How long have you been acting and how did you first become interested in doing this for a living?
I've been an actor/director for almost thirty years now. In college, I got a degree in philosophy but my experiences onstage proved to be way more interesting so I moved to New York in 1989 with the express intention of making it as an actor. It's not always fun, but when you work with actors who are dedicated and intense and ready to do anything for the work, it's the greatest thing in the world.
Did you study philosophy and acting at the same university? Were you appearing in onstage productions back then?
I studied philosophy primarily at West Virginia University and I was appearing in Community Theater productions at that time. I played Fagin in Oliver and Melvin P. Thorpe in The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas during the same year when I was finishing up my degree. I also put together an evening of Shakespeare scenes where I played Hamlet, Macbeth and Hotspur. Once I caught the acting bug, there was no going back.
Have your studies of philosophy had any influence on your acting and performing to this day? Who were the philosophers whose work you studied before you came to New York?
Philosophy is still extremely important in my life as well as psychology and criminology. I have studied all of these things in order to understand people better. Experience is still the best teacher but you have to be able to interpret experience if you want to make art out of it. The most influential philosopher in my life has nearly always been Nietzsche. I know that Nietzsche is often considered to be the philosopher of angry young men these days, but the issues he raised have rarely been answered. Other than Nietzsche, I frequently read and reread the work of E.M. Cioran and over the last few years, I have enjoyed reading John Gray. All of these philosophers express what I might call spiritual realism. They understand and accept the darkness in life but they don't try to reduce everything to simple negatives. Philosophy prepares your mind to accept darkness and art that interacts with philosophy has the means to find beauty in darkness. As an actor or writer, this means being willing to explore characters and ideas from a lot of angles and to accept and express whatever you discover.
How much of Nietzsche’s published work have you read altogether? Did anything of his particularly speak to you?
From 1988 to 1990, I tried to read every major work of both Nietzsche and Henry Miller. But over time, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Genealogy Of Morals have been the ones I go back to the most often. I will always be grateful to Nietzsche for living the life he lived and exposing it in so many forms. His work has inspired me to keep hammering away no matter what.
What about Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Genealogy Of Morals keeps you turning the pages?
First of all, Zarathustra has an interesting story. You can identify with the character trying to bring his message to people who can't or won't understand it. For me, it's also the best attempt ever to merge philosophy and poetry. The imagery in the Genealogy of Morals is brutal and effective. Nietzsche illustrates the internal battle between civilization and animal instinct in a lot sexier way than Freud does. Also, his analysis of the psychology of morality continues to engage my mind even after reading countless other writings on the same subject. Unlike most philosophers, Nietzsche was a great writer and that's one of the main reasons why he is still read more than all his imitators and disciples.
Who are E.M. Cioran and John Gray and how do you consider their writings spiritual realism? What is spiritual realism?
E.M. Cioran was a Romanian philosopher who lived most of his life in Paris and wrote in French. His work is often viewed as a kind of continuation of Nietzsche. For me, Cioran is a person who obsessively tore apart everything and never settled into any stale or simple way of thinking. Gray is a modern British philosopher who relentlessly beats down the hubris of humanity. He despises utopians of all kinds and he sees through almost every attempt to puff up the value of humanity and to look at humans as some kind of super-important species with a unique and meaningful destiny.
By calling them spiritual realists, I only mean to contrast them with religious and philosophical thinkers who indulge in wishful thinking and magical thinking and who believe they can find absolute and final answers. Honest thinkers have far more questions than answers. The spiritual aspects of life are real in the sense that we live and experience them. A spiritual realist acknowledges the existence of mystery but doesn't try to reduce it to simple formulas or empty fantasies about eternity.
Describe your 1989 arrival in New York City. How much different do you remember the city being in those days?
I think the city was way more free back then. I enjoyed the sex and sleaze of 42nd Street. The land of strippers and peepshow windows and ten dollar handjobs was paradise for me. As an actor, I was able to get cast almost right away in a lot of different kinds of plays and there were a huge number of venues. I moved to the East Village in 1992 and that was definitely the place for me. The Village was dangerous enough to scare away conservative types and it had clubs and bars and theaters to spare. Plus, I could make friends and contacts just walking down the street because the kind of people I wanted to know were right there. For example, I met a girl at the laundromat who ended up being a successful dance choreographer and I met Sebastian Bach from Skid Row while he was just out having a beer at BBQ's on 8th Street.
Most people frequenting the city were easygoing in those days; spending time there it seemed you could approach almost anyone. Is this one of the things that made you want to remain there?
I know what you mean. New York was much friendlier in the 90’s. I think people moved to neighborhoods that suited them. You could always find some place where you could fit in. Neighborhoods had a more local character before all the chain stores and banks started taking over every empty space. When The Gap opened up in the East Village around the mid 90’s, it couldn’t even survive, but now there is no local character. Every neighborhood has the same kind of places so the same kind of people can live anywhere.
We came into contact through mutual friend Goddess Rosemary of Temple Of Sahjaza. How long have you previously known her and in what projects have you worked together?
I first met Rosemary in the early 90’s through Tony Sokol who was the producer and writer of The Vampyr Theatre. At that time I was the lead actor and the director of the play and we were always looking for interesting people from the various subcultures of New York. I think I first worked with Rosemary when she asked me to open the new Vault with her as a kind of MC for the various acts. She acted for me in some scenes for an unfinished film called Blood Angel and we worked together a few other times over the years.
