On The Matter of ‘Safe Sex’

An Other Theater Company’s artistic directors Kacey Spadafora (who directed last year’s One Self at the Great Salt Lake Fringe, as well as this year’s On Tidy Endings) and Taylor Jack Nelson (who wrote One Self and directs this year’s Safe Sex) discuss the process of bringing the companion pieces to the stage.

Kacey Spadafora: So, when you and I were brainstorming which show we could bring to the fringe festival this year, you were the one who suggested Harvey Fierstein’s Safe Sex. What brought them to mind?

Taylor Jack Nelson: I’d been reading a lot of plays about the AIDS epidemic for some research I’m doing, and that one in particular stood out. I liked the idea of showcasing a lesser-known work that explored the epidemic from a historical standpoint, and this show worked perfectly within the length and technical constraints required for the fringe. Plus I thought it would be fun for both me and you to direct something in rep. It just all fit really nicely.

K: I remember feeling really surprised at that. “Oh, here’s this unknown piece about the AIDS epidemic by some guy named Harvey Fierstein, I guess…” The fact that it ISN’T more well-known is kind of astonishing to me.

Brett Merritt and Kynsie Kiggins in On Tidy Endings, directed by Kacey Spadafora

T: Yeah, I thought the same. I mean, I’ve been doing research on AIDS theatre for a few years now, so I’ve read a lot of unknown AIDS plays…but they’re also written by virtually unknown playwrights. But something by Fierstein? I mean, along with Terrence McNally and Tony Kushner, he’s probably one of the most well-known gay playwrights there is. This is the guy who wrote La Cage aux Folles and Torch Song Trilogy, he was Edna in the Hairspray musical, and yet, even after years of AIDS theatre research, I’d never heard of his AIDS plays. It actually wasn’t until Kynsie Kiggins recommended On Tidy Endings to me last fall that I ever heard of them

K: Speaking of Kynsie Kiggins…I feel like On Tidy Endings was struck by two bolts of magic lightning when she and Brett Merritt decided to audition for it. I was beyond nervous about casting the show with actors who not only looked the part, but could give the roles the teeth they needed. They strolled in and solved all my life problems.

T: Seriously though, they are so great in those roles. You really lucked out. Speaking of lucking out, you and Eric have been a godsend in Safe Sex. How has it been directing one show and acting in the other?

K: NOT AT ALL STRESSFUL THANK YOU FOR ASKING. And you’re very generous to call me a godsend. Maybe a “goshsend” at best. You’ve put up with me like a champ. Eric, however, is the world’s best scene partner.

T: You two have made my job easy. You both make strong choices and go right along with my crazy ideas. You both jumped right on board when I told you my concept for the show was “sexy laundry.”

K: Sexy magic laundry.

T: Oh yeah! Sexy magic laundry. Oh god, what am I doing with my life?

K: I ask myself that every day.

T: And that was a funny joke. About the “goshsend”.

K: Thank you. And speaking of actors, it would be a crime to omit Angela Nibley and Jarrith McCoy from this discussion. They both have small roles in On Tidy Endings, but they get the shoulder the burden of starting the show and ending it, and they’re the perfect anchors. Were you at all nervous casting me when you knew I’d be directing the other show?

T: I’m never nervous casting you in anything. You have a natural, easy presence on stage, you make good choices, and you have an incredible understanding of what makes theatre work. I think even more so since you’ve been directing so much in the last few years. Your directing has made you a stronger actor. So now that I’ve jerked off your ego enough, let’s move on.

K: It’s never enough.

T: So, you excited to be at the Fringe again?

K: I am! This will be my…fourth Fringe Festival? Yeah. Fourth. Second in Salt Lake. It feels really different to NOT be doing an original script this time around. Does it feel like less pressure on you specifically this year, as last year you had your own script performed?

T: Oh my god yes. Seriously, I was just thinking “thank God I’m only directing.” Acting always feels stressful (but exciting) once the show starts, directing it’s like it’s out of your hands at that point, so you can breathe easy. If the actors fuck up, it’s on them. As a writer though, even though it’s been out of your hands even longer, it always feels like any problem might have been your fault…but I kinda miss it. Between Salt Lake and Edinburgh, you’ve done all three now, which is your favorite?

K: Oh God. I don’t even know. I always feel most at home as a director. As an actor I feel like I’m visiting somewhere I’ve been before. I know my way around, but I still feel like I’m overlooking some things, or like I might be surprised by a new thing that appeared while I was away. And WRITING like I did two years ago in Edinburgh…that was like visiting the Antarctic. In that I’m surprised I survived at all.

T: It’s definitely an adventure. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?

K: No, but now I’m nervous.

T: In my show, you aren’t wearing very much. Your costume’s pretty sparse.

K: Hah, yes. “Sparse.”

