Playwright-director John Rosenberg continues his series of long-form interviews of varied creators and theater peeps with Josh Hitchens of Going Dark Theatre. His show Confessions of Jeffrey Dahmer returns this month as part of Theatre Philadelphia’s Philly Theatre Week.
John Rosenberg: Who are you?
Josh Hitchens: I am a 33 year old cis gay man, Philadelphia-based theater director, actor, playwright, and poet.
John Rosenberg: Why did you say it like that?
Josh Hitchens: About a year ago I made a decision to be more visibly queer in my life and and in my work. I realized that the stories I chose to tell on stage were rarely my story, or stories of others like me. I felt a responsibility to change that, given the world we’re living in now and my desire to be a more open human being in general. I hid myself behind my work for many years, and I decided I wanted to rather reveal myself through the work I make. Since I made that resolution, everything I’ve done has been much more personally connected to who I am in life and as an artist. And I’m proud of my age. Didn’t think I’d make it this far, to be honest.
John Rosenberg: What are some rehearsed anecdotes of your life that you share with people?
Josh Hitchens: I actually have been a very private person, not talking about my personal life to others very much. I started to change that in the past year with the solo piece I wrote and performed called Ghost Stories. It was the first time I really opened up about my past and why I am who I am now. The meat of that play was talking about my relationship with the paranormal and things that have happened to me over time, but it was also very much an autobiography of my childhood and my young adult years. Doing that piece was terrifying, because I’d never exposed myself like that before to anyone, but in the end it was exhilarating and very healing.
John Rosenberg: What were some of the decisions that led you to open up regarding your personal life in Ghost Stories?
Josh Hitchens: I was finally at a place in my life where I felt like I was ready to open up, and felt like I had to in order to make peace with a lot of things that happened to me. There was another play I wanted to write, and still do, called Phantasmagoria, which will be about a group of people telling each other horror stories. I felt like I couldn’t write that piece without telling my own personal stories first, and so Ghost Stories came out of me.
John Rosenberg: Where are you from?
Josh Hitchens: I grew up in Sussex County, Delaware, playfully known as “Slower Lower Delaware.” It’s very rural, there are farms and fields and huge forests everywhere you look. My family on my mother’s side had been farmers for three generations. Delaware is very flat geographically, so I grew up being able to look up at the huge blue sky and see all the stars at night. It’s very beautiful there, but I always knew that I wanted to live in a city when I grew up.
John Rosenberg: How did you come to be a actor and writer and producer in Philadelphia?
Josh Hitchens: I came to Philadelphia to go to college, and I graduated from Arcadia University with a B.F.A. in acting all the way back in 2007. One of the great things about Arcadia’s theater program is that the faculty is made up of theater professionals who work all the time, so I came out of school already feeling very connected to Philly theater. I had incredible teachers there – Mark Wade, Grace Gonglewski, Madi Distefano, Paul Meshejian, Alisa Kleckner, Nora Quinn, Larry Loebell, and others.
Arcadia also teaches its students how you approach a career in theater as a business, which was invaluable in gaining the tools to navigate my path over the years. I knew it would never be easy for me. I’ve always had a very clear idea of the kind of work I was interested in doing, which is not mainstream, usually. I have never “fit in,” but over the past decade and change I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do. That means a lot of self-producing/self-generating, and I’ve become very good at it.
I have not, and probably never will work at any of the bigger theaters in Philadelphia, but I’ve created my own brand for the work I generate. If people do know my name, they know what kind of theater I make. I’m proud of that. You might not like the work I choose to do, but you can’t deny that I’ve done the damn thing for a long time now, and my calendar is always full.
John Rosenberg: What brought you to doing theater instead of having a career in law enforcement?
