Table scraps.. A trip to the zoo with Kevin Chamberlin

Though I am relatively new to the world of writing about musical theater, there are a few patterns I’ve noticed during the past year of previewing and reviewing shows whilst referencing names like Sondheim and Fosse with ever-increasing ease:

First and foremost, when I get in touch with a show’s PR team, they usually hook me up with one of the show’s lead names. And when interviewing actors of such prominence, a certain degree of prudishness can be expected. When I previewed Legally Blonde, I interviewed Elle Woods, played by Becky Gulsvig, a very wholesome Minnesotan-at-heart who giggled anxiously when I noted the show probably attracted a lot of gay fans — “Yes, it’s awesome,” she replied cautiously. When Spring Awakening came into town, I spoke with Melchior Gabor himself, Jake Epstein (of Degrassi fame), who spoke nervously of his few seconds of partial nudity on stage. Such PG-rated responses really aren’t the stuff exciting interviews are made from, but I don’t necessarily expect actors to speak too open about sexuality in the first place.

So, when I’d been assigned to preview The Addams Family‘s pre-Broadway romp at the Oriental Theatre, I decided to aim high and get a spicy interview subject, asking for 20 minutes to chat with the very-gay Nathan Lane, who stars as Gomez.

Kevin Chamberlin, the Broadway bear.“He isn’t doing press right now” – my dismissive reply.

OK, how about Jackie Hoffman, an almost equally very-gay actress playing the role of the grandmother?

“She’s very busy promoting her one-woman show … But what about Kevin Chamberlin? He’s great.”

Now, another lesson: Usually if a publicist needs to say how great someone is, they likely are not. But, running out of options and still hoping for a shot at comp tickets to the show, I set up a time to speak with Chamberlin.

And then began the research, which revealed the 46-year-old actor’s Tony nomination and noteworthy appearances in gay cinematic classics including Trick, In & Out and the farcical’s 2007 Broadway run. But, perhaps even more interesting than those undeniably important achievements was the finding that Chamberlin is Broadway’s bear community poster boy. He is a co-founder of MetroBears NYC and appears regularly at bear events including International Bear Ren and Chicago’s Bear Pride. How could I resist bringing these key facts up?

Chamberlin, far right, photographed with AF cast for Vanity Fair.And I did. Only three questions into our half hour-long interview, the conversation turned from the macabre singing-dancing family to the politics of being a bear. A good two-thirds of our conversation had absolutely nothing to do with theater. And while I couldn’t help but include some of the conversation that ensued, the bulk did not make it to the story’s final draft, featured on EDGE earlier this month.

Chamberlin: I’ve found it interesting to watch the bear community evolve – it’s like a social experiment watching the groups that have formed because of a reaction to another group. That’s why the bear community occurred, as a reaction to the muscle boy, hairless, self-waxing gay male stereotype. And it was a reaction to the AIDS crisis, people not wanting to look thin and quiffed. We wanted to look real and blend more [into society], to be embraced with the more masculine, real man look …

But it’s interesting, because now some schisms have been created. There’s the muscle bears, the chubs, the chasers. We’ve been splintering into more and more specific groups, whether it’s based on a fetish or outside activity like the gay softball or rugby teams forming … As more people come out of the closet, they find places to go and meet people who are like-minded. That wasn’t really the case when I was growing up and that’s what drew me in in the first place.

Me: Do you feel that the schisms are harming the community’s original intent?

Chamberlin: It’s an important community to me in how it’s very welcoming. And I’m hoping it will stay that way. As some gay groups have come up, they’ve become more exclusive, but it needs to stay accepting. And there’s new terms coming all the time. Redheads are orangutans, older guys can be silver-backed gorillas…

Me: And you have otters included in that, too.

Chamberlin: Oh, of course, otters! Who knows, the monkey movement might be on the way next.

Though I’m still not sure what a monkey is – a former-gymnast-turned-otter-chaser-or-both? Whatever the case may be, the moral of this story: Never turn down the opportunity to discuss bear identity politics. Even if it doesn’t get you free tickets to a Broadway production.

Now enjoy, this bear-related jam, from one of my favorite newly-discovered bands of this past year..

Download: The Antlers – Bear (mp3)

Previous Scraps: Dragonette and the conundrum of cool

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