When I first moved to Los Angles, I ran across an ad in Frontiers magazine, a local (what we called) “gay rag” that you could find in all the bars in West Hollywood. In this particular issue was an advertisement for acting classes taught by Michael Kearns. Unlike every other ad for every other acting studio in every other paper and magazine in town at that time, the ad stressed that openly gay actors were welcomed and encouraged to attend. In a moment that perhaps had more career significance than I realized, I chose to study with Michael. Intuitively, I felt that my queer sexuality should somehow be developed, included, even honored as part of my career as an artist. As far as I knew, if you wanted those principles in your creative life, the only game in town was: Michael Kearns. Today, it may seem obvious that queer actors should work with, not against, their sexuality, but in that era – which, by the way, was not so very long ago – it was a given that an actor should keep his or her sexuality private IF (big IF) your sexuality happened to be outside the bounds of heterosexuality. The implications of keeping one’s sexuality a secret also implied that it was somehow insufficient or a detriment not only to the career, but to the process of working as an actor.
I arrived in Michael’s class, a nervous 22-year old and was quickly assigned a scene from Total Eclipse in the role of Rimbaud, opposite Rex Lee as Verlaine. There were too many lessons learned in his studio to recount here, but perhaps the biggest was this: that fighting to discover and embody your authentic self is a worthy battle, even if no one gives you credit for it. As I continue the fight, I still look to Michael Kearns, a truly towering figure in LGBT theater and activism, whose courage paved the way for actors who don’t even realize that their ability to navigate their career as openly gay performers came from somewhere. Michael isn’t just an actor, writer and director, he’s the real deal trailblazer and I’m so honored he was willing to give his perspective for our series.
Hunter: You’ve directed some iconic gay theater pieces like Jerker and Night Sweat. What makes you want to direct a play? Is it a different appeal than the one that makes you want to act in one?
Michael: It is decidedly the employment of a different set of muscles. In truth, directing the early iconic pieces was directly tied to my political mandate as well as my artistic vision – the marriage was inevitable. I don’t think it was a choice; I had to direct. At some point (I was in my early thirties), I decided to stop looking at myself, stereotyping myself, as a “dumb actor”, and knew I could influence what I had to say with more coherence. Some might say with more “power” but “power” is a Harvey Weinstein word and I try to avoid it. There’s definitely something that ignites the brain (I hope so, anyway) when you direct. When you act, it’s often best to turn the brain off or put it on a lower setting. The first play I directed, James Carroll Pickett’s Bathhouse Benediction, contained a whiff of the AIDS crisis but almost subliminally. It was a one-man show, language heavy, and very sexy. Jim asked me to be in it. But I was – get ready to roll your eyes, everyone – too young. I really was. So I audaciously said, “But I’d like to direct it.” He enthusiastically said yes. It was a half-hour long but it became a phenomenon in L.A. I’ve been directing ever since.
Hunter: Directing theatre entails so many skills – dramaturgy, working with actors, developing and implementing your aesthetic, managing a wide range of personalities and on and on. What part of directing comes most naturally to you? What has been the biggest challenge?
Michael: As we now know for certain, having raised a child (who is now 23 years old) as a single parent, I am a fairly natural mommy-daddy. I’ve often said that if I know – really know – about anything in this world, it’s acting. So combining those two things – knowing about the art of acting and the art of parenting equals a good director. My challenge has been, and remains (to some extent) the visual component. I hear things before I see them. I can recognize someone by their voice before I can by their appearance, so I’m very confident with vocal energy. However, I am not naturally a visual person…so I have taught myself. How? Looking at a lot of great art. Photographs. Other directors. Movies. Taking photos. Even on my phone. Simply studying color, composition, juxtaposition. And that has fed my personal style, not that everyone likes it. But it’s specific. If one looks at my track record in directing (with the exception of QueerWise, for instance, which is its own animal), I usually direct one-person shows or two-handers. Bring a third or fourth actor onstage and I start getting nervous. But I have gotten so much better. I’ve never had a class in directing. Self-taught. I’m pretty much self-taught in every subject.