Josh Hitchens: When I was in eighth grade, we took a field trip to the high school to see their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Watching the show, I had this unshakable feeling of “That’s what I want to do. I want to be part of that, somehow.” The next year I went to the high school, and started acting. Directing came later. I was blessed with an incredible teacher, Helen Barlow, who awoke this passion for theater in me, and there was never an option of doing anything else with my life after that. I would give anything to know where she is now. I’ve tried to track her down but have never been able to. I wish I could tell her how much she did for me. Before I found theater I always knew I wanted to do something to help people, although law enforcement never crossed my mind. I wanted to be a doctor. My partner is actually a psychologist who also does theater when he has time. The two professions share a great deal. The same impulses are behind them both.
John Rosenberg: Is your work controlled by your outlook on life? Or is your work a chance to completely step outside your perception and experience? I guess i am wondering if you are a happy go lucky fella because that would be funny to me.
Josh Hitchens: Many years ago, I asked the man who is now my ex-husband (we’re still good friends) what he thought I was put on this earth to do. He said, “You were put on this earth to scream about atrocities.” That has echoed in my soul ever since, and he was absolutely right.
It describes my work as an artist perfectly: Screaming about atrocities. I’m a drawn so much to the darkness, because acknowledging the darkness, truly seeing it, allows you to see the light more clearly. Many people are afraid of the darkness in the world and in themselves, the atrocities committed in the past and being done now, public and personal. They won’t face it, refuse to see it. We are all capable of being monsters, and we are all capable of deep grace.
A lot of folks think I wrote my play The Confession of Jeffrey Dahmer (which I’m performing again for Philly Theatre Week in February) because I’m so dark and obsessed with serial killers, but that not why I do it at all. I tell that story because there’s something to be learned from it. There must be, or else it all happened for nothing.
We forget the dark parts of history at our peril. We often see that someone is in pain or in trouble, and we don’t reach out. We see bad things happen, and we don’t speak up. But if we do, then maybe there’s hope, maybe we can make the world a little bit lighter. That’s why at the end of every performance of that play, we collect donations for the Attic Youth Center, which is an organization that provides much needed resources to LGBTQ youth in Philadelphia.
I’m not interested in darkness for its own sake, ever, which may surprise some people who don’t know me well. The darkness always has to be for something, a way to reach towards some kind of catharsis and healing. And if the audience doesn’t experience that journey, then I’ve failed. I will say that right now I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. Love has a lot to do with that, but it’s also because over the past year or so I’ve really made an effort to come to terms with my own darkness, and let a lot of things go that were causing me pain. I used to be very angry inside, all the time. I’m not anymore. It’s made my personal life and my work so much better.
John Rosenberg: What mistakes did Jeffrey Dahmer make?
Josh Hitchens: I mean, I’ve spent over a decade researching him. I have read and watched literally everything that exists about him. I think Jeff Dahmer’s life was nothing but a litany of mistakes. A mistake to let the abuse of alcohol overtake him. A mistake to presume that alleviating his loneliness was enough of a reason to take the lives of seventeen other human beings. A mistake not to ask for help. A mistake to live a life that was built on a mountain of lies.
The one positive thing I suppose you could say about Dahmer is that once he was caught, he owned what he did. He never tried to blame anyone or anything else for his actions. He acknowledged that he was the one who made all those choices that brought pain and suffering to countless innocent people. I’m also very interested in the mistakes made by people around him at the same time. There were so many times the police almost caught him, when family members or neighbors almost caught him. But they looked away, and more people were killed because they looked away.
The play I wrote aims to be as definitive and as close to the truth as we can know, and it asks a lot of questions of the audience who sees it. It’s one case study of a horrific event in history. What can we learn from it? How can we stop it from happening again? That’s what it’s about.
John Rosenberg: Given you mentioned screaming about atrocities, have you ever thought about playing William Calley?
Josh Hitchens: That’s definitely a story that needs to be told. I don’t know if I’m the one to tell it. I’m not sure if I have it in me to inhabit another mass murderer. Jeff Dahmer is more than enough to hold in my head.
John Rosenberg: Why did your friend observe you were put on this earth to scream about atrocities?
