Wednesday, February 06, 2013

SKETCHFEST 2013: WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995)—The Evening Class Interview With Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ)

There's no question in my mind that Joshua Grannell and his onstage persona Peaches Christ—and the village that has helped create him—have had much to do with popularizing drag art entertainment and inciting the veritable explosion of drag performance currently available in San Francisco. You can't walk down Castro Street without seeing cleverly-photoshopped posters announcing drag parodies of favorite films and television winking at you from windows or boasting their flamboyance on bulletin boards and telephone poles. The Peaches Christ team has become a highly visible and important presence in San Francisco's cultural landscape, and helped bridge the contentious gap between high and low art when in September 2007 the San Francisco de Young Museum hosted a "Decade of Peaches Christ Retrospective" featuring artistic contributions inspired by Peaches. That event included ten years of costume design by long-time collaborator Tria Connell and ten years of graphic design by artist Chris Hatfield, underscoring the collaborative nature of the Peaches Christ experience.

I've spoken with Joshua many times, first for the 10-year anniversary of Midnight Mass at the now-defunct Bridge Theatre (parts one and two), then again a couple of years later, then as Fangoria's on-set journalist during the filming of Grannell's All About Evil (2010). You'd think we would have said all we had to say, but the ever-creative Joshua Grannell always has something going on to pique my interest. This month alone in San Francisco he has a Sketchfest screening of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) with guest celebrant Heather Matarazzo, the Trannyshack Starsearch Competition at the DNA Lounge, and an Oscars® viewing party at the Midnight Sun. I thought it was high time for us to coffee clutch at the Café Flore and talk shop.

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Michael Guillén: What I notice every time I come back to San Francisco is that you're always doing something!

Joshua Grannell: It's true!

Guillén: Your presence is constant on San Francisco's cultural landscape and I feel a need to compliment you regarding that; you have become such an important figure in San Francisco's cultural heritage.

Grannell: Thank you so much.

Guillén: I'm particularly excited about your upcoming Sketchfest event: a screening of Welcome to the Dollhouse with Peaches Christ on stage with Heather Matarazzo. I love that film and I love Heather. The last time I saw her she was hanging upside down bleeding out onto a sadistic lesbian who was bathing in her blood.

Grannell: I know, right? Sooooo crazy.

Guillén: I'm looking forward to your on-stage conversation with her.

Grannell: Based on Cheryl Eddy's Guardian piece, it sounds like she's not really done this.

Guillén: How could she resist? So let's talk about this, backtracking first a bit. I've long been intrigued by how you and the Peaches Christ team manage to mount one event after the other. Do you keep a list of films you want to turn into stage shows? Or a list of people who you want to interview onstage? How does that process work for you?

Grannell: Yes, there's always this rotating list of movies. Some are, obviously, movies we've already done so they're in a "repeats" category. The only one that's annual is Showgirls. But there's always been a list in my mind of what I call premieres or new shows. Because the year before was my first year of doing a series of events at the Castro Theatre, we tended to stick to our old favorites that were first mounted at the Bridge Theater then tried to blow them up for the Castro stage—Mommie Dearest, Purple Rain, Showgirls—shows we had done before but which now had the added challenge of making them big. Once that first year was over and I felt I had become familiar with how to stage a show at the Castro, it opened my mind to possibilities of new shows we could do.

Pam Grier had always been on my list, always, and—I dunno—I reached out and she accepted. I had reached out many times in the past and it had never worked, not because of a lack of interest, but because she was busy working. The first time we reached out, she was busy with The L Word. But when someone puts a book out [Foxy: My Life In Three Acts], it's a good time to extend because they're in that mode of promoting and being out in the world. So we were able to do Pam Grier.

We did the Barry Bostwick show, which was a new challenge because I had never done The Rocky Horror Show (1975). It was like the Holy Grail for me. Nothing was a repeat except for Showgirls. Silence of the Lambs, Death Becomes Her, and Edward Scissorhands, were all movies that had been in my head for a long time and had been cooking for years.

Guillén: Can you speak to the staging challenges of "blowing it up" (as you say) from a smaller venue like the Bridge to the vastly larger Castro stage? As well as how the venue shift affected audience interaction, which was so crucial at the Midnight Mass series at the Bridge?