How long before you became involved with The Vampyr Theatre were you acquainted with Tony Sokol? How did you come to direct and appear in this play as lead actor?
I was in the original production of The Vampyr Theatre, but I started out as a victim at Le Bar Bat on 57th Street. I first got involved because I knew the director, Rosalie Triana, from working with her at The Riverside Shakespeare Company. I met Tony through the play, we shared the same passion for horror films and stories and we started to become friends. I became the lead actor through a combination of factors including my willingness to sit for five or six hours in a makeup chair and get made up to look like Nosferatu from the original movie. I became the director after we had changed directors a couple times. I offered Tony a strong vision of what I wanted to do with the play so he let me try it. Also, because of my own acting interests and background, I was willing and able to push the other actors to be more extreme which is what we both wanted.
What horror films were you and Tony mutual fans of? Were they mostly vampire themed movies or were there other genres?
The Universal Horror films were the first thing we bonded over. Besides Dracula, we are both big fans of all things Karloff. Of course, the play was made more around our love of the Hammer Horror films which were far more graphic in blood and sex. We were both also big fans of The Hunger and both versions of Nosferatu. Kinski has always been a big influence on me as an actor. Finally, I remember that we discussed Rabid and films by Cronenberg in general.
Are you referring to Nastassja Kinski? I remember her in Cat People which I saw in my preteen years, and Rabid is still one of my favorite horror movies.
Cat People is a super sexy film and the sensuality made a deep impression on me. Actually, that makes me think of all those Val Lewton movies including the original Cat People and The Seventh Sign that Tony and I also discussed.
I first saw Rabid on cable probably in the early 80's and it had that mysterious effect on me that great movies often do. I can't pinpoint what got me, but it created a general feeling of fear and dread. I was probably titillated by Marilyn Chambers because I had seen Inside Marilyn but Cronenberg really knows how to get under your skin. I only remember that Tony also liked the film. I think our deepest film conversations were about the Val Lewton movies and about Rosemary's Baby which we also both love.
As far as influences, I was actually talking about Klaus Kinski. Nastassja's beauty has always intrigued me but Klaus was a maniac who still has no equal among actors. He is the pinnacle of emotional expressiveness and sensitivity and dedication to creating hyper-reality in performance. His autobiography reads like some kind of mixture of Henry Miller, Kafka and Nietzsche and his oversexed, megalomania definitely influenced my interpretation of Count Orlock.
As a kind of zombie film, how would you say Rabid compares to more recent pictures like 28 Days Later and World War Z?
I like the seediness of the world in Rabid. It's a little more threatening. Cronenberg has always been a master of creating visceral impact. I liked 28 Days Later but I can barely remember it and I haven't seen World War Z. Night of the Living Dead is my favorite zombie movie.
How do you think Night Of The Living Dead set new standards in horror cinema upon its late 60s release?
Night of the Living Dead was probably the most nihilistic film ever up to that point. The ending was genuinely shocking. It was amazing to have a black lead actor who was articulate and intelligent and then to just kill him off like that. Also, the social consciousness in the film was interesting. It's clearly critical of authority and there is generally a bleak view of the human race behind it. The film is inspiring for its artistic boldness and it set a good example of how to make a great movie cheaply.
What vampire movies from any era would you consider your biggest influences? There was one released in the mid 60s called Queen Of Blood about an alien space vampire who spearheads an invasion of Earth. Is this one familiar to you?
The original Dracula and the Hammer one from 1958. Both Nosferatu films, Vampire Lovers and Vampire Circus, House of Dracula, Countess Dracula and Vampyros Lesbos. I enjoyed the Vampirella comics and I took a lot from the erotic atmosphere of those books. I also had the Vampirella plastic figure. The movie was disappointing though. You've hit on a really important film for me that I don't think about very much. I saw Queen Of Blood (although it was called Planet of Blood in that version) on the late night Saturday horror movie as a kid and loved it. The movie is extremely atmospheric and the idea of being trapped and hunted down in an enclosed space is always creepy if it's done well. That was also maybe the first movie I saw that had scientists debating about humans and their place in the food chain. As a kid, it made a huge impression on me.
When was Klaus Kinski’s autobiography released, and in what ways did it influence your interpretation of Count Orlock?
Kinski's autobiography, All I Need Is Love, was first published in 1991. Kinski's bluntness and directness about sex and were exactly what I wanted to do as an actor but I hadn't had many opportunities up to that point. His book made me determined to play the kind of roles I knew I really wanted to play. After reading that book, there was no way I could play it safe with my acting career anymore.
How much work did you and Rosalie Triana do while you worked together in The Riverside Shakespeare Company? How did you first hear of her involvement in The Vampyr Theatre?
Rosalie and I were both actors at Riverside Shakespeare although we never actually worked together in anything. Mostly I remember that we did some weekend acting retreat together with the company. Rosalie was into past lives and lots of new age type stuff and she was sexy. I don't remember when she first mentioned The Vampyr Theatre to me but I know I thought it was a potentially big chance for me to work on the kind of material I really wanted to do. As a director, she was most interested in creating intimate relationships that would show up on stage and this also was a big interest of mine.
