« Going toe to toe with Cubism at the Met | Main | Mini Review of Big Concert: NSO's The Rite of Spring »

Niki Tulk's Tender "Food" Buttons


The Dresser, not be trumped by the Steiny Road Poet's review of the Van Reipen Collective's theatrical interpretation of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons section 1 "Objects," offers her look and connections to Van Reipen's production of section 2 "Food" at the Theater for the New City in New York. First, Dear Reader, a little background.


What is Tender Buttons ? A book-length love poem in three sections that the Steiny Road Poet has been studying deeply inside the discussion forums of the Coursera massive open online course (MOOC) Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis. Steiny has documented that study starting with this blogpost: Stepping on Tender Buttons: "A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass." However, Steiny has only completed study of Tender Buttons "Objects." Full disclosure, Steiny has just begun study of "Food," so if this interests you, you can sign up for ModPo until November 15, 2014, and find the Tender Buttons study group inside the discussion forums. (Once ModPo ends, course enrollment ends, but the discussion forums and study of Tender Buttons will continue until the 2015 ModPo offering in the fall.)

Therefore, the Dresser is perfectly at her ease to make what anyone can of a dramatic interpretation of Tender Buttons "Food." One other thing to know is VP treated each of the three sections of Tender Buttons as separate theater productions. This means there were different directors for each production: Gary Heidt: "Objects," Cara Scarmack and Christopher Weston: "Rooms," and Niki Tulk: "Food."


While Gary Heidt's treatment of "Objects" was musical with another text underpinning how the dozen players and musicians moved, Niki Tulk's approach to "Food" was on the surface much simpler. In "Food," original recorded music by Mark Tulk with cello by Niki Tulk was used to introduce, shade, or transition from one part of the production to the next (well, except for Cupcake Gross' chicken striptease) and only three actors spoke the entire Steinian text. During the 90-minute production, Cassandra V. Chopourian impressively delivered the majority of Stein's words. Not only did she know the words, which are not logically written, but also she infused the words with feeling, just as Stein does when she opens the "Food" section:

In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching.
Tender Buttons , section 2 "Food," first subpoem "Roastbeef."


TBF-MeatHook.jpegMemorably Chopourian, while simulating hanging from a meat hook, slowly recited the 36 stanzas (1757 words) of "Roastbeef." and then 13 stanzas (534 words) of "Mutton.". It was an uncomfortable stretch for one actor or even for an audience member, but it was a tour de force.

But wait, the Dresser emailed Niki Tulk and she said, "She [Chopourian] hung from the meathook for the first 10 mins or so of Roastbeef, and then hopped down, explored the dress, got dressed, plucked the chicken and set the table ... TBFChickPluck.jpgso most of her work was off the meathook, but the time at the beginning was very much a 'close-up' section and probably felt longer than it was, due to that intensity."

Allow the Dresser to give some examples of those lines:

Please be the beef, please beef, pleasure is not wailing. Please beef, please be carved clear, please be a case of consideration.

Search a neglect. A sale, any greatness is a stall and there is no memory, there is no clear collection.

(These two stanzas are 24 and 25 from "Roastbeef.")


Mouse and mountain and a quiver, a quaint statue and pain in an exterior and silence more silence louder shows salmon a mischief intender. A cake, a real salve made of mutton and liquor, a specially retained rinsing and an established cork and blazing, this which resignation influences and restrains, restrains more altogether. A sign is the specimen spoken.

A meal in mutton, mutton, why is lamb cheaper, it is cheaper because so little is more. Lecture, lecture and repeat instruction.

(These are the last two stanzas from "Mutton.")