Grannell: For sure. We cut our teeth on my movie premiere for All About Evil, which was the first show that we brought to the Castro. There was a lot of pressure. I overbooked the number of dancing monsters. I think my biggest fear was that if you were in the balcony some of the more intimate moments theatrically wouldn't translate, even though we're queens. The All About Evil show was more like a giant musical numbers show, plus staged skits. It wasn't until we did our spoof of Mommie Dearest (Tranny Dearest)—where it was really dependent on three people: Me, Martiny and Heklina delivering performances—that we had to compensate for the Bridge where the performances could be intimate. If I rolled my eyes at the Bridge, or gave Martiny or Heklina a certain look, I could be pretty confident that even people at the back of the house could see, understand, and get it. I was very nervous about moving it to the Castro. Of course we had to amplify our voices so we were dealing with mics, which are the kiss of death for me. I think I'm cursed when it comes to microphones. So we had to solve that dilemma and figure out how to—either with our voices or our bodies—communicate attitude in a new way. Luckily, we've done some of these characters long enough that we're able to know when to punch up a joke and sell it to the back of the house, which at the Castro feels like it's 10 miles away. When you're on the Castro stage looking up at the projection booth—and we've had shows where people are in those last rows up by the projection booth—it feels like it's across the street. But, honestly, I've been thrilled with how well the transition from the Bridge to the Castro has worked.

Guillén: As part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the world premiere of All About Evil was, for me, one of the cultural benchmarks in my 30+ years in San Francisco. It was a truly spectacular event and you pulled out all the stops. So many memories are woven into that event, including conversing with a then-failing Graham Leggat and his telling me how good the whole event was making him feel.

Grannell: For me too. Certainly, after that night, I fully realized, "Yes, I want to make another movie—and I'm working on that—but, I'm in no hurry. I've always benefited from juggling a lot of different projects at once. My performances, my live events, my producing feed into making a feature film. Ironically, some people ask, "Aren't you working on your next movie?" when actually these events, these shows, help more towards that than anyone would ever know. The juices flow. I'm not one of these people who can go away for three months to write. I admire that. I think it's so amazing when people disappear, go off into the woods, and come back with a script. I can't do that. I have to be exercising the performance muscle and producing and writing all at the same time. So after doing the All About Evil show, we knew we could keep doing it. The Castro became our new home. It was a dream come true. And not that there was anything wrong with The Bridge, there wasn't ever, but we had outgrown it. The last few seasons at The Bridge when we were selling out more than one show a week and still turning people away, well, at some point we had to say, "Okay, it's time for us to accommodate people who want to come to the show."

Guillén: Let's talk about the All About Evil tour, which was exciting to follow on your Facebook page. It was delightful to see you getting so much mileage with the film. Can you single out one or two experiences on that tour that you cherished the most? It seemed like you played everywhere!

Grannell: We did it in a lot of places. What's funny is that—even though it's out on DVD and on cable television—it still looks like there's going to be a North American distribution maybe later this year. It's already being distributed in other countries certainly. I still get requests to bring that show. I'll be doing it in Canada later this year. And I just did it in Vienna this past year. So what's great is I don't think the mileage is going to stop. John Waters said to me, "Well, there aren't many directors who can dress up in drag and put on a show. Even if people have seen the movie, they want to watch it again with you doing your thing." So who knows? I might end up in a wheelchair performing All About Evil and singing that stupid song.

Guillén: And why not?

Grannell: But to answer your question, I would say one stand-out memory, certainly in the U.S., would be when we did All About Evil at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse. That experience blew me away. As a programmer—as you know—the Alamo has grown to become its own church in a way with its own legendary mystique. They're so creative and they do such a good job, and I admire so much of what they do, that I was almost worried that I would be disappointed; I'd heard and read so much about the Alamo Drafthouse. That particular show was myself, Cassandra Peterson and Mink Stole. Doing a show with Peaches, Cassandra and Mink at the Alamo Drafthouse where they put you in balconies to watch the movie with a personal server bringing drinks was truly memorable. We did two nights, one of which was two shows in one night. We did the first show and it was really fun. Of course, Cassandra and Mink are pros, they know how to turn it on, they're hilarious and Peaches does the whole opening number with local talent. Wherever we went we tapped into the local drag art scene so we used my friend Paul Soileau—who's the character Christeene—who lives in Austin and rounded up the drag troops down there. Peaches did the opening number and brought out Mink and Cassandra and we talked about the movie and it was just really fun. We watched the movie; it was Cassandra's first time watching the movie (sadly, she was the only one who couldn't make it to the San Francisco event). Those two, they're not big drinkers, but they were being brought drinks throughout the movie. So we get on stage to do the late show and the interviews, everything, went totally different than the first one. Let's just say they were a lot more loose. I'll never forget that experience of being with two of my idols.

