As June draws to a close, so too does “Behold! A Queer Performance Festival,” an annual queer arts festival held by Highways Performing Arts Space in Santa Monica. Designed to roughly coincide with Pride month every year, it showcases local artists and performers, activists and cultural beacons, as they express their authentic queer experiences through performance, dance, spoken word, theater, multi-media, and ritual.
This summer’s festival was of particular significance to Highways; 2019 marks the organization’s 30th anniversary, and so the Space has played host to a celebration of its long legacy of collaboration with queer artists. Since its founding in 1989, it has offered a diverse cultural perspective in an effort to remain true to its original intention to push against the boundaries of convention. The Behold festival reflects that promise by reaffirming a commitment to the LGBTQ artistic community that has been there from the beginning.
Behold! has been ongoing at Highways since May, with highlights including works by longtime alumni such as solo-theatre legend Tim Miller, trans choreographer Sean Dorsey, and Black Lives Matter Co-founder Patrisse Cullors. For its final weekend, it will feature a special fundraiser screening on June 28 of “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman,” a 2018 documentary on the late AIDS Activist and LGBTQ media spokesperson, before rounding out on June 30 with a special performance from longtime Highways alumnus Michael Kearns.
Kearns is something of a local icon, an eminent artist/activist/playwright whose work has been performed – both by himself and others – in locations all around the world. He’s been a voice pushing at the edge between the queer and mainstream worlds for decades, and it’s only fitting he should close out this special 30th anniversary celebration; the opening season of Highways included Kearns’ “Intimacies,” a landmark theatrical airing of HIV/AIDS’ secrets performed by a cast of six social outliers.
In the years since, Kearns has returned again and again to the Highways stage to develop and showcase his new works; his newest piece, “Wet Hankies,” honors the legacy of his relationship with highways by presenting stories from his canon as well as from work that he has directed at Highways. In addition to selections – interpreted by a cast of diverse actors including Wanda-Lee Evans, Dean Howell, Dale Raoul and Dave Trudell – from his greatest hits (“intimacies,” “Robert’s Memorial,” “Perfect Patrick”), Kearns’ will himself give premiere performances of several new monologues that attempt to link his artistic development over three decades on the Highways stage to the roller coaster politics of LGBTQ America.
The Blade caught up with Kearns at a recent rehearsal – not for “Wet Hankies,” but for yet another piece under the direction of this prolific and seemingly tireless theatre artist, a work-in-progress for “QueerWise,” a 9-year-old collective of LGBTQ writers, 50 and over, who do regular spoken word performances under his tutelage. Things were still in the rough phase, and there was nothing in the room to help suggest the theatrical embellishments that will eventually be in place – and yet, even within the first 10 minutes of rehearsal, it was possible to see flashes of Kearns’ final vision emerging from the players as they tried to give their director what he wants.
Watching him work, it was easy to understand why. He gives the impression of someone who knows exactly where he’s leading you and exactly how to get there; he directs as a conductor leads an orchestra, using both vocal cues and sweeping gestures of the hands with an innate sense of musicality, and he leads his actors through the rhythms, tempos and dynamics of the staging with a surety of a pro while still remaining open to new ideas that arise in the moment. He may exude the aura of a mercurial genius, but along with it comes the kind of charisma that makes everyone in the room want to follow his lead.
After the rehearsal, we sat down for Q&A session with him.
LAB: Tell us about “Wet Hankies.” We’ll be seeing selections from your earlier works performed by other actors but what can you say about the new material you’re creating?
MK: It initially came out of a show I did last year at this time, “MENoir or Has Anyone Seen My Libido?” That one was done almost immediately post-radiation treatments – 9 weeks, five days a week – for prostate cancer. It was simply amazing to me that I’d survived HIV/AIDS, Hep-C, and a slew of other minor indignities only to be given another autumnal wake-up call. Since I figured fucking was a thing of the past, I figured I’d take the opportunity to wax on about the past men of my life–the good, the bad, the funny. Oh, yeah, the funny. But threaded through “MENoir” is some serious shit about the devastation of AIDS that lingers, my own issues with mortality (and morality, I suppose) and the two loves of my life: my daughter, Katherine, and art.”
LAB: What changes have come in the last year that made you want to continue monologuing about your experiences with men?
MK: I mean, who was I to not believe the doctor when he said that my testosterone would come back naturally? Whaaaa? Well, honey, naturally or with the help of a little fertilizer, it came back and the race was on to find the perfect “Bacherlorettedude.” The contest is fraught and, as only can occur in B movies or Michael Kearns performance pieces, real life and make-believe lose their sharp lines and blur until I’m lost. Lost in love. Lost in this-wasn’t-supposed-to-happen love.
LAB: So, it’s about a late-life rediscovery of libido and love. Does that mean there’s a happy ending?
MK: When I tell you right now this very minute that I don’t know the ending it’s because it hasn’t happened yet, is that profound or bullshit? Well, it’s true. I’ve spent decades – decades – thinking about “the ending,” thinking that as an artist I could control it. No, not if I’m being honest. Those are tomorrow’s heartbeats I’ve yet to track. And I’ll be close by the time I go on. But confessional narrative is, or should be, dangerous.
LAB: How would you sum up the new piece?
MK: “’Death In Venice’ Meets ‘Jerker.’” [“Jerker” is the title of the sexual self-confessional play that is arguably Kearns’ best-known work.]
LAB: How has your relationship with Highways been good for your development as a creative/theatre artist?
MK: There was no place in town that nurtured the voice of a gay artist. No one in this town was really interested in someone with my skill level who had something to say. Highways saved my life.
LAB: What do you think has been the importance of Highways for the queer artistic community over the past 30 years?
MK: I think it saved a lot of lives and I know that sounds grandiose. But I’ve looked into the eyes of audience members who come to Highways to be saved, not just to see entertainment. Oh, they see fabulous entertainment. But they see their queerness in all its distortions and illuminations, sometimes for the first time in their life. Do you know the power in that? And the power that holds for the person on stage who has spent their life being called names and being derided for being too this too that too much not enough. And in Hollywood, you are bullied by those who run this town. So there you are with lights shining on you, and lights shining out of you, and you are being applauded for the same things you were being bullied for. Honey, that’s being a star. You don’t only find stardom being stuffed in a wax museum. Sometimes you find it standing on the stage of a performance space with a few dozen people in the audience who get you and love you and will come back to see you again. And come back again after thirty years.
LAB: What’s been the most important guideline you’ve tried to hold fast to as an artist?
MK: Empathy. Of late, it’s become an overused Hollywood buzz word. I learned it from an acting teacher when I was nine-years old in St. Louis, Missouri. She taught her young thespians to never judge and never separate yourself from The Other. “You are The Other” is essentially the best mantra I know – whether you are writing, acting, directing, or being a next door neighbor.
“Michael Kearns: Wet Hankies” performs at Highways (1651 18th St., Santa Monica) at 5pm on Sunday June 30. For more information and tickets, visit www.highwaysperformance.org.