Josh Hitchens: He saw me very clearly in that moment. I will never be a subtle, quiet artist. I want to make you feel something viscerally. I will always be in your face. I will always make you look at things you probably don’t feel comfortable looking at, because I believe there’s something vital to be learned from being guided through that experience and coming out on the other side. I think there’s one comedy in the world I want to direct someday and that’s it. Other people do lightness and comedy very well, I’m not one of those people. My strengths and passions are elsewhere, and I embrace that about myself. As a playwright, I am very drawn to telling the stories of real things that happened, even if I write plays that are only partially inspired by those events or directly based on them. I don’t want those stories to be forgotten, because if we do forget them, they could easily happen again. That’s the work I’m driven to do.
John Rosenberg: I might be repeating a question or just taking your answer and putting a question mark on it, but what drives you to create art that is visceral and in your face? What is vital about guiding people through macabre events? I guess what is funny to me is you seem to work a lot in things that are heavy and talk about atrocities but you seem to be saying, these things are terrible, let’s learn to not do it. There is something very positive and sweet about what you are driven to do.
Josh Hitchens: You’re probably the only person that’s correctly intuited that about my work. It does all come from a positive place. I think what it boils down to is the impulse to shock people into a state of awareness about themselves and the world we’re all living in. Fear is a great connector. Like when you go see a horror movie in a packed theater, the audience is reacting as one – screaming, laughing, talking to each other afterward about the experience they just had. A rollercoaster does the same thing, just much quicker. We don’t connect with one another enough as human beings, and being connected, really being present and alive to people around you, that is the thing that can save us. Horror is an effective tool to bring people together, and make them think about something in a very active way. And in theater, it’s happening right now in the room, not just up on a screen. It’s immediate, and you can’t escape it. That’s why horror theater can be extremely powerful.
John Rosenberg: What is the one comedy you would like to direct?
Josh Hitchens:The Women by Clare Boothe Luce. When I eventually go to grad school to get an M.F.A. in Directing, that’s probably the play I’ll pick for my thesis, just to shock the shit out of everybody.
John Rosenberg: What do you feel an MFA degree in directing will provide you?
Josh Hitchens: The opportunity to hone my skills further. Find new resources to learn from. Be challenged again. I really want to teach theater, and it’s almost impossible to do that these days without an MFA. The desire to teach is at the core of who I am as an artist. An MFA will help me be able to achieve that calling. At least give me more tools to use in the work.
John Rosenberg: What are you after onstage?
Josh Hitchens: Passion, first and foremost. And I don’t see it often enough. I want to see people who have huge needs and wants they’re trying to fulfill, and will go to the ends of the earth to achieve it. I want to see moments and actions that are so honestly expressed and deeply felt that it makes your jaw drop when you see it happen in front of you. I want to see actors who are giving everything they have to give, who aren’t afraid of being ugly, exposed. That’s humanity, that’s what’s beautiful to me. Embracing extremity instead of fearing it – not just extreme pain or rage, but the extremes of joy, love, kindness, laughter. Wake me up, make me lean forward in my seat. Show me all your truth. Those are the moments you never forget seeing.
Alfred Hitchcock was once asked what his purpose was in directing, and he replied “To put the audience through it.” For me, if you don’t strive to create theater that takes the audience through an experience that leaves them a little different than they were before they came in, then what are you doing it for? Then it’s just a bunch of people talking at each other, and I can see that in my living room.
One of my favorite quotes ever is from Sarah Kane: “I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind.” That’s it, really. That’s why I do this. When you achieve it, or witness it being achieved by someone else, there’s nothing more unforgettable.
John Rosenberg: What do you think about when you are acting?
Josh Hitchens: I try to think of nothing but what’s in the character’s head. I really immerse myself in that person. Forget what I did before, and live in the moment right now, whatever happens.
John Rosenberg: What can you do if you are on stage and can’t live in the moment?
Josh Hitchens: Fake it. But if the audience can tell you’re faking it, you need to learn how to fake it better. That’s an important skill no one ever talks about. Sometimes you just aren’t going to be in it, but you still have to deliver the experience. And try to get back in it.
John Rosenberg: Do you have an acknowledged master you bow down to?
