“Broke Yolk itself, the words together I just really like…but also an egg is potentiality, it’s potential life, it’s whatever you make it”
Sometimes, a city is lucky enough to have the gift of a particularly beautiful and inspirational mind inhabiting it. Charleston is lucky enough to have Sage Graham, Brandon Payne, and their performance art troupe, Broke Yolk. Broke Yolk has evolved from a humble, experimental performance into a multi disciplinary celebration of the arts. These annual events have become much anticipated for both the public and participating artists, and they seem to be gaining exponential traction with each year.
The following is just a glimpse into the incredible driving force behind such an incredible idea.
Who are you, you beautiful human being?
I’m Sage Graham and I have a degree in fine arts from College of Charleston with a focus on sculpture. My day job right now is an artisan at Brackish Bowties. I also do some design and development for some of our prototypes and fall lines.
How did you make the transition from 2D and 3D art to performance?
It wasn’t a hard transition at all if there was one, I think it was just a continuation. I’ve always kind of been into performance, even in high school. I think maybe I have some drama roots, you know, like a children’s drama class here and there or whatnot. But I’ve always liked pretending. I’ve always liked creating things that I can wear and move around in and develop characters. I would just do improv with my friends; I think it was a natural progression because a lot of my props and pieces are very sculptural.
I think that if I were to focus on one thing I would get really bored. That’s why I’m drawn more to performance art right now. There’s so much involved: stage design, prop design, a costume that’s in many senses a wearable puppet, creature design, capturing symbolism through visual means, all of that. It’s hard to get bored.
When did you start performing?
I’d say I was interested in performance pretty early, and think what got me into performance was the idea of burlesque when I was 17 and 18. I was really awestruck by the idea of burlesque and ended up performing my first official burlesque show in Charleston my freshman year of college. My performance was based on traditional format which I like to do except tweak everything so it kind of throws the audience off guard. I think I’ve always liked playing with formats, the idea of normality and the role of femininity and beauty and the grotesque.
That first official performance was me as a demon, or demoness, with Screaming Jay Hawkins playing. I had wings hiding my big reveal which was to expose these long, fake green breasts then I squirted water out of them on the audience.
Which came first: The troupe or the spectacular?
So the troupe definitely came before the Broken Yolk Spectacular event, but it was always small, short, more fun pieces. They didn’t really have a lot of depth when it came to political or social ideas. It was more like entertainment and a fun and experience. Before the actual Broke Yolk events, Brandon and I did do some things for house shows, like fun stuff to set a creative atmosphere to get people thinking or shake people up. It wasn’t until I got the [warehouse studio] space that we started doing broad and bold things that had more audience participation, props, and longer pieces. Now they’re made for larger audiences instead of just maybe five people in someone’s home with the band in the other room or something like that. That’s one reason why I started broad events with art, music and performance altogether in one space with multiple artists.
We didn’t officially take the moniker Broke Yolk until like 2014, and the Broke Yolk event event was 2015, but Brandon and I were doing Broke Yolk skits and improv and stuff like that years before.
What does “BrokeYolk” mean?
Broke Yolk itself, the words together I just really like. Broke. Yolk. It’s almost hard to say because of the LKs but imagery wise there’s just something really appealing about this visceral broken animal egg and mixture of fats and membranes and what not. But also an egg is potentiality, it’s potential life, it’s whatever you make it. And it’s also extremely fragile but also so durable and strong and I think you can say that about anything in life. You have social situations, social norms, emotions and self-perceptions are just like this fine line, this fine membrane or shell that’s easily crushed but also so incredibly and surprisingly strong. So that’s the idea, we’re smashing it and breaking it open.
BrokeYolk serves a really meaningful role to to everyone involved. What do you think it is it about the atmosphere that you’ve curated that makes it feel that way?
I welcome everyone. I really wanted to demolish boundaries with Broke Yolk. I want it to have a lot of local artists, a lot of people who aren’t necessarily known, and even though I think I do focus on younger artist there’s no age limit necessarily. I also want to just create more of a nurturing environment for artists and performers. I feel like more often than not there is that feeling and passion in just like making something and showing it.
I just felt like there wasn’t that atmosphere for nurturing, there wasn’t an open arm kind of feeling in the area. And there are a few places that harbor that but they’re usually really temporary and they’re usually small. When it comes to performance it’s really hard to come to a place and tell them about what you do because oftentimes performers do spontaneous things around one prop, or try to have multiple mediums together. It’s hard to do a presentation or a proposal or write a grant to just do one showing of a performance.
So once I got a hold of warehouse I didn’t originally start with the idea to do events but it just like organically came about.
I want people to know about it but I want Broke Yolk to continue to be an enjoyable experience. There’s something more inviting and open to a space where you can open your arms and look around instead of like shoulder to shoulder. The more people that come the more chance there is for people who just want to come to a weird party. I’m all down for that but sometimes that can change the atmosphere, too. When people hear: “It’s only 10 bucks but there’s unlimited beer and there’s music,” and they come and they don’t realize that there’s art, they don’t realize that there’s performance. I want people to come that don’t know that there is art so they can see it but sometimes they don’t want to see it, so that happens. (Brandon: Those are usually the people that are most effected though too, which is another side of the coin.)
Money sucks. No one seems to ever have it and this seems to always be an obstacle when it comes to planning events. What is your solution/approach to this?
Everything that happens is out-of-pocket for me usually. Other people help a lot but overall, like the first one was, let’s see, we had to get food, drink, the lighting. I mean everything adds up overall. And I want to make sure that all the performers get paid so the bands get a decent amount of money.
