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Gay Camp by Philip Mutz: the Gayest Show On Earth?

By John Hutt

Photo of Philip Mutz in 'Gay Camp'

Although it brings up serious topics and asks important questions—everything from gender, abortion, class issues, and of course LGBTQ rights—Gay Camp is a satirical take on the gay reform camps that "cure" people of the egregious disease of homosexuality.

It all begins with the convivial pre-show atmosphere that includes nearly nude boys, strong drinks, piano renditions of Disney standards, and a generally fun environment that adds to the fact that the show—which was written by Philip Mutz and Susan-Kate Heaney—is playing at the Duplex in the New York City's West Village (through Sept. 22), located next door to The Stonewall.

"It's a celebration of how far we've come, and how far we have to go ," Mutz, who also acts in the show, says about the production and its environment. "Theater brings people together; it still creates a sense of community."

Impressed by the fact that the cast is able to traverse dialogue dealing with necrophiliac scissoring as well as listing anti-gay companies (and don't forget the mimed rimming), we caught up with the three-member cast and director to find out how they combined intelligence and eloquence to consider satire such a serious business. 

Out: Originally you crowdsourced this whole thing on Indiegogo, correct?

Phillip Fazio [Director]: We were originally part of the New York Fringe Festival, and there were 187 shows. We used Indiegogo and raised $4,000 to pay for wigs from Party City, shirts from Old Navy, and fireproof materials—because everything has to be fireproofed. 

But this show obviously wasn’t crowdsourced.

Fazio: Luckily The Duplex is a very friendly, very inexpensive place to run the show. We already had all of the sets and the costumes and everything and we're all working for very low, to no, pay.

Christian Mansfield [actor]: For peanuts

Phil Mutz [writer/actor]: Well one of the things about it is that you can do it at The Duplex, which is a much smaller space, or we just had our West Coast premiere in Spokane, which was a 300-seat theater, enormous space. But you can bring the show anywhere because everything fits in 12 suitcases, and you just wheel it in. It looks like wigs exploded backstage. So we are able to shop around, we can be picky about where we go, or find the best deal. we don't have to take whatever's available, thats whats really great about the show.

There are no female actors in the show, why is that?

Mutz: I co-wrote the show with my female writing partner Susan-Kate Heaney, and our first production—which Ken directed about three or four years ago—had two male actors, and she was in it as well, and we discussed it afterward. I think the play was missing something because gender actually became an issue when there were different genders in the cast. We're trying to say gender is irrelevant: I'm a man; i'm a woman; I'm whatever I am right now. When you have a woman playing a woman sometimes, and a man playing a woman sometimes, all of a sudden, your actual gender matters; and we are trying to eliminate that. I think it would still work, in a very different way, with three women.

Fazio: Yeah, I'd love to see that.

Mutz: I don't think it's about a feminist choice or having anything to do with that, I think we were trying to make a strong choice about eliminating gender identity as an issue in a play, and being about, "I'm just going to immerse myself in this character whoever it is—male, female, lesbian, straight, gay."

You use lots of stereotypes in the play—your gay stereotypes, your lesbian stereotypes...

Urso: Straight stereotypes especially.

Mansfield: I think its a great way, like Ken said earlier: "You get to embrace the stereotype, you reclaim it."

Fazio: It's like the Dan Savage, "Call me a faggot," thing: He made everybody write in and say: "Hey, faggot!"

Mansfield: Exactly, and then that word loses it's power and you embrace it. My character Anton is so over the top, and getting to embrace and play up that side of myself is so fun. I think to put it on display and have it be silly, to own it and show that your identity is made up of all of these different things add up to my personality it doesn’t mean—you're a queen, a butch, a fem,—everyone is all these things, and it's so funny to see them amplified.

Urso: Also, Anton and Martha are the most stereotypical gay and lesbian people in the show. And they are the most comfortable people in the show: They don't hate anyone; they love who they are; and they tell the world that.

Mutz: Essentially, they learn something about themselves when they learn to embrace their own stereotypes, whatever they are, and to embrace that. I think we fight against stereotype, but I'm going to embrace the part of the stereotype that is the reality; I'm going to actually go further and say, but I'm a person. And that's what we are trying to do is make people out of these characters by taking it too far with stereotypes.

How much of the show is scripted and how much is improvised?

Urso: Today [all laugh] could have been an exception, but normally I would say that in performance 98% of it is scripted. Now, a lot of what was scripted in today's production was improved first, so there are sections where Phillip, as the director, and Phil as the writer, let us go a little bit like “straight vs gay.” 

Fazio: The audience interaction stuff isn’t scripted.

Urso: If we're not on the script, then we're not on the beats, and we're not making transitions, and the audience in going to be lost.

Mansfield: A lot of things we wrote are just from us in a conversation, and the jokes need to be updated. Michelle Bachmann used to be Rick Santorum; used to be Sarah Palin.

Mutz: In an early draft, it was Rush Limbaugh.

Mansfield: Yeah, you have to update everything, all the little references like Paula Deen, and Antony Weiner, that keeps it fresh. Those kind of jokes and the script has to be constantly updated.

You're now preaching to a pretty appreciative choir, so how do you feel this would play out with a straight crowd, with a straight audience?

Fazio: Well we just did Spokane, Washington, and it's the third gayest city in America—it's just one of the most closeted gay cities in America. Washington's a blue state but it is in the red parts of the blue state. 

Mansfield: It's literally inches from Idaho.

Ken Urso [actor]: What's amazing was, everyone in that city was ready for it, so they all came out in droves. Sure, there were protestors saying, "You’re all going to hell!" as you exited the theater, which you wouldn’t get in New York. 

