Petaluma’s Spy Emerson want to play games with you

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What: Happy Forever Game Night

When: Monday nights, 7–9 p.m.

Where: The Big Easy, 128 American Alley, Petaluma

Cost: Free

On a cold evening last month, performance artist Spy Emerson sat on her outdoor “stage” in American Alley, in downtown Petaluma, near Putnam Plaza. She was in costume and surrounded by handmade props, including Larry the Limp, a life-sized dummy. It was almost time for her current project, Happy Forever Game Night, to begin.

There was not a soul in sight.

Despite the darkness and the November chill, at 7 p.m., Emerson started the show with a bugle blast, followed by a recitation of an introductory poem. Suddenly a young woman named Jennifer approached and volunteered to be the first contestant.

Emerson believes in the old adage that “the show must go on,” even if your performance space suddenly disappears.

For the previous month, she had been performing Monday nights at the Big Easy, a live music venue on the alley. She was encouraged by the gradual growth of her audience and felt her goal was being achieved — to entertain the public while raising awareness of important social problems.

But the popular music spot was abruptly closed by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. The owners of the Big Easy have issued a statement saying the closure is a simple misunderstand that ought to be quickly remedied. But in the meantime, Emerson faced a dilemma: to call it quits or find another space.

She asked the Big Easy and the adjoining business, Aces Over Eights Tattoo, if she could use a small area in front of the two businesses for her show.

They agreed.

Emerson’s show consists of a variety of games she has created in which both adults and children can win what she calls “Terrible Prizes.” And yes, she capitalizes that. For Jennifer, the young woman braving the chill evening, Emerson suggested they play “Makin’ Bacon,” a game that promotes vegetarianism.

In the game — which Emerson invented — a porcelain pig is wrapped in large sheets of cloth painted as raw bacon. The contestants are asked true-or-false questions, winning a strip of “bacon” for each correct answer.

Other games include “Bus Stop & Scabs,” a role-playing game about public transportation that is similar to Dungeons and Dragons. A giant dice used in the game is typical of her talent with props.

“I make all my own props because they are so important,” she said.

Funny Money explores how far people will go for money, while “Smell This” is a game in which the contestant tries to identify mystery smells, some pleasant, some not.

“Spin the Bottle of Consent” is about sexual behavior, communication and the importance of consent. Emerson is an advocate for sex education, as evidenced by her controversial 2014 project, the Hook-Up Truck. With the advent of apps like Tinder and Grindr that facilitate sex between strangers, she felt consenting adults would benefit from a safe and hygienic place to meet, so she converted an old mail truck into a mobile, bedroom-for-rent.

But back to “Makin’ Bacon.”

The first question for Jennifer was, “Fowls are de-beaked to avoid cannibalism: true or false?”

The woman incorrectly answered false, but Emerson allowed her to peel off a piece of bacon anyway. Same with the second and third questions, “Pigs are healthy when they are slaughtered for consumption,” and “The flatulence of vegetarians smells better than that of carnivores.”


What: Happy Forever Game Night

When: Monday nights, 7–9 p.m.

Where: The Big Easy, 128 American Alley, Petaluma

Cost: Free

Emerson informed the woman that 85 percent of slaughtered pigs have pneumonia or other chronic illnesses, but she offered no support for the third assertion. Despite three wrong answers, the contestant won a Terrible Prize, a small vacuum cleaner for pets, still in its original box thirty years after being made.

“I use the non-threatening platform of clowning to look at vital social issues,” Emerson said. “My show is about giving to the community. I don’t put any pressure on audience members and contestants. I take the reins and bring them through. They just enjoy themselves.”

She adds that children are welcome to Happy Forever Game Night, too.

“These are difficult subjects,” Emerson said. “Why not have games that introduce them to children and plant seeds for understanding?”

Emerson refuses to be stopped by her current circumstances.

“I was gradually building an audience in October,” she said. “Weather was not an issue, of course, because the audience was in a comfortable space. The game show was successful. People were enjoying it. I’ve been out on the street since the closure, but if I quit, I’ll lose my momentum.”

Emerson’s determination is clearly woven right into her views about her art and the way she uses it to approach the problems of life.

“Performance art should be inspired and joyful, I believe,” she said. “I’ve made it a point to be joyful. I won’t let the news scare me into staying in my house.”

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