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BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms

With the launch of his latest book for Who’s Afraid of Michael Kearns? on May 1st; multi-hyphenate Michael Kearns shares some behind-the-scenes

BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms

Leading up to the May 1st launch of his latest book (his seventh) Who's Afraid of Michael Kearns?; multi-hyphenate Michael Kearns shares some behind-the-scenes of what revs up Michael Kearns. His Q&A, presented by Skylight Books, will be live Zoomed, along with a scene from BLOODBOUND performed by Maxwell Caulfield and Peter Frechette.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Michael!

Thank you, Gil. You and BroadwayWorld have become such a vital support system for the theatre - an outlet that truly loves and respects the art and knows the form and its myriad technicalities.

What was the impetus for writing Who's Afraid of Michael Kearns?, your seventh theatre book?

I always seem to have a Big Picture impetus - admittedly a bit grandiose at times - and then a smaller or more easily attained impetus that leads to an attainable goal. The Big Picture is my Big Legacy to the world. Thirty years from now, or maybe 300 years from now, some young person in some college-like setting, might come upon this off-the-beaten-track artist-activist and write a book about him or shoot a documentary, or include him in an anthology. I want to leave a neatly organized, clean copy of as much of my work as I can. Legacy, legacy, legacy. In the smaller picture of America today, or even West Hollywood and Silverlake today, I'd like to be on the radar of a widespread audience who have never seen my work. At this age, I still feel like I'm introducing Michael Kearns. But you know what? He still has a lot to say that has nothing to do with age and has everything to do with survival.

Out of all your many plays, what made you choose BANG BANG, BLOODBOUND and WHO'S AFRAID OF Edward Albee? for inclusion in this book?

One of their many commonalities is that all three premiered in Los Angeles under the direction of Mark Bringelson who interprets my muddled, ornate, confused, angry, sad, funny interior with the delicacy of a surgeon. My work becomes something else in his hands, as it should; that is the healthy collaborative team of playwright and director that is so often torpedoed in situations where these roles are not wholeheartedly embraced.

We established this closeness during the ALBEE piece because Mark knew I wasn't only going for the laughs; I had a more important story to tell about the perpetual Hollywood closet.

BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms With BANG BANG, we hit a truly comfortable stride in its uncomfortable approach to a variety of subjects that dominated the nightly news, beginning with the horror story that is Sandy Hook. Interspersed with the school shooting were the less operatic narratives about rape (yes, boys too), husbands and wives killing each other, crimes of untold passion: these stories, flowing with tears and blood and cum and guts felt attached to Sandy Hook if only by the nightly news. But Mark perceived more and he staged it and encouraged adding the element of how guns have the power to create fame. You could even say currency in Hollywood.

By the time I began putting together the puzzle that is BLOODBOUND, I was emotionally uncertain as a playwright. Not as a writer but as a writer who was capable to write a play which I knew would require scratching unhealed scar tissue to excavate the truths that lurked in my body for forty years. Why the fuck would I do this to myself?

I'll be as open as I can be today, right now, in this moment, as I answer this question. The brother who dies in the play is alive and was released from prison after serving 23 years, released into a COVID world, and he has dementia.

"It's a play," the character says repeatedly which becomes almost a self-reverential joke, It is a play.

The brothers - in the play - fall in love with each other, propelled by their differences rather than their similarities. Intrinsically, they feel a sameness bound by the improprieties thrust upon them by their mother. Sexual expression was something without boundaries in the household they grew up in and played out in the world they grew up in. And finally, the inevitable moment arrived. Gay? Straight? Evil? Destined to hell? Incest? Never let him out of jail now? Or maybe it's a fucked-up love story like most love stories you see in plays and operas and movies that the brilliant Mark Bringelson captured with staging and movement and moments of stillness and choices of music and a splash of color bathing the scene with subdued light. I knew, with a director like Mark, that I could write a play. A rambunctious, sexy, poetic, loving, and - yes, a bit scary - play.

BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms I saw your incredible production of BANG BANG at Highways in 2015. What years do you write BLOODBOUND and WHO'S AFRAID?

WHO'S AFRAID was way back in 2001 - I was a virgin. In truth, it was one of my first full-lengths. I was painfully familiar with the ALBEE piece, so it made it easier. But navigating four people on the stage, after only dealing with one, is a task. BLOODBOUND was 2018.

How long does it usually take you to complete a script?

I had been writing the Edward Albee script in my head way back when some friends and I would do clandestine readings of the ALBEE script and play with the idea of actually doing it. Inevitable comparisons and similarities between our lives and the characters' lives would emerge - some hilarious, some horrific - and we'd note them rather breezily, but I'd go home and make some notations, knowing there was a play that would eventually emerge. BANG BANG was inspired (an odd word) - motivated? - by Sandy Hook in 2015 and the play premiered in 2015 but this is what was clear. I had been thinking about violence in America when I wrote the ALBEE piece which is certainly about domestic violence and how it can't help but seep into our consciousness. In retrospect, you can see the seeds of where I start and where I'm going (looking at the three plays). I truly don't know any of that. I just write. And write. Writing is thinking: I tell that to my students. You don't always have to be hunched over your laptop. You must think, ruminate, take notes, cry, just sit and reimagine, read, feel, remember. The actual writing part is only a sliver of the process. BLOODBOUND was an emotional monster that had been whispering in my ear, tapping me on the shoulder, daring me. It took a long time. A few years. Several workshops with brilliant actors who led the charge, always with Mark by my side, and the urgent support from Gary [Grossman] and Tony [Abatemarco] at Skylight. They helped build the play: its complex architecture.

When does your words become set in stone? After the first run-through? After the first previews?

After the closing night. That's not even true because there's more reworking to do. In my mind, plays that I write are never finished. There's a fluidity I want to capture based on the world turning on its fucking crazy axis. Something can happen at 4:00 in the afternoon and if it truly affects the play's meaning - and it's not some cutesy or gimmicky thing - we might endeavor to insert a moment or a line or a word for an 8:00pm performance. And generally speaking, we listen to actors. There are some very smart ones.

You and your brother are characters in BLOODBOUND. Would other people close to you recognize themselves as characters in your plays?

BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms My brother and I are characters in BLOODBOUND? Gil, it's a play. I have written (on napkins) virtual monologues of friends blathering at lunch, surreptitiously jotting down every word, and only rewritten their dramatic turn slightly, performed it a few months later with them sitting in the third row. We go to dinner after the show and not a peep. No idea or self-awareness that I had essentially "stolen" their story and got some laughs - and some tears (which I was fairly sure I would when I heard it performed it in the restaurant).

In Wikipedia, you are listed as "an American actor, writer, director, teacher, producer, and activist." Which of these occupations gives you the most gratification? Or are they all somehow intertwined?

They are all intertwined. I think the one I'm doing in the moment is the one that gives me the most gratification. The idea of letting go of any one of them is terrifying.

You came out early in your career in the mid-1970s. What was the response from the entertainment industry then? Closed doors? Fewer auditions?

As Jane Fonda said in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, "I've been disqualified by experts." Fuck 'em. I kinda played that victim card - because I was truly a victim of homophobia, and it affected the course of my career and certainly my livelihood. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't change "the course of my career" for anything. There is no one else's career I want. And I never went to bed hungry. I have pretty much what I need as an artist. And I have a 26-year-old daughter that is an unimaginable gift that has changed the entire outlook of my world. It's all good, so the homophobia that was relentlessly hurled in my directed has faded. It certainly continues to motivate my activism, but I can no longer let it drench me in day-to-day pain. I'm in my last act here, baby.

You announced your positive HIV-status on Entertainment Tonight in 1991. What were the reactions then?