What was Rosalie’s method of creating intimate relationships onstage? In what ways did you have a similar interest?
In rehearsals, Rosalie spent a lot of time getting the actors to focus on each other more than on interpretation. She used lots of exercises and she encouraged lots of direct eye contact and people touching each other. Most actors are accustomed only to learning how to interpret the script and "play" their parts. Both Rosalie and I thought that actors should spend more time touching and creating real sensuality and real emotions that could be conveyed to the audience. My own idea is that sensuality should be absolutely real.
Did Rosalie’s instructions pay off when the actors channeled it onstage? How much more “real” was the sensuality than usual?
I don't think we really had the cast at that time to create deep sensuality. Also, the play was kind of wordy and jokey at first. It took time to get deeper into the sensuality and that didn't really happen so much when Rosalie was there. It actually took another year before we cast the right people to push the play in that direction completely. But she laid the groundwork and she inspired me to push the actors further. She was probably the first actress/director I had met who really wanted sex on the stage to be real. It's one thing to think about that stuff as a guy but it was really important for me to see a woman who wanted the same thing.
Who were the characters of The Vampyr Theatre? What unique talents were you seeking to get involved in the production?
The Vampyr Theatre was stitched together from a lot of research Tony did by interviewing people who regarded themselves as real vampires. Tony mixed his research results with elements of traditional horror and his political interests, and of course he got the idea from Anne Rice. There were very few recurring characters besides myself as Count Orlock. Orlock was an oversexed, megalomaniacal, misanthropic killer with a very dark sense of humor. Somehow we mixed Nosferatu with Groucho Marx and a touch of Charles Manson. Tony always liked to say that Orlock was written for Mae West. I can kind of see what he meant even though I didn't exactly play it that way. We were looking for as many edgy and interesting people as we could find. We were doing our best to keep the play from becoming too vanilla. We tried to balance using trained actors and people from the world of S&M, magicians, strippers or just interesting looking people. I think we were just looking to get a really passionate group who were into the mix of sex, violence, politics and comedy that Tony wrote. Some of my favorite people were definitely not trained actors.
How many interviews did Tony conduct with people who considered themselves vampires? What information did he find while doing those interviews?
I believe Tony said he received over five hundred calls on his Vampire Hotline and talked to around two hundred people. Honestly, I met few of these people and I had little contact with that aspect of things. He told me some interesting stories about people who wanted to drink his blood or have him drink theirs. He also had a lot of encounters with people who were into various forms of hypnotism and mind control. They were always either trying to hypnotize him or prove their powers somehow. I never judged anybody but I wouldn't have had the patience to do what he did. He seems to have put himself in some genuinely scary situations with some mentally unbalanced people. He is an edgy dude even today.
How many strippers, magicians and S&M festishists were involved in The Vampyr Theater? What kind of an atmosphere did you expect would result from having so many from different background working together?
There used to be an alternative strip club over on Jane Street where Tony and I even thought about doing The Vampyr Theatre. We also approached the woman who ran The Blue Angel Cabaret down on White Street about doing the play. Tony also wanted to get people from The Coney Island Sideshow into the performances. The play was structured so that we could allow guest appearances such as the one by Mistress Shane, but the reality is that theatre required too much discipline and rehearsal without paying enough so we often couldn't hire a lot of the people we wanted. As far as strippers, several of the girls stripped on the side to support their acting careers. That was pretty common in the 90's but I couldn’t out them at this late date.
Tony and I did not always have the same goals so it's hard to explain some of what we ended up doing. I wanted more emotional intensity, more sensuality and more fearless performers. Tony was and is a genuine anarchist. He wanted to disrupt, upset and shock the audience. Of course, we converged at times, but I was mainly interested in putting together something close to a regular theater production with radical elements. Tony is an actual radical who wanted to attack the consciousness of the audience. What we actually got was probably not exactly what either one of us expected but it was absolutely different from anything at the time or now. I think you would have to go back to the 60's and 70's to get that much real sexuality and real anger and emotional violence on a stage.
Can you explain further the sort of energy that resulted from combining your emotion with Tony’s anarchism?
I was violent enough and sadistic enough on my own to play the character, but Tony pushed the anti-Christian stuff hard and he also really showed a lot of contempt for the audience. His attacks on Christianity sometimes caused people to walk out of the show and it definitely made some of the actors uncomfortable. But he was right that this was the essence of his vision of the vampire as ultimate outsider. He had me telling Jesus to kiss my ass and Satan to suck my cock. He wrote a bit where I referred to Jesus as a pathetic weakling hanging from a tree. Not that I was any kind of a Christian, but it was hard for me at first to attack the audience in that way. As an actor, my religion is to put fannies in the seats and to give the people what they want. Slowly though, I began to enjoy the extreme stuff more and more and it made me more powerful on stage. In one show, I improvised wiping my ass with the Bible and throwing it across the stage in front of over 200 people and a lot of them audibly gasped when I did it. It was one of my better moments and Tony probably brought that out of me. He also wrote a lot of situations for me to abuse the audience and I began to single people out instead of speaking generally. I made them squirm and gave them a taste of real discomfort. This too greatly increased the power of the character. Tony and I were definitely one of those Odd Couples who frustrated and inspired each other in mostly good ways.