Hunter: What is your process as a director with actors? Obviously, you know the language of acting very well from being an actor and training actors. But once you’re on stage working, what kind of a collaboration do you try to build with actors?
Michael: It is all about trust. And I don’t mean Let’s-stand-in-a-circle-and-quote-Oprah trust (although someone will write in and say I’ve done something like that—I did live through the Eighties, honey). The actors have to trust the material/playwright (even if it’s inferior and they don’t particularly like it – get over it); they have to trust each other (even after they’ve had bad sex on opening night and now hate each other); they have to trust the audience (even though there are 20 people and they think there should be 97); they have to trust me (even though they think I’m a monster because I accurately call them on their shit). I often find myself giving this speech because I’ve heard that some actor has incorrectly decided I don’t “like” him: “It fucking doesn’t matter whether or not I like you. I am invested in this show looking good because I want to look good. Get it, doll? So whether I like you or loathe you or want to marry you or see you set on fire on closing night, trust me. I will do everything in my power to make you look good. Got it?” Well, they are actors. Some of them get it. Others wallow in their grueling narcissism. Trust. If playing with fuzzy stuffed animals in the dressing room helps that process, go for it. Just don’t drink. Or smoke weed.
Hunter: I’ve made the mistake of not trusting more than once. You are really onto something there. Just how different is it to be an openly LGBT talent now than it was in 1990? I sometimes think young people really don’t even realize the sea change? Or do you see it as, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”?
Michael: I am so enmeshed that I often don’t have perspective. But that doesn’t keep me from blathering on about it. I can’t help but look at the life of Kevin Spacey. Who is writing that screenplay? And will an openly gay actor play the role? What a tortured creature. In 2017. And so tortured that he could go on national television and make fun of the fact that he is – was – the biggest closet case in Hollywood. That’s supposed to be funny? Not so funny now, is it? Jesus, I don’t want him in our tribe. But he is and we gotta face that. All the boys swilling cocktails in their $500 outfits and trilling about the joys of being gay in Twenty-First Century Hollywood have to look at Kevin, baby. He’s part of their culture. Our culture, sorry. The closet is still too fucking full in my opinion. And look at the “art” that’s being done. Yes, there’s Call Me By Your Name (I haven’t seen it but I believe that it’s beyond brilliant but I also believe there’s a gay actor out there who could have played the lead role and it would not have been less brilliant). But thank God, we also have Will & Grace, which was retro in its first iteration. And Broadway is oh-so-edgy: revivals of The Boys in the Band, M. Butterfly, Torch Song Trilogy. Someone should write a hip-hop musical of The Children’s Hour. I dunno, Hunter. Frankly, I did see some change during the plague because we had something to respond to with fire and brimstone, rage and fury. There’s a play at “my” theatre (Skylight, where I am an Artistic Associate) – a trans story, Rotterdam, and I feel like it’s ahead of the pack in terms of looking at the human component of where we are in terms of gender equality and what that means in a larger context. I love Boys in the Band and M. Butterfly and Torch Song —they fed my soul, nourished every fiber of my queer identity – but that’s what Broadway has to feed us in 2018? Fuck me.
Hunter: Perhaps as a bit of a follow-up. Why do you think that an industry packed with LGBT people had such difficulty integrating our own voices and telling our own stories? Incredible progress has been made in your lifetime on this, but why was it so difficult? This town has always been teeming with gays.
Michael: I’ve given a lot of time and a lot of thought to this. At one time, I thought I had it. Let’s look at our movement from the time span we cling to. If we were closeted until approximately 1968 – Stonewall, the birth of gay liberation – that means we’ve only been out for half a century. Now, we had some mighty powerful queers who were dancing in the dark before us (and writing in the dark, painting in the dark, writing operas, poetry, and multitudinous activities not of an artistic nature, not to mention being in long-term marriages and, yes, adopting children). But with all this openness (and here’s where your question begs questioning as all good questions do): why are we still so afraid of our shadows? Or, to employ some psycho-language, our shadow selves? Or to quote Mart Crowley (who wrote The Boys In The Band in 1968 ), “…if we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” Just because the town has been teeming with gays, doesn’t mean they like themselves. Or each other. Or want to do business with each other. Or trust each other. Or aren’t constantly jealous of each other. Or aren’t homophobic and racist and sexist and ageist and looksist. It seems like I’ve been doing this a long time, Hunter. And it seems like I would have seen more finite change. When I came out in the mid-Seventies, I might see a closet case actor that I’d seen the night before getting fucked at the baths and he’d risk his life running across the street to avoid me. And guess what? There are virtually no baths now but there are closeted gay actors who risk their lives running across the street to avoid me, even if I didn’t see them getting fucked the night before.
