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Feature Fri Aug 29 2014
West drew this eulogy to Brain Frame exclusively for Gaper's Block.
Lillie West has a pleasant British accent. She's wearing a blue dress with white flowers on it. When she sees me walk up to the Hot Wok sushi joint near her school, SAIC downtown, she points at me and does not stop until I'm near enough to hug her. She's on the phone.
"You," I say.
"You," she replies with her pleasant British accent, and hangs up. She's excited about classes, where she's just come from. She considers dropping an intro class but fears she's doing it for the wrong reasons. "Four day weekend, right" She shrugs. We make our way inside.
Inside, she has trouble ordering sushi, then she doesn't after a moment's deliberation and I'm stuck choosing between a three-roll lunch special and a two-roll lunch special. I choose three, all with salmon (smoked, avocado and spicy) and she calls me insane. She orders the two-roll lunch special and almost the same thing.
Viewed through the Brain Frame lens, Lillie West is an icon. She is, at least to me, a face as new as Lyra Hill's (Brain Frame's creator and curator). Brain Frame, of course, was the indelible live comics show of Hill's invention that occurred every other month for the past three years. West was Hill's intern for a chunk of it. However as I grew to know Hill while covering the event's history and the last Brain Frame, I grew to know West concurrently. The last BF occurred in early August, bowing out in Thalia Hall, packed to the gills with the hip and hipless. West was my guide and diplomat.
She sits in front of me now and plays with her soy sauce.
"This is this really gross thing I do when I'm starving..." she says.
You dip your fingers in? I ask.
"No! My chopsticks." She dips them idly in the soy sauce and licks the ends. "My dad always used to say, 'what if you were having dinner with the Queen?'" She only does it once, likely convinced I'd be disgusted with anything more than a demonstration.
We discuss the custom of burping in appreciation and then turn quickly to West's internship with Hill.
"My friend was like - you want to come to this weird performative comics thing? And I was like, no! Eight dollars! No!" She laughs. "So I didn't go."
She gasps at someone walking by our window. "What a boring thing to tell you," she excuses, "but he looks just like Jason Schwartzman." We look after him for a few minutes and I try to guess who it was. From behind they look remarkably similar. I miss him.
"After that first Brain Frame," she continues, "my friend said, 'that was amazing, you're stupid.'" She shrugs.
The next show, she spent the whole day trying to find a fake ID. "I probably spent fifty dollars that day." Finally successful, she was turned away at the door - the show had sold out.
"The next time, I went; and it was sooooo amazing." She really draws this out. "Lyra mentioned her interns - she was like, 'thanks to my interns...' and I thought, that's me, please." She nods. "That's me!
"So I emailed her. I found her on the Internet and emailed her a really embarrassing email, probably: 'That was really amazing! I really liked your red suit! Can I be your intern.' And then she interviewed me," she laughs, "probably to determine that I was not crazy, which have been a lot of interviews I've had, actually."
We're offered more water and I decline. "If it's there, I'll drink it," I say.
"You should drink water!" she says. She tells me that when she was younger she was tested for diabetes because of how often she was emptying her bladder. It turned out her nose was permanently broken; is permanently broken; like a broken Rube Goldberg machine; her septum is out of line. It's not "right," she says. So West breathes through her mouth quite a bit and it dries out.
"Like a broken Rube Goldberg machine," I nod. She inhales deeply as if to demonstrate.
"Lyra did think I was crazy once..." she begins. We're interrupted by the waitress. She takes our order in seconds and disappears. "It's really crazy here," West smiles. "It's not very much fun, but it's delicious." She sings this last word - "deeee-licious!"
"She did tell me once that she thought I was crazy for a second," she continues. "Very early in the internship she was talking about Brooklyn Brain Frame. I was like, 'would it be helpful if I came?' and...well, it was really early." She laughs. "Really early. She asked Tyson..." Tyson is Brain Frame's accompanist and Hill's boyfriend. "She asked him, 'do you think maybe this person is insane?'"
"The article has not been changed, by the way," she says plainly. I apologize. I had written a prior feature about Brain Frame's history that implied Lillie West resided in prison. I'd thought I'd changed it, right away. I said so.
She shook her head, no.
We change the subject to James Franco - "I can't believe he got into RISD and I didn't," she groans. We talk about blacking out, "when your brain can't make new memories," I explain.
"I didn't know that's what it was," she said. "I'd be interested to know what chemical makes that happen." She pauses. "Actually, if someone tried to explain it to me I'd probably say, 'I don't care anymore, please, that's very, very boring.'"
I ask West what she is going to do next, now that her internship and Brain Frame is over. She's focusing on school and a DIY venue called Yards. She pronounces it yahds and "corrects" to yards with a hard Midwestern accent, for my benefit. Her roommate hadn't liked the name but it's stuck, she says. "It's out of his hands."
We stare out the window and think about the opportunity a venue like this presents. We think about Brain Frame and its storied history, its humble beginnings; its move to the Constellation and then to Thalia Hall. It's hugeness. It's intimacy. She pierces her ball of wasabi with her chopstick and I ask if she's going to eat it. No, she says, but-
-something strikes her: "I don't know if I'm, like, wasting the recording..." She motions to my iPhone. "...by telling you a different story. But..." She begins:
"These two girls in my last semester had this insane performance. I had no expectations for them; but they sat next to each other in the center of the room and they each had a plate with wasabi on it in increments getting bigger and bigger, until it was, like, a bowl; and they sat there eating all the wasabi," her eyes are wide. She is remembering it vividly and I can tell it really did impress her. "It was the most intense performance I've ever seen. One of them was weeping and the other one was gagging the entire time..." she trails off, miming hacking, gasping and choking.
"It was so good. I was so into it. There's a chance they may never make anything else I like, ever, but I was so amazed by that." She smiles.
Why do you think people collaborate? I ask. Why wasn't the performance one girl eating wasabi alone?
West considers the possibility of such a performance. She says it's a good question, but I am immediately reminded of a dozen solo performers, at least, whose work is just as daring, just as disciplined and just as focused. But West considers an answer carefully.
"Drawing comics is usually such a solitary experience," she says, "both writing and reading. So there's the desire to share." She nods. "I also think, personally, when I see something I like my impulse is to somehow become a part of it, or own it, even in art museums. My first impulse, which theoretically is not what I want, my first impulse is 'I want that.' So I think people see each others' art and do the same thing:" She points out the window. "'I want that, I want to be a part of that.'
"I think Brain Frame really comes from the sharing aspect of it; creating a community out of something that is so solitary."
I nod. I tell her I think she answered very well. She agrees, a little surprised.
I wonder about that aspect of collaboration in relation to the wasabi-eating performance. I ask West, if they had been working alone, one of the performers might have painted themselves pink and shot Nerf guns at the audience. I pull this out of my ass, trying to think of the furthest thing from eating wasabi, the furthest thing from "art".
"Wow," she says. "Nerf guns. I'm going to file that away into things to use in art."