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March 14, 2024
Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre on “Setting Their Imagination Aflame” and “Finding Their Sense of Possible” with New Solo Riff, MY BEATNIK YOUTH

“I believe I’m ultimately telling a story of hope...That’s what the Beat Generation was about.”

Such is the way playwright Justin Elizabeth Sayre describes their solo show, My Beatnik Youth, now running at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club through March 24, with a livestream offered March 17. The semi-autobiographical work centers on Jay, a teenager obsessed with the Beat Generation, who, after a serious drunk driving accident, is placed in the psych ward as a means to avoid further trouble and contemplate what brought them toward the brink of death. A story of survival set against jazz music and peppered with poetry, this “celebration of humanity” draws upon music and poetry to tackle the strife of mental illness, facing one’s own demons and the demons of those suffering around us, and trusting your path wherever it leads.

Further shaking things up, the play-with-music-infused-with-poetry — a true “experience” in the fullest sense of the word, Sayre emphasizes — will also utilize poets in the pre-show, including Heather Denton, Ashley Escobar, Matt Proctor, and Candystore, among others, and a St. Patrick’s Day post-show talkback with renowned performance artist Penny Arcade.

Photo Credit: Fempath

Praised for their strong and engaging LGBTQ+ content, Sayre has risen to become an active and prominent voice in the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond. They've been recognized as one of “LA's 16 Most Talented LGBT Comics” by Frontiers Magazine, and their debut comedy album, The Gay Agenda, was named one of 2016's "Best Things in Comedy" by The Comedy Bureau. A multi-hyphenate actor/writer who spans mediums, they’ve written for 2 Broke Girls and The Cool Kids on television, and written a series of young adult novels, including the trilogy comprised of “Husky,” “Pretty,” and “Mean,” and the acclaimed “From Gay to Z: A Compendium of Queer Culture.” As a playwright, Sayre’s work has appeared at such venues as Dixon Place, The Wild Project, Dynasty Typewriter, and Celebration Theatre. In addition to their current work at La Mama, they are also in residency at Joe’s Pub with their new variety show, “Assorted Fruit.”

Ahead of their array of dynamic and honest performances, we spoke to Sayre about their relationship to writing, mental health and healing, their hopes for the future of theatre, and more. 

What was the inspiration behind My Beatnik Youth? Why was it important, or significant, to you to write this through the lens of the Beat Generation?

I’ve always wanted to write something that somehow used the work the Beat Generation as a framework.  These new Romantics, and I do consider them romantics, have been a large part of my artistic vocabulary since I was a teenager. It was through their work that I first encountered a whole host of downtown and outsider artists that have filled my creative life with a great deal of insight and freedom.

To incorporate the art of folks like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, while also utilizing the incredible music from artists like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk is really something that sets my imagination aflame. I adore the spirit of their work, not only for its radiance, but for its sense of the present. Something created in a moment that can never be recreated in the same way. And to be present for that moment, is something that not only appeals to my own artistic tastes, but also to my personal vision of the vitality of the theatre. In this digital age, where we are continually removed from interactions and moment to moment experiences, I think this kind of expression becomes all the more valuable.

Can you talk about your background? What about your history as a person and a performer led you from who you were then to who and where you are now? 

There’s always been a pull within me toward telling my own stories on the stage. I started out as an actor [with] hopes of playing the great classical roles. So, text was always vital to my process. I’ve been obsessed with speaking beautiful words on stage… it just took me some time to realize that perhaps I’d have to be the one to write them. The [process] began in earnest with my show, The Meeting of the International Order of Sodomites, which became the longest running LGBTQ variety show in New York (and has just now returned for the “Queertily” Editions at Joe’s Pub). It was through [this piece] that my writing took to so many other forms. From my books – four and counting – to plays and television, it all grew out of my initial foray into telling my own story. And I’ve never looked back!

As for my journey, I see [it] as one of discovery. I think as it so often happens when a performer is young, they’re driven to think of themselves in terms of what prescribed box they should and could fit into. I could never find the right box. In fact, I didn’t want a box… I wanted a world! I wanted to act and write, be funny and sincere, be political and foolish… that description doesn’t fit into a box. I’m far more interested in creating a world of work where my books, plays, television, cabaret, poetry, performing, comedy and stories can thrive in harmony, each an expression of the whole but operating on their own merit. It sounds very vain, and I’m sure there is a great deal of vanity in it, but I find that the worlds we build give credence and allowance to other artists looking to create worlds of their very own.

Can you speak to the aspect of utilizing poetry for this piece? What does poetry allow you to convey or access that you can’t do in another medium?  

While this show is certainly poetic, its primary focus, as is the case with all my work, is the story. I want to tell a story, and to use language that is both evocative and germane to the story and the teller. I love poetry for its precision and its natural connectivity between the mundane and the sublime. For me, poetry is a telescopic lens turn it one way, and we see the smallest detail as some part of a monumental truth, turn it around again and the gargantuan becomes the miniscule.

Can you describe your writing process? Did you find it changed, if at all, when approaching this piece in this unique way? 

I write every day – rain or shine. I’m always making something and wanting to make more. But I also think that somewhere amid the tedium, frustration, fear, joy, pain, doubt, and terror of writing, I must actually enjoy it. I write because I want to tell all the stories in my head, if only to free up the brain power for more stories to grow.

This project in particular grew out of a need to talk about mental health, and to deal with my own feelings about the romantic misconceptions around it. It’s taken me a long time to do away with the idea of the tortured genius. Yes, there will always be suffering associated with making art, but perhaps, we can create art without all the suffering.