Hunter: So often, I read articles where directors and actors encourage young people. But I think being young and in the business is the easy part! (Eugene Delacroix said it best, perhaps with, “To be 20 and a poet is to be 20. To be 40 and a poet, is to be a poet.”). I’d like to know what encouragement you would give to people in their 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s who have had successes, but perhaps never hit the “big time” and find themselves balancing financial and familial responsibilities with a creative career. Any advice? Encouragement?
Michael: I don’t know if I had employed this silly little piece of advice when you were in my class. It’s important, no matter where you are in your career trajectory. Get a little 3” X 5” card. It can be plain white. Or get a color. Or paint it; decorate it with feathers or glitter, whatever. Write two words on it: “Don’t compare.” Put it on your bathroom mirror. Or on your computer. Or in your car, on your dashboard. Make three of them if you want. Oh, I almost forgot. You’ve got to decide if you want to be a star or you want to be an artist. You might wind up being both. But you can waste a lot of time trying to be a star, time that could be invested in being an artist. I guess it was the AIDS crisis that taught me all of this. Stardom meant nothing. Being an artist – it did. Because artists can say something. And the better they get at their art, the more people will listen. Oh, not everyone, because if you talk a lot, and you’re loud (like me), a lot of people want you to shut the fuck up. But I say, “Just walk across the street, motherfucker.” I became an artist. I often say it was AIDS that made me an artist. That might be true. It gave me something to say. I had the tools and the oomph and then – yes, it was indescribably horrific, for all of us and that horror had to be chronicled. Every bloody minute, every sweaty, shitty, minute, drenched in puke and tears: we needed to express every minute in order to keep those baby boys alive. And let the world know they were not freaks; they were saints. True martyrs. I need to shut up.
Hunter: Please. Never shut up. You are a trailblazer, Michael, and so was Mae West. Can you tell us a little bit about this Mae West piece you’re doing? And the group that’s putting on the show?
Michael: I am the reincarnation of Mae West. I actually spent an afternoon with Mae at her apartment in the Ravenswood, shortly after I came to Hollywood. Mae was an inspiration, proving that being sexy didn’t mean you couldn’t be brainy. About eighty years ago, before her Hollywood career, West wrote a play called Sex that had a short-lived run on Broadway before the playwright was thrown in jail for obscenity. This was the first time the word “sex” appeared in a title – you think Miss West didn’t know what she was doing? She arrived to do her time at the jail in silk pajamas. Her next play, which also got her in a bit of hot water, was called The Drag. She glorified gay boys, drag queens and the trans community. Talk about ahead of her time. Well, I’ve been working with QueerWise, a Spoken Word collective, for about seven years and we routinely do a World AIDS Day show of which I’m very proud in spite of the idiots who say to me, “An AIDS show? Why? Why would you stiiiiiillll be doing an AIDS show?” I guess I was ahead of my time, Hunter, and now they think I’m behind it. I got news for them.
I always wanted to use Sex as a title. The last thing I ever wanted, or would allow, is for our World AIDS Day show to become staid or stale. So we really decided to recount sexual histories. Oh, did I mention that most of our members are ‘of a certain age?’ Queers in this town who are over 27 are discriminated against. I want all voices to be heard. And this show, Sex, will put to rest the idea that those of us over 40 – (Hunter, am I over 40?) – are dead. We do one show on Saturday, the 2nd of December at 1:00PM at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.”
You can connect with Michael Kearns on his Facebook page.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.