Plenty of people go through painful break-ups, but it takes a special talent to turn the experience into a career. Brooklyn-bred Anita Liberty, whose boyfriend Mitchell left her for another woman shortly after he and Anita moved in together, has that talent: rather than sitting around moping, she wrote a book, called "How to Heal the Hurt by Hating," filled with poems, diary entries, and diatribes against Mitchell and the new girlfriend, and developed a live show, short film, and TV projects based on it and her bitter self in general. The dumped everywhere roared their approval, and now she’s back, but what’s this? Success, happiness, and a new man? In "How to Stay Bitter Through the Happiest Times of Your Life," which opens today at HERE and just came out in book form, she describes in her characteristically caustic yet hilarious way how she has tried not to lose touch with the anger that was her raison d’être. We asked her some questions about the show, her art, and her life in New York.
What were you up to pre-Mitchell break-up? What made you think, when you broke up, that the experience was something that you could build a career on?
I was doing a lot of temping and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I always enjoyed writing, but my writing never really had a focus. When Mitchell dumped me on my ass, everything became clear. All I wanted to do was tell everyone what a jerk Mitchell was for pulling the rug out from under me. Even though I was actually in emotional pain, I could still see that what I was feeling was universal and that some of the things I was thinking were funny (at the same time that they were distressing). I had no idea that I would actually be able to build a career on humiliating my ex-boyfriend in public, but it just goes to show, if you really get passionate about something, other people will pick up on that.
Have you seen The Break-Up with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston? Thoughts?
Y’know, I haven’t. And part of me wants to, just ‘cause it might be a fun escapist movie with pretty people and locations and clothes, but I’m just so sure that I’m going to be disappointed. I know what I want that movie to be and I also know it’s not going to deliver. I could be wrong, but having been through the experience of trying to develop a movie in Hollywood, I can imagine that all of the edge and reality and specificity of the original script (if there was any to begin with) has been stripped out to make it “palatable” to the “masses” (even though the “masses” are a lot more discerning and sophisticated than they’re given credit for…).
Did you invite Mitchell to your wedding, just as an up-yours sort of thing?
I didn’t. I had enough trouble putting together my seating chart. No one would have wanted to sit with him. And a few people might even have tried to kill him. It wouldn’t have been a fun evening for him. In retrospect, it sounds like maybe I should have invited him.
Do you think you’ve managed to “stay bitter” through these happy times?
I do. And it’s taken a tremendous amount of dedication and vigilance on my part because I do have a healthy marriage, an exceptional husband and a certain amount of professional success under my belt. However, it has been, in fact, the realization that I’ve effectively eliminated all of the drama in my life (bad dates, temp jobs, loneliness, industry neglect, etc.) that has really gotten my bitter hackles up. The book is less about searching out the negative aspects of my life than about how not having anything to be angry about anymore really pisses me off.
I’m guessing a lot of your original audience was people who sympathized with you because they’d also gone through bad break-ups. Do you think they might be alienated by your current happiness, not to mention the major film and TV and book deals that you’ve gotten?
Well, maybe. But I’ve never been afraid of alienating people. If that were my criteria, I’d be writing about a year spent living in the South of France or something. Look, this is my life. It is what it is. And the people who have been following my work since the beginning will either be able to relate to the progression of my life, having moved through a similar progression themselves, or they’ll be able to appreciate my frustration and fear at having to sacrifice a certain comfortable part of myself in favor of romantic satisfaction and professional success. By the way, the Anita Liberty feature film script and all three of the Anita Liberty sitcom pilot scripts currently sit dusty on my bookshelf. None of them ever got made. So if my audience is alienated by that, then they’ve got problems.
Who if anyone has been your inspiration as far as performance style? Do you look to other performance artists or do you draw on artists from more foundational formats (books/movies etc) to combine in your own way?
I really like the work of visual artists, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. I like the way they use text. I’ve always been into words and “word art.” That’s part of the reason why my books are graphically-designed. I like Julia Sweeney in performance, although I can’t say I was inspired by her. Early Sandra Bernhard is amazing. The Sklar brothers are funny. I like really, really good stand-up. But I’ve never been interested in the lifestyle or the format. I do take some inspiration from Madonna. Just in the way that she’s become sort of a brand. I like the idea of Anita Liberty as a “brand.” I have the books, the live show, the website, the blog, the merchandise, the film (maybe), the television show (someday) and the spaghetti sauce (just kidding).
