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Memories of Theresa Duncan

ON THE NIGHT OF JULY 10, 2007 I RECEIVED THE CALL THAT ALL PARENTS DREAD…MY DAUGHTER THERESA DUNCAN, gifted writer, game designer and filmmaker, HAD DIED IN NEW YORK, 600 MILES AND THOUSANDs OF DOUBTS, WHAT-IFS AND FEELINGS OF LOSS, GRIEF AND GUILT AWAY. SHE WAS 40 YEARS OLD.

OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS THE STORY OF A PERSON THAT I DID NOT KNOW OR RECOGNIZE BEGAN TO EMERGE IN THE PRESS AND BLOGS AND THE NARRATIVE OF HER LIFE WAS LARGELY FORGED BY PEOPLE WHO DID NOT KNOW HER OR WHO MADE THEIR NAME WITH A SENSATIONALIST STORY WITH LITTLE REGARD FOR THE TRUTH OR THE CONSEQUENCES TO THERESA'S GRIEVING FAMILY AND FRIENDS, WITH DEVASTATING EFFECT.

FIVE YEARS AFTER HER DEATH I WILL TELL THE STORY OF THERESA AS I KNEW HER, AN INCREDIBLY INTELLIGENT, WITTY, TALENTED, DETERMINED AND COMPLEX PERSON, LARGER THAN LIFE, FLAWED AS WE ALL ARE, WITH UNLIMITED COURAGE AND MOXIE WHO ENRICHED THE LIVES OF MANY WITH HER HUMOUR, INTELLECTUAL INSIGHT AND GENEROUS SPIRIT.

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The Presence of Books

"I wandered away into our town’s library and its world-encompassing books and urbane fashion magazines and this place served as the map room for the long voyage away I was planning. I still have a great swelling of the heart, a feeling of enormous possibility when I am talking about or in the presence of books. Like bottles of wine stored in the collector’s cellar, or perfumes corked up in some kook’s every cupboard (hello!) every spine in the library’s spectrum was a sort of spell, every tale an enticement, each page a doorway into a possible new world, every letter a clue toward the creation of a new self." 

Theresa Duncan, Wit of the Staircase

Image: One of several bookcases in Theresa and Jeremy’s apartment in New York.  When the books arrived in Michigan they took up three bookcase walls and are tucked in cupboards and stored under the bed. Notice her surfboard leaning against the bookcase on the left…a remnant of their time in L.A.

Smarty

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Theresa’s second award winning video game is titled Smarty…Mimi Smartypants was Theresa’s alter ego. Smarty’s humor, intelligence, insatiable curiosity and the ability to make the “everyday” seem magical are in fact Theresa projected onto the screen.

The film above is a 16mm film version that Theresa used when promoting her game to distributors. The game itself is an interactive nonlinear adventure designed for girls but enjoyed by a broad audience; as Edward Rothstien noted in the NY Times review, Smarty is, “laden with a hip adult’s nostalgia and sassy love of eccentricity.”

 

With no money in the budget for promotion, Theresa pitched the game to distributors herself, appeared on QVC and sold it thru an 800 number. Like Chop Suey before it, Smarty went on to win numerous awards.

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“…in Smarty Aunt Olive and Smarty go to the dime store-and this is something that I remember specifically from my own life, being seven years old and being given a dollar every Saturday for my allowance and getting to pick out whatever I wanted. That dollar was so empowering, and the dime store was the caves of Ali Baba, because I could buy yarn or goldfish or this Blue Waltz perfume that they used to sell for ninety-nine cents.”

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~From an interview with Theresa published in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.

Theresa Duncan, creator and director; Jeremy Blake, illustrator; Wells Packard, animator

A special thanks to Theresa’s long time friends Wilbur King for clips from his film Charlotte Goes Swimming and Raymond Doherty for editing the clips into this memorial film. This film was shown at a memorial for Theresa in New York, December 2007.

Theresa Duncan Memorial Film

"I remember, almost to the minute, meeting Theresa Duncan. I was at a party in Washington in an Adams Morgan group house of DC’s extended punk circle… in walked a tall blonde woman in silver sequined hot pants-even though it was below zero outside-it was New Year’s Eve, it was a party, she had lipstick."

