BWW Interview: Writer/Performer Justin Sayre Horror-ibly Camps in RAVENSWOOD MANOR
Justin Sayre's camp-horror-soap-opera, twelve-episode serial RAVENSWOOD MANOR will take the Celebration Theatre stage beginning October 17, 2019 for a six-week run. With two episodes premiering each week, Justin's satirical homage on Dark Shadows will feature Drew Droege, Sam Pancake, Daniele Gaither, Leslie-Anne Huff, Ryan Garcia, Angela Cristantello, and Justin himself, with special guests added each week. Novelist/playwright/TV scripter/performer/host Justin took some time to answer a few of my questioning queries on his various functions as novelist/playwright/TV scripter/performer/host.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Justin!
Oh, Gosh! Thanks for having me. Yes, I actually do say "gosh." I'm that girl.
The press release on RAVENSWOOD MANOR describes this as a "camp-horror-soap-opera." What hallucinogens did you take to come up with this concoction of craziness? I mean, what inspired you to start putting RAVENSWOOD MANOR together?
Well, I've always wanted to write in the camp genre, and I guess I have with the little play-ettes, or Middle School Theatricals I used to do in my show, THE MEETING. But I've wanted to write something a more substantial for a long time. The idea for RAVENSWOOD MANOR came from a love for the spooky side of camp and for shows like Dark Shadows. I thought the genre of the horror-soap opera is in some ways camp already, so it could easily be dialed up to an 11 and taken to its campy conclusion. Once I started writing it, it just poured out and the ridiculousness of the circumstances and characters became so much fun to invent and play with, I never wanted to stop.
If you were to give a three-line pitch of RAVENSWOOD MANOR to a potential backer, what would it be?
A camp adventure set in the small-town of Ravensport, Maine in the spring of 1976. We follow the town through the trials and terrors of a returning movie star with a dark past, a series of werewolf attacks, and the overthrow of the local gay mafia. It's a horrific and hilarious take on the horror-soap genre and bound to make you laugh and jump with fright! It's episodic, yes, but we take the time before each episode to fill folks in, so feel free to pop into our neck of the woods at any time.
What shows are Justin Sayre's perfect example of camp? Of horror? Or soap opera?
Oh my god! That's a long list! I think on film, John Waters is the supreme king, and an artist and a person that I admire immensely. Female Trouble may be my favorite movie of all time. Theatrically, I think Charles Ludlam's work speaks to me deeply. His sense of play and breaking down taboos with the cunning eye and biting wit is heaven. I also love the work of Charles Busch, who's a gorgeous mad-genius; as well as Tom Eyen, Jackie Curtis, and Ethyl Eichelberger, whose work is at times forgotten, but were all truly wonderful.
For horror, I tend to go a little more old school. I like all those Universal horror classics, like Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and the Frankenstein films with Boris Karloff. I like something more spooky than slasher. I don't like the frenzied sadism of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw. I like something a little more suspenseful and motivated. I loved The Witch, that came out a few years ago, which I thought of as almost a beautiful play. But I also love camp horror like Young Frankenstein or Clue.
For soap operas, my favorites are those Aaron Spelling Spectacles of the 1980s, like Dynasty and Falcon Crest. I think they're practically camp on their own. And the clothes!
Who in RAVENSWOOD MANOR have you worked with before? A good majority of them, right?
Here in L.A., this is a bit of a very new cast. I have worked briefly with Sam Pancake and Drew Droege in a reading of my play, THE CLICK OF THE LOCK a few years ago. But this is our first time working together on stage. The rest of the cast, Angela Cristanello, Ryan Garcia, Leslie-Anne Huff and Daniele Gaither are all enormously gifted, and I feel honored to be playing with them, but they're all new to me. It's terribly exciting and invigorating. Tom Detrinis is a dear friend, as is Jessica Hanna, but this is our first time working together as well. It's been a great thrill to reexamine these plays through new eyes and new interpretations. I feel very lucky and happy.
Would, or have, any of your friends and family recognized themselves in your stories?
Oh, no! Or at least, I hope not. I don't usually base any of my characters on a single person. There are hints at people I know, surely, and little impressions, but I don't want to tell someone else's story for them. I want to tell my stories, and they're populated with people I invent with little mixes and foibles of the people I know.
Which turns you on more - performing in front of a live audience? Or sitting at your desktop pounding out a fabulous ending scene of your latest script?
Oh, that's a hard choice. I love an audience. I love the magic you make with an audience. But I do love the making of work. I love writing and the imagination. At this point, I don't think I could live without either. They each rely on parts of my soul. One - this shy little kid, dreaming up silliness and play, and the other - the boisterous out-spoken talker, who is brave and thrilling. I like both, I think and am both.
Which do you prefer? Writing in a collective for a TV show (2 Broke Girls)? Or penning RAVENSWOOD MANOR alone in your cozy, solitary office?
Each is different, and fun in their own ways. I love the fun and camaraderie of writing in a room with writers. I have luckily worked with some of the funniest and kindest people in the business on that front. But I do very much enjoy going off an inventing a world all by yourself. I love that interplay with your imagination. It's the difference between going home or going to a party. I don't know if I'd ever want to do without one or the other.
