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.

“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?

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.

Previous Scraps: Dragonette and the conundrum of cool

A Halloween tale, via Missed Connections

It is no secret that I love, love, love reading Craigslist’s treasure trove of awkwardness, the Missed Connections section. So, of course, as we all continue from a weekend filled with makeup, witches’ brew and masked make-out sessions, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to round-up some of my favorite Chicago MC’s to tell a little tale of Halloween lure (in addition to sharing some tunes).

Personally, Halloween has never been a holiday I associate with wild hook-ups, but maybe that’s because my costumes are usually not of the “Sexy (Fill-in-the-Blank)” variety. I’m usually in drag, covered in grotesque makeup with stubble poking through, and this year was no exception as I took on the role of Little Edie Beale from Grey Gardens. The below characters seem to have had some good luck knocking boots, even if they had a lot of explaining to do for their mother upon their return home. Here’s hoping the fates bring these lovers back together.

Missed my chance with Mr. Franzia – m4m (Belmont/Monroe)
Date: 2009-11-01, 11:33PM CST

“I had black paint smeared on my face. I admired the intricacy of your costume: Franzia boxed wine. We made some contact on the train before both getting off at Monroe. There we kissed at a street corner, where a passing driver yelled “FAGS!” at us (just in case you didn’t notice) … Sorry for not following, but, in all honesty, I was staying with my mom (who was visiting) in a hotel. That being said, I’d love to hear from you and maybe engage in some out-of-the-box conversation.”

ms wonderland left wondering? – w4m – 20 (in tinley)
Date: 2009-11-02, 2:40AM CST

“ok so i went 2 a halloween party with a gf and i was the sexy ms. wonderland girl. i was soooooooooooo wasted n u were so much fun and we ended up being naughty but i don’t remember most of it lol. u had on a dark costume not sure what it was though dah? well i have a bf so i guess it had 2 b a one time thing, just wanted 2 say if u ever read this i was the small blond who u helped have a really fun halloween!”

The outlaw Josey Wales – m4m (near loop)
Date: 2009-11-01, 6:47PM CST

“To the outlaw Josey Wales: it was so hot to watch you polishing your gun. A nice long gun, with a big thick barrel and a nice head to it. I can still taste that ammunition dripping into my mouth.”

Of course, since these are Missed Connections, after all, not all of these rendezvous were as successful. Lesson be learned: Be sure to carefully stow your beloved university-provided metro card when going home with handsome men in “dark costumes.”

Halloween Party then Your Apt – w4m (lincoln park area)
Date: 2009-11-02, 10:28AM CST

“Friday I was beligerent, I apologize. I dont remember practically anything when we got to your apt, let alone how we did till my friend filled me in. Uhh yah I lost my Upass at your place did you find it??? That would bloow if I have to find another one. Ps. “my buldge” seeing I was spider man is in your room too, white/pink soccer socks? Yeah, well I’m sorry for being a slob, im sure i was a huge one. But on the bright side I do think your adorable!”

Georgia at Halloween Church Party – m4w
Date: 2009-11-02, 5:15PM CST

“I was the Chaplin with whom you danced. I got swept up into an evening of events that now seem unreal. If you find this, please shoot me an email. I’d love to see you again and take you dancing.
Take Care

A Somewhat Silent Man”

oh, pinnochio – m4w (subterranean)
Date: 2009-11-01, 11:24AM CST

“that little boy look didn’t fool me, you were smoking hot. i never made it to the hideout, but i did spend a more than a few minutes thinking about what it would be like giving it to a puppet that wants to be a real boy, but is actually the hottest little girl in the room.”

But, I think the most important lesson from all of this is to watch out for each other. Halloween is a time for all of us to come together and bask in the ridiculousness of it all. And protect each other from violent religious leaders. Especially if you’re dressed as a pop diva.

Kid that got hit by the pope at Evil Olive – w4m – 21 (Evil Olive)
Date: 2009-11-01, 9:19AM CST

“Lady GaGa wants to make sure you’re ok.”