Maureen O’Leary
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 "Her world had a magnetic appeal for me, filled with books, wit, and knowingness. Her every sentence filled with references, clues."
—Blake Robin aka Baron Von Luxxury.
The Lovely Theresa. 
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"She often laughed out loud, suddenly and loudly while reading–a wonderful habit, interrupting the lunchtime crowd at the local diner. In between cigarettes and grilled cheese sandwiches, Tracy would be howling her way through John Fante’s My Dog Stupid and  Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, devoured by laughter, as lunch patrons glumly watched on. There were often calls or visits to the diner to yank her out of her lunchtime reading and return to work.”
-Cary Loren, an excerpt from Unpacking Her Library or The Liberation of Theresa Duncan -a remembrance in letters, photos and books
~~Image: Theresa in Paris 1995, courtesy of Blake Robin

"I remember, almost to the minute, meeting Theresa Duncan. I was at a party in Washington in an Adams Morgan group house of DC’s extended punk circle… in walked a tall blonde woman in silver sequined hot pants-even though it was below zero outside-it was New Year’s Eve, it was a party, she had lipstick."

Maureen O’Leary

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 "Her world had a magnetic appeal for me, filled with books, wit, and knowingness. Her every sentence filled with references, clues."

—Blake Robin aka Baron Von Luxxury.

The Lovely Theresa. 

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"She often laughed out loud, suddenly and loudly while reading–a wonderful habit, interrupting the lunchtime crowd at the local diner. In between cigarettes and grilled cheese sandwiches, Tracy would be howling her way through John Fante’s My Dog Stupid and  Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, devoured by laughter, as lunch patrons glumly watched on. There were often calls or visits to the diner to yank her out of her lunchtime reading and return to work.”

-Cary Loren, an excerpt from Unpacking Her Library or The Liberation of Theresa Duncan -a remembrance in letters, photos and books

~~Image: Theresa in Paris 1995, courtesy of Blake Robin

The History of Glamour

“In the film, the main character is looking for an identity, and glamour becomes for her a potent form of self-expression. She finds it very liberating, because she’s from a small town. But by the end of the story, glamour becomes limiting, then imprisoning, so she becomes a writer, chooses grammar over glamour.”

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Theresa Duncan on The History of Glamour in Salon

In 1995 Theresa left a job editing reports at the World Bank in Washington D.C. to work at Magnet Interactive in Georgetown. While there she and a coworker, Monica Gesue, pitched a story about two young Midwestern girls and their eccentric Aunt Vera as a video game; their successful collaboration resulted in Chop Suey. Theresa wrote the narrative and Monica created the images. The team also included Ian Svenonius from the D.C. band Nation of Ulysses to do animation, members of the band Fugazi who did the score and David Sedaris as narrator. Chop Suey went on to win the Entertainment Weekly award for best video game and several other honors.

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 The clip from Chop Suey above was done by Jenn Frank and is one of five that can be found on the Youtube link below. 

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—-Entertainment Weekly”s Best and Worst Multimedia

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—-Jenn Frank, In a Field of ’90s Barbieland Wreckage, Chop Suey Got Gaming for Girls Totally Right

—-Youtube link to Chop Suey Video Game

Closet Cases: Slice of Bread 

Created and Produced by Theresa Duncan

Animation by James Dean Conklin

"For Closet Cases, a segment on the animation hour, X Chromosome, Theresa Duncan creates cartoon renditions of truelife fashion sagas. The first episode features a run-of-the-mill city girl who becomes belle of the ball, thanks to a black taffeta dress. "It’s about the sensual memory of what people wear at certain times in their lives," says Duncan, "like a wedding gown or first maternity dress…Every day, women tell stories about themselves through what they choose to wear," says Duncan. "It isn’t just about style. It’s about identity."

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-Excerpt from Servin, James. “AIR SUPPLY.” Harper’s Bazaar Feb. 2000

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In 2000 Theresa created and produced an animated series of seven shorts for the new Oxygen network titled Closet Cases. The humorous and whimsical narratives were based on true stories concerning women who remember significant moments in their lives through their fashion choices, and became a cult hit. 

Star Spangled
"So…let there be Aria di Capri we utter, and prettily perfume the rectory air at dim, rainy dusk on this fabled Fourth Of July eve. One burst from the bottle is a beautiful’s woman’s laugh, startling, sharp and silver like a 747 slicing suddenly above the cloud cover and rising into the sun.”
Theresa Duncan, excerpt from the perfume review Star Spangled, posted on Wit of the Staircase, July 4, 2007

Star Spangled

"So…let there be Aria di Capri we utter, and prettily perfume the rectory air at dim, rainy dusk on this fabled Fourth Of July eve. One burst from the bottle is a beautiful’s woman’s laugh, startling, sharp and silver like a 747 slicing suddenly above the cloud cover and rising into the sun.”

Theresa Duncan, excerpt from the perfume review Star Spangled, posted on Wit of the Staircase, July 4, 2007

"The culture of fashion, I have often said, is to female sexuality what violent ground games are to male sexuality: strange homo-social rituals, atavistic contact sports."

