#PersonOfChange: An interview with Laura Butler Rivera and Feathers Wise
Stars in the new tragic queer take on Oscar Wilde’s SALOME.
Rarely performed and relentlessly misunderstood, SALOME is Oscar Wilde at his most vulnerable, impenetrable, honest, mystifying. Written in raw, simple French, then dismally translated by Wilde’s lover Bosie, for years the play was largely dismissed as a Victorian oddity, an excuse to show some skin.
But in this new translation by director James Rutherford, SALOME reveals itself as a tragic parable of queer longing.
Such is the premise for this new adaptation presented by M-34, coming to Brooklyn’s Irondale Theatre this October. We spoke with two #PersonOfChange starring in the production: Puerto Rican actor Laura Butler Rivera (She/Her/They/Them) playing Salome, and Feathers Wise (She/Her) playing Iokannan.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
LBR. At five years old, a very young Laura started crying when she had to come down off the stage after playing the Virgin Mary for a Nativity presentation. That should have been a clear sign then and there, but truthfully, it wasn’t until I was eight and I passed by a family playing a game in front of their home while driving around the hills of Puerto Rico. As we drove past them, I suddenly became very curious what their life was like. I fantasized about living with them for a while to find out, which lead to thoughts of wanting to be a musician, a nun, a cowgirl, a taxi driver, and the list went on; I wanted to experience it all, learn from it all, and suddenly it clicked, I thought “I could do that in acting.” When it comes down to it, I believe a curiosity about people, culture, and history led me to acting.
FW. Three years ago, my ex-husband brought me to a Meisner class at AWI in Ithaca. The improvised scenes seemed to capture some strange magic, like lightning in a bottle. I fell in love with the alchemy. Been chasing it ever since.
When was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?
LBR. What a great question. I am going to continue to contemplate this in more depth after this interview. I cannot explain it but for some reason the movies 9 to 5 and Tootsie come to mind.
FW. I feel very connected to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That show and its message helped me through my darkest days. Recently I’ve been inspired by Jamie Clayton as Nomi in Sense8. I like how she’s a hacker who happens to be trans. She’s her own person, and not a variation on the fabulous sassy queens or awkward transitioning dads we get in plenty of other stories.
What can you tell us about your character in Salomé?
LBR. She has been a rabbit hole of discovery to me at every rehearsal. I had always envisioned her only as a strong, vengeful woman using her powers of enchantment against the tetrarch. But I have come to learn more about her vulnerability and her desires, born from a strong passion. Salome is the princess of Judea, daughter of Herodias who married her deceased husband’s brother, Herod. She is a very young woman coming into her own skin, discovering new feelings and reacting impulsively to these new found emotions in ways she has learned, to an extent, from those who raised her and the community around her. She is very much a victim, a lover, a fighter, and a go-getter.
FW. My character is the prophet Iokannan. He has a supernatural presence and sees beyond the veil. He speaks in strange images with a beautiful voice. He spent some years in the desert eating bugs, dressing in wild leathers, and speaking to the crowds that followed him. A few months back, Iokannan traveled to Herod’s palace. They weren’t sure what to do with a prophet from the desert, so they imprisoned him in the well beneath the courtyard. There he awaits his fate, speaking prophecy that echoes through the gloom and damp.
How is this adaptation a tragic parable of queer longing?
LBR. The definition of queer online is, “something that is odd, different, strange or non-mainstream,” and the urban dictionary mentions queer as being a self-identification for those “whose gender or sex is non-conforming.” In James Rutherford’s Salome, she is enchanted and in love with the new, the different, and gives her desire free rein. It is not mainstream, not in religious terms, not in class expectations, etc. It is brought on by a love and passion felt without regard to any of these. The mystery of this love is exciting and wonderful. If given the opportunity to be actualized, it could be something beautiful, it could be free. The tragedy is that the love is interrupted by dogma and by Salome’s impulsive rebellion against it.
