PERFORMANCE ART : That’s How She Is : Jo Harvey Allen’s characters come alive with her taste for eccentricity and down-to-earth charisma

<i> Kristine McKenna writes about the arts for The Times</i>

Surprising things just seem to happen to performer Jo Harvey Allen. Take this recent incident, for instance: “There I was at the gynecologist’s having a routine exam,” she says, speaking in her honeyed Texas drawl, “flat on my back with my legs in the air, when in walked three masked bandits with loaded guns come to rob the doctor’s office! Me and the doctor froze and got dead quiet, and we heard them in the next room saying, ‘Don’t scream, we want all your money.’ They got the money and ran off and I finally put my legs down and burst out laughing.”

Misadventures of this sort happen to Allen with amazing regularity, and she’s been transforming them into avant-garde theater for 13 years. A freewheeling hybrid of performance art, straight acting, extended monologue and stand-up comedy, Harvey’s one-woman shows are based on real people and actual incidents, and her central talent may well be her knack for poking her nose into strange situations, befriending whomever she encounters, and walking away unscathed to tell the tales she’s gathered.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 13, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 13, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Sept. 29 Calendar article on performance artist Jo Harvey Allen, the name of Cuesta College was rendered incorrectly.

“I’m not a threatening personality so people tend to be open with me,” says Allen during a conversation at the apartment she maintains in Santa Monica. Briefly in town from her home in Santa Fe, N.M., for an audition (she’s up for the lead in a sit-com), she answers the door for a scheduled interview wearing a bathrobe and squeals, “This is typical of me--I’m always 20 minutes late for everything!” She quickly pulls on a pair of wildly patterned leggings, a satin shirt and flowered cowboy boots and flops down in a chair. A woman with an indefatigably sunny disposition, she has the kind of big personality we expect of Texans, and Allen is Texan to the core.


“The world is full of people desperately trying to be something they aren’t, but Texans seem blessed with a peculiar acceptance of themselves,” says Allen, who was born in Lubbock in 1942. “Texans are dreamers and they aren’t ashamed of being eccentric, but they also have a realistic attitude about themselves, a ‘This is who I am and to hell with you if you don’t like it’ philosophy. I guess that’s a pretty good description of me.”

Though Allen is perpetually on the road taking her shows hither and yon, she hasn’t performed in Los Angeles in five years, so her appearance next weekend in “Pioneers”--a political opera that kicks off UCLA’s 55th season of theater--is something of an event. A collaborative work that combines music by Berkeley-based composer Paul Dresher with text by tenor-actor Rinde Eckert, Jo Harvey and her husband of 29 years, artist-musician Terry Allen (who also designed the sets and contributes several songs to the score), “Pioneers” is the final segment of Dresher’s “American Trilogy,” which commenced in 1985 with “Slow Fire” and continued in 1989 with “Power Failure.”

A study of male and female archetypes and a work of historical revisionism that exposes the ruthless imperialism, racism and sexism that are the dark underbelly of the pioneering drive, the work makes its points through a complex layering of extended metaphor, love story, invective and social satire. Its score is equally exotic, blending as it does rap, rock, Bach, Tex-Mex and jazz, along with thrashing minimalist and traditional opera motifs.

“This has been a huge challenge for me because my working methods are the complete opposite of those of most of the people involved,” Allen says of “Pioneers,” which premiered in May, 1990, at the Spoleto Festival and continues touring through December of this year. “Whereas I do lots of research and my work is quite intimate, most of the people working on ‘Pioneers’ are intensely physical artists who improvise and give very big performances. Fortunately, these different approaches seem to make for a good combustion, but it hasn’t been easy. My character is a widow who’s going through a major breakdown, and the state of mind of this character was intensified for me by the fact that I was the only woman working with 11 guys. Needless to say, I often had to fight for my interpretation of the material.”

