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    One of the biggest (and best) parts of Louisville's most famous music festival is the art that's spread across the whole of Waterfront Park. Artists paint murals - and sometimes whole boats - throughout Forecastle weekend. But the spirit of the riverside festival isn't only brushed across the lawn: it's performed. Performance artists weave their way through crowds of people as lifeguards, mermaids and, this year, as seahorses.

    We made our way into the boneyard behind Ocean Stage to meet with George Peele, Forecastle's leading man in performance art and the face of one of this year's stilted seahorses, as well as Gonzo Bar's Hunter S. Thompson. Backstage, we found performance art HQ: a small canopy tent, sides attached, with lounge chairs and mirrors inside.


    Peele: Kind of the least you expect as a performer is to have a dressing room, so it’s nice that we have one. However open.

    Peele: Yeah, but we’re not really modest, so that’s not a huge deal. What’s funny, Nate my stilt partner, couldn’t find his pants yesterday, and so he went out there in his underwear and then our boss came by and inevitably looked down and started busting out laughing. Darla, she’s one of the co-owners of Fre3Fall Collective, who is responsible for all of the visual design at Forecastle. So they do some of the signage, and they do the lifeguard stand, and they do the Gonzo Bar and the installations out there on the field, and they hired us to do the performance art.

    .com: What is your title?

    Peele: [Performance Artist Manager for Forecastle's Visual Design Department]. And that’s outside of the musical aspects, obviously. It’s just the visual or physical performance art outside of the music.

    .com: So, it’s the seahorses and…

    Peele: And Hunter S. Thompson at the Gonzo Bar and kind of co-managing the lifeguards at the lifeguard stand this year. Last year we had the stilt fishes and we had two circus bikes - sailors on circus bikes.

    .com: How much of it do you get to plan?

    Peele: Well, starting in about April, I think, we start talking about what we’re going to do, and they start to think about what their budget’s going to be, and they have a meeting around the Kentucky Derby and kind of finalize the budget and stuff. I think it took a little bit longer this year than it does sometimes. We started the seahorses this year - I kind of had the idea and started researching. I think we got underway in mid- to late- June.

    .com: It all comes together pretty quickly?

    Peele: Yeah, this year it did. Last year we started a little bit earlier because I had to organize a little bit bigger team to come from Colorado. But it just depends. A couple of months, off and on. I was definitely researching different possibilities - mermaids and octopus puppets - before that.

    .com: What is the interaction like with festival people?

    Peele: For the most part, people love the seahorses and just want to take pictures over and over. You know, to the point where when we finally have to go to the bathroom or take a rest, they don’t want to stop. Anytime you have a mask that’s not human-like - or any kind of mask, really - there’s inevitably going to be people who will be scared or put off by it, or confused about the gender of the performers, or whatever. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It’s always fun.

    I think they look really beautiful. Like I said, it was a little bit last-minute for my preferences, as far as getting the costumes designed and stuff, but I think - Nate, my stilt partner, he ended up doing some last minute adjustments when he got here - they ended up looking really well.

    .com: How long does it take to get ready to go out?

    Peele: I’d say 15 [minutes], plus or minus. Maybe 20 minutes.

    .com: How long does it take to learn to walk on stilts?

    Peele: It’s funny, people ask me that question all the time. But technically I was working the first night I was on stilts. That doesn’t mean I was very good. And I started on drywall stilts, which I consider the training wheels of the stilt family. Two years later, we graduated and Nate initiated us into getting these. They’re called Poweriser, that’s the brand, but people call them jumping stilts or velocity stilts or kangaroo stilts. They were originally developed to set a land speed record, so I’ve heard. They’re about a foot off the ground, but they have these huge fiberglass springs in them. A lot of people compare them to the South African runner, I’m going to forget his name. Oscar…something.

    .com: Oh, yeah. Starts with a “P.”

    Peele: Yeah.

    .com: Yeah. Bladerunner. [Ed: It’s Oscar Pistorius.]

    Peele: They are similar in that they do have fiberglass springs, but obviously they’re different in that we have legs, and he didn’t. That’s what we use for the seahorses. We use peg stilts for other purposes, it just depends on the character.

    .com: How much of the day are you guys going out?