FW. Iokannan is a beautiful outsider to Salome’s royal scene. She’s never seen
anything like him and falls in love at first sight, attracted by his otherness and
his connection to the divine. These things seem connected to his gender fluidity. Salome describes her attraction to Iokannan in great detail, with
particular attention lavished upon his skin, hair, and lips. Her praise is not for
his masculinity. And Salome is a princess who has had everything she’s ever wanted brought to her with a snap of the fingers. What happens when a person like her develops an obsession and is suddenly denied?
What’s it like working with director James Rutherford?
LBR. Working with James has been a fun, beautiful vortex of exploration. He encourages and builds strong ensemble energy. Many rehearsals feel magical and otherworldly. He has a gracious way of allowing me as an actor to discover what I am searching for in the character. He gives me space to lose myself in the darkness of the character’s story, then gently turns me towards the light that bathes the world of the play in its entirety. I have worked with James before, but this is the first time I work with him as an actor and it is wonderful, I feel cared for and inspired.
FW. James is a wonderful, playful, and insightful director. He encourages experiments, and has a gentle manner that has set me at ease. Rehearsals were part classroom and part witch camp. We had the chance to explore these characters from many different angles. Wilde wrote Salome in French, and James wrote his own translation — so he is clearly passionate about the play, and understands it on a deep level. And he has manifested an amazing family of artists and performers to bring this thing to life. It’s a great honor and sublime pleasure to be a part of it.
What scares you about portraying this character? What excites you?
LBR. Well known iconic characters always scare me, and because they do, they excite me as well. Salome is definitely one of them. Her vulnerability and strength excite me. I also nervously looked forward to the famous dance of the seven veils. Working with Jess Goldschmidt, the choreographer, is exceptional and inspiring. It has been distilled from a spectrum of universal explorations — we studied and explored in movement the female psyche and women’s ‘role’ in the world, alchemical transformation and its processes, the internal struggle of a young girl dealing with complex emotions, and…and… the list really goes on. And all these different explorations morphed from an amalgam of the psychology and feelings that surround the dance into the dance itself.
FW. How about the part where I’m a transwoman and this character is a man? I wasn’t sure what to think when James approached me about this character, but it fell into place as he explained his vision for the show. And as rehearsals progressed, I realized there were levels to this thing, and James knew exactly what he was doing. Also, the entire cast and crew has paid meticulous attention to pronouns around the topic of me and my character. I’ve been grateful for that. Feels like people have my back.
Laura, you’ve worked with M-34 in the past. How is this collaboration different? Do they deliver on their mission of being ‘rigorous, critical and curious’?
This collaboration is different in that I am working on a scripted play as an actor with James. I have worked with him and M-34 as a choreographer. But truthfully, all of our collaborations have been very different processes, from devising work inspired by various texts (All that Dies and Rises) to exploring a world of song and movement for a musical setting of a poem (Hymn to life). And yes, most definitely the common denominator is that the work always stems from genuine curiosity about the material and rigorous and critical exploration of it. What is being explored is never taken advantage of. M-34 takes its time and respects the why, the what, and the who of the story, while having fun with aesthetics and how that story is expressed artistically.
Feathers, you write soundtracks and sing for the ‘Church of the Infinite You with Minister Jean Grae’. It doesn’t sound like my abuelita’s church. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, I’m a singer-songwriter and have worked on soundtracks for my friends films here and there. I enjoy arranging musicians and singers. Church of the Infinite You was a beautiful event that Jean Grae put on at Union Hall over the past two years. It was a motivational Church with drinks. Church for people who don’t do Church. And Jean has a way with words. She used this platform to motivate people to own their power and chase their dreams. My sister Anna recruited me into the Intersectionals Choir. We’d rehearse songs at Jean’s place the week before, and then brought the music to Union Hall. Every week seemed to have an epic moment where Jean’s sermon would get intense, then she’d bring us in to sing at just the right time. At the height of the song, the room would explode with emotion. Half the choir would burst into tears, and people would be swinging from the rafters. You know — Church. After the 2016 election, we all needed some help making sense of the apocalypse. Church of the Infinite You was a big part of how we dealt with the trauma. I think it’s over now, but Jean brings back the choir for guest spots on shows here and there.