Says Dresher in explaining why he invited Allen to collaborate: “We needed someone to ground the piece and provide an accessible entry point into it, and Jo Harvey is very down to earth. Whereas the other actors in the piece, Rinde and John Duykers, favor a highly dramatic style of performing that has the potential of being remote, she’s extremely warm and intimate. We also needed someone who could hold their own with Rinde and John, who can easily overpower the performers around them, and though Jo Harvey is low key, she’s also very charismatic. And of course, the fact that she grew up in Texas was an added plus, because ‘Pioneers’ deals with themes particularly pertinent to that part of the country.”

Considering that Allen has been involved with this demanding piece for two years, she has an impressive number of additional irons in the fire. For starters, the career as a film actress she’s tended with considerable ambivalence for 20 years looks as though it’s finally about to burst into bloom. She has three film credits under her belt--David Byrne’s “True Stories,” David Leland’s “Checking Out” and Bill Fishman’s “Tapeheads”--and has several projects in the works: She’s been cast in a starring role opposite Marianne Sagebrecht in a film to be directed by Celeste Adams; she recently completed shooting with Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy on Jon Avnet’s upcoming “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”; and she’ll play Calamity Jane in Laurie Anderson’s next film.


Dearest to Allen’s heart, however, is “Hally Lou,” a script she has written based on a play she has been doing for years. “I’m closer to this piece than anything I’ve written in a long time. It’s the first thing I’ve written that includes a lot of autobiographical material and there’s a lot of interest in the script right now. Hally Lou is a tent revivalist and the script chronicles 24 hours in her life and involves all the people caught up in the web of synchronicity and miracles that surround her.”

Allen remembers seeing women like Hally Lou while she was growing up in Texas in the ‘40s. An only child, Allen says: “I remember everything from the time I was 2 years old, and believe me, my childhood was just magic. I mean, I was born with a tail! It was just a little bitty hairy thing that they surgically removed--nobody ever could explain it.

“My father was a carpenter and my mother worked in a dress shop,” she continues, “and looking back now I can see we were poor, but I never felt poor because I grew up out under the stars every night surrounded by storytellers.”

In 1953 Allen’s course in life was set when she met her future husband, Terry, at a dance.

“I was 11 and he walked in and we started dancing and I’m still madly in love with this crazy man. Terry’s been a huge influence on every aspect of my life. He’s totally shaped my creative sensibility and he’s given me tons of encouragement. I think I inspire his work too--we feed off each other in a really productive way. We’re both opinionated, strong-willed people and it’s always been a grand battle with us--we’re notoriously passionate fighters and lovers.” (When the Allens renewed their wedding vows a few years back they commemorated the event by having tornadoes tattooed on their ring fingers.)

In 1962, at the age of 19, Jo Harvey Koontz and Terry Allen married and that same year they moved to L.A. where Jo Harvey experienced a bit of culture shock.

“I don’t remember seeing art as a child and when I first came to L.A. I felt culturally deprived because I fell in with a very sophisticated crowd here,” she recalls. “I had this friend, Claire Copley, who used to talk about sitting on Duchamp’s lap and living with Frida Kahlo, and I had to struggle to appreciate what was special about my upbringing.

“I went through all kinds of stuff here during my 20s,” she adds. “I studied sociology, and during the ‘60s I did interior decorating for mob families in L.A. I knew they were mobsters because they drove Cadillacs with car phones way back then, and I heard them talk about killing people! Then there was a period when I wanted to go into law and be a politician, and after that I was almost in a Warhol film.

“In the late ‘60s, I hosted a country music radio show for KPPC called ‘Rawhide and Roses,’ ” she continues, “then there was a period when I totally got the L.A. bug--I almost ran off with Dennis Hopper and Kris Kristofferson to be in ‘The Last Movie.’ We got involved with a very fast crowd and weren’t tending to the family we were trying to build, and we ran away just in the nick of time. I’ve never regretted that decision either because having kids was the best creative thing I’ve ever done.” (The Allens have two sons: Bukka, 24, and Bale, 23.)