My only problem with Christianity and religion in general is how it is sometimes used as a weapon, particularly the guilt/denial/punishment aspects. I don’t believe in attacking it for the sake of attacking it, but I don’t think it should be a means of control. Your thoughts?
I don't think highly of organized religion in general. Groupthink leads easily to fascism. But I don't see any reason to attack people for their beliefs unless they are directly bothering me. Early Christianity heroically stood up to the Roman Empire and I can see how it would have appealed to people who were under the thumb of the Romans. Christianity has been far less appealing since it achieved the status of the dominant religion in so many countries because of the things you mentioned. Too much psychological bullying.
As far as The Vampyr Theatre was concerned, Tony's point was that you can't really represent a powerful, dangerous creature like a vampire if you're afraid of offending people. That was the important point he finally got across to me. And I think it applies to being any kind of artist in general.
Describe some of the performers you became acquainted with while seeking actors for The Vampyr Theater.
I met and worked with a lot of talented people in that play. One of the stars and also directors of the play, Mario Giacalone was a talented actor and a great guy. He still writes songs and plays in various venues. I also worked with Sam Mercer who had a dangerous edge at that time. He was awesome as the only male character who really was written to challenge me in the last years. My good friend, Professor Edmund Lingan, who has just published a book on occult theater was in several episodes of the play and Ed was up for pretty much anything. Of course, my biggest interest was in the sexy actresses in the play and they were numerous. I had some of the best times of my life biting Lori Tomlinson and Sasha Graham in early incarnations of the play. Sasha is an accomplished Tarot reader and author a couple of books on the subject of Tarot.
The most powerful actresses were Diane Acciavati and Tracy Dillon. Diane exuded sexual power and she played a vampire who was supposed to be above my character in the mythical pecking order. It was a pleasure to literally kiss her ass onstage. Tracy and I pushed the sexual envelope far enough to entice a lot of new followers to the play. Although there was no genital contact, the sex was 100 percent real. She was one of the most open and exciting actresses I've ever worked with. She went on to do some good work in TV and especially in the film A Gun for Jennifer.
Of the non-traditional performers we worked with, my favorite was Dawn Marshan. Dawn was a delicious Long Island beauty with big hair and no acting experience but lots of enthusiasm for sexual realism. I also enjoyed the work of Mistress Shane. I won't lie though. Things ended badly with her because the regular actors in the cast were shocked and scared to be in the presence of real S&M on the stage. I actually never saw her bit at the beginning of the play because I was enclosed in a coffin waiting to make my entrance. I do remember though, when I came out of that coffin directly after she had beaten the hell out of her scantily clad slave boy, I saw a lot of stunned expressions. Finally, that play introduced me to the super-talented and genuinely wild magician/special effects guy/fetish photographer Tony Scarpa who remains a great friend of mine.
How many books on Tarot has Sasha Graham published to date? How much of her amassed knowledge does she reveal?
I know Sasha's books Tarot Diva and 365 Tarot Spreads. She also has three new books coming out this year. The only thing I can say about her knowledge is that Sasha has always been deeply intuitive and she loves people so she has always wanted to share what she knows.
Was The Vampyr Theatre a regular event taking place every weekend? Where was the production held and how were the turnouts each time it was put on? How often would you see reviews published for the show?
The Vampyr Theatre was put up in a variety of venues around the city from 1992 to 1997. We started in Le Bar Bat and then moved around to several different theaters for relatively short runs. The first big hit was at Theater 22 over at 22nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Michael Musto, who still writes for the Village Voice, reviewed the play in The New York Daily News and for the next couple of weeks, we couldn't accommodate the demand. My favorite review of the play was in Screw Magazine where I appeared in a picture with the actress Shaunte Shayde and the caption, "Going down on the count." We performed a lot of different scripts over those five years and played in cabarets, S&M clubs, black box theaters and even a really big club out in New Jersey. Honestly, I can't remember how it all went down every time but I think we mostly wore out our welcome or didn't like the places for various reasons. We needed a space where we could have some control over the stage and lights and where we could leave a few set pieces and spill a lot of stage blood and it's not easy to share a theater with other groups under those conditions. The incarnation at NADA which featured the script "Dances from a Shallow Grave" was the most successful for me. I think we peaked in getting a dedicated cast and working on the Lower East Side where we could draw cool audiences. We pushed the envelope in every way in that show and I think it was good.
Describe the circumstances by which you met Goddess Rosemary through Tony.
I forget the occasion, but Tony invited me to come with him to Rosemary's apartment on 14th Street to meet her. Above all, I remember her beauty. She was and is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. I was stunned by her right from the beginning. Her slave Maria was there with her, sitting at her feet I believe. Tony and I were chatting with Rosemary when Maria started acting up. Of course I have no idea if this was some regular thing between them or if Maria was just trying to get some attention but I remember Rosemary pulled some roses out of a vase and beat Maria's ass bloody. That will always be one of the most powerful things I have ever seen.
What was Rosemary’s role in the Blood Angels movie? Why was this project never completed?