Guillén: The Alamo Drafthouse is in the process of converting The Mission Theatre into their West Coast venue. Will you be working with them at all?

Grannell: I don't know. As soon as I heard they were going to be here, of course—because of what I do and what I'm interested in—I thought, "Oh, well, maybe there's a place for me to do something there." But I haven't reached out, they haven't reached out, but specifically what I would be interested in right now—because the Peaches shows and the Peaches events are at a place where I wouldn't want to add more; I don't think I could add more—I would love to do something at the Alamo where as Joshua / Peaches I could program a series but not have to do a show for the series. There are so many movies I would love to screen but that can't support an event, where 100-200 people coming to see the movie needs to be enough. Of course, these would be more obscure horror films, more obscure comedies.

Guillén: I trust that's something that will manifest itself in due course. It seems a given to me. As the drag queen who did good, how competitive or supportive are you of the drag scene in general here in San Francisco? It seems like each time I return the drag scene has gained more and more visibility, and multiplied its parodies of TV series, which appear to have successful runs. There has always been drag culture in San Francisco, of course, but the current drag art scene has become a huge sidebar of San Francisco's performance art scene. More than just a demonstration of individual self-expression, drag performance has become a viable, marketable theatrical subgenre. You say you produce, do you help produce any of these other drag shows?

Grannell: Sometimes. When I say I produce, I produce my events. We have produced other events for queens here and there that aren't Peaches-related. I co-produce the Trannyshack Reno event where I take busloads of drag queens to Reno—that's been going on forever—but, as far as the rise and success of, let's say, The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, Designing Women and Rosanne, that's really been Heklina [Stefan Grygelko] creating this machine with D'Arcy Drollinger. They're old friends—and I mean that literally, old friends [laughs]—and I actually had a meeting with the two of them about becoming more involved, but I had to step away because there's only so much I can do, though I promote and support their collaborations. We're very supportive of each other. In terms of the drag scene in the Castro alone, there's the Café, the Edge, the Midnight Sun; they all have drag shows now.

Guillén: I'll probably be joining you for your Oscars® show at the Midnight Sun. Is this your first year to do that?

Grannell: It is, though I've thought about it for years because there's all these Oscar® events….

Guillén: Do you remember what happened with Whoopi Goldberg?

Grannell: What's that?

Guillén: When Whoopi hosted the Academy Awards® at the Castro Theatre, the next year she ended up hosting the Oscars® on live television!

Grannell: Really?!

Guillén: I remember that because it was such a trip to see what the space of one year did for her career. Pow! There she was, trading up stages.

Grannell: Well, who knows? You never know!

Guillén: I'm looking forward to the Midnight Sun event.

Grannell: I was looking into producing an Oscars® event at a movie theater, but the problem was the liquor license, and the rights. To rent the Castro is sooooooo expensive. Once I started to dig into what it would take to produce it, just about the same time the Midnight Sun approached me and asked, "Hey, would you be interested?" We had been talking about pre-parties, after-parties, for my shows, of course as a sort of sponsorship; but, I said to them, "You know, I'm really interested in emceeing an Academy Awards® party." So that's how that came to be.

Guillén: Will you be adlibbing throughout?

Grannell: Just during the commercials. I talked to the Midnight Sun and I said that I thought it would be fun to do the Mystery Science Theater thing, but it's a 3-4 hour show plus red carpet. So we might talk over the red carpet—it'll be me and Hugz Bunny and Lady Bear—and we've actually done this for the Indie Erotic Film Festival and I think our senses of humor combine really well with each other. As for some sense of format, we're going to limit it to commercials. So if people are interested in hearing the sound for the commercials, our event's probably not for them because it will be a lot of snarky recaps….

Guillén: Just like in my livingroom!

