Prelude.12: An Interview With Joshua Conkel
The worlds of Brooklyn-based playwright Joshua Conkel (author of MilkMilkLemonade, The Sluts of Sutton Drive, Sprawl, among others) are many things- at turns vibrant, audacious, and vicious–but quiet is rarely one of them. So then it only makes sense that his latest venture, “pop horror fashion spectacular” The House of Von Macrame, is a full-out, no-marking musical collaboration with composer Matt Marks. It’s showing this week as part of the 2012 Prelude Festival, as part of the “Return of the Singspiel” program at 8:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 at the Martin E. Segal Center, 365 Fifth Ave., tickets first-come, first served.
How did you start working on The House of Von Macrame?
I’ve wanted to write a catwalk play with built-in fashion shows for years now. I love spectacle, and fashion shows are just such an event—perfect little nexuses or art and music. This play is an amalgam of different obsessions of mine: glamorous old horror movies, fashion, and synth music.
Did you always know it was going to be a musical (let alone a “pop horror fashion spectacular,” as it’s billed)?
It only made sense to make it a musical. Most of my plays are so heightened that they want to be musicals anyway. When I see productions of MilkMilkLemonade now, with its built-in dance breaks, I think, “Oh, there wants to be a song here.” So The House of Von Macrame is a logical progression in a trajectory I’ve been on for a long, long time, even though I didn’t know it.
So would you ever consider going back and adding songs to your plays now?
I’ve thought about adding songs to MilkMilkLemonade, but since that particular play is produced so often I think it’s best to wait until later when its momentum has stalled. So maybe in five years or so I’ll add musical numbers and relaunch it.
Is this the first musical you’ve collaborated on?
This is my first musical, and it actually feels very natural. I adore musicals and grew up doing them in community theater, so I have a pretty good sense of them.
Best community theatre role?
When I was seventeen I played the Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof. Type-casting, you know?
What were some of your favorite musicals as a kid?
The obvious answers are The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, both of which I was obsessed with. That said, I really, really love Shock Treatment, Richard O’ Brien’s misjudged and overlooked semi-sequel to Rocky Horror. I also really love Phantom of the Paradise. Netflix them! They’re great!
I’m always curious how the process is different for a playwright working on the book of a musical piece versus working alone on a play—does it feel like a different writing muscle?
The process, for us, is that I write the book with little holes in it and meet with my composer, Matt Marks. I say, “I think there should be a song in this spot and it should move the plot forward like this or sound/feel like this,” and then Matt and I go back and forth. We work beautifully together because we have so much in common. We’re both influenced by the same movies, the same music, the same sense of humor.
Thinking about your play Sprawl (which Studio 42 will present a reading of on Oct. 21), comparisons to Ludlam and Busch certainly come to mind, but not before slasher movies and apocalyptic thrillers. You cite 70s horror films as one of the inspirations for Von Macrame–do you find you’re often inspired by specific movies or cinematic genres more than, say, other plays or playwrights?
I do admit that some might think my inspirations are lowbrow. I love horror movies, pop music, comic books etc. Lately I feel like maybe I was born at the wrong time. Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch, Nicky Silver, and Chris Durang: these guys are my playwright heroes, but at the moment the trend in American theater is these sort of soft-spoken, sad girl “naturalistic” plays. So, yeah, until that trend passes again I’d just as soon see a midnight movie or a rock show. I much prefer spectacle, theatricality, laughter, loudness, wildness.
Reading the plot description, it sounds like a very queer show–are there aesthetics or influences of yours that you think of as queer which have more to do with the sensibility of your work, than, say, the characters you write?
Everything I ever do is queer, even when I’m just walking to the bodega to get a Diet Coke. There is only one heterosexual male character in the show, and we’re working on a song in the second act called, “The Only Straight Man in Fashion” or some such. But much like my real life, this is a universe populated mostly by women and gay men. We want to do a lot of reverse gender casting like we did in MilkMilkLemonade, like have butch girls play men and having men playing women. We also want to experiment with body types in casting this show. This is a fashion industry in a different universe then our own, so hopefully the runway model chorus will include some heavy girls and short girls and everything in between.
Can you talk a bit more about the use of gender reverse casting in your plays: what about it appeals to you?
A lot of gay people pooh-pooh drag, but that’s just because they want to assimilate and it embarrasses them. Drag has always been an important way for queer people to explore a mainstream gender culture they feel excluded from. Plus, it’s just fun.
Bonus round: If Von Macrame were a specialty cocktail, what would its ingredients be?
Grain alcohol and a strawberry Now N’ Later.