Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey

From left to right: Phil Gillen, Andrew Dawson, and Aidan Sank

From left to right: Phil Gillen, Andrew Dawson, and Aidan Sank

It may seem paradoxical to create a show about the relationships in the life of a recluse, but Travis Russ, Artistic Director of Life Jacket Theatre Company and writer and director of Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey, likes nothing better than a theatrical challenge.

Edward Gorey, born in 1925, was never known to have a romantic relationship in the 75 years he was alive, and yet there are several tantalizing hypotheses about the nature of his relationships with Frank O’Hara, famous poet and his college roommate, and George Balanchine, the famous choreographer. In his lifetime, Gorey tended to keep his friends separate because he didn’t want his social circles to overlap. It is easy to posit that Gorey was struggling with his sexuality during the rise of sexual liberation, and therefore chose not to liberate himself, or was always confused about his sexuality, or was perhaps actually asexual. Whatever the case may have been, Gorey did not seek the traditional comforts of personal relationships.

Therefore, in adhering to Anne Bogart’s mantra, “Every good play is about relationships,” Russ strives towards an incredibly difficult theme. Yet, by digging into the sparse testament we have to Gorey’s emotional life (interview transcripts, journals and diaries), Russ is able to create a show that is half fact, half fiction, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the relationship blanks.

Russ says, “Humans are innately complicated; even if someone lives a ‘simple life,’ no one is simple.” Thereby, Russ chose to embrace Gorey’s unreliability as a narrator and use three different actors to portray him, at ages 25, 35, and 75, showing his struggles and shifting perspectives throughout his life. Gorey was inconsistent in his lifetime, often making up personal details and stories in interviews. Instead of trying to pin down one version of Gorey, Russ tries to find many different truths and realities that Gorey posited throughout his lifetime. Russ encourages his audience to probe the complexity of the literary myth around this storied figure, saying, “To pigeon hole him is the worst thing you can do.”

Russ attributes his interest in the stories of outcasts to his own sympathetic perspective, gained by growing up gay in small town Indiana. Russ says, “On the outside I look pretty normal, but inside I was the outcast. […] I’ve taken a mainstream approach to life, living vicariously through these people, from inside my safe bubble.” People living on the edge of society, outcasts, ostracized people, people who choose to ostracize themselves, people rejected by society — Russ wants to put a spotlight on them all. He says, “To me, the stranger, the better.”

Russ remembers his first experience with an “outcast” was a male social worker in his small town who worked with his mother, did community theater with Russ, and used to carry a blue jean purse with a zipper. Russ recalls that this small act of gender nonconformity “threw everyone into a tizzy,” and that the man was eventually fired because parents were concerned about him working with their children. Russ says, “I was always really intrigued by him, I would love to be able to interview him now.”

Russ has spent his professional life building a career in academia, keeping theater on the side as a passionate hobby. It wasn’t until he started approaching 40 that he felt ready to take the plunge and start his own theater company. Russ says, “I realized I needed to carve out an opportunity. If I wanted to create work, I needed to create a space for it.” He acknowledges it’s a risk to change careers, investing his life savings in this new pursuit, but says, “I’m thinking of it as getting another undergraduate degree; I’m learning to be a playwright, director, producer, and designer all at once.”

And so, Life Jacket Theatre Company was born — a raft of hope for Russ as he tested the waters of this new phase of his professional life, and for the unlikely characters whose stories he is interested in telling. Life Jacket focuses on creating new, original works, based on real people and real stories. Russ says, “I am also sort of obsessed with dysfunction, like, what gets in the way of people interacting with each other? What obstacles are there?” Investigating the life of Edward Gorey, it is impossible to really get to know him, since he was so evasive about the details of his personal life when he was alive. He therefore makes an extremely apt dysfunctional character to star in Life Jacket’s first fully produced show.

With so many companies in New York creating documentary or investigative theater, it can be a challenge to distinguish oneself. Russ says, “While several companies do verbatim theater, [Life Jacket] compliments our work with a highly visual and physical aesthetic. This approach helps us produce very visually inventive and deeply, lyrically rich works.” To that end, Gorey employs the use of projections, original music, and even puppetry to animate this fantastical world. Russ sees Gorey as a man out of place in his own era, with his eccentric habits, costumes, wit, and collections. Although Gorey was largely isolated for his eccentricity in his lifetime, he is brought back to life in this show through a hugely collaborative creative effort. Russ says, “Creating a theater company is like creating a family that you build one person at a time. People talk about finding your tribe, and it really is true.”

Many years ago, Russ first encountered Gorey’s work while staying at a B&B next to Gorey’s former house — now a museum — in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. The innkeeper advised Russ to go pay the museum a visit, and the more Russ learned, the more he felt that this character needed to be in a play. Russ says, “Most people don’t know who he is, but I kind of like that. They know his work, but they don’t know him.”

In The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey, perhaps the point is not to know him, as he is ultimately unknowable. In the play, Gorey himself says, “Who I am and what I write are two different things.” If Gorey lived with so many mental barriers and methods of compartmentalization, perhaps the ultimate aim of this theatrical introduction is not to try to break them down, but to instead turn our reflection and curiosity inwards, to our own ways of interacting with and possibly rejecting our modern era. Russ admits, “At the end of the day, I don’t know why I gravitated towards him. I’m just interested!”

Come immerse yourself in Gorey’s fantastical world to draw your own conclusions. Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey runs April 30-May 22 at HERE.

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