    Peele: Nate’s basically a dedicated seahorse performer, and I’m doing double duty. Basically, we do the seahorses mid-afternoon to late afternoon. We get out of those, and I go do Hunter at the Gonzo Bar. We get back, and we usually do dinner first and then do the seahorses again. And then do Hunter again. So twice a day, off and on all day.

    .com: How’s it been to do Hunter?

    Peele: Oh, it’s been great. People have been loving it and taking pictures with me and quizzing me and just getting me to do different things. Like asking me to write on my typewriter.

    .com: [Saturday] was his birthday.

    Peele: Fre3fall Collective bosses, I don’t think they realized it was his birthday until they heard it from someone. So they were over there and initiated people singing happy birthday to me. It was really fun.

    I’m really honored to have the role that I do in bringing Hunter to life for this festival in his hometown. But I also, being from Colorado, he lived there for a long time. It’s a cool connection I have now. I’ve been impersonating him - we started doing it for a photo shoot 10 years ago and have kind of been doing it off and on ever since. This is the best gig I’ve ever had [as him].

    She called me this year when they wanted to get the typewriter, and Ramie [of Fre3Fall Collective] called me and asked, “What kind of typewriter did Hunter use?”

    .com: So, do you think you’re a Hunter expert now?

    Peele: There’s probably bigger experts on his work in the world, but it’s doubtful that there’s anyone who has impersonated him as much, maybe. Unless it’s like, Johnny Depp, you know what I mean? Not many people have done it as much as me.

    .com: Do you get to do it in Colorado at all?

    Peele: Mostly for fun. I did it at EDC in Vegas, Electric Daisy Carnival. I’ve done it there at least once or twice but usually it’s backstage. They’re not paying me to do it there, I just do it because it’s in Vegas and it was a prominent scene for him and his life and his storytelling.

    Outside of this, the only other paid gig I’ve had doing it was for a singing telegram once, which I do in Denver when I’m at home. I can’t even remember the song that I did off the top of my head. I think it was a Dirty 30, like a 30th birthday party. I think I sang a parody of “Like A Virgin.” I think it was just around the time that I was starting to do Hunter, or some friends had noticed.

    .com: So, what’s your favorite part of the festival this year?

    Peele: The seahorses, great new costumes. They’re definitely not cool. They’re very hot. But I will do anything to entertain people, and I have proven that many times over. I’ve proven it this weekend. Meeting ZZ Ward briefly backstage was really fun. I’ve been listening to her for a few years, and I dig her stuff. I met her in the seahorse costume and then saw her come into catering. I was in Hunter [costume] in catering, and I went up to her, and I was like, “You may not recognize me, but I was just the seahorse that you met backstage” So, that was fun.

    I missed, apparently, a moment last night when Conor Oberst guested with My Morning Jacket, and he’s one of my favorites. I didn’t even know it happened until I saw it on social media afterward.

    .com: Did you see his band play yesterday?

    Peele: His side project played here and I didn’t know it? Oh man, I didn’t know. I am so bad. And that’s why he guested with My Morning Jacket - because he was already here. That makes sense. I didn’t even see him on the lineup. Which happens! When you’re working an event, it’s hard to catch much. It’s not that we’re not allowed to catch things, but if we’re not paying attention, we’re going to miss things for sure. We have some freedom to decide our schedules, but we’re also fairly on schedule.

    Another highlight! We’ve been working together for a long time, but working with Nate is definitely nice. We’ve been working together for 10 or 11 years at least, and we’ve been friends for longer than that. The costumes were like...they were close, but they needed some upgrades when we got here. So he did some upgrades and alterations that were just taking them to the next level. He’s more of a designer and more of a visionary when it comes to costumes and stuff.

    .com: Do you have any ideas for next year?

    Peele: Yes. I want to get more props for Hunter for next year. I want to get like, an American flag and an old school tape recorder.

    .com: You should get an old convertible out there.

    Peele: Oh, man. Last year, I got to drive a golf cart for like 15, 20 minutes before they took it away from me. It was so fun driving the golf cart as hunter. They didn’t want me driving on the grass.


    Photos provided by George Peele
    Cover photo by Michelle Eigenheer

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    About Michelle Eigenheer

    A Louisville transplant beginning to appreciate all the city's small things.

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