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Kala Mandrake's Window to the Underground
Interview with the provocative photographer and filmmaker
Käla Mandrake is an unstoppable force of artistic passion.
Maybe this comes from her grandfather, the legendary Mandrake the Magician, and a family filled with Vaudeville performers. Maybe it's simply a product of growing up in New York City. Whatever it is, Käla got the bug at a young age, and it seems she never looked back.
At 13, she got her first Ricoh 35mm camera, and started on her path of documenting life as she saw it. She soon found herself exploring the East Village, befriending and photographing punks, runaway teenagers, abandoned buildings, and everything else that caught her eye.
Since then, she's continued to plow her way through New York's Underground art scene, documenting what she sees via photography and video. She has also worked as a producer for BBC America and HBO, among others, and released two books: Fiction Story, a tale of love, loss, magic, murder, and a dream come true, and Underground, an intimate look into the lives of those who have chosen to carve their own unique paths in life.
Mandrake first appeared in our pages in 2002, with a photo gallery posted on Get Underground. We recently caught up with her again, to talk about her work on Melody Sweet's Slice of Heaven video (which will be showing at at the Museum of Sex on March 31st), and life as an artist in the Big Apple:
How did you get into filmmaking?
Käla Mandrake: I would say it's my family's influence that brought me into filmmaking. I grew up seeing both of my parents completely devoted to their craft. My father is a musician. My mother has always documented our lives through photography and video. Photography became my first love. I think filmmaking was a natural progression from photography. Music is an integral part of film. I went back to school for Film and Media and minored in Music and started working in TV.
What is "burlesque," and how did you get involved in that scene?
KM: Like the real Vaudeville days of burlesque, it is still a very private world. One that most people still don't have access to, or even understand all that much. People are still confused as to what exactly burlesque is. Most people think it's strippers. So it is very much a world, that after over a century, still remains an enigma. That was what made it most exciting to me.
The burlesque world of NYC is nothing what you think it will be and everything you want it to be. It is wonderfully talented and exotic women that are full of surprises.
In many ways, I think that burlesque is the same in style and attitude as it was 20 years ago, and that's what is so cool about it. It is an old art form that still has great appeal to this day. The only thing I would say, like with the release of the Hollywood movie Burlesque as an example, is that today's burlesque has been more exposed to mainstream society.
I still see it as very much underground because burlesque doesn't have the boundaries and limitations necessary for mainstream's comfort. Mainstream mentality works because it can rest on stereotypes and put things into a box with a label on it. It's hard to do that with burlesque because it consists of sexual freedom, wild costumes, and womens' bodies that are all different shapes and sizes yet all sensual and seductive. There are different sexual preferences, appetites, there are boy-burlesque dancers, there just really is no limit to what this form of art can bring you.
Burlesque really came very naturally into my life. I have always hung out with people and subcultures that push against the grain of mainstream thought, that have the heart and courage to challenge the status quo. And burlesque challenges the mainstream notion of sexuality, performance and beauty. I was first introduced to the modern world of burlesque by one of my favorite people on earth, burlesque extraordinaire, Melody Sweets.
How did you meet Melody Sweets?
KM: About 10 years ago, we both moved into a mutual friend's apartment in Brooklyn and that's how we met and became friends. She is one of the biggest supporters of women I know. She is an inspiration just by being herself and moving along her own unique creative path. She loves to see the women around her bring out the best in their creative selves. Anything she ever wants to do, I am always excited to collaborate with her. When she first asked me to document the making of her music video, I didn't hesitate to say yes. She is the first of her kind in the burlesque world. Not only does she invent original skits and design and physically make her own costumes, she also writes, records and sings her own songs while performing her burlesque act. Last summer she set out to make a burlesque music video of one of her songs and I was excited to be a part of it. Apparently everyone was excited about it because women from all over the NYC burlesque scene decided to be in her music video. It was a burlesque history in the making!
You've been involved in underground filmmaking as well as higher-profile stuff, for the likes of Cinemax and HBO, right? What sets them apart from each other?
KM: What was amazing about working for HBO and Cinemax was that I was essentially working with a bunch of innovative and cutting edge artists and was given the freedom to come up with my own ideas for promos and just do it. So ironically, that high profile stuff fit very nicely with the underground stuff because there was a lot of room to be different. But what ultimately sets the two worlds apart for me is that one is making art within the boundaries and acceptability of the network, and the underground stuff is the freedom of making uninhibited art within the boundaries and acceptability of myself.
My production company is about that, actually. It is about creating edgy, uninhibited photography and video promotional packages for musicians, performers and artists of all kinds. "Artists" are anyone creating something with an original idea, so it definitely includes business entrepreneurs of all kinds. It's called Käla Mandrake Underground Media Productions. Besides making promo packages, production includes documentaries, shorts, and full-feature films. It is unbelievable the amazing projects coming forward. From a full-feature indie movie production to the launch of an innovative music website, to music videos...it's just really exciting. I love talking to people and working together to create something that brings out a new perspective. That is what it's all about.
You recently published your second book, Underground, right? What does that entail, and how is it doing?
KM: Yes! After over a decade of shooting black and white film, printing in the darkroom, having photo exhibitions around the city, and working on making it into a book, it has finally happened. I am so happy with the culmination of this project. The people featured in my book, whether it is in their appearance, mindset, or lifestyle, are all truly amazing and courageous New Yorkers because they bring out a new perspective by creating their own unique paradigm for life. Underground is selling pretty steadily so far and it is even on the shelves of St. Mark's Bookshop in Manhattan. One of my favorites.
My grandfather is a huge inspiration for this book. He was the stage magician Mandrake the Magician, and through the decades of changes in the performance world, he always had the attitude that nothing should hold you back from doing what you want to do. Live your life to the fullest. Persevere. He did it and he lived such a magical life and that's what I strive for.
Did your grandfather teach you any crazy magic tricks?
KM: Ha. Well, no. I did have a fantasy of becoming the next Mandrake the Magician, the female version. I remember asking him if he would teach me some tricks. Definitely I thought he'd reveal some of the family secrets. He did everything from ventriloquism, to public street stunts, to mind reading, to standard stage performances. But being a true magician and revealing a slight of hand especially to a child was out of the question. Every time I thought he was seriously going to show me something, he'd fool me instead and make me laugh.
You live in NYC, right? In a city of almost 19 million people, how can an aspiring actor/filmmaker/artist set themselves apart from the rest, and really make a life out of being an artist?
KM: I do. I was raised here in the City. I used to see an art therapist named Elizabeth Retan every week at her apartment on the Upper West Side and she told me that everything I drew was a self-portrait no matter what it was a picture of. That stayed with me through the years and I like to say that actually anything a person creates is a self-portrait. And there's only one you, so that thing you create will be a unique expression, reflection, self-portrait of you. So, the best way for an artist to set themselves apart and make a life out of art is to remember that. If you believe in that, you'll find a way.
Check out the Teaser for "Slice of Heaven"
Check out the Teaser for the "Behind the Scenes"