Josh Hitchens: For me, it would be David Lynch. He’s my biggest artistic influence and inspiration. There are a lot of problematic aspects to his work, for sure. The thing that I love most about him, though, is that he puts on film exactly what he sees in his head. When I saw him speak in Philly a few years ago, he said something that has become a motto for me ever since: “As a director, you have a responsibility to stay true to the idea you fell in love with.” Have your vision, and follow through with it to the end. In my work I used to let things I wanted go very early in the process, either because they were too scary, or I felt that there was no way I could achieve it. I don’t do that anymore. Sometimes you have to compromise at the end when the thing is about to open, but until then I never stop trying to make the work on stage match the work I see in my head.
David Lynch is also very much about not fearing to show the extremes, the beauty and the ugliness, the pain and the joy, and how they’re all part of humanity. And that there is some kind of magic in the world, there’s more to this experience than we can see or understand. I really believe in that.
John Rosenberg: How do you approach writing? Do you have a routine or no routine?
Josh Hitchens: If I’m working on an original piece, I need absolute quiet with nothing to distract my focus from the voices of the characters I’m hearing in my mind. If I’m writing an adaptation of a novel, which I’ve done a lot of, I sometimes will play music, a movie, or tv show in the background while I write, something that feels like the world of the piece. I recently finished my adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I’m performing as a solo piece at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in March, and I had Brideshead Revisited on the whole time I worked on it.
John Rosenberg: What routines in your life have you stopped adhering to?
Josh Hitchens: I don’t consume as much television or movies as I used to. I try to limit that and focus more on writing and creating, and going out and living my life.
John Rosenberg: What is your relationship with what you are writing?
Josh Hitchens: Very intense. I usually think about plays for a long time, gathering pieces of it in my mind until I can see the whole shape of it. Then when it’s time I have to sit down to write it and I don’t stop until it’s done. When I’m really writing a piece, I can’t do or think about anything else. The Confession of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ghost Stories were both plays I thought about for years, and then wrote the first drafts in about a week and a half. When it’s their time to come into the world, the words pour out and don’t stop. Adaptations are much quicker for me. Once I see why and how I want to tell this particular story, the writing process is very easy and fast. I’m focusing on writing much more now, so hopefully the time between thinking and writing won’t take as long as it did with the first two.
John Rosenberg: What patterns of positive behavior do you recognize in your life?
Josh Hitchens: The impulse to create instead of being self-destructive. I write a lot, there are always several plays I’m working on either in my head or putting them on the page. About a year and half ago I started writing poems again after stopping for a decade. I find that to be a tremendously positive outlet for my energy. I’m always thinking about plays I’m working on or want to do. But the most positive behavior I’ve embraced is learning when to stop working and actually have a life. I used to never, ever stop working, and I realized I was missing out on enjoying a lot of things that are important. So now I try to keep things in balance.
John Rosenberg: How many plays do you have going in your head right now?
Josh Hitchens: I’ll tell you! For me, I have the idea for the play first, and then I come up with a title. Finding a title gives me something to shape the work towards. I’ll list them in the order I think they’ll be finished:
This is inspired by an event that happened on the outskirts of Philadelphia several years ago, where a man in his 20s murdered a man in his 60s by stoning him to death. They were lovers. The title refers to the crime itself, but also the high of falling in love. It’s a romance that ends in tragedy, moving backward and forward in time. It’s also about mental illness, and how religion can poison you.
The sister play to Ghost Stories, about a group of people who tell each other horror stories while trapped in a haunted house. I realized one day that there is no piece of theater set in a haunted house that is actually scary. So I’m going to try and write one.
3. Mommy and the Monster
Inspired by the Fritzl case in Amsterdam, which I followed as it initially unfolded over a decade ago. The book and movie Room were also based on this case, but much more radically fictionalized than what I plan on doing (although I still refuse to watch/read Room). I’m writing this play for Amanda Schoonover, who I’ve known for a long time, because she is one of the most fearless actors I’ve ever seen,
4. Queens of Hell
I’ve been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials all my life. No one has ever written a play that is based exclusively on the primary sources of the actual history, so that’s my goal. I made the first of what I’m sure will be many research trips to New England this past summer with my partner, and it was a revelation. The research necessary to do this project justice is huge. It’s going to take years.
