Wednesday, October 09, 2013

RETURN TO GREY GARDENSThe Evening Class Interview With Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ)

I think I read on Wikipedia or some other reliable source that Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) is genetically inclined to reappropriate films for his (her) own purposes. "Nothing is sacred," the infamous drag star impresario is rumored to have said. Specifically not the Maysles Brothers' 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which depicts the everyday lives of two reclusive socialites, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (1895–1977), known as "Big Edie", and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (1917–2002), known as "Little Edie", who lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit mansion at 3 West End Road in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York.

The narrative thrust of two women living together for decades with limited funds in increasing squalor and isolation is just the kind of tale that no one—not even the discriminating Peaches Christ—can leave alone. It's the perfect tale to divert our attentions from the Tea Party takeover of the U.S. government. The Maysles documentary was adapted into an Emmy®-winning HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore; two plays—Little Edie & The Marble Faun by David Lally and A Few Small Repairs by David Robson; plus a Broadway musical. But hang onto your head scarves, bitches, because Peaches Christ has licked her finger, stuck it in the air, and declared it's Monsoon season! Or maybe she exposed her tits, I'm not quite sure, but one way or the other she's gotten herself banned from Facebook. Honestly, Peaches! On the very week that you need to ramp up? Really?

Jinkx Monsoon, who has been milking the Grey Gardens schtick for decades, dons her revolutionary costume again as she reprises her now-famous Little Edie routine in the upcoming stage show Return to Grey Gardens. In this Peaches Christ adaptation, the S-T-A-U-N-C-H queen is living in a dilapidated theater with her crazed drag mother. Paired with a screening of the original Grey Gardens, the production comes to San Francisco's legendary Castro Theater on October 12—just in time for a little pre-Halloween thrill. Sharing the stage with Jinkx and Peaches is everybody's favorite, Mink Stole. Post-show, Mink will be signing copies of her new CD Do Re Mink; that is, Peaches quips, "If Jinkx is awake."

My thanks to Joshua for taking time to meet me at a noisy greasy spoon during my last visit to San Francisco to talk about this weekend's main event.

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Michael Guillén: I'm always curious how you and your team decide which film to adapt for your stage shows? Why Grey Gardens?

Joshua Grannell: When we made the leap from the Bridge Theater to the Castro Theater a few years back, we re-imagined a lot of our "signature" shows like Showgirls, Purple Rain and Mommie Dearest. That whole first year was spent re-creating shows we had done on a much smaller scale on a big scale to see how it would go. Then, in these last two years, I'm surprised by the fact that we've been doing all new productions (with the exception of Showgirls). Honestly, it's refreshing and exciting for me because I was worried that we weren't going to be able to do that. I worried that new projects weren't going to be able to fill the house at the Castro. It's so expensive for me to mount a show there that I have to have minimum attendance just to break even. The Castro Theater—I don't think this is any secret—rents for $6,000.00 for a Saturday. The film rental is always expensive. It's often a big chunk percent of my ticket price. Unlike any other event promoter, I put on giant productions. The queens get paid. The crew gets paid. We rent outside lighting and sound and that's all before marketing, the cost of graphic design, and advertising.

Guillén: I haven't talked to anyone who hasn't acknowledged how professional your stage shows are.

Grannell: I'm glad everyone thinks that. Sometimes I think, "How do I make money doing this?"

Guillén: Wait a minute, I thought you were in it for the fame and the glamour?

Grannell: I used to be in the early days. [Laughs.] Obviously, getting to make a living doing something I love is still a total joy; but, as the years go on, you start to think about what you're going to do to sustain a living. It's been great. It's been really really good. There have been shows that have not paid off where I've lost money; but, the good side is that—from a business point of view—we're doing a good job. These shows and new events and new guests and new ideas are proving themselves more often than not to be a viable business plan for me, which is really exciting.

So we've been experimenting with a lot with movies that have been on a list and Grey Gardens has certainly been on that list for years. But I had certain reluctances. You remember Midnight Mass in its early days? It was a debaucherous midnight free-for-all. Certainly, I encouraged that, created that, and celebrated it with such things as drag queen roller derby. We turned a blind eye to the amount of drunkeness. So there were movies for me that were bona fide cult classics, but I was maybe afraid of my own audience's interpretation of why I was screening them. I never wanted to screen something where I felt like the audience might laugh at the movie in a way that I wasn't comfortable with. Since we had set up this sort of debaucherous Showgirls-type environment, Grey Gardens for me was almost too precious. I loved the two Edies so much, I loved the movie so much, and I've watched it so many times, that I would have been heartbroken if I ever felt that any single person wasn't getting the spirit with which we were celebrating these two women.

