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Theater Feature • February 2017
Interview: Max Vernon on Queer History, Activism, and “The View UpStairs”
Photo credit: Jason Sherwood
Photo credit: Jason Sherwood

When Wes buys what is probably the most disheveled building in New Orleans, he plans to use it as the launching point for his soon-to-be fashion empire. That is, until he learns about the building’s history – by literally visiting it.

Creator Max Vernon whisks us back to the 1970’s in The View UpStairs, landing in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar vibrantly living in a time and space where homosexuality was illegal. Inspired by the UpStairs lounge arson attack, the show explores the nuances of the fight for LGBT+ equality, then and now.

Max Vernon told us about his inspiration for the show, and what he’s hoping audiences will take away from it.

The show is so fantastic. What inspired you to tell this story?

I was a gender and sexuality major at NYU, and I heard about this event. I randomly found it on the internet, that 32 people had died at this gay bar in New Orleans in 1973. I brought it to the attention of my professors, and not one of my professors even knew that it happened. I was just out at a bar last night celebrating with friends after the show, and someone asked me there, "Why did you write this?" And I asked on the spot five people who were nearby me, “Have you ever heard of the UpStairs lounge fire?” and not one had. Queer history is complicated, but it’s so weird to me that 32 people died in this club, and we don’t talk about it the way we talk about Stonewall, because it’s such a seminal moment for our history, and I actually think our nation’s history. From an activist’s perspective, I wanted to shed light on the story, I wanted to spread it around. Also, me as someone in 2017, I feel like I have a lot to learn from the era of the '70s in terms of how you survive oppression, how you survive and cultivate community in the face of people who want to destroy you, who think you’re not deserving of rights. That is something we’re experiencing now. We were sold on this idea of it gets better, and now for the first time it’s really getting worse. I wanted to do a piece that looks to the past to then inspire us to put on the armor, carry the torch, and go into battle. To motivate ourselves going forward to cultivate community and continue to fight for equality, and also just celebrate how fabulous the '70s were.

You meld the past and the present, the problems that we’re facing today and those that they faced in the '70s. What was that approach like to write about?

The reason why the show opens with the song “Some Kind of Paradise” is they’re saying that the '70s were not perfect. You could have cops raid the bar and molest you, or you could be fired, but in the face of that oppression there were still vibrant pockets of community where people still were able to go and live and create family and find love. Nowadays, we have almost the inverse of that, where we have all these rights, and it’s much easier for us to be publicly open about who we are, but all of a sudden it’s become harder to be truly intimate because we have followings, and the community itself has become much more diffused. The idea is, it wasn’t perfect in the 1970s, and it’s not perfect now, and the only utopia that exists is the one you create for yourself with your own chosen family. I didn’t want to say that the '70s or 2017, that one is better than the other. They’re both flawed.

Max Vernon
Max Vernon

The UpStairs lounge itself takes on such a central role in the play. What was that like?

It was so fun because, in my mind, the UpStairs Lounge, even if it had not been burned down, I think it’s one of the legendary bars in gay history. I really want to reclaim that, because nowadays in New York, if you want to go out and see some drag queens, you’ll go to Industry, you’ll go to Baracuda, if you want to go do a piano sing along, you’ll go to the Duplex. What’s amazing is that the UpStairs lounge had all of these elements. It had sex and cruising, it had piano sing along, it had drag queens, but it also had a church, randomly, that operated out of the bar. It was so many things in one. It also had amateur theatrical productions in there.  When you factor all that together and think that it was 1973 in the south, where it was straight up illegal to be gay, like if you were caught holding hands with another man in public you’d be thrown in jail. The bravery that it took for people to go there was enormous. I wanted it to exist in this bar because I knew that the people who were going to this bar in 1973 would have been larger than life personalities. And then I said to our set designer, who’s a genius, I want you to create the fantasy gay bar that you wish you could go to, and I want it to be filled with just mountains and mountains of props of just gay kitsch. We got the actual wallpaper that was at the real lounge, and the same kind of red curtains, and what’s amazing is that every performance, actors bring in more stuff to add to the show, to personalize it. It just gets more and more cluttered and beautiful.

The cast had such a diverse set of experiences, and each character has a moment where they describe their own personal and emotional journey that’s very different from all the other characters. How did you go about bringing those characters together as a cohesive story, while letting them all have their individual stories and moments within the show?

For me, in terms of the casting of this, I really wanted it to be a cast full of people that are totally unique. I feel like a lot of musical theater that I see, the big climax of the show is when, I don’t know, the two white people go on a first date and order a cappuccino, and then randomly there’ll be a crazy weird character that gets an 11 o’clock number and is never heard from again. I wanted every character in my show to be that crazy character with the 11 o’clock number, and I wanted them to have their own star turn. So in the casting of this I tried to get people that were totally unique as performers and would highlight the uniqueness of the characters. There’s no other actor in the world who’s like Michael Longoria or Frenchie Davis. They have vocal qualities and actor qualities that are totally specific to them. My hope is that there’s this energy between the casting and the role that highlights those differences and makes the characters pop, because I wanted them all to feel like they had their moment in the show, that no one felt neglected, and by the end of the show we really feel we got to know the people in this bar.

At one point in the play, Wes expresses a pessimistic view of life in 2017, and a cop who counters with a more optimistic outlook. How do you think those two perspectives exist together within the show, and how do you make sense of that emotional conflict?

I wanted to do a bit of a yin yang thing with the cop, because I didn’t want to just say that all law enforcement are homophobic and beat people up. Certainly that existed more commonly in 1973, but I also think there are people from all walks of life right now who are scared of what’s going on, and who want to resist it, and who don’t want to go back to the “good ol’ days” when racism and homophobia and all these things were acceptable. So I like the idea that in 2017, there’s a new cop, and he has a different experience, and maybe he has a gay son, maybe he has a son that’s incarcerated or disabled, but there’s something in his experience that makes him connect to this young gay fashionista who he has no point of connection with. I wanted us to zoom out of just the queer community and say, it’s not just about us, it’s not just about gay people and our struggle, it’s about all of us being connected and moving forward and saying, “if we want to make the world better, we have to get together and work with each other.” I love having someone older telling someone younger that they lived through civil rights and it was bullshit but we got through it and we made the world a little bit better. Now it’s your turn to make things better. I wanted people to leave not feeling depressed, but motivated, thinking how am I connected to my community? How can I make things better? Like the character, even if it’s as small as making a collection of fierce amazing clothing, and people wear it, and it allows them to feel safe and brave, even that is important. There’s nothing that’s too superficial if it has the right intention. I think it’s about us all using this moment to be active and to not ignore what’s going on.

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Written by: Auriane Desombre
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