5. Dark and Wicked Things
Another piece that is going to take years to do right, this is going to be a documentary theater piece about the real life “Slenderman stabbing” case that occurred in Wisconsin in 2014. This piece is the main reason why I need to look into grants, because I actually need to travel to Wisconsin to interview as many people as will talk to me. I’ve already made contacts with some key people involved in the case who are receptive to the project.
John Rosenberg: What is your relationship to the paranormal?
Josh Hitchens: I’ve always been extremely sensitive to it. I grew up in a house that was haunted. I can sense spirits and have seen them many times in many different places. I’ve had experiences in the past with things that I believe were demons. It’s always been a part of my life, and I’ve always been drawn to horror movies, books, true ghost stories, unsolved mysteries, and other supernatural things. I’ve also been a storyteller for the Ghost Tour of Philadelphia for twelve years now. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and it was doing the Ghost Tour that led me into creating solo performance theater work, actually.
John Rosenberg: What was it like to grow up in a house that was haunted? Was this something that you discovered on your own?
Josh Hitchens: It was mostly feeling that there was a presence there that you couldn’t see most of the time. But sometimes you did see things. I never spoke to anyone in my family about it until I moved away to go to college. I talked to my sister about it one night and she had been experiencing the same things I was the entire time, but we’d never spoken about it.
John Rosenberg: Could you share some times you have sensed spirits?
Josh Hitchens: Pretty much any time I visit a historic place, which I do often. On the Ghost Tour quite frequently. I’ve learned how to turn that sense off, though, a lot of the time. It’s better for me that way. I’m wary of opening myself up to that side of things too much because it can be dangerous.
John Rosenberg: What is the interaction with a spirit versus a demon?
Josh Hitchens: In my own experience, spirits just want to let you know they are there, the other feels actively malevolent.
John Rosenberg: The version of you i am creating in my head, I wonder if you suffered trauma and use art as a means to work your way through the past. I guess that is more interesting than you just being a decent person who feels empathy for others and are horrified by cruelty.
Josh Hitchens: Yes, I am a survivor of trauma. That’s what Ghost Stories is really about, although I don’t state directly what the trauma is. But people who saw it knew what I was talking about. Talking about connection, after every performance I did of that piece over the past six months, I’d spent at least twenty minutes after the show talking to individual audience members. They would tell me their own stories, and I lost count of how many people cried in my arms. They all said the same thing to me, that experiencing the show made them feel for the first time that they weren’t alone. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
John Rosenberg: Who do you look like?
Josh Hitchens: I am a little over six feet tall, relatively thin, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. My family comes from the U.K. on one side and Norway on the other, so I could not possibly be any whiter. You can see the veins under my skin. I’ve worn black “buddy holly” glasses for over half my life. They’re basically part of my face at this point. I think I look weird without them.
John Rosenberg: Haha, I asked who you look like because you look like the writerCharles McLeod to me. Do you look like your mom or your dad?
Josh Hitchens: My brain totally turned your “who” to “what” haha. I can see the resemblance! I’ve also often gotten Anthony Rapp. The older I get, the more and more I look like my dad. Especially when I don’t bother to shave, which is most of the time.
John Rosenberg: How many pairs of jeans do you own?
Josh Hitchens: One, and I almost never wear them.
John Rosenberg: What do you wear if you don’t wear jeans?
Josh Hitchens: I usually wear black pants, mostly because I’m usually going to the Ghost Tour after my day job.
John Rosenberg: Have you ever shopped at Ross Dress For Less?
Josh Hitchens: Yes I have! I actually bought a leather jacket from Ross a few months ago.
John Rosenberg: Nobody does it better than Ross Dress For Less. Which Ross do you shop at?
Josh Hitchens: The one on Market Street in Center City.
John Rosenberg: Where do you think your style came from?
