Pig Iron Theatre Company’s latest wild theatrical creation opens this week at FringeArts. I Promised Myself to Live Faster is an absurdist sci-fi epic and wild allegory about gayness in 2015, and inspired by the life and works of theater legend Charles Ludlam. We caught up earlier this year with co-creator Dito van Reigersberg while Live Faster was still in development to give us some insight.
FringeArts: How did the idea for I Promised Myself To Live Faster come about?
Dito van Reigersberg: It was a strange and circuitous route to the sci-fi world. Mainly we began with the idea of a Pig Iron piece instigated by me/Martha Graham Cracker, my drag alter-ego. Originally it was called The Melodrama Project and I was interested in going for high-stakes drama but in a kind of camp or ridiculous setting. One exercise we did early on was create characters based on silly voices that we liked and then we tried to retain these goofy voices/characters but play a serious, dramatic scene, with no comment or laughing on the part of the performers. I guess it was a version of what Martha is, a hairy-chested drag queen who is sometimes playing for laughs, sometimes quite unexpectedly serious and sincere.
Then I was doing Irma Vep at Act II, this crazy quick-change romp of a play by Charles Ludlam. And I was reading a biography of Ludlam at the same time. He was also a hairy-chested drag queen, like me! He led an insanely talented and wild group of ragtag performers and made a huge mark on the downtown New York City theater scene. He was one of our director Dan Rothenberg’s heroes; Dan knew all the anecdotes about Ludlam via his High School drama teacher Bill Sweeney.
Then we thought about making a kind of biopic about Ludlam. His life story is kind of incredible. He was an outcast, a precocious teen—he staged Japanese Noh dramas with his High School friends. In acting school he was told that his acting style was “too enormous” and that he was to be strictly “a character actor,” and then he created this theater company in which he was the star performer, playwright, director, and impresario. His most famous performance was Camille, in which he tragically dies in hairy-chested drag in a performance that also blended the dramatic and the ridiculous; his company in fact was named the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. His real-life death of AIDS at the age of forty-four is the chilling counter to all of the silly joy of his life. And it is haunting, the fact that he played Camille, a character dying of consumption, over and over, as his most famed role.
But eventually, although a biopic did seem possible and exciting, we decided to set ourselves free from the truth and the real history and give ourselves permission to do something as silly and frolicsome as Ludlam, in a Ludlamesque way, sprayed with an Essence du Ludlam.
FringeArts: And the title is from . . . ?
Dito van Reigersberg: Our title comes from a line from Camille. She says: “I knew I would not live as long as the others so I promised myself to live more quickly.”
FringeArts: Can you describe the story and how you came up with it?
Dito van Reigersberg: In a collaborative setting, it’s often hard to pick apart or trace the source of the ideas. So I am going to say the ensemble—including Dan Rothenberg the director and Greg Moss the playwright, among others—all share responsibility for this wild rumpus of a plot.
Tim, an earthling, is in bed and looking around on Grindr, the gay hookup app. Not finding any joy in virtual cruising, he goes out into his neighborhood and finds a bar he’s never seen before called Madame George’s, a relic of the 70s. He finds a portal to outer space there, via a glory hole, and, traveling deep into outer space, he finds himself swept up in a cosmic battle for the Holy Gay Flame. A battle is raging between the nuns of Virgynia, their order gives virgin birth to homosexuals, and the Argoshauns, the “straightest planet in the galaxy.” The Virgynians and the Argoshauns both want to seize hold of the Holy Gay Flame, which has been stolen. If the Flame goes out, that will spell the end of all Homosexuals, everywhere. So much Last Starfighter, Star Wars, ET, and other such space parables in here. Oh yeah, in the olden days, sci-fi was called “Space Opera.” Pretty gay eh?
FringeArts: How is this connect to the idea of being about “gayness in 2015”?
Dito van Reigersberg: We wanted to make something goofy, as you can see, but with a feeling of allegory. And maybe a smidgen of meaning via that allegory . . . something about where we find ourselves now, in a time of the internet, Rupaul, Will and Grace, and gay marriage, is exciting and encouraging in many ways. But the question lingers, of what happens when an outsider group like gays eventually get “absorbed” or “assimilated” with the world at large. Could that happen? What is the Holy Gay Flame exactly and how do we keep it lit? Or perhaps more simply: how do we pay homage to the renegades like Ludlam who came before? And without falling into sentiment or nostalgia?
FringeArts: What’s your role?
Dito van Reigersberg: I play a closeted Bishop on the planet of the Argoshauns. His name is Bishop Ah-Ni. He is a villain who gains dimension and sympathy, I hope, over time. And I may sing the opening number.
FringeArts: What are some of the theatrical elements you are playing with in this show?
Dito van Reigersberg: The play is still taking shape but there are some real theatrical doozies. We have been experimenting, with our master costume designer Machine Dazzle (his latest creations got raves in the Times) about how to make alien bodies, how to portray entire planets as characters, and in general how to capture this madcap, freewheeling comic spirit but leave room for a dramatic, serious turn or two.
I Promised Myself to Live Faster
Pig Iron Theatre Company
Conceived by Dito van Reigersberg; text by playwright Greg Moss; directed by Dan Rothenberg; featuring Mikeah Jennings, Jenn Kidwell, Dito Van Reigersberg, Michele Tauber, Mary McCool.
Performances: May 22–May 31
For tickets and showtimes visit: FringeArts.com
140 North Columbus Boulevard
(at Race Street)
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Major support for I Promised Myself to Live Faster has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.