This one time, I… Grew a mustache

Ever since I first viewed the phrase on a souvenir t-shirt in the Wisconsin Dells at a young age, one personal mantra – that I’d “try anything once” – has stuck with me. The mantra has resulted in experiences of varying degrees of success. [On a scale of 1-10: a night out at the race track (1), dating a woman (1.5), working as a magician’s assistant for a week (5), eating a fried cheese curd (10).] But no matter what the rating, each experience certainly taught me something new and did not result in life-threatening circumstances (with the possible exception of the excessive fumes and nightly crashes at the Lake Geneva race track).

Therefore, in the spirit of lifelong learning [all the rage in these recession-riddled days, I hear], arrives the latest installment of this blog: “This one time, I…” Here, I will recount something I did during that past week/month/unspecified period of time I’d never done before. With pictures. First-hand accounts. Maybe even video or animated GIFs (you could be so lucky). Finally, for you Thievy McMusicPirates out there, there will be themed music mixes. It will be fun, I promise: TAKE THE CANDY. So, without further ado…

I grew a mustache.

Well, to be completely accurate, I trimmed my existing facial hair (which tends to be quite bountiful) into a mustache. It was something that always seemed like a good idea at the time, but alas, I lacked the bravery to walk about town sprouting a cookieduster. A flavor saver. A mouth brow. Until recently.

The product of a curious Friday night trim session resulted in a weekend-long case study into the discrimination faced by sporters of the pushbroom.

As I stared back in the mirror at what I’d done, I wondered if friends would treat me the same. If passers-by on the street would gawk. If my family would still love me. With a deep sigh, I turned away from the mirror and headed out the door to face the world I expected to shun me and my facial transgression.

As it turned out, besides a startled baby and an overly-friendly bear bartender, my mustache did not result in any unusual treatment. In fact, I could feel peoples’ eyes look at me with a fresh curiosity, a stirring interest. Historically, commanding officers of the military; like General Lew Wallace; strangely appealing pop stars of the ’70s and ’80s; including Freddie Mercury and Frank Zappa; and eccentric filmmakers enjoyed a certain air of reverie surrounding their ‘stache-wearing ways. And the Mario Bros. had a pretty phenomenal run. Perhaps, based on the results of this study, it could be argued that the well-documented cultural enchantment with the mustache lives on to the present day. Therefore (this is the thesis):

Operation StacheGrow: A success. But would I do it again?
Operation StacheGrow = A success.

But, would I do it again, you ask? I can’t say I’d be in the quickest of hurries. In the end, my Diet Coke still tasted the same, the CTA was still dirty and the music in Boystown remained ear-bustingly loud. Despite the undeniable cult following my ‘stache enjoyed during its 2.5 days of existence, I still felt one pair of overly-large, “ironically-hip” glasses away from looking 100 percent creeptastic.

I’ll certainly keep it in mind if I ever become a pop star in need of a PR booster, a la John Oates’ “Ride the Mustache/J-Stache” campaign and its blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed and video series. Apparently Oates, er, J-Stache wants to “tame Leslie Feist’s shrew.” Which level of this statement do you find to be creepiest?

All told, I think this experiment has stirred a rediscovered admiration of the mustache to me. As the great lesbian philosopher Sheryl Concrowcious once said, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be so bad.” Despite carrying stigma in certain sub-communities, it has served as a symbol of manhood, virility and fuzziness for centuries – the first mustache – worn by a Scythian horseman – was documented in 300 BC. That’s before Jesus, therefore I believe it deserves our respect, honor and possibly its own religion. Or, at the very least, a photo montage. Below are a few of my favorite ‘staches through history, in addition to a little mini-mix for your ears (you know, the things on your face located directly to the left and right of your muzzy).

Discussion questions: Have you ever worn a mustache? Do you know someone who has? Do you plan to some day? Would you describe yourself as a Geraldo Rivera fan?

