This Week's Guest: Dan Savage
If, like me, you are a huge fan of Dan Savage's work, you've probably heard him speak at length about sex and love and news and politics -- but this conversation is going to be a little different as we dive into 8-track tapes, secret bike rides, family arguments, and a rule-breaking theater troupe where Dan honed his sense of shock and showmanship long before he was known for dispensing Savage Love.
"Album covers in the 70s ... helped me figure out who the fuck I was," Dan recalls, thinking back to Leif Garrett records, the Rolling Stones cover with a zipper, and even the Solid Gold Dancers in the 1970s "when the objectification of male bodies was seriously really getting under way."
But it was musical comedies that had the biggest impact -- specifically from his parents' collection of 8-track tapes. His favorites ranged from Camelot to Cabaret to Carousel to shows that didn't start with a C. He heard songs like "There's a Place for Us," laments about finding a safe place to fall in love, and knew there was something speaking to him.
The film The Boys in the Band was pivotal as well. Though the characters are cruel to each other, he saw it and thought "oh -- you can be gay and have friends. I'll just have better friends." Dan was fortunate enough that his family encouraged argument and standing up for yourself, a sort of debate-club where he learned to defend himself if he was confident that he was right.
Still, he knew he was different, and it scared and intrigued him. As a teen, Dan would ride his bike through Chicago's gay neighborhood, gawking at men who walked comfortably in public while holding hands. In hindsight, he says, that was risky -- he was eager enough to dive into the world of bars and clubs that he could easily have been taken advantage of, especially since he wasn't sure he fully knew what sex was. "I knew how to put a dick in my mouth by the time I was fifteen," he laughed. "Maybe I'd have known what to do."
Like many queer people, he was drawn to the theater. "We grow up acting," he says, and as he learned that it could be an actual career, "it was all I ever wanted to do." In college, he did a lot of plays that bored him, but it was in Seattle that he was able to take risks and try new things on stage. He and some friends approached a bar and said they wanted to stage some shows, and from that emerged the Greek Active Theater Company. ("Greek active" was slang for a top.)
Their resources were few, in part because they prided themselves on pricing tickets just below the cost of a movie. By luck and scrappy talent, they managed to assemble ramshackle costumes and sets, often making creative choices based on the circumstances in which they found themselves: They staged The Miracle Worker in a gay bar, for example, because that was simply the venue they had to work with.
Dan's intention was to challenge audiences, to surprise them with works they thought they knew. During a production of Richard III, he delighted in an actor's decision to confront a disruptive audience-member with dialogue from the scene. His gay-bar Miracle Worker was shocking when it showed Hellen Keller spelling out "VODKA."
"You have to take stories people are familiar with and make them strange," he says. Audiences are "vulnerable when they're laughing," and as a director, he was able to draw viewers into the scene with comedy before startling them with real emotional catharsis.
It was important to surprise audiences, he says, because "theater is going to die if it can't do something for us that film and television aren't already doing, and doing better." And he succeeded -- but then his sex-advice column became a huge hit, and he had to drop his drama career.
"I really miss it," he says, confessing that he'd still love to direct The Boys in the Band. But of course, in his trademark style, he'd do it strangely, by "setting it on Mars or something."
It's a little surprising to hear that like everyone, Dan has some as-yet unfulfilled dreams. But who knows, maybe they can still come true: "It's crazy that theater is my fallback career," he laughs, "in case sex-advice-columning doesn't work out."
I just want to add, this week, that I'm so excited to bring you this interview because Dan's work has been a major influence on my own. The very first time I read one of his columns, I was sitting at a desk at my first job, taking a break from alphabetizing video tapes and envying the people who get to write words for a living. Since then, Dan and a handful of other writers have been signposts for my work, inspiring me to write better, to write smarter, to write funnier, to write not just for myself but to use words to shine a light on ideas and connect people to each other.
So it means a lot to me that I could bring you this conversation for episode 100 of The Sewers of Paris. And it also means a lot that you, the listeners, have kept this show going for 100 episodes of interviews and insights and stories and confessions. I do the show because I love exploring the different languages of art and culture, and I'm so grateful to my guests who generously invite us into their stories, and I'm grateful to my listeners for accepting that invitation week after week.
This Week's Recommendation: Cabaret
For my recommendation this week, you have two choices. Either hop on a plane and come visit Seattle to attend the brand new production of Cabaret in the Unicorn theater, or just watch the movie Cabaret -- but with a twist. You see, this new Seattle production of Cabaret has been adjusted for modern times, moved out of pre-war Berlin and into modern-day America. What was previously a reflection of a gay man watching Nazis rise to power is now... strangely familiar.
We've talked about Cabaret on this show before, and it's become vital in a way I really never anticipated. If you can't make it to Seattle, just watch the film and watch for the parallels -- the oblivious young person insisting that politics has nothing to do with her; a woman singing "maybe next time I'll win" at the Democratic National Convention; a crowd singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" while a party official insists they can be controlled. It's not difficult to find contemporary meaning in the song "Money Makes the World Go Around."
For fifty years, Cabaret has been a reflection on the past, but now it's a shout of alarm about the future. Or at least A future. Whatever happens next still hasn't been written.