BWW Interview: Justin Sayre Talks The GAY-B-C'S, The Transference Of Queer Culture, And Hope for The Future
Already this year, Justin Sayre is working on a new book, a musical album produced by Julian Fleisher, and "an episodic comedy-horror soap opera" called RAVENSWOOD MANOR, set to be performed like "a live TV show," among numerous other projects. But first, the ever-busy performer will return to Joe's Pub with a new series called JUSTIN SAYRE'S GAY-B-C'S: A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAY CULTURE IN 5 PARTS.
After capping off an eight-season run of THE MEETING* in 2017, Sayre continued to perform at Joe's Pub in standalone shows like I'M GORGEOUS INSIDE and EGGPLANTS, PEACHES, AND TEARS. Now, in this new quintet of shows, they'll journey through gay culture from A to Z---and we do mean every letter---in what they describe as a true "passion project." New York dates for the last three parts of the series have not been nailed down, though Sayre teases Parts 3 and 4 could come to town in June, with hopes of performing all the GAY-B-C'S in rep at some point in the future.
Before Sayre brings PART 1: A THRU D and PART 2: E THRU H to Joe's back-to-back nights, February 24 and 25, we spoke with them over the phone about LGBTQ culture then and now, the next generation of queer elders, and gay zebras.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
What can you tell me about the show?
The first show is A to D. We're going to end on disco, and then the next show's going to pick up at Divine. It's really not only talking about the terms of our lives and the terms of our culture, but really telling interesting stories about history, telling little-known tidbits about gay forefathers and mothers and trans people. It's going to be a wide swath across all the things that have informed---culturally and personally---who gay people are today. And maybe even people we don't talk about or remember. Like Ray Bourbon is somebody I'm going to be talking about, or the Pansy Craze of the 1930s in New York, or the Bagatelle, which was a lesbian bar in New York.
But there are lots of different stories and lots of different history, so it's like a journey through all of these people and all of this culture. I often get asked, because I did THE MEETING* for so long, they're always like, "Oh my god, how do you know all this stuff?" Or, "Where did you get all this information?" and I love telling these stories, and I love kind of having a framework to do it. So, I thought, why not write a show that would take everybody through it with me?
It's me on a stage. There are going to be visual aids at certain points and we're going to see little clips of things. But it's me inviting people into this world that I've been obsessed with for a long time. I feel like it's really a passion project of getting people to know about these things that I've been fascinated by. And I think they're still important and relevant to the culture, especially in the current climate.
I'm curious how you decided to do it in five parts and how you whittled it down. Obviously, it could be an endless series.
Oh, absolutely. Well, it was kind of a timing thing. I said, "Well, you could do a letter. You could do a night that was a letter." And then it would be 26 parts. But I thought, I don't know if I'll be alive that long.
That's a commitment!
That's a lot. That's a huge commitment. And there were also things that I was writing, as I'm in the process of writing the show, where it's like, some of them are one-liners. I'm not going to get into a whole conversation about double penetration. But I'm going to mention it!
So, to take a whole night to do one letter and weasel it out, I thought no. And five seemed to be a relatively good number, because you also have to think, as I get into X, Y, Z I'm going to be like, "Zebras? What the hell... Zebra print?"
There's got to be some gay zebras somewhere.
Oh, I'm sure there are lots of gay zebras. And we'll get there when we get there. I think the important thing any time you present a show like this is that---and I'm going to offer this as a disclaimer---this is where I am. Gay culture is where you are. It's not something you have to aspire to. It's something you're creating and you're living in concert with.
So, there'll be things we don't get to, or there'll be things we get to at different times. And there'll be people that don't get mentioned over other people that maybe get mentioned in a different way or we don't do a whole night on. I think that you have to leave space for people to still feel involved and engaged and say, "Oh, do you know about this person?" You get those conversations started rather than saying, "This is the definitive idea of gay culture." I would never be so callous as to do something like that.