This project grew from very simple ideas about story and connection and grew into something unexpected and dear. You know, at a certain point, the work takes the shape it needs to take. Not necessarily the shape you dreamed but something better, and something truer to what you were after all along. I love that trick of making art.

How is this production different from other works out there? Why should someone come to see it? 

It’s [about] the celebration of the beauty and fragility of human resistance and the drive to find our own luminosity. But, first and foremost, it’s a story about hope – which, to that end, is a theme consistent in a lot of my work. Hilarious at times, touching at others, and even frightening in its way, the story of Jay, my narrator, is one that touches at the redemptive power of hope – hope for a moment of peace, for a future that hurts less, for an end to an old way of thinking and which ultimately leads an existence of much more honesty. The story is unique and specific, but I think is easily relatable.

It also harkens back to something that I love about the Beats: It’s an experience – a happening – in that it happens in one specific way, in one immediate and singular telling… unrepeatable and unique every time. I like this feeling of improvisation and play that is so much a part of the Beats, but also a great part of what I think makes the theatre such a vital medium.

You mention this play is personal, and press notes describe it as about someone with “the ability to see the dark, but still choose to see the light.” What advice would you offer to someone who might be struggling in a similar way?

I’ve dealt with mental illness for most of my life. It’s something that’s so deeply a part of my makeup that it’s now hard for me to imagine a world without it. I don’t know that I’d prescribe an answer because everyone’s brain chemistry is as unique at the individual themselves, but what I can tell you is that if there is one that exists, it lies in connection. Reach out. Our great fear is that we go through it alone. But the truth is, we’re never alone. And we don’t ever have to be.

You’re performing this piece at La MaMa Experimental Theatre downtown. What’s your relationship with this theater? Why should folks support independent, experimental theaters like this

This will be my third solo work to premiere at La MaMa, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to still be making art with this legendary theatre. La MaMa has become a home of sorts, where I feel like my art and my trajectory as an artist are considered and cared for. It's a gift to find a home like this, and I’m continually grateful and humbled [by their response]. I hope that this relationship continues for a very long time and I’m working on creating that same feeling for other writers at the theatre as well.

I think when it comes to downtown and experimental work there remains nowhere like La MaMa. Under the wonderful vision of Mia Yoo, La MaMa continues to be a bastion for work that challenges, changes, and captivates their audiences. I think in our age of so much homogenization, a space like La MaMa becomes a salve to the rot of conformity and a beacon for the new, adventurous, and brave artists who will shape our creative landscapes in the 21st century. I’m incredibly proud to see myself as part of this incredible family of artists.

You’ve also been described in the press as “Oliver Wilde meets Whoopi Goldberg” and been hailed as a sort of LGBTQIA+ revolutionary in your writing, both on television and in your novels. Who were your idols who pushed and inspired you when you were coming up? Why?

Like so many of queer artists of my generation, the AIDS orphans, who were children during the most heated days of the crisis and came of age in the times of the cocktail and prep, I’ve always been looking for queer elders and heroes.

I would have loved to learn at the feet of Charles Ludlam or Ethyl Eichelberger, [and] to have bathed in the brilliance that was Jackie Curtis, but they were gone before my time.

While I can say that they’ve all in their influenced my work, there’s a host of artists I’ve seen up close and personal who have lifted me out of my seat and driven me to make smarter, better, more sincere work. Two such artists are Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman. Additionally, I’ve said it many times before and will say it many times again, but Kiki and Herb showed me what was possible in the world of cabaret and certainly challenged me on what queer theatre could and should be. They’re both friends and just about the greatest artists I know. I’m forever grateful to the ways in which they opened my eyes and gave me new ways to see.

I’m also incredibly grateful to artists like [March 17 post-show talkback moderator] Penny Arcade, another friend and mentor, whose work provokes and challenges me into taking more risks and trying new avenues of storytelling. I’m so grateful to have Penny in my life!

And I think I’m so in awe of so many of my friends and contemporaries making work with me and on their own. The list is endless! Cole Escola is a mad genius and I adore them. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson are such incredible friends and hilarious writers. They make me proud and jealous at the same time! Drew Droege is a maestro and a muse. Sam Pancake is the real wonder. Jeff Hiller is just about the greatest actor I’ve ever seen. Tom Lenk is mad genius! Ryan W. Garcia is what every writer hopes for and more. Kirtsen Vangsness is a gift and a joy! Jessica Hanna is my artistic soul sister, and Tom Detrinis is everything I could want in a collaborator and friend. And lastly, but not leastly, my partner and director on this project Fempath is an artist of incredible insight and integrity. I’m forever grateful to have found such love and talent in one person.

Finally, how would you say this work informs your others? How will you use this piece to move yourself forward?

I think writing this piece has reconnected me to the sense of the possible. It’s reaffirmed my love of the Beats, certainly, but also connected me to what it was that drove me toward them in the first place. And, as I said, I wanted a world… I wanted an adventure… a mad adventure of love and poetry and expression! I know I don’t sound like it often, but I do sincerely believe that we can make the world a better place with our art. I think, if anything, the bravery that it’s taken to write and perform this piece will only ask me to be braver in all the work that comes after it. And as for that work… I’m just getting started.

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” - Jack Kerouac

My Beatnik Youth: A Solo Riff, directed by celebrated and innovative writer/performer Fempath, plays La Mama Experimental Theatre Club through March 24. In addition to Sayre, music director Tracy Stark will lead a live jazz trio nightly. For tickets and/or more information, please visit

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Written by: Matt Smith
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