Grannell: Exactly! Just taking everybody's teeny-weenie Academy Awards® party and opening it up to whoever wants to come. No cover.

Guillén: For an old-timer like myself, it will be fun to be allowed back for one night into my old cruising grounds.

Grannell: There you go!

Guillén: So now let's turn to the event at hand: Sketchfest, Heather Matarazzo and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Has Heather just written a book? Is this why she finally became available?

Grannell: No. Circling back, I met Heather at the All About Evil premiere in New York City. That's where we first met. I was, of course, dressed as Peaches, we did the whole show, and she was a friend of Natasha Lyonne's. A lot of folks came to the movie in New York because Natasha lives in New York and Natasha's been famous for a long time so she has lots of actor friends. I remember being overwhelmed at those New York screenings. Frank Henenlotter was there—the director of Basket Case (1982) and Frankenhooker (1990)—and I was so nervous when I realized that.

Guillén: It's hard for me to imagine you being nervous.

Grannell: Only around certain people, because Henenlotter, I grew up watching his movies on VHS and worshipping them, and now he was going to watch my movie. For me, it was mindblowing. If Brad Pitt had walked in, I wouldn't have been as nervous as having Frank Henenlotter there.

After the show I was meeting people and looking around to see who was there and I spotted this quiet, shy woman standing near Natasha and I thought, "Wait a minute, I know her."—without it registering just how I knew her—and then it clicked, I ran right over to her, this giant Peaches, and I said, "Oh my God, I love you, I love you, I'm a huge fan, I love Welcome to the Dollhouse…." I could see the look of terror on her face, y'know? Natasha was kind of like, "Calm down."

Guillén: But the truth is that Peaches is your persona who worships these performers.

Grannell: For sure.

Guillén: So I can imagine that—when you actually get into being Peaches—your love for these actors is huge.

Grannell: There's no filter. [Laughs.] It's a very pure thing. There were lots of notable people there, but for Heather and Henenlotter to be there, I just couldn't believe it. I didn't know Heather was there until after the screening and so I asked her—probably very inappropriately—"If I ever did a Welcome to the Dollhouse event, would you consider coming?" She smiled and said yes. We chatted very briefly and that was about two and a half years ago. So, again, this idea has been in my head for a while; but, it didn't manifest until I taught a course at the San Francisco Art Institute and used my students as programming guinea pigs. I'm now 39 and my nostalgia films were not the same as their's, y'know? I'm constantly having to figure out things like, "I like Death Becomes Her but are there enough people who like Death Becomes Her to do a show at the Castro?" So while teaching the class I spit out titles here and there—my class was only 13 students; it was a small class—but, when I said Welcome to the Dollhouse, there was an audible gasp from the art students, all in their early twenties, or younger. That's when I thought, "Okay, it's time. We should do this."

Guillén: What a clever approach to grooming a new generation!

Grannell: However, the challenge becomes how to wrap a film favored by younger audiences into the Peaches experience. For example, I think Jesse Hawthorne Ficks could do an amazing show with the director Todd Solondz. I could do that too, perhaps as Joshua, but I don't think it would be that amazing with Peaches, based upon what I know about Todd. He's a serious filmmaker. He's an auteur.

Guillén: Are you saying that Peaches onstage with Heather caters more to a diva aesthetic?

Grannell: It's the camp. It's the fun. It's the celebration that the fans of the film want. For example, a great wonderful night at the movies talking to Todd in person screening Dollhouse or Happiness would be for me a completely exciting, worthwhile experience. Fans of Peaches who love Welcome to the Dollhouse? They want Heather.

Guillén: Which is what I love about what you do: you keep your finger on the enthusiastic pulse of fandom. You let fans love their favorites.

Grannell: That's because I earnestly am a fan and also because my job as a producer and an entertainer is to create these celebrations from the point of view of what does the audience really want? And that's what's great about what we've done, in terms of people showing up for the shows. This is not me, it's my audience, it's San Francisco, and the cult that's built up around what we've done, that it's very hard for the special guests not to feel that emotion in the room. When you have someone like Cloris Leachman onstage, or Pam Grier, or Barry Bostwick, or Heather, you get them swept up in the moment and often I'm able to pull an interview out of them that you might not be able to get at a film festival with a film critic (no offense!) interviewing them in a more sober environment.