In 1971 the Allens moved to Fresno where they were to live for the next 17 years. It was here Jo Harvey launched her career as a performer, starring in a theatrical work written by her husband, titled “The Embrace . . . Advance to Fury” in 1973. Three years later she began writing poetry and doing readings, and subsequently published a book of verse titled “Cheek to Cheek.” She also began researching an as-yet-unpublished book, “The Beautiful Waitress,” based on interviews with waitresses. That research yielded a stage piece titled “Counter Angel” that she still performs, and it was with this piece that Allen’s various talents began to coalesce into a recognizable style.

She’s subsequently developed dozens of characters--everything from a wealthy Houston socialite to a religious fanatic to a political activist--several of whom are featured in “As It Is in Texas,” a rambling work she’s been refining for years. She’s presently at work on a new one-woman show, “Homerun,” which will debut this spring at Questa College in San Luis Obispo. Allen will perform characters from old and new works in Venice on Oct. 12 when she kicks off the 72 Market St. afternoon lecture series with a one-woman show.

It’s a credit to Allen’s performing skills that people often assume her characters are based on herself, but that’s actually not the case. “In 1977 I did a piece called ‘A Moment’s Hesitation’ based on my poetry, and that was the closest I’ve come to autobiographical performance and was the only piece like that I’ve done,” she says. “Most of my characters are very different from me and there are a few I don’t particularly like, but how I feel about them is irrelevant. My characters are documents of real people and I try not to pass judgment on them in the way I present them. In fact, in a way I don’t feel like I’m a real writer yet because my work is almost entirely based on conversations and stories I’ve overheard.

“My basic approach is to do tons of research, then perform the piece in a ‘real’ location,” adds Allen, who cites Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews and Walker Percy as writers she admires. “For instance, I did ‘Hally Lou,’ who’s a tent revivalist, on the back of a flatbed truck and I performed ‘Counter Angel’ in real truck stops. Needless to say, I never made any money off those shows. For years I paid the baby-sitter more than I made.”

Allen’s work has opened up some interesting doors. For instance, following the final performance of “Pioneers” in December, the Allens will spend six weeks with their longtime friend David Byrne (who struck up a friendship with the Allens when he cast Jo Harvey in “True Stories”) as the guests of Indian geneticist Anand Sarabhai.

“Several years ago Anand saw me in a performance of ‘Counter Angel’ in New York, then we ran into each other at a restaurant and he invited me to India,” Allen explains. “Anand’s a very interesting person. He and I just wrote a treatment for a film together and we have another idea for a talk show and we’re finally going to visit him. We’re going for the music festival in Madras, and David and Terry may work on a record in India. While they do that I’m going to travel around and do performances.”

Following their travels in India, the Allens and Byrne will return to the United States and begin working on “Juarez,” a multimedia theater piece written by Terry Allen in the early ‘70s, which will premiere at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, in 1993.

“I’m not sure yet exactly what I’ll be doing in ‘Juarez,’ ” says Allen, “but David will direct and we’re hoping Terry will perform music live onstage as part of the piece. It’s an unusual work that combines filmed sequences with music and live action onstage.”

Allen will take a break from rehearsals for “Juarez” in May for a trip down the Nile River. “I keep dreaming about Egypt,” she says, “so I feel I just have to go there.”

With all these plans looming in the not-so-distant future, Allen is free today to work on a script she’s co-writing with Barry Tubb, an ex-rodeo star who turned to acting after he was thrown from a horse one too many times. And, being in L.A., she’ll cram in as many work-related meetings as she can.

“I always have to watch myself in this town,” she concludes, “because I’m competitive, and like everybody else, I get in there and start wanting things I’d be better off without. Before I go out in L.A., I often stand naked in front of a mirror and say to myself: ‘Remember who you are and be careful not to want what everybody else wants.’ ”

She then turns to a mirror to touch up her lipstick for a photographer, studies her face for a moment and laughingly mutters, “Lord, give me the courage not to get a face lift.”