Perkins & Borinsky | THE GOLD ROOM

Photo by Maria Baranova

Jacob Perkins is one of my favorite writers. His plays feel like spare spells, for the marshaling of particular and delicate energies. I often find myself blindsided by the worlds he so delicately assembles – listening quietly and then walloped by a flood of tears. He writes about the rooms – physical and spiritual – where people gather when they don’t quite know how to be together. And how the willingness to show up is sometimes all it takes for transformation to be possible. 

In The Gold Room, two performers, One and Two, referred to in the script as “the Boys,” cycle through a series of interactions. Sometimes they are old lovers, sometimes a Grindr hookup, sometimes father and son, sometimes playwright and artistic director. Each scenario slips almost seamlessly into the next. But the narrative restlessness is not just an exercise in role-play. It’s a dance of distance, of trying out new possibilities for the self. One and Two are not just empty vessels, putting on characters. They’re themselves. They’re Jacob. They’re any queer person, I think, seeking a language for the sensation of being in the world. 

In the last moments of the play we watch One and Two, still, facing us, listening to a voice on a television. The voice tells a story about being a kid, six or seven years old, watching his father and a group of men from his perch at the top of a staircase. I won’t go into the details, but it’s a bit of a “ring of keys” moment, just darker. That posture, that feeling – being a kid, watching the adults from a hidden place behind a banister – is the ache that runs through the whole play for me. The wondering: Is that who I am? And: Who am I? And: What is waiting for me, on some horizon I can barely imagine? 

I loved getting to watch actors Robert Stanton and Scott Parkinson’s faces, finally at rest, listening. Imagining all the history dancing behind their eyes. 

Jacob and I wrote back and forth over email. The Gold Room is currently running at HERE Arts Center, in a gorgeous production presented by i am a slow tide and directed by Gus Heagerty. 

Agnes Borinsky: Jacob, your play is gorgeous and painful. It feels like a crystal we turn in our hands, flashing and refracting light. I remember the first time I read it — early 2018, I think. Can you say a little bit about the origins of this play?  

Jacob Perkins: Thank you for coming, Agnes. You always express the most surprising (and correct) images for the experience of a play. Yes, I was completing the draft while acting in your play, Ding Dong It’s The Ocean. At the start of rehearsals for The Gold Room, I returned to the beautiful email you wrote to me after reading it all those years ago – a poem in and of itself.

A play’s beginnings are so mysterious, especially when trying to recall them four years later.  I know that my weekly psychoanalytic sessions played a big role in the structural container for the play:  the way an analysand [the person undergoing analysis] turns the analyst into multiple people while working through relationship dynamics brought in from the outside world.  That experience of transference felt highly theatrical, because I believe I’m doing that all the time – while having a conversation in the present moment, I’m also recalling conversations from my past.  How does the sentence my boyfriend just said to me jolt me into a conversation I had with my father twenty years prior?  I just knew I wanted to question what it meant to have “characters” on stage…how does language shape who we are to each other?

I also was writing while listening to white noise soundscapes, which created an interiority, a shell, a cocoon around the play.  Somewhere safe and secluded; a place where I could honestly express what it was like to be afraid all the time in the outside world.  To fear connection and then to open to it.

And lastly, I was entering a new romantic relationship at the time, and when I shared the first few scenes with him, he was highly encouraging.  I hate to admit it, but having someone you’re falling in love with tell you you’re a good writer can really provide the motivation to push through the discomfort (and confusion) writing can often produce and finish the story.  I wanted to know who I’d been in order to find out who I might become, especially in partnership with another.

I love your answer so much, because it brings out two things that felt very present to me, watching this time. On the one hand, fear — and what it means to be safe, enveloped. And on the other hand, becoming — how do we figure out who we might become? Those two are always of course in a dance with each other. 

I was talking about this afterwards with the folks I came to see the show with — all queer people: Who taught us to become the people we have become? Who did we & do we look to as we become ourselves? Cause that question, for me, felt like the emotional center of the play this time around. When you are queer and growing up you have to sort of find those images for yourself, because they’re often at the edges of the culture. And you find yourself called to certain people or moments, and hurting, and feeling far from them, and moving towards. And then as you move through the world you start to find ways of surrounding yourself with images, or possibilities. And that’s always a dance between fear, hurt, becoming, discovery, connection, loss…

So it’s interesting to think about your distance from the moment of writing this play, and your distance from that relationship, now. Do you think the play means something different to you, now? And what is your relationship, now, to that work of becoming? 

In my experience, fear always accompanies growth.  Venturing into new terrain, a new self, brings a healthy dose of anxiety.  It reminds me of something I heard about crustaceans:  they outgrow their exoskeleton or shell, molt, and then their bare, soft, tender insides are exposed to the elements.  Writing a play, for me, is showing people what’s underneath the protective armor…the moments before I’ve fully “arrived” at a confident sense of self.

I first learned who to be and what to believe from my immediate, nuclear family.  In many ways, I’m still uncovering (and shedding) those early influences.  Someone in my hometown told me I was gay before I even knew what that word was, and in that moment, I began to observe my physical vocabulary:  was my wrist too limp or my voice too high-pitched?  I’ve been watching myself since I was 5 years old in order to avoid danger or ridicule from those who have a limited view of what a boy should be.  Writing this play felt like an opportunity to create a refuge away from all of that; a space where I could love someone, flamboyantly, all the while knowing that the danger could enter the room at any moment.