Josh Hitchens: Residual goth kid, I suppose. Almost everything I wear is black, blue, or grey. Sometimes dark purple. Kind of like a walking bruise.
John Rosenberg: How much do your productions cost?
Josh Hitchens: As close to nothing as conceivably possible, since I mostly live paycheck to paycheck. I really need to learn how to write and apply for grants. There’s no excuse for why I haven’t been doing that.
John Rosenberg: Have you ever applied for a grant before? Sometimes I think there is a good reason why people haven’t done the things they haven’t done yet.
Josh Hitchens: I have not. I’m very much a do it yourself artist, partly out of necessity and partly because I enjoy the challenge. But there are projects I want to do that simply require way more money than I will ever be able to put into it.
John Rosenberg: What is your approach to directing? Do you talk differently to different actors?’
Josh Hitchens: I always start by investigating the text deeply with actors. I ask them many, many, many, many questions in order to make each moment rooted and specific. If they don’t know the answer, that’s okay, but they know it’s something I want them to think about and eventually be able to answer. During this part of the process I have my eyes closed most of the time, listening to the cast read. I can tell by listening if something isn’t there that needs to be, a color in the voice, an emotion, a knowledge of their history.
Only when everyone has a full understanding of who they are and want they want at every moment do we get up on our feet and start blocking. I’m very much a teaching director, and I have a very close relationship with actors I work with, often working together many many times on different shows, so we continue grow together over the years.
I’m just as concerned with how the actor can grow and stretch themselves in a role as I am with them achieving what they need to in a specific show. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a wrong choice, there are just different choices, one that give you more juice than others. I try to be careful never to say the word “No.” It’s always, “What if it was like this…” Constant support, safety, trust. Helping the actor own their work, helping them to reach the potential that I see is there for them in any given project, to attain new depths and heights they weren’t sure they could reach. Making sure everyone remembers that we’re here to play together, and make something together we can be proud of.
As I get to know the artist better, I get a better idea of how to particularize my approach to their work, and identify what kind of direction will be most useful to them.
John Rosenberg: I feel there is a ridiculous contradiction in putting on plays, namely you spend hella time rehearsing trying to make a thing be a thing. However, in performance you cant control what happens. How do you navigate control, authority and the hubris of actors on stage? Is that why directors don’t go to see performances?
Josh Hitchens: If I’ve done my job as a director really well, then I have nothing to worry about. The story will be deeply instilled in the actors and they will take it and keep investigating in performance, and the work will only get better. However, if I haven’t done my job well enough, as the run progresses the show starts to fall apart a little, lose some of its sharpness and specificity, regressing a little from what it was. But I never blame actors for that. It means I didn’t do enough, and you think about what didn’t work and you learn from it. You try to do better next time.
John Rosenberg: What is the closest you have created something in your mind and bringing it into being?
Josh Hitchens: The production of Philip Ridley’s play Mercury Fur that I directed at BrainSpunk Theater (RIP) in 2015. It was and is my favorite play. I’d wanted to direct it for eight years before I was given the opportunity to finally do it. For me, it is the one thing I’ve directed that I would categorize as perfect. What I saw on stage was exactly what I saw in my head when I read the script, every single moment. I had a perfect cast, a perfect production team, and audiences and critics really understood exactly what I was trying to do and say with the piece. I’ve directed other shows that have come very, very close to being exactly my vision, but Mercury Fur was probably the project that meant the most to me out of everything I’ve done, and it’s the one that was fully, totally realized. I will always carry that experience with me. I may never be so lucky again, but I made one completely perfect thing.
John Rosenberg: What is your relationship with reviews of your work and the art of criticism?
Josh Hitchens: I mean, I’m so on the fringe that I’m usually ecstatic when anyone reviews my work at all. It shouldn’t matter, but when a critic really gets what I’m trying to do, it feels incredibly validating. Because I actually feel seen. On the flip side, a critic once said something so mean-spirited about me in a review that I can still quote it verbatim eleven years later. It hurt that bad. I appreciate critics who actually are great writers, who really investigate a work instead of just summarizing what the play is.
