Monday 02/06/2023 by phishnet


[The following post is an interview with Christina “Chryss” Allaback ( Tela2019) about her article, “Phish Fan Subculture: The Possibilities of Phans' Performance.” The interview is part of an AMA series celebrating the publication of the “Phish and Philosophy” special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal, edited by Stephanie Jenkins and Charlie Dirksen. Kristine will also be answering your questions in the comments throughout the week. The next post will feature Denise Goldman, so submit your questions now.]

Tell us about yourself. Who are you? When was your first show? Why do you come back?

My name is Christina “Chryss” Allaback, and I’m an Assistant Professor of Theatre at University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and a theatrical director. My first show was 8-1-98 at Alpine Valley. This year is the 25th Anniversary of my first show and I hope to be celebrating on the floor at MSG. I come back to Phish because they are top rate musicians and artists. They take ambitious artistic risks that really pay off. Having done improvisational theatre and comedy in the past, I appreciate the fact that they are making beautiful art at the moment, and then that moment is gone. Of course, we can listen to tapes after the show, but the ephemeral nature of the live improvisational performance is a treasure to experience.

Why did you decide to write this essay? What do you want your readers to take away from it?

This essay is actually part of the larger dissertation that I wrote for my doctoral degree. I started writing about Phish fans as an academic project because there was something being performed at shows that was really special, and it was not just what was happening on stage. There was a feeling, an emotion, that I felt at Phish shows that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. And I started reading all this performance theory and it started making sense.

It is my hope that when people read my articles, they get a deeper understanding of why we, as humans, perform in everyday life and on stage. There is a liberation in performance, a freedom, a connection. As a young artist, I wanted to change the world with my art. As I grew up, I realized what a naïve goal that was. But we can change people with our art and that is as good as changing the world. I was told by people in my life, as a non-actor, that I was probably good at lying because I was an actor. But art is not about lying, it is about expressing a truth within a world. I feel Phish does this onstage, and we do this in the audience.

© 2021 Christina Allaback (used with permission)
© 2021 Christina Allaback (used with permission)

Your essay is about the performance of Phish fan identity. How do you perform your fan identity and why is that method important to you?

When I was young, it was through patchwork and phish stickers on my car and things I own. I’ve been sewing since I was a child, and when I found Phish subculture, it was like sewing was suddenly cool. So sewing and selling my clothing at shows was a big part of expressing my Phish identity.

Now I am older and I like to say I passively aggressively perform my subcultural affiliation through material culture. So, I like to put pins or buttons on my purse, backpack, and jacket. I still have Phish stickers covering my belongings. I keep my headphones in a little donut keychain. My wallet has a “rescue squad” image on it. I use a donut coffee cup and lanyard at work. They don’t scream Phish to the everyday person, but they do to another Phish fan. And I just moved here, so I’ve been wearing lots of donuts as a way to express my fandom when I’m out in the hopes to meet people. My chocolate lab, Piper, also has a donut collar and I’ve met a small handful of fans in my new neighborhood taking her for walks.

If Phish fan identity is a performance, are some performances better or worse, like with acting? Is a bad performance inauthentic? Can you give an example?

I feel like the only bad performance would be say, if someone doesn’t like Phish and pretends to in order for some gain? I wrote a paper for the Colloquium at the Gorge about the identity of “Wook” and what that means. Surprisingly, it means many different things to different fans. And the definition has changed. But for some Phish fans, it means someone who doesn’t go to shows for the music, but rather to sell drugs and/or party. I think that would be a bad performance.

What is the most surprising change you've seen in this phanbase from Phish's early days until present?

In many ways it is still the same scene. It generates the same feelings in me and it has been fun to talk to younger people who are new about the same feelings they experience.

I think the most surprising change is that the tours seem to be more “vacation centric” as I have gotten older. I don’t really follow Phish anymore but take a vacation to Vegas or San Francisco or New York City. If I had the money, I’d be going to Mexico for sure. And I feel it is the same for my friends who are my age. People have jobs and kids. We’re not all college kids who have the summers off to drive around the country. And camping? Haha. I’ll stay in a hotel, get a good night’s sleep, and take a hot shower in the morning, please. I guess it makes sense and now that I am articulating it, it is not that big of a surprise. But it is a big change from the “sleeping in your car and living off grilled cheese” days. Also, no way I can drive through the night anymore. I would also like to add that I just moved to PA from Oregon, so not a lot of Phish in the Pacific Northwest, which I am sure affects the way I interpret the scene. I usually have to drive 12 hours to see a show or fly. Perhaps I will be following Phish again someday soon.

How can the utopian performative be channeled for resistance beyond Phish shows? Do you think groups like PHRE and Groovesafe are examples of this idea?

I would say that PHRE and Groovesafe are absolutely a result of the Utopian Performative. And you know, if you go to a show and are kinder as a result, I think that is the simplest thing you can do. But yes, how do you want your community and world to get better? Go out and do something about it. Organize. Act. Volunteer. I think PHRE and Groovesafe are excellent examples of how members of our community saw a something that needed improvement and used the energy and love they have for Phish and our scene and our world to make a change.

