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Theater Interview: S. P. Monahan

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The playwright discusses his new comedic drama – ‘Aunt Jack’

Theater Interview: S. P. Monahan

S. P. Monahan's lively new play Aunt Jack has its New York premiere at Theater for the New City this month (June 7-28).   In addition to its current New York performances, the play had two successful simultaneous productions last year in Ft. Lauderdale and Vermont.   Monahan's insightful and very entertaining one man musical Diva: Live From Hell (with music and lyrics by Alexander Sage Oyen)   also played at Theater for the New City two years ago and was critically very well received.                

Aunt Jack centers on twenty-something Norman (played by Monahan) who having broken up with his boyfriend moves across the country to San Francisco,  only to return to New York several months later when his father, George, a gay historian and activist takes ill.  Norman's other father, Jack (a prominent drag queen and cabaret star) and his lesbian biological mother are clearly surprised and unsettled when Norman introduces them to his new romantic interest, Andy.  (MAJOR plot spoiler – Andy is actually a woman, Andy being short for Miranda).  Although this sounds like the premise for a farcical, campy romp the play ultimately evolves into a sensitive examination of sexual identity and the premises and labels that surround that issue. 

I recently posed some questions to Monahan about this new play. 

Can you give us some background about the creation of Aunt Jack?

I've been working on the play for a long time—it’s the first play I started writing after getting out of college. When I was an undergrad I was really writing very specifically about young people—people in high school and college—but Aunt Jack was the first play where I tried to write very specifically a multi-generational story.  It's just taken a long time to get here. There have been so many steps in its development, so it's really gratifying now to bring it to a New York audience for the first time.

This New York production is the third production of Aunt Jack.  Last summer it had two productions that opened simultaneously – one was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the other was in Vermont at the Vermont Pride Theater Festival. Those were polar opposite audiences. The Vermont production was in a very rural part of the state – and frankly a very conservative part of the state. 

I’ve lived in New York my whole life in this thirty mile radius, so when I think of Vermont I just think Bernie Sanders.  That was not the case where we were.  There were a lot of Trump bumper stickers and there was even a giant “Lock Her Up” banner on the side of someone’s barn.  I was really unsure how the play would go over there.  But it was actually received really well, and the community that turned out to see it really appreciated it.  I had people thanking me after the play, which was a new experience.    

In Ft. Lauderdale – a gay capitol of the East Coast – the audience there was mostly a very cosmopolitan, older gay crowd and they also responded really positively to it. After those two productions, I wanted to give it a shot in my home town and on my home turf.  So here we are! 

It's been five years since I first started writing it and a year since the last two productions went into rehearsal.  I just had my last production meeting for the New York premiere and we load into the theater tomorrow and start performances this Friday.   It's been a long time coming but it feels like a whirlwind now that it's here.  

Andrew Dawson (left) and Charles Baran 

Sometimes it takes a while for a work to come to fruition – an obvious example of that being that it took Richard Wagner 28 years to complete The Ring of the Nibelung.

That's interesting that you should make that reference.  For me one of the very, very formative pieces of art that has informed my aesthetic is Charles Ludlam's adaptation of Wagner's Ring Cycle.  It's an epic for the downtown camp audience but it's still a Charles Ludlam absurdist take on it.  It's actually one of his more serious works I think. And straddling those two aesthetics– having a play with serious political themes and huge epic story telling that is also camp and has a dark, snide sort of bitchy sense of humor -  was very formative  for me.

Was it rewarding and interesting having two productions of Aunt Jack running simultaneously last summer?

Yes, it was.  Last summer was a really interesting time as you can imagine. I was working pretty closely with the Florida production.  They flew me down three times during the rehearsal process, then I came down to see the closing weekend –so four times over the course of seven or eight weeks.  I went over the rehearsal reports, I was corresponding with the stage manager, sending rewrites, and I was on the phone with the director pretty frequently. 

And then the Vermont production was really the opposite – I wasn't involved at all and didn’t send them any rewrites.  So they worked on an older draft and I just went up and got to see it. The ending was different which was also really interesting. I’m glad I got to see it both ways.

At one point one of the characters in the play asserts, “You can't choose who you fall in love with. That's what makes it love.”   Is that one of the major themes of Aunt Jack?

Even in my own life I have been surprised, and other people in my life have been surprised at different times over who my romantic partners have been.  And I was definitely working from a place where I was writing it out of anxiety about the concreteness of identities and labels.  In my life, as soon as I become comfortable with one label for my sexual orientation or gender, and as soon as I become settled into that, something happens or I come to terms with something else and it shifts or changes. 

I grew up in the theater and I was a child actor.  Even as a kid I was working in a lot of drag theater.  I wasn't in drag but I was surrounded by these really wonderful drag performers.  So the concepts of queer culture and queer aesthetics defined how I grew up and how I came to see the world. 

When I found myself falling in love with a woman and my relationship was perceived as hetero-normative, I was really personally shaken by that and also I was scared.  I was young, I was in my early twenties and was embarrassed by the way in which my older peers and friends in the gay community might perceive that relationship or perceive me.  

Also, at the time I was writing Aunt Jack, it was pre-2015, so it was pre- the Obergefell decision and gay marriage being legalized across all 50 states. The slogans “Born This Way”, “It's Not a Choice”,  were just so, so present in my mind. It was part of the zeitgeist and I was hearing them all the time.

And I think it’s true that you don't always choose. And sometimes the person that you are in love with is not good for you and maybe you shouldn't be with that person, but it doesn't mean that you can help it or help the feelings that you have. 

