help them develop a protest performance in January. I teach mask-making workshops to kids in a charter school in South L.A. So I’m trying to have one foot in community education and activism, and one foot in My Barbarian and use the skills I have in both places. I also taught [at Stella Adler Academy and CalArts]. I haven’t been teaching over the past year and a half because I have a 16-month-old baby. But I’m going back. For the past six years, my husband and I have owned a record store in Highland Park in Los Angeles. Mostly he’s the buyer and owner, but we both created it together.
CY: What do you see for yourself in the future?
JG: I think the whole universe shifted a few months ago. I always felt like I was living in a precarious situation because of my family and my financial situation, and now the entire world feels like it’s crumbling. I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen with anything right now or how to deal with anything. We had extremely expensive healthcare that we paid for every month, but am I still going to have that? And then, having children is a whole other set of concerns. The environment becomes this huge question mark. And you imagine all of these dystopian future possibilities and your children wearing suits like in Dune where they have to recycle their urine into water. And so that fight is even more urgent. I feel like the work I’m doing in My Barbarian is really important and what I’m doing outside of My Barbarian—working with Theater for Social Change—is also really important. Now is the time it’s most relevant. It’s hard to feel hopeful right now. But it feels really important to be engaged.