~ Theresa Duncan, excerpt from an unpublished essay
Image: An outtake from Charlotte Goes Swimming courtesy of Wilbur King, filmmaker.

"The culture of fashion, I have often said, is to female sexuality what violent ground games are to male sexuality: strange homo-social rituals, atavistic contact sports."

~ Theresa Duncan, excerpt from an unpublished essay

Image: An outtake from Charlotte Goes Swimming courtesy of Wilbur King, filmmaker.

Alice Underground Table Read

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Subject: “Alice Underground” table read Paramount 

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“…Here are some photos of me working in my house in Venice and at the Paramount lot on Melrose with my teen male lead Brady Corbet from Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” and my teen female lead Alexis Dziena from Jim Jarmush’s “Broken Flowers” then I’m walking on the Paramount lot with my producers Anthony Bregman and Anne Carey and my casting director Jeannie McCarthy; the two gorgeous teen blondes are Keith Richard’s daughters Theodora and Alexandra. Young people are so much better than us…” 

—Email from Theresa

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In February 12, 2006, a table read for Alice Underground was hosted at Paramount Studios with the actors, studio executives (Paramount and Nickelodeon), producers (This or That) and investors (Odd Lot). The table read went well and there was a great deal of optimism among those present that the picture would be filmed in New York in the summer with a 15 million dollar budget. 

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Images: Photos attached to email from Theresa from the table read for Alice Underground, February 2006.

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…"
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Jack Kerouac, On The Road
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Wit of the Staircase

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…"

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Jack Kerouac, On The Road

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Wit of the Staircase


"Well-behaved women seldom make history"
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
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Image: Theresa in front of a c-print of Sodium Fox by artist Jeremy Blake her life partner of 12 years.
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Theresa Duncan’s Wit of the Staircase 
 

"Well-behaved women seldom make history"

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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Image: Theresa in front of a c-print of Sodium Fox by artist Jeremy Blake her life partner of 12 years.

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Theresa Duncan’s Wit of the Staircase 

 

That Summer Feeling Is Going To Haunt You
"…in dreams all territory I’ve ever covered is mine, Manhattan and the dull countryside of my childhood whirled together in a dream city that reeks with the smell of hayfields but has aspiring skyscrapers … and the noise of the dreamy, gleamy, cosmopolitan future far away from home all around, like the best of anything I ever put myself into externalized…so much does this invisible aura sum up everything I ever loved in This Mortal Coil."
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~ Theresa Duncan, Wit of the Staircase, Monday, July 03, 2006.  
Image: Screen shot from Theresa’s video game Smarty.

That Summer Feeling Is Going To Haunt You

"…in dreams all territory I’ve ever covered is mine, Manhattan and the dull countryside of my childhood whirled together in a dream city that reeks with the smell of hayfields but has aspiring skyscrapers … and the noise of the dreamy, gleamy, cosmopolitan future far away from home all around, like the best of anything I ever put myself into externalized…so much does this invisible aura sum up everything I ever loved in This Mortal Coil."

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~ Theresa Duncan, Wit of the Staircase, Monday, July 03, 2006.  

Image: Screen shot from Theresa’s video game Smarty.

Spirit d’escalier — in memory of Theresa Duncan

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…Theresa was best known as a screenwriter, but as the editor of a literary magazine, I encouraged her to write prose. From dipping into this delightfully eclectic well of thought, reviews, and tips I recognized an extraordinary mind, a tremendous talent and a prodigious analyst of culture.

…All I do know, the hard way, is that the artists and writers who come up with extraordinary answers are often deeply and terribly haunted by the questions that prompt them, and you can never second guess what it is to be haunted by ideas, by angels or demons or history or visions, by reality or imagination. Maybe I’ll think up a better response later. We live by our wits. Right now the only thing I can think of is to thank Theresa and Jeremy for their work, their friendship and goodwill and to hope that somehow, somewhere the answers come to them and the pattern is complete and that for such beautiful dreamers it isn’t too late. Their dreams are still in this world.

Glenn O’Brien

Excerpts from a post by Glenn Obrien on Theresa Duncan’s Wit of the Staircase

Image from Wit of the Staircase, photographer unknown

                                    

"…I had this idea pent up inside me when I was 15 that I wouldn’t be Roberta Williams, I wouldn’t be Jane Jensen, someday I could fashion myself into a Theresa Duncan, and make unbelievably edgy punkass art games, every one a love letter to my own younger self and to the things I had loved and to the things that, in my own childhood, I’d missed out on.”

Jenn Frank, Remembering Theresa Duncan

In a Field of ’90s Barbieland Wreckage, Chop Suey Got Gaming for Girls Totally Right

Theresa Duncan’s Wit of the Staircase