Rosemary shot some scenes as the mother of the killer. We shot POV scenes where she alternated between being a loving mother, an abusive mother and being very sexual toward her son who is only represented by the camera. I shot a lot of scenes with the killer and his victims and the mother footage but I didn't have the money to shoot the FBI stuff. The footage still exists and I still may manage to edit together a short-film version one of these days.
How would you rate each of Rosemary’s approaches to her character? What other projects did you and she work on together?
Rosemary threw herself into the character. The first thing she did was to create her own environment to work in. I set up a kind of makeshift vanity but she arranged it beautifully and put her own objects on it. She knew how to work instinctively to create a whole character. I honestly don't remember giving her very much direction. I set up shots and told her what I wanted and then she just took off. I knew her fairly well at that point, but she surprised me by the range of emotions she played. You have to realize that she was talking to the camera as though it was her little boy and she made that boy 100% real. She abused him and called him stupid and told him that even angels thought he was stupid. And then she turned on a dime and was a sweet, gentle mother to the boy. She also totally captured the sexual need and vulnerability of the mother. Of the actors I have worked with, she is possibly the most instinctive and the most willing to just go with the flow of her emotions and inspirations.
I was with her on another film shoot but I didn't direct it. It was for some B type movie and I got her a couple of actresses to work with. She tied them up and sensually tortured them a little in the film. I think she contributed a lot of the set decoration on that one too. We were using the same space where she and I shot for Blood Angel and she utilized the available furniture and props to make it look really cool. I never saw the movie though so I don't know how it turned out.
The other time we worked together was at WOW Cafe in a play written by her friend Sid Branch.
Was this B movie you mentioned ever released anywhere? Who were the other actresses involved?
I never even knew the names of the two guys who were making the film and I have no idea if they ever completed it. I don't remember the one actress and the other one is now a mother and I don't know if she would want to be outed as a former soft-porn actress. In fact, answering these questions, I've realized how much I know about people that they may not want to share with the world. I had never thought of that aspect of things before.
What was this play you and Rosemary worked on at the WOW café? Was the venue in question located on the Lower East Side, on East 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue? I remember going there to see I Married A Lesbian Witch in the mid-90s.
You are describing the place exactly. I think the theater was on the fourth floor or something like that. The play was called Mickey-O and I played a hypocritical preacher. I don't remember Rosemary's role but the whole thing was a pretty funny satire.
Describe your experience working at the Vault when you emceed for the acts performing there.
My job was just to tie things together and to keep the acts moving. I put on some leather and did my best to stay out of the way. The fun part was seeing the variety of acts. That was the second time I had seen a live performance by my friend Dave Clark and his girlfriend Joanne. They were actually wilder when I saw them at Boudoir in Exile. In that show, Joanne pissed into Dave's cupped hands and then he drank it and turned around and spit it at the audience. At The Vault I think she just gave him a light beating while they played After The Flesh by My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult. There was a Scottish performer who called herself Lucifire and probably about fifteen acts in all. I don't exactly remember what Rosemary did for that show, but I remember how she took care of the other performers. One of the girls didn't know what to do, so Rosemary set her up with a couple of guys to act as slaves and footstools and instructed her in doing some smoking fetish bit that worked out pretty well.
How important was it to Rosemary to see to the comfort of the performers appearing at The Vault?
Rosemary has always been somebody who takes care of people. For example, she often found work and then found some way to cut other people in. She encourages people and she is a very positive force. Of course she's also really tough and she doesn't let people spread their negative filth on her or others. She's very protective. I didn't realize it at the time of the Vault, but I was witnessing the same tendencies that have put her in her position as High Priestess at Temple Sahjaza. She definitely lives up to being a Matriarch.
Since 2000 the city lost many clubs to rising rents. This has actually happened since the “Quality Of Life” agenda introduced by Mayor Giuliani in the late 90s. Do you still think there can be communities in the city supporting free expression?
I am afraid that Giuliani killed a lot of the best things in New York. I have watched a large number of my own friends either leave the city or give up trying to do art. Unless the real estate bubble bursts and leads the city back down the road to ruin - which could definitely happen - I don't see how anybody can do anything at these prices. And even some of the groups and individuals who have remained active have become part of an insulated world protected by political correctness which excludes most of the things that interest me. That's one of the main reasons I've moved toward film. I don't wish disaster on New York, but if it comes, all of us artists and actors and musicians will remain to take over along with the cockroaches.
How did you see the “Quality Of Life” program beginning to take shape after it was implemented?
For one thing, the East Village streetwalkers started to disappear. I talked to some of those girls about Joel Rifkin when I was playing Orlock. They were just a daily fact of life on 12th and 13th Streets between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Then one day they were all gone. I know some of them were disappearing from their heroin habit, but their en masse disappearance was the work of Giuliani. Then he almost eliminated the sex business on 42nd Street and along 8th Avenue. Also one of my friends was arrested for turnstile jumping. I'm not saying there were no positive effects from Giuliani's cleanup of the city, but he effectively wiped out the New York that first attracted me. In a lot of ways, it's now the big suburban shopping mall of his dreams.
How did you see Quality Of Life beginning to affect the club scene in the East Village?
