Bald Diva! is inspired by The Bald Soprano by Ionesco. For you, what made Ionesco's play so ripe for re-interpretation?
Well, I guess what I like about The Bald Soprano is that it paints this picture of perfect domesticity and then undermines it, basically calling it all a pack of lies, which is obviously interesting. It’s interesting dramatically and it’s interesting from a sociological standpoint as well. And in my lifetime, I’ve seen the gay community go from activists for social change and sexual liberation to assimilists, claiming that “we are just like you,” and fighting for gay marriage. Anyone who knows anything about Ionesco knows he hated conformity, and it was a major theme in his work. And anyone who knows anything about the New York gay community has heard the phrase “Chelsea clone.” While I understand the desire to fit in, and God knows I always try to have the right haircut, I sort of miss the uniqueness of being gay, rather than being forced into a mold. What happened to being fabulous? This is actually the issue that Ionesco writes about in all of his plays—however, he speaks in terms of society at large rather than addressing the gay community. What I’m proudest of about my play is that it both makes fun of its source and follows it very closely, almost like a translation. Also, it stands on its own, which, frankly, none of us ever expected. I feared our target audience was only going to be gay male theatre scholars—and I still can’t help but think that they enjoy it best—but the play proved to have a curiously wide appeal. I still think Ionesco’s play is ripe for re-interpretation, because I think we are closer than ever to everything he feared about society. His plea for a resistance to conformity is perhaps more vital today than ever. The world has only become more media-driven, commercialized, homogenized, McDonald-ized, and now globalized. We all own the same products, follow the same celebrities, and watch the same TV shows. There’s very little room for individualism. I believe Ionesco wrote his play from a fairly optimistic place in his heart, and I think my take is probably a little more cynical. In my defense, Ionesco was writing prophetic warning plays to urge change, whereas I’m writing what I actually see every day.
The Bald Soprano satirizes a lot of things: post-World War II suburban life, linear plot, even the conventions of theatre itself. Bald Diva! satirizes contemporary urban gay culture, and also The Bald Soprano a little bit. How does one go about spoofing a spoof? And why was that appealing to you?
I don’t think Ionesco spoofed his world, he satirized it and there’s an important distinction. I think he was hoping to cause a revolution of sorts with his art, to hold up a mirror and create change. Not that I don’t want to do that, I do, but with this play I was more interested in finding a funny way of translating Ionesco’s play into our world. I think some of my other plays satirize society, and maybe someday I’ll transform the world. However, I’m content that this play spoofs Chelsea boys and Absurdist theatre in one fell swoop, what more could a writer ask? I don’t mean to sound unconcerned about the world; I just relied heavily on Ionesco’s message to come through. Yes, there’s clearly some rage in my play, I can’t deny it, but that hopefully makes it a richer, more provocative piece. I didn’t realize I was so dissatisfied with the gay community until I wrote this play and was forced to examine my community, and myself for that matter. You might say I’m malcontent with the mall-content. My partner, Joseph DeFilippis, is an activist and the founder of Queers for Economic Justice, and he’s been frustrated with the selling out of the gay community for years, and it took awhile but I finally understand his disappointment with the complacency in this world. I don’t think I’m a visionary like Ionesco was, but Joseph certainly is. When I see the world from Joseph’s perspective—his frustration with the apolitical attitudes and shallow values of Chelsea boys, I understand Ionesco more. Joseph, like Ionesco, faces the world with a better vision for it and a tremendous sense of humor. I aspire to be more like that. Which I guess is why this play isn’t just a series of zingers; Jason, Jamee, and I really cared about Ionesco’s struggle with the world and we believed in his message. And I was lucky enough to have someone as angry and hopeful and funny as Joseph in my life, who truly believes the world can become a better place and works each day to transform it—I think that helped me tap into Ionesco’s hope for a different society.
Bald Diva! was created by you, director Jason Jacobs, and dramaturg Jamee Freedus. How did you all decide to work on this together? And, what were the delineations of duties, aside from the obvious ones, in the collective creation of the play?