And the same thing with the second one. Even though we charged $10 and a lot more people came, it did not break even. I can’t lie and say it’s not a small disappointment, but it’s also not the point. I’m not like lamenting over the fact that I lost hundreds of dollars because in the end I feel like it’s worth it. It goes along with my idea of what I want, I want it to be open, so be it if I don’t make every single dollar back overall.
Why is your event so affordable?
I think when it comes to events, Brandon and I tend to get kind of overly sociopolitical with it like, ‘We don’t want to go over $20 because it’s classist!’ We don’t want to have people not be able to pay for a friend and then not get food later that week because the reality is a lot of people that do art in the area who don’t put their stuff in galleries kind of live that reality.
There’s definitely a monetary barrier I think when it comes to artists trying to show and be seen in general. Even if there’s no sales tag on their artwork it’s still such a struggle, especially for performance artists because *sigh* I don’t think there is like a strong respect for it, still, even though it’s basically a multidisciplinary, sculptural, theatrical art form. It’s still really hard to get accepted, I think in a lot of ways, especially in the area. Maybe it’s just the area, I’m not sure if the Bible Belt south is really open to that right now.
Brandon Payne; Partner in crime
Who is this Brandon you keep mentioning?
My name is Brandon Payne. Mainly I do think of myself as an artist and it has been a part of my personality for a long time, and Sage has been a part of my personality for a long time, too.
I usually play more of a support role when it comes to setting events, setting up a place for people to show their work, and helping the artist in anyway I can. I actually am quite active in the actual performances themselves, usually because it is pretty hard to portray a narrative with just one person. I guess mainly my role in Broke Yolk is a support role but I do everything I can and sometimes that does include performing.
How did you guys meet?
Sage: We went to high school together. I’d say we met actually at an art summer camp before tenth grade, and then we ended up going to the same magnet high school and we were really good friends. And we were doing improv and crazy shit all the time when we were younger. We would just sit together in a room and start improving as different characters for hours, becoming these strange characters and talking to each other like that. Then we each went our separate ways after we graduated, Brandon: “As one does”, but still kept in touch.
When he moved back to Charleston three years ago everything was great, we just saw each other like nothing had ever happened. Brandon: “There was never a time that we were separate, it seemed”. I think we’ve always had a performance bug in us and as much as I love theater, I think just pushing past that, the idea of traditional theater is where we ended up that’s how we started making props and thinking of visual narratives and metaphors and trying to piece them together.
All of your costumes are wildly detailed, interactive, and dynamic. Explain the background behind one of your characters.
This was made specifically for our first Broke Yolk performance which was a narrative about control and manipulation, the pressures and obligations of society, and the kind of roles that they present and push onto you. I love talking about those ideas.
This particular character is the puppet master and the idea with them is to have kind of a recognizable, humanistic form but it to be slightly off. The neck is really long and when the person is in the costume the shoulders are above their head. When they move the shoulders move really stiffly and it almost makes them insect-like because it puts them in sections: a head, an abdomen, and a thorax. I like trying to make this something beyond human, and that went hand-in-hand with the idea of this controlling character that sat at the top of the loft above the performance area and then came down slowly.
I like to have a finished piece that looks really detailed and intricate and interesting, but all the material that it is made out of is scavenged or reclaimed. All of the inside is just really tightly balled up grocery bags fused together with hot glue and a chicken wire base. The fabric is scavenged clothing from streets and dumpsters, and most of the body is carpet foam that almost everyone throws away in huge piles by the side of the road. Some of the pieces hanging off are chicken bones and animal bones that I scavenge and clean. Nothing for this was bought, except the adhesives and some of the wire and straps.
That’s one reason why sometimes the performance can take so long to materialize; it takes months of savaging and collecting. This process can get really tedious but it can also really shape the costumes themselves. Often times I have an “Aha!” moment when I find a pile of new supplies. It like helps me make that next step to just finish the pieces but sometimes when you’re waiting for that moment it can get frustrating.
Sage: As you can see, it’s a dedication. Alright so we got the straps on. It’s definitely a discipline and a labor of love.
Brandon: This is my true form.
Sage: With this piece we wanted to exaggerate the proportions and the height, so when he first came out he was super small and squat and he shuffle walked so you wouldn’t quite know how tall he was.
Sometimes there are subtleties that are secondary to the main theme of a performance that could be missed. Explain the narrative of your last BrokeYolk performance for those of us in the audience who were caught up in the moment.
I was sort of going for pinchers and horns but at the same time bringing in the baby doll aesthetic because of the creatures that were wearing these were really reminiscent of a lot of symbols When the audience all them a lot of things told them no this was a court jester this is a puppet this is a doll and there are other things I told them all this is an insect this is an animal so I really wanted to.
There were two of these characters with wigs that resembled pinchers and horns, but at the same time bringing in the baby doll aesthetic. They were really reminiscent of a lot of symbols which told the audience this was a court jester, this is a puppet, this is a doll or this is an insect, this is an animal.
The two characters matched and supposed to be copies of each other. They kind of materialized together after the second act of the show after one brought an audience member onto stage. It was supposed to be sort of hinting at a transformation of the audience member into something exactly like the original character. It just kept building up into the Final Act in which the characters kept bringing audience members into a tunnel on stage and changing them. We gave them a mask that was blank and egg shaped and we gave them an egg. We put a shroud on them and had them crawl back through the tunnel and onto stage in front of the audience.
No one told them what to do. In the back it was really dark and if they were told anything they were told to accept their face and become themselves. It was like I was pulling them into this preexisting machine, this conglomeration, when the audience is all watching intently and they’re slowly being taken. They had to play the role even if they didn’t know what that role was.
Video of the 2016 Broke Yolk performance by Chap Fowler of Fig Jam Studios