Hello James! So, where are you from?
I’m from New Jersey originally, but I’ve lived in New York City for so many years that it’s become home.
Do you like living in the city?
Yeah. It’s a complicated relationship, New York City, but home is a complicated situation.
And what are you working on at SPACE right now?
I’m working on a solo show that I’m preparing to perform. It’s called “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” A few years ago I wrote a young adult novel called Absolute Brightness and I realized I wasn’t quite finished with the story. It’s about a town on the Jersey Shore, what happens when a 14-year-old gay boy disappears and everybody in the town tries to figure out what happened to him. In the book I tell the story from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl and I wanted to tell the story from a more adult point of view. So, in the stage version a detective is trying to figure it out and the other people in the town are involved in the investigation. It’s really a story about evil and good—how far evil travels; how deep good goes.
Great. So how have you been spending your time here at SPACE?
Writing the piece. Learning the piece. It’s been such an incredible experience to have that barn—it’s like my dream place to rehearse and to get up on my feet. It’s such a bizarre process for me (doing these kind of shows). You know, you sit down, you write, write, write and then you get up on your feet, you try to get it into your body, and it actually—it’s like your body tells you when you’re lying. Like, if I can’t remember it and I can’t get it in my body, something’s off, so I have to go back and write and fix it and find out what’s wrong with it. It’s like having a conference with the entire cast and letting them tell their story. You’ve imposed the lines on them but they need to talk back.
How does working in the barn space change that process?
I have more concentrated time. I’m not distracted.
Catherine’s phone alarm goes off.
That was amazing.
You can’t write this stuff.
No. They wouldn’t believe it! You know, it’s hard. It’s hard to push back all of the concerns of one’s daily life and the pressures of daily life—of living in New York and the stupid things we do.
Definitely. So, you said you’ll be playing multiple characters in this piece. How do you transition between those characters?
That’s what getting it up on its feet is about. It’s something I love to do. I realize when I’m in a more conventional play that I miss it. I miss going between characters. One strives to create a little bit of theater magic doing it in a style that is particularly their own. Many years ago I did a musical and I played about 10 characters and they all sang in different voices. It was amazing and hard. The guy who was orchestrating the music actually started writing parts for two characters because I was singing one then singing the other and he thought he’d write a harmony for them and that’s the ultimate—when you can actually convince an audience that they’re real people.
What’s next for this project? What happens after you leave SPACE?
I am going to do this show for the first time in Provincetown. There is a festival there called Afterglow and it happens after the summer season. It’s the second week of September. Downtown performers come to Provincetown. People like Justin Vivian Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Amber Martin, Bridget Everett—these downtown, amazing cabaret performers. They asked me if I wanted to be a part of that festival and it’s just one performance so that seemed like the next step, to get it in my body, learn it all and we’re doing that as a benefit for The Trevor Project because thematically it fits.
Speaking of The Trevor Project, why do you think the theater has been such a haven for gay youth?
You know, I can answer that by saying why it was a haven for me. It was really the first place that I was accepted—where I could be anything I wanted to be and I wasn’t judged and that my natural exuberance, flair, style and joy was seen as an asset instead of a reading on the geek meter. People appreciated me there. I feel like it’s a haven for more than just gay kids. It’s a haven for kids who particularly want connection and who feel in some way deprived of that in their life and for many gay kids, they are deprived connection to themselves, access to a part of themselves that they long to access. But, they also want to reach others beyond themselves—to connect with other people for whatever reason: trauma, being gay, growing up WASP, growing up inner city. There are many reasons why it makes it hard to connect. I think the theater offers a model for connection and it actually demands that you connect with other people. Whereas, in other fields, you can sort of skate by. You can stay under the radar, you can remain invisible, but the theater really demands that you show up, that you be present.
Are there any changes that you’d like to see with the theater in America?
Yeah. I’d like to see more connection. You know, it’s interesting—I think the theater in America is amazing. It’s so impressive. I go to the theater and I’m so impressed by the level of talent, the resources that theater has available (I mean generally, like, on Broadway), but I think that the thing the theater offers is the ability to tell stories and making that connection to more grassroots organizations, more grassroots communities and sort of have the stories come up from the real world and use theater as a tool, for not just entertainment, but for enlightenment and civic change.
You probably don’t want to get into this, but I’ll just say it anyway. After Hurricane Katrina, I went down to New Orleans with a group of people (about five of us) and we found this community center that had been closed down. It had been open for 100 years serving the community and the French quarter and we got kids together and we did a production of “Once On This Island.” It’s about a Caribbean island that gets hit by a hurricane. All these kids—it changed their lives. By doing that show we were able to revive the community center and also awaken those kids to the possibility of that in their life and that, to me, seems really what theater could be doing in this country and one of the great things of that particular project (besides the fact that we made a documentary film about it) was connecting the Broadway community with a place in New Orleans. The Broadway community really wanted to do something after Katrina but they didn’t know what to do so we provided them a link—a life to life link with an actual place with actual people with actual stories so they could give money and support this thing and that to me—that’s not that hard. I mean somebody has to do it, but it can be done.
One final question: if you were to be reincarnated as a farm animal, what farm animal would you be and why?
That’s such an interesting question. You know that cows are amazing. They are amazing. They are deep and soulful and they actually make milk. They are just beautiful. They are so soulful.
Cow it is. Awesome. Thank you so much!
Interviewed by Catherine Cohen.