It was a class assignment for Jason and Jamee when we were all grad students at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. They were taking a class on Ionesco with the divine Anne Bogart and their class had to culminate in a production of one of his plays. I believe they had to find their own way “into” the play, and Jason, being gay, was looking for a queer perspective on this. Jason and Jamee had this idea in their heads before they approached me, and I guess I was the solution on how to get from point A to point B. And I think I responded, like, “Why would we do this?” And then they asked me to come to a reading of The Bald Soprano in Jason’s living room where they had only men reading all of the roles (the original play is very much divided into heterosexual couples). That led to a discussion of, “Wouldn’t it be funny if these guys were gym bunnies and these guys were club boys…?” And it just took off from there. We all saw the play in our heads that day, and we just had to figure out how to put that on stage. Each of us had our scholastic duties on the piece, so the boundaries were very clear from the get-go. Jamee is a lovely force in this world and a wonderful dramaturg and Jason is just a remarkable director. They were brilliant at putting this together, and I just had to be a joke machine and follow the bread crumbs Ionesco had sown. And it was truly a learning exercise walking in Ionesco’s shadow; I pushed myself in directions I never imagined. Now everything I write has a little absurdity to it; I can’t help myself. It was a great collaborative experience working with Jason and Jamee, and Ionesco. And this play also owes so much of its existence to the talents of actors Tim Cusack and Jerry Marsini, who tirelessly workshopped this thing for-eve-ver. They were both cast day one and, under Jason’s steady hand, really helped shape these characters and the tone of the piece.
I understand you write a one-act play every year to benefit the Mottola Theatre Project. What is the Mottola Theatre Project, and how did you first become involved with them?
I love their Cherry Picking Festival, because each year it has an unknown theme and I am forced to write something unexpected. Not all of the pieces I’ve written for them have worked, but they make me write about things I wouldn’t normally write about. Each year they mail me an object (like, say, a rabbit’s foot) or perhaps a word (like Mexican Hat) and I have to come up with a one-act play for it. It’s a great challenge and they get some terrifically talented people involved. Then they do a staged reading and raise money. And it all goes to a good cause, which is bringing theatre to inner city youth. The folks at MTP are good, good people with very generous spirits, and I love being around them. Theatre is often so competitive, but MTP somehow creates this nurturing environment, which artists just thrive in. I mean, don’t we all? It’s a very openhanded, Anne Bogart approach to art, I think. MTP keeps a very low profile because it’s all about the work; perhaps that’s their secret. However, I’d love to see what they’d do on a larger scale. I’m sure it would be pretty exciting.
You also teach quite a bit: you recently taught playwriting to teens at a New Hampshire summer camp, and creative writing to lesbian and gay teens at the Harvey Milk School on Astor Place. What's your interest in teaching teens?
God, I learn so much from them. They have such open minds. They face a blank sheet of paper and see Mars, or the inside of someone’s brain, or two insects on a flower, or someone lost at sea with his talking piece of chalk and a deaf monkey. Then there’s me: I see a living room with a couch and a door. Maybe a phone. I grew up on Ibsen and Neil Simon, whereas they aren’t trapped in those tropes. Ironically, I usually write the type of traditional theatre Ionesco hated. When I do try to write about someone in, say, a space capsule, it comes out as a movie or TV script, or even a poem, not a play. That’s why if I were writing a play from scratch that satirized the gay community, it would be a very different play. Ionesco is very child-like in his imagination, and can see into a world where people are turning in rhinoceroses. So when I’m in front of a class of young faces, I teach them about structure and character, and they teach me to free myself a bit more. And who knows, maybe one of these kids will be the next Ionesco. Or, more likely, they’ll just learn something about themselves, like how to express themselves in a different way, and that’s incredible too. It’s deeply satisfying to show someone they can do something they never imagined being able to accomplish.
What can audiences expect from you next? Are you working on any new projects?
I’ve been a slave to Hollywood lately. I have several TV pilots floating around and I’m hoping some of my film commissions finally get turned into movies. I’ve worked a lot on my play The Cook’s Tour, which has enjoyed numerous readings with Estelle Parsons and Marylouise Burke, and I desperately hope we see that on its feet soon. I am writing two new plays now, however, but I’m not sure which to focus on. One play is a gay version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, so hopefully there’ll be a Playing with Canons, Volume 2!
Interview with David Koteles was conducted by Michael Criscuolo September 2006.