So it took a certain number of years for me to approach Grey Gardens as a viable project. Moving to the Castro Theatre and doing shows at 3:00 and 8:00, instead of midnight, and having become an older, more established performer, has made me better able to direct the spirit with which we present things. I was nervous to present Paris Is Burning earlier this year, but we did that and it went well. I don't know if everybody was on board for our pre-show because we attempted to authentically re-create a ball with actual ball participants—both on the judges' side and on the contestants' side—and so in the spirit of a ball, it was way too long. It was vicious. [Laughs.] The judges weren't afraid to turn against the audience. Things that people at a Peaches show are not used to. So I did get some feedback but I was like, "Well, I promised to give you a ball and I gave you a ball, so...." But it went well. The things that I was worried about were not an issue. We were celebrating those subjects and their legacy and obviously all of the significant players are no longer with us so there wasn't an option to bring one of the queens in. We had the blessing of Jennie Livingston. Jennie and I corresponded a lot before the event. I really felt that we did it correctly.

A bit earlier than that event, I met with Jinkx Monsoon over at Stacks, we had lunch, and it was the same afternoon that her Little Edie episode on RuPaul's Drag Race was airing. It hadn't aired yet when we got together to talk, but I had seen the commercials and I could tell from the marketing that she was going to do well. They were really featuring her as Little Edie in the build-up to the next episode. Jinkx just happened to be in town to do a viewing party at one of the Castro gay bars and so we had lunch and she was very generous and sweet and actually showed me pictures of me and her when I had gone to Seattle in past years. We, of course, had corresponded via email—she could quote All About Evil, all of it—and it was a mutual lovefest. I told her, "I love you on Drag Race, I love what you're bringing, and I think you're one of us for sure, and I would love it if maybe you and I could do an event together."

Whenever I had taken Peaches to Seattle, Jinkx would come to the shows; but, we had never performed together. We did a Trannyshack event together in Seattle, so we had met before, but we didn't really know each other very well. So when she came to town, we had a three-hour lunch. We talked and talked and talked. Finally, I said, "You know, I've seen the commercials for the Drag Race episode airing tonight and I've been wanting to do Grey Gardens and certain things have stalled me over the years, like the Drew Barrymore project and then the musical; but, now that I feel that they've done their thing, if you're up to it, let's do it!" Jinkx was very excited about the idea, giddy, and jumped on board, and added, "Wait until you see the episode tonight! I think you'll be even more excited." I said, "Oh, do you win?" But, of course, she couldn't tell me, but she said, "I think you'll be pleased." The episode was even better than I could have imagined because one of the things that came out in the episode was how many of the other queens weren't familiar with Grey Gardens and were looking at Jinkx like, "What are you doing? You're crazy. You're performing as this person that nobody knows." What was great was that the cool, cultured gay response was, "Shame on those queens for not knowing who Little Edie is."

Guillén: You say Grey Gardens has been on your list for a long time, and you tell me this reaction of the queens to Jinkx on Drag Race, do you have concerns that your audience will even remember Grey Gardens?

Grannell: Well, I think Grey Gardens is in the pop culture zeitgeist, but I don't know how many younger people have actually seen or studied the Maysles Brothers film so I told Jinkx, "Let's screen the original documentary and do a drag pre-show that's very much us. We're not going to do the Drew Barrymore / Jessica Lange thing"—which was actually very well done, I was a fan, and though I haven't seen the musical, Jinkx was a fan of the musical. So what was great was that we didn't dislike these things that had previously come out based on the documentary, but we agreed to do our own thing. I guess I felt it was a risk to some degree to commit to doing it, moreso than The Craft with Sharon Needles. I knew that was going to do well. When I saw The Craft back in the '90s in a theater here in San Francisco, we were already doing Midnight Mass, and I was like, "Oh, I'll do that someday. Give it time." Me and Martiny talked about it. Whereas with Grey Gardens, I'm still not sure three weeks out how it's all going to go; but, the enthusiasm for our production is there.

Guillén: Gauging from your Facebook event page, you already have quite a following committed to coming.

Grannell: We've already sold over 1,000 tickets. We've even added a second show. So I'm not as worried as I was initially. The good news is I'm not freaking out the way I normally would be if it was three weeks away and we had only sold 100 tickets. We had to add a second show because our VIP seats sold out almost immediately for the 8:00 show.

Guillén: So you don't normally screen documentaries?

Grannell: Well, we did Paris Is Burning. And, actually, Truth Or Dare was our first documentary many years ago. I can't think of any others.

Guillén: So give me a glimpse of your process and how you develop a show like this. You and Jinkx got together and decided to do it, then what? Did you have follow-up pow wow sessions where you bantered around ideas? Did you come up with a script?

Grannell: No, usually I first decide on the style of the show. If an iconic celebrity is involved who I want to interview or get inside their head then I use a model—much like I do for SF Sketchfest—of bringing someone, like Cloris Leachman, and show a movie of her's; but, the show is more of a tribute to her with a sit-down interview where the show is about me and that person.

Guillén: Idol worship.