How old were you when you decided you wanted to be in the entertainment industry? And was that performing or writing?
That's a story. When I was thirteen, I was singing in a recital. I had been doing some singing and plays up to that point. I'd even conned my parents into getting me voice lessons. So I was up there singing, and suddenly all the lights went out. It was the summer and the air-conditioning, I guess, blew a fuse. So there I am, in the dark with the audience, also in the dark, and none of us know what to do, so I started telling jokes and the audience started to laugh. When the lights came on, I finished the song, got an enormous round of applause and walked off stage. It was there and then that I knew the stage was the safest place in the world. And I always wanted to be there. That was it. From then on. That was it.
Who were your idols or mentors once you knew what you wanted to be?
Early on, I loved George Burns and Gracie Allen, as well as Jack Benny, who I now see as a tremendous influence. I was also obsessed with Chaplin, and still am. But then I got very into Shakespeare, so people like Olivier and Gielgud, I watched and studied for years. It led me down a whole path toward theatre geniuses like Eva Le Gallienne, who to this day, is my absolute mentor and beacon for life. I think as I got older and more comfortable with my queer identity, I started looking at queer theatre-makers like the Cockettes, Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger and Jackie Curtis. As well as, Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman, whose Kiki and Herb, blew the world apart for me and made me think everything from hilarity to pathos was possible through the guise of camp and drag.
Your book Husky I'm sure I've read an excerpt of it somewhere. Where was "Husky" excerpted?
Oh, I think on Amazon? I'm always so happy when people bring up Husky. It was such a joy to write and such an unexpected joy. I never thought I would write a book for kids, and now I've written three. The third and final book in the series, Mean, just came out in September.
Would you describe how your benefit show for the Ali Forney Center NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS came about?
Well, my show THE MEETING was always about community. Building a community around the show, speaking to a community with the show, and JUDYS came out of a need to give back to that community. With my producers Adam Rosen and Dan Fortune, we've always cared deeply about the work the Ali Forney Center does for homeless LGBTQ youth, and felt and still do feel that if we can celebrate Judy Garland by giving back to the kids of the LGBTQ community, it's a privilege and an honor. Everybody deserves to go over the rainbow, and if we can contribute to that in some small way, well, that's a gift.
What's the most memorable audience reaction to NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS that just took you aback?
There's so many. I think the thing that gets me is seeing young people caring so much about Judy Garland. Continuing that legacy, and putting the kind of communication Judy had with her audiences front and center in our show, is something that touches people in a very deep way. I love that.
So, I take it you're bi....coastal. Which coast do you prefer and why?
I prefer the Gulf Coast if I'm honest. I love New York, and it still feels like home in some ways. I love the close community and spirit of invention and risk-taking there. Los Angeles is a beautiful and thrilling place to live. So much business and glamour, I do very much like it. But my heart is in New Orleans. There are few places in this world that I love as much as I love that holy city. It's my place.
As a stand-up, you must be accustomed to improving your own sets to adapt to the temperature of your audiences. Do you allow any improv, or can the Celebration audiences expect any improv in RAVENSWOOD MANOR?
With a cast like this, how could I not? I love the touches these performers bring to the work. I love it, but I always ask that we stay in the bounds of the story. I love real character reactions, that actors realize the moment and I love the spirit of play, I just also want the story to be clear and concise. Barring that. Play!
You have twelve episodes scheduled during your six-week Celebration run. If you were to get extended, would you add new episodes? Or repeat some of the original twelve?
My dream is to do the plays in rep. I would love to do them all again and again and again. But I also have a whole second season in the works with new characters and new adventures. I love this world and love working in the genre, so as long as people want to take this adventure with me, I would love to keep going.
What other current and near-future projects are you juggling?
Well, my show, The GayBC's, is being turned into a book, that comes out next year with Chronicle Books. I am working on a new camp-play with some hints of Sleepy Hollow and La Sonnambula. I am also working on a solo play about the lives and works of the Romantics. A new novel, several projects for TV, the return of my podcast, Sparkle and Circulate, and on December 7th, I celebrate my tenth anniversary in Downtown Cabaret at Joe's Pub at The Public Theatre with a special return of my show, THE MEETING.
What responses from the Celebration audiences after RAVENSWOOD MANOR's curtain call would make you the most satisfied?
Oh, I want people to laugh. I want them to have fun and love the celebration of camp that I hope the show is. If they do that, I will be thrilled. Also, if some cute audience members want to take my genius home with them, I never mind that. Kidding...or am I?
Thank you again, Justin! I so do look forward to checking out your camp-horror-soap-opera.
Oh, thank you! And please come. Remember you don't have to see all the episodes, as each is an adventure all its own, and we'll catch you up from week to week. So come for all six, or stop in when you can. You will have fun both ways. And if that's not queer theatre, I don't know what is.
For ticket availability and show schedule through November 24, 2019: log onto www.celebrationtheatre.com/ravenswood