Guillén: No offense taken; you're absolutely clear. So will your onstage interview with Heather take place prior to or after the screening of Dollhouse?

Grannell: Before.

Guillén: Anything after we should linger around for?

Grannell: Well, what's funny is that on the same night as we're screening Dollhouse, Sketchfest is presenting Pootie Tang (2001) with Pootie Tang, who comes in right after us. One of the great things about working with Sketchfest is that you have these smashing situations.

Guillén: Is working under the aegis of Sketchfest new for you?

Grannell: No, this is my third Sketchfest. Last year we did The Rocky Horror Show with Barry Bostwick, and Cloris Leachman was my first with Sketchfest.

Guillén: I took note that Bruce Campbell is back with The Evil Dead and I considered it, but then I thought, "Peaches has already done this. No need to go. How could it be any better?"

Grannell: Like John Waters, there are some performers who are so trained and professional that they just deliver no matter where they are. I was impressed with Bruce as a performer, as an entertainer, but I wasn't as prepared to be impressed by his schtick, his being Bruce Campbell, as I was. I've never seen someone both be able to annihilate his fans and his audience, just completely making fun of them, completely putting them down, while also being self-deprecating enough that his audience loved it. They loved him abusing them. But it's because he's making fun of himself.

Guillén: Speaking of John Waters, I have to say that I flubbed up on my dates and ended up being in San Francisco when he brought his Christmas show to Boise, which drove me nuts because my understanding was that this was his first time to Boise?

Grannell: It was, yeah.

Guillén: You can imagine that when I moved to Boise, several people sent me that image from Pink Flamingos (1972) of Babs hitchhiking to Boise. So I truly regret missing him there.

Grannell: I didn't know he was doing it. We talked right after the holidays. We hadn't talked for probably months and it's very surreal that we're buddies now and he calls me when he's in town and we go see movies and things. I, of course, know that he has a million things to tell me about, has met tons of new people, and has all sorts of gossip, but his trip to Boise was the thing he was most excited to talk about.

Guillén: He was certainly loved, I heard later.

Grannell: I bet. And I understand John's enthusiasm. For as fabulous as those New York and Los Angeles screenings were of All About Evil, some of my most memorable moments as Peaches have been in smaller towns. I did a gig with Elvira in Indianapolis in September and—when you're in a place like Indianapolis or Boise where there's a real hunger for what you do—it's almost a more wonderful and satisfying experience.

Guillén: To wrap up then, what are your hopes for this Friday's event? Are ticket sales good? Are you anticipating a crowd?

Grannell: Ticket sales are good. It's not sold out yet; but, that's partly because it's unbelievable the amount of things that are going on at the same time under the umbrella of Sketchfest. If I weren't doing my show, I'd be across town seeing Maya Rudolph in her Prince cover band. Despite the sheer number of shows they're doing—they're doing 166 shows in this festival—we're doing well with ticket sales but there are plenty more to sell. But I'm not worried about it. I can tell by the numbers that it's going to be a full house.

My hope is to present this movie that so many people love and which is—in many ways—a misunderstood movie. I showed it to my boyfriend who's from Turkey and at one point during the film he turned to me and said, "This is a comedy?" I thought to myself, "That's part of the brilliance of this film." I understood exactly what he meant. He explained that back in Turkey, yes, they had bullying, yes, they had teasing, but nothing like this. I told him, "For a lot of people, especially in the U.S., unfortunately this is a common experience. Most of us who were not the cheerleader or the jock relate to Heather's character Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Yes, in some ways it seems that you're laughing at her; but, we're really not. Most of us that love this movie have a little Dawn Wiener past. There's Dawn Weiner inside of us. Watching the movie, I thought, "She really is a hero to me because she stands up to her mother, she stands up to her teachers, she stands up to the kid who's going to rape her, and she gets what she wants out of life." On the one hand, Welcome to the Dollhouse is incredibly dark and painful; on the other hand it's a real celebration of the triumph of the underdog or the nerd. By having Heather on stage, my hope is that we all get to celebrate the Dawn Weiner in us. As cheesy as it sounds, I added a Nerd Pride Parade to the bill because that to me is what this screening is about, standing up and being counted as the kids who were picked on and bullied and saying, "We survived and we're here to laugh about it."

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