John Rosenberg: How do you see yourself in the world of Philly Theater? Do you have a sense of community or is such talk platitudes? i think I can use platitudes. If not, than switch out and add fucking stupid?
Josh Hitchens: I am, and have always been, an outsider. I am not, and have never, felt a part of what is traditionally regarded as the Philly theater community. But I do have an artistic community of my own that I’ve built over the past decade, and that’s something I treasure. I’m never going to stop doing exactly what I want to do.
John Rosenberg: What are you not interested in?
Josh Hitchens: Playing the game when I could just do the fucking work.
John Rosenberg: One thing we have in common is having worked at the Papermill Theater in Kensington, where BrainSpunk were based. What were some of the factors that led to Brainspunk RIPing?
Josh Hitchens: We were too ambitious, I think. I was the associate artistic director of BrainSpunk for the last year of its existence, but I came in after they had already picked the space. It’s a difficult location to convince people to go to, as you know, although we did have great audiences. We were doing really exciting work that was getting noticed, and there were so many brilliant young artists working with us. But money was always an issue, and became more and more of one. We kept going as long as we could.
The men who ran BrainSpunk, Christopher King and Jonathan Clayton-King, are people I would go to the ends of the earth for. They really got my work, believed in me, and wanted to give me an artistic home. We shouldn’t have done Mercury Fur. We had no money at that point. But they knew how much that show meant to me, and they saw how good the production was going to be. Christopher and Jonathan made tremendous personal sacrifices so that show could happen. They gave me my dream. I will always love them for what they did for me.
There started to be a lot more violence towards the end of our time there. Someone was shot right before a Dahmer performance, and the audience heard it. Right before Mercury Fur closed there was a triple homicide right outside the theater. That was when we knew we couldn’t be there anymore. You do shows only during the daytime, which is a much smarter way to go about it.
I’m so glad that you came back to Philly and are producing work at the Papermill again. I love that theater so much, and it was one of the most artistically fulfilling times of my life working there. I spent a lot of time in Kensington that year, walking from the Somerset el stop to the theater. No one ever once threatened me, and I never felt in danger. People want to sell you drugs, but they’re just trying to make a living. I’d say no thank you and they would say okay and move on. And the neighborhood was aware of the theater and the work we were doing, they knew who we all were. I had a lot of conversations with people there about it.
People demonize that neighborhood. Yes, there are a lot of drugs, and because of that there is violence. But the majority of people who live there are just in poverty, and doing what they can to survive and feed themselves and their kids. Walking down the street, it’s mostly families that live around there. Moms who would sweep the sidewalks in front of their houses so their children could play. I’m very grateful for the time I spent in Kensington. It really opened my eyes and demolished a lot of my assumptions about what that neighborhood would be like. I listened, and I learned a lot. And I think having the Papermill be there, in that place, is hugely important. Anyone reading this – go see shows there.
John Rosenberg: I appreciate you sharing what happened with Brainspunk and your thoughts on working in Kensington. Yeah, the Papermill is a special place. One of the goals I have coming back to Philly is to create a space where DIY artists or small companies can use the space free of charge in order to put on the show they want. It would be so neat to have a full year of DIY theater going. So if and when you are ready to work up there again, heehaw hooray!
Josh Hitchens: Noted. Thank you.
John Rosenberg: What do you think my son is named?
Josh Hitchens: Mark.
John Rosenberg: No.Is there a place you have been you are pretty sure I have never been?
Josh Hitchens: Fort Delaware.
John Rosenberg: What adorns the walls of your domicile?
Josh Hitchens: On my bedroom walls you will find: a large 3D painting of a gorilla in an ornate wooden frame I saved from the trash, a huge banner advertising a production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that I performed in Clark Park for 400 people a night (I can’t say how it may have come into my possession, but it’s mine now), A mixed media art piece called “The Heart of Erzulie Freda” by my favorite author Billy Martin (his books were written under the name Poppy Z. Brite) that I bought directly from him when I was in New Orleans last October, a Frida Kahlo painting framed with red lace and painted tin in the shape of a sacred heart, a painting of the Virgin Mary (also with sacred heart), the major arcada cards from the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg, a wooden crucifix I’ve had since childhood, a dried red rose my boyfriend gave me, a painting of Jesus that belonged to my mother, a picture of my sister and myself from high school days when we dressed in Hot Topic clothes, two pictures of my niece who was born in November, the 2019 Witches wall calendar, framed artwork of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion that was given to me to celebrate ten years of making theater there and signed by a lot of people I love very much.