T: Yes. What’s that experience like? Is it nerve-wracking? Mentally, is it easier than you thought it would be? Harder? I feel like I might have a hard time with it personally.

Kacey Spadafora in Safe Sex, directed by Taylor Jack Nelson

K: I think it’s simultaneously terrifying and freeing. I was surprised at how natural it felt during the rehearsal process. It got to the point where I didn’t even realize until after we finished a run, or were packing up to go home, and I looked down and realized “I should put pants on…” But I mean it’s one thing in the rehearsal room with you and Eric, and it’s another thing altogether when other people are watching. Hopefully that level of comfort and freedom stays. I think it will. I’m deciding it will.

T: I like that decision. That takes willpower and I commend you for it. So, the shows were written in the eighties, and things have changed a lot since then, especially in reference to AIDS. What about On Tidy Endings do you think speaks to a contemporary audience?

K: For me, at least with On Tidy Endings, it’s the relationships of the characters that I think are particularly relevant to now and here. I may be wrong in this, but there seemed to be a wave of married men who decided to come out and live their lives as a gay man. In Utah, I feel like the wave came later than in most places, and we’re sort of living in the midst of it now. In society there’s often a lot of focus on, and support for, the man who is coming to terms with who he is — and rightfully so! But I often feel the women involved are often forgotten in the narrative. If that makes sense.

T: Definitely, that’s one thing I really like about On Tidy Endings, it explores both sides.

K: I agree — and it’s interesting to think about it as “sides.” Not as oppositions but as different experiences. And I think that the play wonderfully works through and explores that distinction.

T: For sure. Oh actually, it even explores two unique sides. Not just the ex-wife of the gay man, but the side of his current partner. So much emphasis is usually put on the process of coming out, whereas this focuses on the after-effects of the coming out years later.

K: That’s true! And what about Safe Sex?

T: What I think makes it relevant today is that the conversations Ghee and Mead have throughout the play —

K: Okay, I have to interrupt and just mention how weird their names are. I have nothing to contribute to that thought, I just had to say it.

T: RIGHT?! They never even use each other’s names in the play. There’s absolutely no reason for their names to be…cooking ingredients? An ingredient and a beverage.

K: They sound like wisemen’s gifts to baby Jesus.

T: They do! The closest thing I could come up with as an explanation is that Mead is an alcohol and Ghee is…some kind of butter or oil used in Indian food? So it’s two substances that naturally repel each other…but probably taste really good together in a dish.

K: Which totally makes sense when comparing the two characters. In almost every aspect of their personalities. Yin and Yang, I suppose.

T: Yeah. Anyway, the conversations Mead and Ghee have throughout the play as they navigate and negotiate their sex lives are conversations that couples have all the time (or that they probably should) but that are seldom depicted in dramatic works or pop culture in general. Even if the specifics are different, the opportunity to see such intimate, yet relatable, conversations depicted on stage is significant and important.

K: It seems like gay relationships are depicted typically in one of two ways: either sexy and idyllic, not a trouble in sight, just sexy men doing sexy things, or they can be a real couple, with difficulties and struggles, but neutered in their sexual depiction. This pulls from both.

T: It does, which I love. They’re sexy, but they’re flawed…but not too flawed. They’re not dysfunctional, they just don’t always work perfectly together. They have to put in the work. Which is something I think is true of most couples. They have to put in the work.

K: And then I think beyond what the shows have to identify with on a contemporary level, I think they’re fantastic as a lesson in history. Because they were written at the same time that all of this was going on. They aren’t a perfected retrospective that has the benefit of hindsight. They’re flawed, both in their ideology and in their science, which I think make them extremely valuable in that sense.

T: AIDS theatre as a vehicle for learning history…someone should write a paper about that.

K: I just assumed you already had.

T: That’s what my thesis I’ve been putting off writing is about.

K: Then yes, someone should write it. Well, we should probably wrap this up. Quick, list three reasons to see Safe Sex!

Hannah Scharman in One Self by Taylor Jack Nelson, directed by Kacey Spadafora (2016 Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival)

T: Okay, here goes. One — It’s an important look at a significant moment in queer history. Two — It has two handsome men acting their pants off, literally. Three — Sexy. Magic. Laundry. Your turn. List three reasons to see On Tidy Endings!

K: Shit, I should have thought that through before asking you. Okay. One — Brett Merritt. Two — Kynsie Kiggins. Three — Donuts. I don’t know why I always inject food into scenes that don’t call for them, but I do. Must have something to do with rehearsing at dinnertime.

T: At least you’re not having a character eat an entire burrito in the first scene like you made Hannah Scharman do at last year’s Fringe.

K: Hey — we won an award, didn’t we?

T: Thank god for Taco Bell.

Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings are both being presented as part of the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival in Salt Lake City, July 28 through August 6. Both shows are playing at the Courage Theater at Westminster College.

For tickets and showtimes visit http://anothertheatercompany.com/tickets