Are you familiar with Freud's writings on bisexuality?

I was reading all about Freud’s theory of universal bisexuality and then all of the Kinsey scale stuff while Aunt Jack was still in its formative stage. It's tough, and I don’t agree with all of it, but it definitely informed the writing of the play. The theme that I feel like I have struggled the most to communicate in Aunt Jack is sort of a double-negative—it’s not that I think labels themselves are unhelpful, it's just a question of who gets to assign those labels. 

I personally sort of cherish the labels that I’ve found for myself – that I feel are true for myself and use to define myself even as they sort of stretch how other people use those labels.  Regardless of who my partner is at any given time in my life I will always sort of see myself as gay – because that's the community that I grew up in, that's the world that I know and that's how I understand myself to be.  Some people think that if I am in a relationship with a woman, my partner is a woman, then I can't be that or I can be bi-sexual – and, of course, there are still plenty of people who believe that bisexuality just doesn't exist. 

Like I said, I was writing from a place of self-consciousness and anxiety and trying to persuade others and to myself that it is ok – that I can love the person that I love and still be a part of the community that I am a part of, and still acknowledge and accept the identity that I know to be true.

S.P. Monahan

Are some of the themes of Aunt Jack – in terms of asserting individual identity – similar to those expressed in Ibsen's A Doll's House

That is amazing that you said that, I could not be more thrilled that you made that comparison. The model for the first draft of the play was A Doll's House. The first draft that I was writing in 2014 was a lot less funny and really a very serious and dramatic play and now I have found a middle ground where it can be a quick, witty, zippy comedy that handles serious themes. In an earlier draft, the Norman character's drag name was Nora – and that was my extremely unsubtle hint, and the play ended quite differently. It ended with the family being totally broken apart. I have reframed all of that, and the ending is now quite optimistic, I think.

What thoughts and ideas do you hope that audiences will take away from Aunt Jack after watching it?

At the risk of sounding like my grandparents by criticizing social media – it's just much more visible   now that we all sort of live in an online forum of our socio-political points of view. I feel like there is such an impulse to fragment in the LGBT community, particularly inter-generationally. And it’s very stark on social media in particular. In part, I think that impulse comes from the fact that we don’t have, as a community, a unified, intergenerational vocabulary. Now, I don't think that we necessarily need a unified vocabulary, if we can just understand each other’s. The thrust of Aunt Jack – if I am looking at an overarching moral—is that I think that we've got to stick it out together. We will find our best allies in each other and we need to hear each other.

Along those lines, the play is saying let people define their own sexual identities. All of our identities are so complicated. I do feel that all of our relationships are so unique and so idiosyncratic and we ought not to define other people's relationships – we should listen to them when they define them for us. So if Norm and Andy define themselves as a gay couple – who is Jack to deny them that? That I do feel very strongly. The language I use to understand my identity is also language that I learned and is particular to me and I don't need someone to tell me that I can't have that language anymore.

On a more personal note, Aunt Jack is really a play about family.  Not to sound too much like a Hallmark card, but another message I think that’s integral to the play is that the things that make our families unique and complicated are also the things that make them beautiful.

Based on some of the publicity that I have seen for the production, I suspect that some might attend Aunt Jack expecting a certain type of outcome and may be surprised at the dramatic arc that the work actually takes.  Can you comment on that?

That's sort of the experiment of it. I made the decision to make it in the genre of a play by Charles Busch or Paul Rudnick and other queer comedy/theater writers, and it doesn't fit easily into that genre.   And the reaction has not been unanimous.  Even the people who enjoyed it have not necessarily been persuaded by it, which is something I just have to live with.

In Diva: Live From Hell, the messages were a lot more situational. There were far fewer opportunities for soap boxes to be brought out then there are in this play.  So I didn't have a lot of people telling me that they didn't agree with the philosophy of Diva as it didn't have as much of a socio-political perspective as Aunt Jack

And I am nervous about that. I do feel for the most part that my audience is a middle aged and an older gay audience – mostly because those are the people that have raised me and that I grew up with, and watched me in plays when I was growing up.  And I am not 100% confident that they will be receptive to the point of view of the play.  I hope that doesn't hamper their ability to enjoy it. I do think that we have enough in there that's entertaining.  The 90 minutes go by at a pretty quick clip.  

But it was only after I saw the two productions out of town in two dissimilar communities that I felt confident enough to see if Aunt Jack could really play in New York and be heard.

Morgan Sullivan (left) and S.P. Monahan

Considering that both plays deal with issues of sexual identity and ambivalence, could Aunt Jack almost be considered a sequel or follow up to Diva: Live From Hell?  

Well, Diva really started from the place that I wanted to do a solo show in the vein of Charles Busch, but I wanted to make it my own. This has sort of been the reverse task, where I am telling my own story and my own messages and points of view, but trying to figure out how do I bridge the divide between my generation and that generation. I think that you are right that it is a continuation of some of the themes of Diva.

What are you future projects?

My big future project is grad school. I'm starting at Columbia in the fall to get my MFA in Playwriting.  I’ve wanted to go to grad school since I was an undergrad, and now this is the year when I finally applied.

I’m very excited to have three years dedicated to being able to really experiment again because that is one thing that has become challenging – it's very expensive to pursue theater, which makes it daunting to take risks. So to be able to go to graduate school and sort of have a container where I can make a mess and not be worried about the ramifications or how much I am investing in something that could be received poorly – I just can't wait to have that freedom again. And then to come out on the other side – I can't wait to see what kind of writer I will be in three years.

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