I wanted to leave a little space in there, where it's like... I've got a lot of C's, but I'm going to try to cover different people, and instead of doing 25 minutes on, like, Charro, I want to talk about Countee Cullen, who was a Black poet in the Harlem Renaissance, and kind of highlight different things that maybe are a little unknown, maybe are a celebration of someone in a different way, just to make it more interesting and varied, rather than, "Let's talk about poppers." Which, we will talk about poppers, of course.
With some of the big touchstones, are you going to be shying away from them or mention them in passing because people already know them?
Yeah, I will certainly lean into people. But I think there's also, rather than just presenting Judy---because we're going to be covering Judy Garland in the second show---rather than just saying, "Oh, here's Judy. Why Judy?" I think it's more important to talk about maybe Judy's fans and how fanatical they were or an interesting story about Judy, rather than the narrative we all know. And I think that, when we're talking about Cher, Cher comes at a point in the show where I'm talking about camp, and I explain camp by using a Lauren Bacall coffee commercial from the '80s. When I go to Cher, we show pictures of her being fabulous, but I show a little clip of her singing all the parts to WEST SIDE STORY. Because there is this wonderful thing of our campy divas, our divas that we love--- that they're a little outrageous, they're a little out there, and it's nice to know that, for all her fabulousness, Cher can still be ridiculous. And we love that about her. So, I think that there's always a kind of splay towards humor. There's always a splay toward, "This is for us folks." But I want to celebrate them in the way they've influenced how we are with each other, not necessarily like a tribute to.
How much research has this involved? It sounds like you're trying to choose people that not necessarily everyone in the audience will know, but also people that presumably you're aware of and interested in, based on what you said about gay culture being where you are.
To be very fair and honest, I'm a junkie for this stuff. I love it. If there's a gay book or something out there, I want to know it, I want to read it, I want to understand it. I think that, in a way, I'm interested in those voices from before because I feel like they still have things to teach us. Something that I've talked with people like Bryan Lowder and a bunch of intellectual, heady people about is where we are now is a reflection of so much of what's happened. The AIDS crisis has made such an indelible mark, not only on my generation but on the generations previously and even generations who didn't live through it. The transference of information is harder to get to people, and the way we take in media has changed so much. In the old days, and I read about this, a queen would take you and say, "Here's your first Maria Callas record. Listen to it." She would kind of guide you through the experience. I remember talking to Flotilla DeBarge, and she said, "When I was 19, I used to sleep with these guys and be like, 'Here's a Norma Shearer movie you have to see.'" There was a transference of stuff, and then when the AIDS crisis happened, that transference really stopped because people were just dealing with so many other things.
I think that for a lot of my generation who were born in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, we were very curious about what was going on, prior to it and during it. We've kind of become scholars of it because it was the world we lost out on. Looking at the way gay culture's going now and the interesting politics around polyamory and gender identity and all these things, I think none of these questions are necessarily new. I think people were talking about gender identity and body politics in the '30s, but I think now is the time where we have to say, "Okay, well, what is this thing we're still talking about? How can we be gentler with each other when we talk about it?"
I think that a show like this can provide those answers for folks. They really sit down and say, "Oh wow, there were people like me in the '20s who were trying to figure it out and didn't know and were stumbling." Or, they had a very clear vision of who they were, and even if it's totally antithetical to who and what you are now, you have to start understanding where they were coming from, a little bit. I think that compassion and that kind of interest in who your ancestors were and who we are because of them is integral to the show.
Is there one particular letter or subject you're most excited about?
I have to tell you, the more I get into it, the whole letter C, I have like 20,000 entries I could do. There's Quentin Crisp and Cher, there's just so many people. And you get through it and you're like, "How are you going do this?" But I think there are a lot of great things I'm excited to talk about. I wrote a really nice piece that I'm excited to do about the Bagatelle, which was a lesbian bar on University between 10th and 11th in the '50s and '60s.
The whole work is challenging me to say, "How can we take them in different directions as quickly as possible?" In that same mentality as "drop me in a maze and I'll figure out a way," I think I've set a challenge for myself in this show, as to how do I not only create a world with my audience but create a world every time we delve into somebody's life or delve into something we're discussing.