The closing of CBGB's was pretty painful. I also miss Coney Island High and The Bank. In my opinion, Giuliani really had it in for the big clubs. He went after The Palladium and the Limelight with every tool at his disposal. The city and the Feds were after Peter Gatien all the time. They brought ridiculous drug charges against him that they could never prove. I'm no expert on the situation, but it sure looked like a vendetta. It really seems like this attack on young people having fun has pretty much continued to this day. I'm sure that clubs bring some negative quality of life issues with them, but a city that doesn't have a serious nightlife for young people will get old pretty fast.
It strikes me as strange that the clubs Giulani targeted were less affluent and hosted alternative lifestyles (punk, goth, metal etc). It does seem there was a hidden agenda involved, with rents raised so only places with larger funds could afford to stay. Tompkins Square Park is one of the few places that have lasted for alternative culture to be heard.
The government and lots of rich people want to clean up New York for the tourists and for the rich investors. Also, a lot of moralists are happy to see New York turned into a Disney theme park. And a lot the creative types have been run out of town by the increased cost or watched their neighborhoods become too vanilla to inspire anything. And those of us who lived through better times for freedom are sad to see it change. But all we can do is keep creating. We can't be naive about human nature. Things will not get better soon. At least we have Tompkins Square Park!
Record stores in New York City and Long Island have likewise been affected by higher rent costs. What kind of an impact has this had on the independent music industry?
I certainly lament the loss of record stores just because they were the greatest places to hang out and figure out what was going on in music but I don't know much about the industry. My friends who are music artists are having a really hard time because there's almost no way to make money from it so they can keep doing what they love. Either you make it big or you fail. Nothing in between really. I think film kind of has the same problems in that nobody has really figured out a new business model.
How many musicians do you know who are having a hard time making ends meet so they can continue pursuing the goals?
I think everybody in the music scene in New York knows musicians who are struggling and musicians who have just given up. I can't say any names because I think they would be embarrassed and it might hurt their crowd-funding. For me, it's a shame that people who really want to make music and who have talent and a following still can't make enough money to live in peace and do their work.
Speaking of film, a movie was made about CBGB that people who have been to the club generally dislike. I’ve seen it and think documentary films paint a more realistic picture. In her performance that marked the club’s final show ever, Patti Smith urged people to keep creating in the face of the mediocrity costing the city free expression. Will there always be people who do so?
That CBGB movie was just boring. Patti Smith was right to say that the artists of today should create their own things instead of pillaging the past. In some ways, that's exactly the nightmare. Even rebellion can be packaged and sold by people who have no respect or love for anything except money. But I still think Patti was 100% right in what she said about free expression. Anybody who really wants to express themselves should just keep trying. I mean, we're just talking about artistic or personal expression here. If somebody like Aung San Suu Kyi can spend 23 years in prison in Myanmar in her fight for political freedom, the least we can do is appreciate our situation and make the best of it.
I watched the documentary Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel in which one of his interview clips showed him saying there should be classes about police brutality, scams and racism, to educate people against the status quo. Would you ever see this happening in our schools, or is our education system dumbing down our young more and more?
Tupac was a smart, talented kid who died too young, but educating people against the status quo is the stuff of anarchists. The educational system fails when people teach you one thing and you see another. That's the recipe for cynicism and confusion. Students need facts and critical thinking skills. They also need teachers who will engage in honest discussion about difficult problems. Educating people on how to use the existing institutions to solve actual problems as they arise is always the way to go. I don't see any reason why these things can't be improved. The biggest challenge is giving every kid a fair chance at a good education. That is really hard. There are lots of people who want to manipulate the educational system for their political or financial or religious advantage and sometimes they are in power.
It's certainly possible that there is some conscious attempt to dumb down students in some places. I've always believed that the Republicans in particular have never gotten over the campus activism of the 60's and 70's. Still, whatever degree of actual freedom or democracy exists, if the system itself is destroyed you only have anarchy. And I don't think most people really want the kind of justice that will follow from that.
How likely is it that all the gentrification taking place in the city could backfire on itself?
Gentrification is doomed for a lot of reasons. Logically, it's impossible because there are not an infinite number of rich people to just keep spilling out to every corner of the New York metro area in pursuit of "the next cool thing." Emotionally, it creates anger and chaos and destroys everything authentic and interesting about New York. Gentrification embodies all the shittiest dreams of wealth and greed that threaten just about everything on the planet. It has the same kind of purification fantasies behind it that motivated Hitler. It will not end well.
What venues still exist in the city that support free expression and haven’t been affected by said gentrification?
Everything is pricier now but Theater Under St. Marks, The Kraine Theater, HERE space, Dixon Place, LaMama Etc., PS 122 and Theater for the New City come to mind. I've worked in most of these places and it's still possible to rent a space and put up anything you want. Sometimes, you can get your work produced in new work festivals.
What are some of the projects you are currently involved in?
I am currently at work on my screenplay for Faust, The Devil & Rock & Roll that I have been adapting from my stage play of the same name. I staged Faust back in 1997 at The Gene Frankel Theater down on Bond Street and now I've decided I want to make the movie. But the main project for me at this time is a film version of Hamlet. I've cut the whole script to 90 minutes and fleshed out the characters around Hamlet and filled it with images of the sex and violence that I believe are at the heart of the play. I am very close to putting up a crowd-funding page once I finalize the actors. I expect to have a couple of name actors as Ophelia and Gertrude but I can't make a big move until the ink is on the contracts.