Career counseling

[Below is another tiny excerpt from my novel project – Wonderland. This post serves as a tribute to the modern, post-recession job hunt. For those job seekers out there, find a handy, middle school-esque career quiz at the end of the post. It’s simple: Download each of the songs loosely based on an occupation. If you like the song, that means that you should pursue that career. Yes, it’s that easy! Enjoy, and hang in there, job hunters.]

I’m a perfectionist.

What do you consider to be your biggest weakness?

Really, honestly. What is it?

And I’m not talking about the stock answer that you provide in every job interview – you know, one of the following required responses, all of which can actually be spun into positive things: “Sometimes, I don’t take enough time for myself, because I work too hard… Sometimes, I care too much… Sometimes, I’m too much of a team player.”

My biggest weakness at the moment, as it seemed as I was getting dressed before hopping on the train en route to my interview downtown, was being able to find a matching shirt and pants that were (a) clean, (b) not wrinkled and (c) coordinated with the one suit jacket I owned. Deciding that the slightly crinkled pale blue shirt would do, I headed out to the train station in a dash, convinced that I would be late.

Interview number one, as it turned out, was for a canvassing director position with an environmental non-profit organization, Green Illinois. The position did not pay well and demanded long, exhausting hours and I doubted that I would accept an offer even if it were granted to me. That said, I figured that it was worth the practice, and I was certainly not in a position to be turning down interviews from anywhere, anyone.

But then again, a job is a job…

Ding. Daydream over. I was now in an ornately-decorated elevator and had arrived at the floor of the office where I was to be meeting with Harrison Davis, an executive with a sister organization of Green Illinois’.

As I stepped out of the elevator, I glanced at my phone – 2:54 p.m. Six minutes to spare! Walking into the office, a group of three casually-dressed possible environmentalists turned simultaneously toward me with looks of disdain at being interrupted.

“Hi,” I said, with my voice cracking. “I’m here for the – the interview with – um, Harrison. About the canvass director position that you, or, the Fund has an op–”

“Interviewers go over there,” said a brunette wearing trendy Dolce & Gabbana frames a tight-fitting gray cashmere sweater, tweed skirt and hooker boots. She did not seem to be impressed by my inability to spit out a complete sentence explaining my presence in the office.

I walked past the cubicles and piles of boxes of sheets of paper and approached Harrison Davis, a somewhat gawky, awkward-looking man with short mousey brown hair, wearing a gray pinstriped suit and a purple striped tie. His initial expression toward me was only slightly less annoyed than the welcoming committee head that I’d encountered upon entering the office. I sat down on a metal folding chair after handing over a clean copy of my resume.

He looked it over pseudo-pensively for several seconds before launching his first question.

“So, it looks like you don’t have any direct campaign experience here. What makes you think you can just walk in here and do this job? Do you understand that this is difficult work?”

“Well, yes, I understand that there are a lot of responsibilities involved in the position, and that it is probably quite challenging…” I began as Harrison sliced a hole through my forehead with his menacing stare. “When I was in my undergrad in Madison, I learned several lessons right away, while trying to balance school, work, internships and volunteer work. First of all, it was that priotizing was crucial. Second, that sometimes you need to ask for help and build coalitions. For example, in one of my jobs…”

“No, I mean, you can’t just waltz in here and think that just anyone can do this,” he continued, staring at the wall while avoiding my eye contact until he suddenly shifted his gaze back in my direction. “Really, what skills do you have?”

“I have good organizational skills, can run meetings, have recruitment experience…” I slowly realized that I was growing increasingly sweaty – I felt my chair sink in the floor as I faced cross-examination from the defense stand. “And on my resume you’ll notice the computer programs I’m familiar with are quite numerous. And –”

“OK, OK – Got it, you’re not a moron. Super.”

