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Hollywood Legend's Afterlife As A Queer Icon Inspires Pittsburgh-Based Dance, Multimedia Artists

Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood’s top stars for decades. 

Her off-stage struggles to succeed often seemed as larger-than-life as her characters’ travails in classic films like “Mildred Pierce,” and that image helped make her a queer icon to rival Judy Garland.

Jesse Factor & Scott Andrew perform "I Am A Haunted House": 8 p.m. Fri., March 6. Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Ave., Friendship

Crawford is hardly forgotten: Her rivalry with Bette Davis, for instance, was centered in the 2017 FX series “Feud,” with Jessica Lange as Joan.

Still, Crawford died in 1977, and her light has surely dimmed, at least for younger generations. So why are two local artists who weren’t even born in 1977 making a multimedia dance work about her legacy?

Dance artist Jesse Factor says it’s precisely because he realized he didn't grasp Crawford’s appeal. He references his experience watching another film, the cult-favorite 1988 dark comedy “Heathers.” In one scene, a character who has died is identified as gay because he had a Joan Crawford postcard stuck inside his locker.

Factor, who’s 40, said he asked himself, “‘Am I a proper gay? I don’t understand this.’ It led me to really interrogate it.”

The topic, after all, is right in his line. Factor, who teaches dance at Slippery Rock University, has amassed national performance credits with a body of work in which he inhabits divas and explores queer nostalgia and celebrity. His works include “Mommie Queerest,” its title a nod to Crawford’s daughter Christina’s infamous tell-all biography, “Mommie Dearest.”

Now, Factor is collaborating with multimedia artist Scott Andrew on “I Am A Haunted House,” a work in progress they developed during a month-long residency for the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s Freshworks series. The first performance is Friday, at the theater’s Alloy Studios.

“I think every queer person has some kind of relationship to Joan Crawford,” said Andrew.

Andrew teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, and his work, too, has been exhibited around the country. In “Haunted House,” Factor interacts with Andrew’s projected video, and vice versa. There’s also an original experimental score by Angela Washko, Jesse Stiles, and Andy Hasenpflug.

While the half-hour work in progress is non-narrative, says Andrew, “We kind of go through many stages of Joan’s life, and then these embodiments of her after death, through things like ‘Mommy Dearest,’ but then also through fan art. And then we’re kind of resurrecting her in a new way for a new era, I guess, of queer viewership.”

Expect Factor’s movement style to be as experimental as the video.

“Jesse implements a lot of different types of editing of his own body that mimic the way that we might edit video, that bring in elements like glitching and bad copies of digital files,” said Andrew.

Asked about the work’s title, Factor referred to how the images of celebrities are reproduced indefinitely. “It seemed like a fitting thing to be haunted by this repetitive image,” he said. “The idea that it’s just an incessant sort of return, and the body as a haunted house, I was really drawn to that.”

Friday’s performance will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Factor and Andrew will also lead a free workshop Saturday.

Admission to “I Am A Haunted House” is pay-what-makes-you-happy. See here for more information.