Since you're doing different letters in each show, it's not necessarily required to be at both of the first two shows. But how are you hoping people will experience it: Do you want a mix of people picking one or the other, or do you think people will come both nights?
I certainly hope people will come both nights; they'll be very different shows. My dream is to do them in rep, eventually, so we would do them back-to-back--- not in a marathon setting, because that would be exhausting, but like a whole weekend. The nice thing about the audience I think I attract and hopefully still wants to come to these things that I do... it does kind of feel like Old Home Week. I know people that have made friends in my audience and come to the shows now together, and I think there's a real sense of community.
The thing about this show is it's talking at the core about what it is to be a community and what it is to have a culture, how important and vital gay culture still is, and how informative it is and how we're still a part of it and creating it. That it's not some dead thing and it didn't just happen in the '70s and then went away. It's still something that's vibrant and real and part of what we're doing. I hope an audience is going to want to be a part of that as much as they can, and I also hope people who have not seen my work or not seen anything that I've done won't be intimidated, like "I'm not gay enough," or, "I'm not this enough to go see it." It's a show for everybody. It's explaining gay culture for everybody. So, yeah, there are some inside jokes, but you'll catch on. Don't worry. There will be plenty of signposts for you to come along and know where you're going.
I saw I'M GORGEOUS INSIDE and EGGPLANTS, PEACHES, AND TEARS. At least from what I've heard, while those had specific themes you were sorting through, this one feels the most constructed, just by nature of going through the letters, and is probably the closest to THE MEETING* setup since you ended that show. Was it fun coloring within those lines, trying to figure out what to do within those boundaries?
I think it comes from having such a theatre background. I think there is a nice way of putting yourself in a maze and figuring your way out. I do like that kind of game for myself as a creator, as an artist. EGGPLANTS, PEACHES, AND TEARS was that, too. It was, "How do I do this kind of show. How do I figure out what this is for me?" But this, kind of having this structure as opposed to an arc like those other two shows, this feels different, in a way, and in some ways very fun and funny, and I'm excited to do it. Like anything, you give up a certain amount of freedom. But, at this point, I think I know my voice well enough that I can still work and live within these confines I've placed on myself. It feels very freeing to have a construct. But I like either one.
Right out of the gate, coming back after THE MEETING*, was it nice returning [to Joe's] with I'M GORGEOUS INSIDE, thinking, "It's wide open?"
Oh yeah, absolutely. The thing about THE MEETING* that I loved is was there was a structure. But at a certain point, I'd done it for eight years, and I thought, "Well, what's the next thing? What's the next thing?"
And just to be very clear, I think this show is very different from THE MEETING*. There's not going to be any live music; there are no guests. It's just me for an hour-and-half. And it is just me in conversation with the audience. I think, throughout my work, I've been closer and closer to doing something like this. With THE MEETING*, there was a facade that, you know, we were this chairman and we were this person and there was this organization. And part of me doing something like I'M GORGEOUS INSIDE was breaking that and saying, "Okay, now I'm just here."
The great response to that was, "Yeah, we just want you to be here." The audience was like, "We're cool. We can hang out." So, now this new step forward for me, I think, as an artist is continuing that trend of how can I be in concert and conversation with my audience and not only share information but share a humanity through the things that not only interest me but intrigue me or cause a great amount of anguish or pain or joy.
This sounds very political or whatever, but I think I come from an older school of thought that says the most important person in your room is your audience. It's not you, it's always them: where they are, how they are, how they're feeling, where they're going. That's the goal of what you're doing. I've learned that from countless heroes of mine, but I've learned it in live experience [as well]. You're there with them, and it's that kind of community of thought and that kind of union you share that makes theatre and cabaret and all these kinds of live performances so amazing. It's very rare that you get to sit in a room with total strangers and all believe the same thing for a while. I think that's magic, so the closer I get to just having that pure relationship of "here we are, just talking, and here we are just kind of sharing emotions and ideas," I think the closer I am to the sort of art I want to make and I've always been trying to make.