“Um, yeah, I guess,” I replied, as face deepened to a medium shade of pink. “I mean, what I’m getting at is that I have employed many leadership skills in my previous positions, actually including quite a bit of volunteer and intern coordination, in addition to fundraising and team-building. I–”

“Okay, well… I have a meeting coming up, so let’s just get this over with. Would you relocate?”

“Honestly, probably not,” burst the words from my mouth before I had even given them a thought. I began to sweat. My face: From pink to a light red – what shade would they call that? Suddenly, the job I was barely sure I even wanted in the first place seemed bigger than the room. Bigger than the entire high-rise office tower. Bigger than the world. “I mean, I just moved here from Madison and have a one-year lease I was planning to live out. I live in Andersonville, it’s a really nice neighborhood and–”

“Right, right. We’ll see what we can do. How about you fill out this informational sheet. Be sure to list the places you would be willing to relocate to right here. I’m sure we’ll be calling you later this week, I think you’d be perfect for this job.”

“Oh, um, thank you.” Confused.

“Yeah. You can show yourself out. Nice… meeting you.”

He tentatively extended his hand while standing up, before leaving the room.

The next day I was offered the job for which I was (apparently) completely unqualified for.

Maybe it was pity, or maybe it was a fluke, but whatever the case may have been, I turned down the offer for a position entailing 70+ hour work weeks and a fair share of street canvassing, which is only a few steps above panhandling.

The modern mix tape: What’s the perfect match?

“Trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop” goes the lyric from the Los Campesinos! song “It Started with a Mixx” – clearly a sentiment understandable to those of you who have ever taken to the task of creating a mix tape, CD (or flash drive?) or a friend, loved one or potential boot-knockin’ buddy. But is it really worth all the fuss? Does a carefully, artfully and intuitively compiled mix truly create something larger than the sum of its parts? After a recent glut of mix CD creations, with many more on the way, I had to wonder why it’d become such a personal obsession of mine.

The mixtape, described by author Geoffrey O’Brien as “the most widely practiced American art form” is far from a modern invention, as it turns out. That said, the ease of digital sharing has certainly made it a whole lot easier to mass distribute faux-personalized compilations of tunes. The original mixtapes weren’t actually homemade as they are today, but were instead bootleg 8 track tapes often sold at flea markets or truck stops. In the ’80s, cassettes became popular as their quality increased and voila! Soon, teenage lovers and tech-savvy 20- and 30-somethings were communicating their feelings and thoughts by using other peoples’ feelings and thoughts. And yes, it is just as tricky as it sounds to have that work out.

Personally, I’ve been creating mixes for friends, lovers and whoever will listen for well over a decade now. They’ve ranged from the casual (“I just threw a bunch of songs on a disc to listen to in the car on the way to -road trip destination here-“) to the thinly-veiled flirtatious (“These 19 songs represent the 19 that come as close as physically possible to saying ‘I want in your pants’ without actually saying it”) to the esoteric (“This CD represents the progression of a modern relationship between a man and a woman; the songs are in conversation with each other – alternating between partners – and coalesce in heartbreak and eventual acceptance”).

They say hello, they say I miss you, they say I want you. Or, it could say “I searched for every possible name of a color on my iTunes playlist and these are the best that I got!” (No, it was not all Joni Mitchell covers.) No matter what the message, it’s the process of creation and sharing that becomes ultimately enjoyable to me, as the maker. It’s a joy that I hope is matched by the listener’s experience.

So, I ask you, why do you create mixes? Do you recall the best mix you’ve ever received? What about the strangest? What is the favorite mix you’ve created?

And finally, the question of the hour, what’s the secret to a “perfectly matched” mix? Because, despite all the years of practice.. I still truly have no idea. Is it all about a seamless build to a lavish finish? Is it about juxtaposing the unusual with the familiar? What about a mid-mix instrumental break? Can ABBA (Flower power/’Fernando’ ABBA not wedding anthem/’Dancing Queen’ ABBA) still be enjoyed ironically, or are Swedish disco acts passe?