A combined question, observation, and comment: Do you think that the utopian performative, communitas, and “alternative frames for communication, personal expression, community, and hope” could be galvanized into a political agenda capable of achieving radical social change? Likewise, do think the average Phish head would consider these enactments and values as an agenda capable of achieving radical social change? For me personally, I do think these *could* be channeled into a political orientation. But I don’t think the general Phish community thinks of it in this kind of way. This saddens me as someone who unapologetically wants to change the world. But perhaps I am wrong here, and I would love to hear your thoughts on all this.

You know, if you look at my answer to the “Why did you write this essay” … I wanted my art to change the world, now I just hope to touch someone in some way, to teach someone in some way, to help someone gain confidence, help someone gain critical-thinking skills. I guess this is how I try to change the world. By educating those who are in it.

I would love for the Utopian Performative to achieve radical social change. And back when we were young and crazy, living in tents, I really believed we were getting close to that. I kept thinking, something is here. There is something is in this scene that can change the world. “Performance is a rehearsal for a revolution”, to quote Brazilian theatre artist Agusto Boal. Maybe the general Phish community doesn’t think of it that way, but they are experiencing something. They feel Communitas, I hope, at least, with their other fans. That maybe won’t achieve radical change, but perhaps they are kinder for it. Perhaps they see the world in a different way because of it. Perhaps they change their point of view because if it. And maybe it is this that will change the world.

Does the phish subculture border on a dogma that could seem threatening to the muggles but also to those in the scene desperate to find connection?

While I don’t think that Phish subculture has something that borders dogma, at least as how I define that word, but I do feel what happens at shows can be threatening to the “muggles.” “Mainstream Culture” (Problematic term, I know) has always been threatened by subcultures. The Punks, the hippies, etc.. always seemed to pose a threat to their “parent cultures:” through alternative dress, an alternative lifestyle, an alternative way of thinking. Hegemony wants to stay in power and wants to be able to control a population, theoretically. And to weaken this threat, society loves to “recuperate” (a term coined by the Situationists) or “incorporate” (Dick Hebdige’s term) subculture style. For example, Punk style was appropriated into walkway fashion. A good deal of punk music became “mainstream.” Punks were often shown in newspapers and magazines posing with the parents, showing them as “normal.” In the early 2000s, I used to see patchwork clothing in JCrew catalogs. I think that is the same thing.

Does it pose a threat to people in the scene trying to find connection? I don’t know. I feel like I was welcomed into the scene, but that was 25 years ago. I’ve been to many shows alone and always managed to find people with whom to connect. Maybe if your philosophy or theology radically differs from what the majority of Phish fans feel, perhaps you do. Haha, now I am rethinking my definition of "dogma." Or maybe that is the point of your question: people who do not share the feelings of most of the people in the scene. I have a Phish friend whose political philosophy and theology is the opposite of mine. Maybe I should ask him your question.

How do you think participation in Phish festivals or places where there is a multi-day communal living situation set up (the Gorge or Phish Mexico, for example) differ for the temporary "resistance" to mainstream culture that fans feel versus attending individual shows?

I think there is a difference---although I haven’t camped at a festival in 20 years. And I’ve stayed in an RV in ADA every time I’ve gone to the Gorge in the last decade.

I feel you answered the question yourself: it is a communal living situation. The fact that for a certain amount of time, Phish fans are living together in a designated area, makes it a different kind of performance. Living together, even as a huge multi-day festival, I think really emphasizes the communitas that we feel. There is more opportunity for connection with other phans.

However, is there a disconnect at camping events, at least at the Gorge? There are “classes:” Standard, Premier, Gold camping, Glamping etc… So I visit my friend in Premier camping and he jokes about not wanting to stay with the “plebes.” Premier and Gold camping comes with showers and general camping doesn’t. Is there a sense of superiority in campers who pay more for their camping? Do they have more “subcultural capital?” I don’t know if there is a disconnect or not, I am just throwing that out there. Something that is interesting to take note of. Maybe post what you think in the comments below.

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, comment by askesis
askesis HI Chryss: Thank you for your interesting interview! Do you have any questions for us? For example, I would love to hear from others how they perform their phan identities. I appreciate how you described how yours has changed over time. How is doing Phish scholarship a kind of performance of phan identity within academia? While reading your response to the third question, I was thinking your performance isn't just what you're wearing at work, it's what you're doing.
, comment by Tela2019
Tela2019 Absolutely doing Phish scholarship is performing my phan identity within academia. Unfortunately, when I was first writing about Phish about 20 years ago, it was not really taken seriously. Now, especially since we did the conference, colleagues are very interested. It is similar with my experience doing scholarship on "nerd" theatre and performance. Within Performance Studies, performance can be defined in terms of something "on the surface of the body," but also in terms of the "performative:" a speech act that does something. Performance on stage and in every day life is showing and doing.
, comment by JasonDG
JasonDG First, thanks for a thought provoking article and essay! And based off the two posts, do you think there is a place for (or a possibility for) the "performative utopian" within academia and/or scholarship? Or maybe within Phish scholarship?
, comment by paulj
paulj Hey Chryss! I liked your answers...but some of us choose Gold at the Gorge for the blissful quiet at night. I guess my "class" is OLD; I just can't do sleepless for three consecutive nights!
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