Why does Chopourian carry so much of the text delivery? Well, besides being exceptionally good at memorization and delivery, one of her fellow collective members Lauren Farber has the dual challenge of muscular dystrophy and legal blindness. Nonetheless Farber's resume is substantial with fifty years experience in dance and movement theater that includes ballet, mime, and Butoh. She has worked with such experimental companies at Margolis Brown Adaptors, Joan Merwyn's Sound Image Theater, The Construction Company, and currently Van Reipen Collective. TBF-InPot.jpg

In an informal interview after the closing show on October 19, 2014, Director Niki Tulk said one of the interesting challenges for this production was how to use Farber's talents and limitations to best advantage. Two aspects of Farber's MS are she has limited capacity for memorization and she needs to rest with some frequency, meaning her lines needed to be short and during the intermissionless show, Farber needed an opportunity to lie down and rest. For example, as the text progressed to "Milk." and "Eggs." (subpoems 7 and 8), Farber climbed up on the table and got covered over by a cloth that Chopourian moved around and over her colleague.


Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging.


Kind height, kind in the right stomach with a little sudden mill.

Cunning shawl, cunning shawl to be steady.

In white in white handkerchiefs with little dots in a white belt all shadows are singular they are singular and procured and relieved.

No that is not the cows shame and a precocious sound, it is a bite.

Cut up alone the paved way which is harm. Harm is old boat and a likely dash.


Tulk said that what kept the action moving forward and helped the cast remember their lines was a gaming strategy--"games (the ones that get passed on as if by osmosis from generation to generation of children) contain structures of movement and text--often nonsense text--that the smallest child can remember. They cannot always remember the words out of context, but once moving in that familiar pattern, the words come as if unbidden. There is a sense in which text and movement are both stored in muscle memory, and finding kinesthetic structures/choreographic forms that facilitate that is powerful in creating resonance with the audience on a visceral level, and also for actors learning 'nonsense' text (or any text)."

This strategy was associated then with something Tulk calls forms: "circles, tag, dance, domestic rituals of food preparation and eating, forms of greeting and conversation, ritual/spiritual forms used in walking a labyrinth, etc." Some of the memorable actions associated with this approach was Cupcake Gross appearing in a chicken suitTBF-Chickensuit.jpeg and then removing it on stage, Laura Farber birthing herself from between Cassandra Chopourian legs as Chopourian sat on the dining table, Chopourian plucking a fake chicken and later serving the feathers at a meal, Farber washing her feet in a bucket of real water, Farber allowing her rear end to slide through the frame of a seatless chair and how effortlessly she pulled herself out.


Since the Dresser was not intimately familiar with the text of "Food" what she realized more than half way into the production was a Shakespearean cadence. The cadence loomed larger than the words. For example, the lyric opening of "Roastbeef" which repeats the words in the or in coupled with the gerund form of the verb (ending with ing). The gerund form of the verb versus Shakespeare's use of the static is makes Stein's sentences more active and therefore distinguishes them from Shakespeare's.

In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching.
Tender Buttons , section 2 "Food," first subpoem "Roastbeef."

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good
life, but in respect that it is a shepherd's life,
it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I
like it very well; but in respect that it is
private, it is a very vile life. Now, in respect it
is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in
it is not in the court, it is tedious. As
is it a spare life, look you, it fits my humour well;
but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much
against my stomach. Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?

As You Like it, Act III, Scene 1

One more comparative set:

Could there not be a sudden date, could there not be in the present settlement of old age pensions, could there not be by a witness, could there be.

Count the chain, cut the grass, silence the noon and murder flies. See the basting undip the chart, see the way the kinds are best seen from the rest, from that and untidy.
Tender Buttons , section 2 "Food," fifth subpoem "Cranberries."

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Sure, the cadence is about repetition and simple words with strong accents but also there is something about Stein's choice of words that call out to specific Shakespearean lines.

Now that the Dresser has had to think about and research what she saw, she thinks that seeing Niki Tulk's interpretation of "Food" only once was not enough. However, the Dresser also believes the show would be better appreciated if one knew more about Stein's text.

Photo Credit: Ben Stamper


Comments (1)

Grace Cavalieri:

This piece gives every artist hope. We can all pluck chickens and be NEW. Thank you Karren.BRILLIANT SUMMARY.You are giving Stein and roast beef a good name again

Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 3, 2014 4:37 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Going toe to toe with Cubism at the Met.

The next post in this blog is Mini Review of Big Concert: NSO's The Rite of Spring.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.