Funny, you should ask that. That was a few years before the adoption. I believe that was definitely a turning point. My assertion of self had begun to intimidate some of those in power and they didn't like me. That sometimes manifests as some kind of fear, doesn't it? So my work, because of its sexuality, and my openly sexual stance in real life, became some kind of new phase of homophobia thrust in my direction. But, hey, I was on Entertainment Tonight. A week or two later, I was on Life Goes On. Yes, I was being exploited as the "HIV-pos actor," but I had a certain currency, like me or not, cast me or not, I was my-self, on my own terms, achieving a degree of visibility and viability. That has not ended. And won't.

BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms You've been very comfortable in including sex and sexuality in your scripts. Did you ever get any pushback or censorship in depicting your sex scenes onstage?

Mostly from gay men, many of whom are my "friends."

Your very first book, on a non-theatre topic, The Happy Hustler was one of my first guilty pleasures. What's the back story of your nom de plume Grant Tracy Saxon?

Grant Tracy Saxon was - oh, I hate to disappoint you, Gil - a character I played. Fake news. It was a hoax. My lover at the time wrote a piece of fiction and the put my picture on the cover to sell the book. "Hey, that guy on the cover could do a talk show, couldn't he?" That began a charade that lasted several years in which the book was melded into my life and my life melded into the book (like an episode of The Twilight Zone). It's funny now. It wasn't then. My first solo show, THE TRUTH IS BAD ENOUGH (also the name of my most recent book before this one) attempted to deconstruct the entire freak show, but there are still thousands of Grant Tracy Saxon fans out there who believe I am the happy hustler. Acting, baby, acting.

You are one of the very few who has successfully morphed from a porn star to legitimate theatre artist. Would you today recommend that route for a young artist to take?

I wouldn't not recommend it. We don't know what will result from the moment we are leaping into as an actor. I was a hot mess but I also looked at my career and considered all the options and made a decision based on many things including the content of the script (there actually was a script), the director (he was the best in the business at the time), the characters in the film (revolutionary in that they were not a parade of young blond twinks), and how I would be utilized (the opening shot, all glam lighting with a dick in my mouth). The dick was the issue, right? Well, not for me. This was merely a confirmation of Who I Was. This was letting every homo casting director who didn't know receiving the memo NOT to cast me if he found this problematic. Or every producer not to call me in. Believe me, many of the ones who called me in for work mentioned the movie in glowing terms. And others? They are afraid of Michael Kearns. L O L!

You've been a long-time denizen of the Los Angeles theatre community and actively working on it re-opening safely. How's it going?

I'm largely involved at the Skylight and not at liberty to discuss specifics, but we are moving ahead. There are so many complications involving the union coupled with the constantly shifting COVID attention to the outrageous racism that permeated the country and our own backyard. We are determined to change the culture and take responsibility for whatever part we've played in the cycle of systemic racism.

BWW Interview: Queer Activist/Playwright Michael Kearns Ever Fighting The Fight - On His Own Terms What's in the post-pandemic future for Michael Kearns?

This is an exclusive: I've diligently been taking singing lessons, two a week, beginning before the quarantine. I'm creating an act called late sixties/early seventies which has hundreds of meanings, but for me it signifies songs of the late Sixties and the early Seventies which became fodder for my emotional memories and tied me to a non-binary version of myself who relied on those songs to lead the way for a queer boy in St. Louis to discover himself and not dismiss his romantic longings or his deepest, darkest desires. It is as painfully private and self-revelatory as anything I've written, but I haven't written a word of it. I've merely arranged an order that tells a story that must be sung because the passion runs so deep and so complicated. OMG, I'm scared.

Thank you again, Michael! Here's to great book sales and more brilliant live theatre from you.

Thanks, Gil, This is fun, I think.

To Zoom Michael's book launch May 1st @ 4pm PST, featuring an audience Q&A and a scene from BLOODBOUND performed by Maxwell Caulfield and Peter Frechette, RSVP @ https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Ov4XU4eaRVSF378X1e5ZIA

Michael will be signing his book following this Zoomed event @ 5pm PST at Fred 62 in Los Feliz. Log onto www.skylightbooks.com for in-store info and book purchase.


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