In your first book you have excerpts from your diary, now you have blog excerpts. Do you prefer blogging to physical diary keeping?
The irony and the tongue-in-cheekiness of including blog entries in my second book as opposed to diary entries is that I didn’t even have a blog until recently. I actually find blogging a lot harder than journaling. When I kept a journal (which I still do occasionally – and it’s way private, so don’t even think about reading it while I’m in the bathroom!), I didn’t feel at all censored and it was liberating for that reason. After some time passed, I would go back and pull whatever I felt might be palatable for an audience. When I blog I’m a lot more conscious (predictably) of the reader. Besides, I’m so totally over blogging now. Podcasting, here I come!!
Your show is closely tied to the book. What do you try to give audiences in the live show that isn’t on the page (since I presume you won’t actually show up naked one of these days, despite what your webpage says)? What might readers who don’t make it to the live show miss out on?
Long before I had a book, the work existed only as my performance text. That it translated to the printed page wasn’t a given, it was a bonus. I worked with graphic designers on both books (Michael Calleia on HTHTHBH and JoAnne Metsch on HTSB) in order to convey some of my intention and emphasis from the stage to the page. What’s been cool is that people who have only known my work through the books are discovering that it lends itself to being spoken aloud. Excerpts from my first book are currently being used as theatrical monologues, in dramatic and poetry competitions and at break-up parties where HTHTHBH is passed around and pieces are recited aloud and everyone laughs and laughs. Or so I’ve heard.
I think audiences will be able to appreciate the work on another level if they come to see me perform it. I use slides. Those are cool. And they add to the theatricality of the piece. Also, if you come to the live show you get free temporary tattoos and buttons. So there’s that.
Is New York a good place to be bitter?
Hell, yeah! But I do believe that bitterness knows no geographic boundaries. For instance, I know for a fact that there are a bunch of bitter teenagers who live in various small towns in Texas, ‘cause they e-mail me and tell me so.
Life in NYC can embitter people even when they haven’t been going through a painful break-up, so as a bitter performance artist I imagine you have a lot of things you could rant about as far as bad/annoying/upsetting things in the city. What are a few?
Well, I touched on this before, but the thing about New York City that really gets me up-in-arms these days is what has happened to SoHo. The gross commercialization and blatant disregard for the long-time residents of that area really infuriates me. The fact that my parents can’t walk their dog on the weekends or do their most basic errands due to the overwhelming congestion is really aggravating. Also, the street vendors have gotten out-of-hand and are really abusing the concept of free speech, which is an argument they use repeatedly to justify their taking up space on the sidewalk and exacerbating foot traffic. Setting up a card table and selling mass-produced laminated crap has nothing to do with art, the integrity of struggling artists or the honor of free speech. There. See? I just got myself all worked up.
Though it doesn’t sound like you’ve lost your edge at all, now that you’re in a happier state of being, having married and quit your temp job, etc, what in the city do you see as wonderful?
New York is my hometown. It’s my comfort zone. It may be overwhelming to people who don’t live here, but I really don’t know anything else. It’s hard to talk about the wonderful things about New York without sounding like a big fat cliché, but, y’know, the diversity, the culture, the restaurants, the history, the art, the architecture…it’s all pretty amazing. I think, at times, that it would serve my career (and my bank account) to just up and move my ass out to Los Angeles and I just can’t. I can’t. New York’s the small town I’m from and I can’t imagine myself or my life anywhere else.
Is there any place in the city where you go for inspiration? Where do you go when you’re procrastinating?
I like to go into clothing stores and touch things. I love the Central Park Zoo. I love the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. I love the Met. One of my absolute favorite places used to be the park at the World Financial Center and the Winter Garden. I’m really hoping that they’re able to build something with that much elegance and light and dignity. But mostly I sit on my couch and play Weboggle to procrastinate.
What have you added to your to-do list lately? What’s next for Anita Liberty?
Here’s the thing. It take a while to write a book. And then it takes a while for that book to get published. So, since handing in the manuscript, I’ve actually checked off a couple more things on my To-Do List. And added a couple that have yet to be accomplished.
Get pregnant √
Have baby √
Write inevitable book about motherhood
Become a global phenomenon
Photo of Anita Liberty by Ellen Dubin. Tickets for the show are at Smarttix.