Recall the earliest stage productions of Faust, The Devil & Rock & Roll back in 1997? Is the Gene Frankel Theater still around?
The 1997 version of Faust had some really excellent actors in it and it was successful in some ways. I was trying to put something on stage that people hadn't seen before. Faust is a heavy metal rock star trying to make a comeback but he's tormented by the devil while he's also falling in love with a young preacher's daughter. The show had some intense emotional scenes, some fairly graphic sex and a lot of black comedy. Boston Stergis, who played Faust, had the right look and he gave a bold and memorable performance. Sheila Hageman, who played Susan, the preacher's daughter, was fantastic. She was vulnerable and sweet and sexy and it was really easy to understand why Faust fell in love with her. Sheila also recently wrote a book about her days as a stripper called Stripping Down. The character of Pandora, who tempts Faust away from Susan with her sexy, rock & roll persona was played by Michele Santopietro who did a few episodes of The Sopranos. She was as powerful as any actress I've ever seen. I saw that she had star quality right away. I played the Devil and I wanted to seem as harmless as possible before I became brutal and dangerous. I have since reconceived the part but I'm happy with what it was at the time. The Gene Frankel Theater is still going strong. I think it has a lot of alternative uses besides performance but it has managed to survive.
Do you know of any productions being held by the Gene Frankel Theater these days?
I don't know much about theater these days. I did recently attend a Polish production of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn. They bring a lot of good stuff in from other countries or from kind of radical theater groups. They're currently doing a production of Let The Right One In which was adapted from the film. They also house The Wooster Group which does the strangest theater in New York that I've ever seen.
What research went into your portrayal of the devil in your production of Faust?
When I played the devil, I had already been playing Orlock for a long time. I spent a lot of time pondering serial killers and Charlie Manson to create Orlock and this stuff was useful in playing Mephistopholes. I think I took my main approach from Goethe's idea that the devil is a spirit of negation. The devil is the voice inside any thoughtful person that tells them they are worthless and others are using them and no one can be trusted. If you listen to that stuff, you will destroy everything good that comes your way. I just tried to be persuasive to Faust by any means available. Offering him booze or drugs or women or power or just finding good reasons for him to be paranoid. Actors are always creatures who are trying to be loved by millions while at the same time trying to be authentic selves. The inherent conflicts of that lifestyle are enough material to play a million different kinds of devils.
What were the reasons you researched Charles Manson for Orlock? What about him did you find useful for Mephistopholes?
Manson kind of haunted my youth. His murders created a strange atmosphere. Maybe the media frenzy about the killings was my first taste of how certain events can instill a vague fear in people. I probably didn't become fully aware of him until the TV movie Helter Skelter but Steven Railsback's performance was haunting. I also remember reading and seeing a lot about him and his female followers when Squeaky Fromme tried to kill President Ford. Later on, when I actually read the book Helter Skelter, I was struck by how reasonable Manson's arguments could be at times. "You made me", "I am only a projection of your fear", "The people that you call the Family were just people that you did not want. I took them up on my garbage dump and I told them that in love, there is no wrong” and finally, "These children that come at you with knives, they're your children. I didn't teach them. You did." So when I came to play Orlock, I immediately thought of Charlie. Manson helped me see how to play Orlock as a cult leader. Tony and I didn't talk about it much but I think he was also strongly influenced by Manson. He even named a character Sexy Sadie. Orlock was always exhorting the audience to join the vampire cult and telling them that he was just a projection of their hidden desires and fears.
There was an independently produced doc I watched called Charles Manson: Superstar. Most of on centers on direct quotes from Manson without the kind of spin the media places on things. Have you seen it?
I have not seen that but it sounds fascinating. I'll have to watch it. I have watched Charlie's actual testimony. People should just go to the actual sources or documentaries as you suggest. I wish schools would teach people more about how to extract useful information from the media and throw away the rest.
Have you read Sheila Hagerman’s book Stripping Down? Would you say it presents an accurate picture of NYC strip clubs?
Sheila’s book is a very interesting expression of her own experience. It is not a warm and fuzzy walk down memory lane. A lot of it sounds unpleasant. The book is really well written and it's an honest attempt by one person to understand her life and the things she did for money and for other reasons like self-esteem or love or the lack of them. Her experience is her experience. When I think of all the strippers I've known, I can honestly say that a lot of them had similar experiences, but I've met some people who had a thick enough skin and enough self-knowledge and clear enough goals to see stripping as just another experience. But those girls are a rare breed.
When was Stripping Down released and where can it be purchased now? Can a book like it be written in this day and age?
The book was released in 2012 and it's available on Amazon. I guess the topic is a bit of a risk these days, but she was mainly just writing about the demons of her past and how she worked through her various issues and traumas. I think most people just view it as a personal journey of discovery book. Most of the reaction has been favorable. The lurid aspects don't seem to bother most people.
What made you decide to adapt Faust, The Devil & Rock & Roll into a screenplay? Have any actors or actresses expressed interest in appearing in it?