Mutz: Everyone inside was eating it up with a spoon. It was  like drag queens, we had old people 70- to 80-year-old people.

Mansfield: I mean, all day, and leading up to doing the show, we were like, “We have no idea how this is going to work here!” and that was like part of the excitement of it. It was a totally different crowd; this isn’t our friends and family. We played the opening sequence and the first joke, got a huge laugh, and we…[sighs dramatically]. So here we go, and we relaxed into the show. For a community like that, it's more of a treat, something they don't get to see in New York. You can see My Gay Wedding and My Gay Bar Mitzvah and My Big Gay Dog and My Big Gay Aunt & Uncle here. But there it was a special thing for them, so people were ready to have a great time—it was fantastic

Fazio: We did a talkback afterward and so many people said, “Thank you for bringing a show like this to Spokane, and thank you for taking the risk and for jumping off that cliff knowing that we might be run out of town with…"

Christian: Torches and pitchforks.

Mutz: Yeah, they were really ready for it, and the gay community there was really accepting. One of our first nights there, we did an event at a lesbian bar, and two nights later Novacane the drag queen of Spokane, came up to us and said: “Come down, come to our show; we will hook you up,” so we were part of their show, and they promoted our shows. They came in full drag to our show, everybody made an effort because they were excited about it. 

||

Christian Mansfield (left) and Ken Urso

What are the merits of satirizing people that are really already parodies of themselves such as Michelle Bachman? Aren't these people are already jokes?

Urso: I don't think they are 'such jokes' to everyone, first of all. But I think what's great is, the whole point of the show to me is we take the power, we're saying we will make fun of ourselves, we will call ourselves the worst names ever, because then you don't have the power when you say those things to us on the street.  We're like, “We've said much worse; we've done much worse. Thank you so much.” And that is the feeling when we walked out with the protestors, its was like: “We already won”; there are 250 gay men and women and straight allies who just paid $30 to come and see the show, and they are walking out.

Fazio: And, not to bring it down or anything, but right over there [gesturing to the corner of Seventh Avenue in the West Village], someone was shot. The battle is not over.

No not at all.

Fazio: While they may be jokes to us, they are not jokes to them. 

Mutz: I think, going off what Ken just said, Michelle Bachmann is an out-there character—to New Yorkers—but, she was elected to the House of Representatives; she ran for president.

Fazio: She was the frontrunner for the Republican party. 

Mutz: She is not a joke to many people, so I think by satirizing her—and then ideally taking the show elsewhere—we can share that message that the rest of the world doesn’t think that she is a real person. It thinks she's a joke, and you don't have to let her be a serious political figure.

So what do you feel the theater's role is in effecting political change? Do you think the theater has a large role, that it can effect social change?

Fazio: Definitely. I think it's two fold: I think that it brings people together and it creates a sense of community.

Mutz: When we were in Spokane, there were 200 people who, when they left, no one was going, “Oh, I can't believe there are protestors, I should go talk to them.” There were probably Christians in the audience who were not part of this activist church that was protesting, but they were there supporting people. I think it's also important the remember that it's 2013 and, yes, we've come really far, but we were only able to do this because of people before us. We're right next to The Stonewall; we only get to do this show because things like that happened.

Lets talk a little bit about context, your next door to the stonewall, how do you feel the context informs the performance

Fazio: Well, one of the things I love about the show is we are paying homage to those who came before us. Charles Busch, Charles Merrill, all the gay icons of the '60s and '70s who really did the heavy lifting. We can be here openly, doing theater, doing a show like this that we love, in Spokane.

Mansfield: I think an important word for the show is: “celebration.” It's a party, everyone has such a great time and laughs so hard. When DOMA was struck down, this street was full. We were all here; we were all celebrating and that spirit of community is what gets things done, I think that's a great way to get people organized—with a celebration like that, 

Urso: And our community is not just us gays, it's our straight allies.

What do you feel the gay community's role is in a larger political protest? 

Mutz: I'd like to think, and maybe i'm being a little na├»ve, that we are a little bit past the protest movement, and now we are just demanding our rights. We're no longer the minority in the sense that  people no longer look at us like somethings wrong with us; people now are accepting—the majority of the people  in this country thinks gays should be allowed to get married

We're on the right side of history, and now, crazy people can picket us, but I think things like theater and things like all of the arts, that brings people together as a community, and we don't have to be activists anymore because we're not a minority, and even though we might be a minority group, we're not a minority opinion, we're no longer looked down upon by the majority, we don't have to be activists anymore; in the same way I think you could be an activist and promote things that need to be done.

Fazio: There are still battles to fight

Mansfield: I think the gay community, throughout American history, has always been first adopters of fringe political movements. Now the [attention] is starting to turn towards trans rights, and a lot of the crazy reproductive things that are still unfortunately going on. I feel like the gay community tends to be an ally and first adopter in those kinds of cases.  I love that, you know, I'm gay and I'm also a feminist, and I'm also for trans rights. I love now that marriage is getting wrapped up, we are all “What's the next big thing?”

Ken: Exactly: what's next on the agenda

Speaking of what's next: Are you planning on touring the show anywhere else after this? 

Fazio: Yeah, we would love to, we would love to go do a whole West Coast tour: Seattle, down to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs...

Mutz: And one of the things we've been talking about is Provincetown, Massachusetts, because Naked Boys Singing had been a staple there for a decade, and they aren’t there anymore. But I think there is room for a new show that, when you're just walking down the street you go “I've got an hour and a half, what can I do?” Well, you can come watch Gay Camp, have a drink, and enjoy!

Find out the schedule and buy tickets for 'Gay Camp' at GayCampthePlay.

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