And it seems like the audience is definitely on board.
Oh sure, they seem to like it. And in a very nice way, I have to say, I think I'm very lucky to have an audience that respects the work that I do but also respects my boundaries.
There are a lot of other performers that like to be catcalled, and I'm not that. I'm not that. I need a little space, but my audience is very forgiving and lovely.
Just as a side note, I didn't notice that I always do this, but I always do this: after every show, I go out and I hug the audience, like we've all just come out of a wake. It's like, "Did you do okay? Are you all right?" And I'm like, I don't think everybody does that. Everybody doesn't hug people to thank them, but I do!
Well, it's nice!
It is nice, but it's also crazy.
No, but you're giving yourself to them in the room so you don't have to if you don't want to later.
Exactly! There are many professional people who would just kind of put a scarf over their head and go home. But I come out and I'm like, "Congratulations, you made it." It's because I really believe in that transference of ideas. I believe that's the core of what we're trying to do here, so it just follows suit that of course I'd come out and hug you.
Last time, we talked about how you're not interested in presenting some kind of monolithic gay male thing.
Oh, no, and that's really been a big part of the work, that we could do 20 minutes on Fire Island, or you can do a one-liner on Fire Island. And you can take the time you would do on Fire Island and talk about somebody who nobody's talked about. You can talk about Chavela Vargas. You can talk about about the Women's Building in San Francisco.
This isn't just a show that is all the folks you know, done in a funny way. It is really talking about who our heroes are, who are people you don't know about, what are the stories you don't know about. Those are more important sometimes than saying, "Oh, we all know how terrible Fire Island is," or how wonderful it is. I'm much more interested in Edward Carpenter than I necessarily am in, you know, a night at GYM bar. Both are important things, but I think that, for something like this, there is a great honor in it that you get to talk about these people, and I want to take that and be able to do it.
We talked about, to some degree, losing out on a great deal of a generation of people who would now be queer elders. Do you feel like that's regenerating itself?
I do think that's happening. I mean, RuPaul's almost 60. Not to be ageist, but we have people like RuPaul, Elton John. You have gay elders, which you haven't had in a long time. And I think it is a continual discovery of what it means to be a gay elder. I think a lot of people are still struggling with that--- you know, "How do we do this right? We didn't really know."
I think now we're getting back to the place where we were pre-AIDS, in a way. I hope we are. Why I say that is, if you look at the things that were happening in, like '78, '79, '80---right before---there was a real push about, "What is our gay spirituality? Why are we conforming to these heterosexual notions? What do our relationships look like? What's our role in the world as part of the tapestry of humanity?"
I find great hope and inspiration in the kids that are genderqueer or pansexual. I think that is a return to those earlier ideals that people were starting to say, "Okay, what's the next step for us?" I'm one of the people that... I'm not turned off by that; I'm really kind of intrigued by that. I think the trouble that often comes with it is it doesn't happen organically. People aren't sitting in cafes and talking as much as they used to. They're on the internet, which inherently makes people meaner. So, it's not like they can have that.
But I admire so much the people saying, "No, I'm a third gender, I'm this," kind of staking claims in new frontiers about what sexuality is and what gender means. And I think that's really exciting, and I think the gay elders I respond well to are the ones saying, "Yeah, let's go with it. Let's hang out and see what's next." Because they're still on this adventure with us, and they're still tapped in. As I get older and become a gay elder myself, my goodness, I hope that I'm still part of the conversation and part of bolstering people's opinions of what it is to be gay or queer or whatever the next world becomes, what a brave and wonderful choice that is in the world.
Justin Sayre's GAY-B-C'S: A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAY CULTURE IN 5 PARTS will kick off with Part 1: A thru D on February 24 at 9:30 pm. Part 2: E thru H is set for February 25 at 9:30 pm. For tickets and information, visit www.joespub.publictheater.org. Sayre's podcast, SPARKLE & CIRCULATE, is available on iTunes, and their debut comedy album, THE GAY AGENDA, is available on iTunes or as a physical CD.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.