John Rosenberg: Do you know any jokes you have memorized?
Josh Hitchens: No.
John Rosenberg: What music are you listening to?
Josh Hitchens: Lately, I’ve been listening to the live cast recording of Ghost Quartet, an astonishing musical by Dave Malloy. My company Going Dark Theatre is producing the Philadelphia premiere of it this October, and I’m co-directing it with my friend CJ Higgins, who is an incredible artist everyone in this town should know and want to work with.
John Rosenberg: Do you have a code you live by?
Josh Hitchens: I heard a co-worker say this once, and I love it: Do no harm, but take no shit.
John Rosenberg: How many different versions of you are there?
Josh Hitchens: There used to be many. I’d be a slightly different piece of myself depending on who I was interacting with or where I was. Now I’m working on just being my one whole self all the time.
John Rosenberg: What is the one unified version of you like?
Josh Hitchens: Being open, not pretending to be someone I’m not or that I’m feeling something I’m not feeling. Not hiding behind the words “I’m fine.”
John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your mind when you feel negative?
Josh Hitchens: Well, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder fifteen years ago, so that is something I live with and always will. Most of the time I maintain an equilibrium, but I do occasionally have very manic phases followed by extreme lows. For me, the negative thoughts relate to feeling invisible and/or wanting to stop everything and disappear. I do have medication, a wonderful partner, and friends that help me through the low times, which thankfully don’t happen very often these days. But I know it’s something I’ll always live with, and I think it’s important to be open and honest about that. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s a part of who I am.
John Rosenberg: Can you change how you feel if you don’t like how you feel?
Josh Hitchens: Yes, but I didn’t use to think so. I was very inclined to wallow. Now I try to remind myself in those times, “Well, this is your life. You can either stay miserable or do something to change it.”
John Rosenberg: Is there a piece of art that makes you feel as if everything will be okay?
Josh Hitchens: The play Time is on Our Side by R. Eric Thomas has probably given me that feeling more than anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a line from it I think about almost every day, years after I saw it: “If you show up, no one will ever be able to say you didn’t exist.” I might be wrong, but I even remember the last line of the play being “I hope.” I do honestly believe time is on our side, even though it’s hard to believe that sometimes these days. But I believe it is, and I have great hope that we’ll get there together one day. If we keep showing up.
John Rosenberg: What is your dream show? The one where money is no object. Who is in it? What happens during the run?
Josh Hitchens: One thing I really want to do is direct Marat/Sade as an epic site-specific production at the Mutter Museum. A cast of about 30 actors so the asylum is always in and around the audience. It would be a very dangerous production, as that play needs to be.
Who’s in it: Ryan Walter, Jared Reed, Amanda Schoonover, Jennifer Summerfield, Peter Zielinski, CJ Higgins, Megan Edelman, Geremy Webne-Behrman, Amber Orion, Sam Fineman, John Schultz, Josh McLucas, Jenna Kuerzi, Tyler Elliott, Asaki Kuruma, Neena Boyle, Stephanie Stoner, Jacob Glickman, John Skelton, Molly Edelman, Sue Edelman, Linden Curhart, Allison Kessler.
We have a sold out run of this insane show and get great reviews. Some people walk out because it disturbs them, more stay and have an experience they’ll never forget as long as they live. I’ve done theater at the Mutter Museum several times before, and they keep asking me back to do stuff, so I should probably get off my ass and talk to them about this. Marat/Sade would be good for the world right now.
John Rosenberg: What advice would you give yourself in the future?
Josh Hitchens: It’s never too late.