Our director, Gus, and our actors, Robert and Scott, consistently showed me what I had written in rehearsals.  They asked questions, tried various forms of staging, became vulnerable and then guarded and vulnerable again…this process of interrogation was the highest compliment to me.  That a team of collaborators was willing to show up each and every day and lend their experience to what I dreamt about, alone in my room, all those years ago, was a vital gift.  The conversations we had in the room about queerness, about fear and becoming, and now to welcome audiences into that private collaboration…the play is still teaching me something, because every person who sees it now is having their own interpretation, and I think the play throbs somewhere between my intention and their reception.

Rehearsing it felt like having conversations with a ghost. I’m not the person I was, who wrote that text four years ago, but as soon as I stepped into those rehearsals, I was alive to his continued presence under my skin.  Jacob from 4 years ago still has something to say to Jacob now.  Jacob will always be becoming Jacob. 

There’s a stuckness, too, though, that happens. Don’t you think? It’s not so easy to shed. That Jacob from 4 years ago has something to teach is a generous way of putting it. Sometimes I feel haunted by Agnes from 4 years ago. Frustrated by all that accumulation. 

I’m just reading this article about Sharon Olds in the NYTimes, and it says: “If you have ever studied poetry — if perhaps you were, like me, the sort of emotional nerd who lugged around thick anthologies, memorizing sonnets — then you will already know this fact: The word “stanza” means “room.” (Edward Hirsch: “Each stanza in a poem is like a room in a house, a lyric dwelling place.”) This means that every poem, and every book of poems, is a sort of house tour. The poet leads you, room by room, through the various chambers of his or her world.”

Rooms! Yes. That’s better than stuck, or haunted. 

Each “scene” or “stanza” in my play is a new room in the same house. We travel from space to space, taking a tour, and by the end, perhaps we have a better understanding of where we’ve been living.

Can you say a little bit more about what this process has been like? I know you spent a lot of time with this text over the course of the pandemic — and in different ways than you might have had it been a more traditional rehearsal process. 

Can you say a little bit more, too, about your collaboration with Gus, and i am a slow tide? What were the challenges and the gifts about producing work at this scale, and in this context? 

I wrote this play for men my age and sent it along to Thomas Jay Ryan after he asked to read some of my work. He immediately thought it would play well with men in the middle of their lives. I agreed. The play starts and ends in the middle of something. The characters are looking back while also looking forward: kaleidoscopic longing, if you will. I did early readings with the incredible Glenn Fitzgerald and Tom and then Robert came on board when Glenn was no longer available. 

Over the pandemic, Robert, Tom, Gus, and I met a handful of times to read through the play. It felt like a guerrilla way of making theater: the world was falling apart all around us, so why not come together and make something? Why not connect? It became clear that this play would have to be self-produced, and Gus started the ball rolling with fundraising. From there, we brought on the UNBELIEVABLE producing team of Sam Max and Anne Troup, about whom I could write an entire book of compliments.

Gus is my best friend. He and I met 11 years ago at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC. I was an actor and he was directing. He first met me as I was saying the language of dead writers. We were forged by classical texts but we always talked about contemporary plays. He fuses a strong musical understanding of text with a psychological probing. He’s deeply collaborative, and it’s been a great pleasure over the last year watching his own molting, shedding the layers of self-doubt and moving into a deeper confidence in his vision. 

Robert and Scott (who replaced Tom after he, too, became unavailable) are extraordinary. Rigorous attention to an intimidatingly orchestrated text. I’ve never experienced such attention to detail. I owe them more than I can pay.

And the design team: what an army. The lights that greer x shone on this world and the soundscape from Taul Katz and the delicate palate shaped by Elizabeth Ward…suddenly the room was alive and haunted.

It took four years to make this play. No institution wanted it. So we made it ourselves. And thank god we did.

I’m so glad you did! 

I wasn’t in rehearsals with y’all when i am a slow tide did my play, Brief Chronicle, but I remember having long phone conversations with Gus about that text. He is so so attentive to every detail, every word, every moment. And you can feel it in the sensitivity and meticulousness of the production. 

Also: “Kaleidoscopic longing” is my new favorite formulation. 

I wanted to end by asking you about these lines from Richard Siken that you have used to frame the play: “I made / this place for you. A place for you to love me. / I had a dream about you. We were in the gold room / where everyone finally gets what they want. / We are all going forward. None of us are going back.”

What is the relationship between the act of making theater and getting what we want? How does the making of it invite new possibilities, invite growth? 

I had a hard time being alive until I was 30. I didn’t know how to accept reality; it’s why I’ve spent so much of my life dreaming up plays and writing them down. I wanted to live in alternate universes in which I could control time. Theater, however, is the antithesis to that desire, because it asks you to embrace the ephemeral. 

Making theater inside an incredibly tight timeframe is a microcosm of being alive:  you know that, at some point, it’s all going to be over.  And yet you try your hardest to make meaning with those around you. You try to listen, you try to understand, you laugh and you cry, you say hello and then goodbye. The audience arrives and then applauds and departs. The curtain always closes. I’ve struggled sometimes, in the face of knowing that this life is finite, with what to do, how to spend my days. Theater offers a place in time into which I pour my grief and discomfort and unyielding wanting. To want is to be alive. And, for today at least, I’d rather share my inconsistencies and failures with others and bond than close off from the world and live entirely inside my own head. 

Theater is the space where my alternate universe collides with others’ alternate universes, and then we let those worlds have a conversation, and somewhere inside that process, I feel less alone. And for a kid who didn’t know whether or not he wanted to live beyond his teenage years, who didn’t know whether or not it would ever be safe to share with anyone, this practice of letting others into my mind feels like a form of growth; a miracle.

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