Faust is too huge in conception to be done on a stage. It's not Broadway material and there's just no place you could put it up for a reasonable price. I always wanted to film it anyway but it's taken me a lot of time to solve some of the contradictions at the center of the script. It probably would have done fine if I had been able to get it out in the world years ago, but now that I've lived with it for so long, I've had to work on it. For me, a story has to be so clear and powerful that it finally just spills out in a single piece. I really don't have any idea who could or would do Faust at this point. It has always been difficult to find an actor who has genuine acting talent and who can honestly play a heavy metal rock star. There are few actors who have the intensity of a Black Metal or Death Metal frontman. Actresses are generally easier to find for me because I write stuff they want to play. Susan is a sister of Ophelia and that always attracts actresses.
Elaborate on how you reworked your own incarnation of Hamlet for the big screen.
My first stab at Hamlet was what you would expect from a young actor. I played the scene with Ophelia like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Doomed love is good stuff, but you look for more interesting things once you get more life experience. I’m interested in ensemble pieces now that have deep relationships and lots of character interaction. Even a good production of Hamlet is usually so Hamlet-centric that you barely get to know the other characters. That’s no good for me. I’ve cut the role of Hamlet in half and I've added stuff for Ophelia and Gertrude. While I haven’t expanded Laertes and Polonius, I have made them more interesting than usual by choosing a very dark interpretation of how they relate to Ophelia. I started working out this interpretation with my friend Jamie Gillis who was going to play Polonius. A couple of years before Jamie died in 2010, we did some audition scenes with actresses and started to explore how my ideas would actually work. I have some amazing video of Jamie playing Polonius – and even Hamlet a couple of times – with a variety of Ophelias. Jamie was a great actor and his death slowed me down on this project for some time. I couldn’t see doing it without him. But now my friend Ed Lingan will take the role and Ed is certainly cool enough to make his own magic.
Which of your life experiences made you want a greater amount of character interaction in your production of Hamlet?
Childhood poverty and the cruel behavior of other children probably left a mark on me. I barely remember the actual comments and attitudes, but I was acutely aware of not being part of the group. I think once you're marked and treated as different, you seek ways to erase your humiliations. The world of stage and film for me is a place where people can explore intimacy that they would probably otherwise only express to a close friend or lover. And whenever I've been in control of my theatrical experiences, I've tried to push things in that direction. I don't like privilege and class distinctions so even in something like Hamlet, I want to break them down. In my version, Hamlet is just another character among several. And I judge actors only on their merits such as dedication and performance ability. I don't care who their mommy and daddy are or what kind of social or acting pedigree they have or what race or ethnicity they happen to be.
How did you enhance the characters of Laertes and Polonius and give them darker overtones in relation to Ophelia?
I just thought it might be interesting to explore whether Ophelia had suffered some abuse at the hands of her father and brother. The lines are very suggestive.
At what point did Ed Lingan express interest in working on Hamlet with you?
When I finally decided to get back to the idea of making the film, I contacted Ed and asked him to do it. I felt one of the first things I needed to do was to fill Jamie's shoes so I wouldn't be depressed by his absence. Ed's book The Theatre of the Occult Revival is also available at Amazon.
What was Ed writing about in The Theatre of the Occult Revival, and what were the points he was making with that book? Is this one of several books he has written up until today?
Ed's book is an academic history of a movement called The Occult Revival and the theatre pieces that were related to it or part of it. A lot of various spiritual movements grew up around the late 19th Century into the mid-20th Century, including Wicca, and Ed's book explores the actual theatre and some of the rituals that were part of all that. I have never had more than a passing interest in that stuff except for Aleister Crowley but Ed is an expert on Crowley and also a lot of people I don't really know much about. This is his first book but he's written a lot of articles for journals and he wrote a bunch of cult and occult plays. He wrote a comedy about a modern day alchemist, a comedy about a sex cult, another play about a group of thugs with a vinyl fetish and he produced a play in the same vein as these called Family Idol. I personally think these plays are really funny and delightfully twisted.
Have any of Ed’s plays made it to the stage, or will they in the future? Where can his articles be read these days?
I was in a production of one of Ed's plays back in the early 2000's. And his play Family Idol was produced in 2006. Currently, he informs me that he's doing the research right now for an Aleister Crowley screenplay and a Crowley music play. As far as reading his work, academic journals are just not available to the general public.
Are you anticipating that people will appreciate your efforts to familiarize them more with the other characters in Hamlet?
I just want to make the kind of movie I would want to watch. I love Shakespeare and I think other Shakespeare lovers can enjoy the kind of violence, intense emotional style and eroticism I want to put into my production. And who doesn't want to see more of the stories of Ophelia and Gertrude? We already know an awful lot about the character of Hamlet.
If and when your production of Hamlet becomes a reality, would you consider adapting other Shakespearean plays?
I've already adapted Richard III. I cut the length and focused on the psychology rather than the politics. King Lear is also on my mind from time to time but that one would require some serious reworking. It's a difficult play no matter how you slice it.
What are going to be the major differences between the traditional production of Richard III and your variation of it?
I think most productions want to show off the cleverness and cold cruelty of Richard. In my version, the violence will be more physical, the sado-masochistic relationship between Richard and Lady Anne will be depicted visually and animal sensuality will be the main focus.
The Angel Madness 2012
Suicide Angel 2005
The Vampyr Theatre website
My Hamlet Blog and other blogs
Episode of the Vampyr Theatre that starts out with both me and Ed