Grannell: Exactly! Idol worship is what I always call it. Then, lately I've been having so much fun—even though it's way more expensive and lots of work—doing giant sketch comedy parodies where we appropriate the narrative through the lens of our own characters. That's what I've been really inspired by lately. So we're not doing what Heklina and the girls have done with Golden Girls or Sex in the City where they do a verbatim re-creation of an existing script, which is very funny and its own theatrical device. I, instead, live with the movie for a while, watch the movie over and over again, and adjust it to the world of our characters. For example, with The Craft it was very much Sharon Needles and Honey and Alaska as these existing witches, but they were also very much themselves: drag queen witches who had all been on Drag Race and were evil and bitchy. A kind of mash-up with Peaches as the new girl moving to L.A. to become one of them. So convincing was my announcement that I was moving to L.A. that people were devastated and emailing me and I had to assure them, "No, that was all part of the show. I'm not moving to L.A. I'm here." The other day I was at the Castro and someone was looking at the poster for Grey Gardens and another woman said, "I thought Peaches had moved to L.A.!"

Guillén: There you go starting rumors about yourself again! Now, you'll be doing the Grey Gardens show in Seattle as well the following week. What's involved with that? With transferring a show?

Grannell: A lot of times when I do out-of-town events, it's essentially a watered-down version of what we do in San Francisco, in the sense that it's maybe me in costume working with a local group. With All About Evil, we tried harder to re-create the experience everywhere we went. In Seattle, only once did we actually move our show, about eight or nine years ago when we brought Purple Rain up there; but, it was so hard and so much work that, since then for the next 10 shows I've done up there, it's been me on an airplane re-creating the show with a number or maybe an Idol Worship show, bringing in Mink Stole or whoever, which has been fabulous. But because Jinkx's home town is Seattle, and there was a less-than-subtle, almost angry, outcry from Seattle that this event was happening only in San Francisco, my good friend Jason Ford who runs Seattle's queer film festival asked me, "What would it take to bring it to Seattle?" I said, "For a show like this that's so high-profile and generating so much excitement, it's going to take more than just putting Jinkx and I on stage before the film. Let's move the show." So we have our crew renting a truck driving all the props and costumes up to Seattle; everything's being transported. The chorus will be re-cast with local queens. I mean, imagine the expense that would be involved in trying to fly the local cast up there? We have four raccoons, four cats, to flesh this out into a Peaches show. It couldn't be a two-woman show for an hour. We needed it to have my silly drag sensibility thrown into the mix. Yeah, there's a talking raccoon.

Guillén: You have a silly sensibility?!!

Grannell: I do. Believe it or not!

Guillén: Will Mink also participate in the Seattle show?

Grannell: Sadly, no. That's a bummer.

Guillén: Other than for the fact that she loves working with you, what's the rationale for casting her in this production?

Grannell: Yeah, because it's random! And I know it's random. I'll be really honest. I was home in Maryland in June, spending a lot of time with Mink in Baltimore, and she and my mom and I went shopping and we were talking about how much fun we had on the All About Evil tour. Her new CD Do Re Mink has just come out, and I love it, it's fabulous, so I said, "You should come out to San Francisco and do a concert. Let's do it together." But, again, the reality of bringing her band and doing a concert correctly would be so much work. We may do that someday, but that's a different project. Then I said, "Well, you know Mink, any time that you're available and I'm putting on a show, I will find a place for you." That was basically it. So she said, "Okay." I told her, "When I get home, I'm going to send you the dates for my upcoming shows for the rest of the year." I emailed her the dates. The only one that worked out with her schedule was Grey Gardens, because she's doing a Tennessee Williams festival in November for this show she's getting rave reviews for. I think it premiered in Provincetown and now it's going to do a run in New York. Between rehearsals and her other show, the only date that worked was Grey Gardens. So I said, "Okay, we'll figure it out."

When I sat down to do the rough writing of the pre-show, I actually knew I wanted Mink to be in it and it's too bad you're not going to see the show because I think we make it work. Ladybear plays Jackie O in the pre-show. I mean, we take liberties! [Laughs.] But without giving too much away, the conceit of our Return to Grey Gardens is that it's set 40 years into the future. Jinkx came to San Francisco on October 12, 2013 in the middle of doing her sold-out run in New York City—which is what she's going through now; her vaudevillian show has gotten rave reviews and has been extended and extended and keeps selling out—but we've set it up so that our event was already on the books so we have to pull her out of New York so she can come do Grey Gardens in San Francisco, and the conceit is that Peaches won't let her leave for 40 years. They're performing the same show in the Castro Theatre, which has gotten completely run-down because no other movies have screened there, Peaches is this megalomaniac who has insisted that they keep doing this show, and so that's where the show picks up: an empty auditorium, no audience, and we're up on stage going through the motions. Mink plays herself. There's a big birthday party scene where Mink is there, awkwardly, but it's actually part of an intervention. Of course, with this narrative set-up, we won't skip any of the moments. Jinkx will still present the costume of the day. There's a Jerry Torre, who just happens to be openly gay and living in the Castro. It'll be fun!

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