Essence of Samuel Steward
Performance artist Seth Eisen's 'Home File' at CounterPulse
by Richard Dodds
He was an English professor at a Catholic college, a favorite tattooist of the Hells Angels, a serious novelist and poet, a close friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, a confidante of Alfred Kinsey, a sex buddy of Thornton Wilder, a porn writer who got Tom of Finland to illustrate his book covers, and a fastidious chronicler who used file cards to detail some 5,000 sexual encounters with more than 800 partners. His name was Samuel Steward, and he died in relative obscurity in Berkeley in 1993.
"Sam lived enough lives for 20 people," said performance artist Seth Eisen, who has created a stage piece that tries to capture the essence of the man using theatrical techniques that might seem like unlikely devices for such a subject as Steward. Homo File, which Eisen has written and directed, begins a two-week developmental run at CounterPulse on Sept. 20.
Puppetry, acrobatics, projections, and traditional dialogue combine in the piece that began gestating in 2010 when Eisen read the Steward biography Secret Historian by Justin Spring. Down the rabbit-hole Eisen went, reading more books by and about Steward, interviewing the executor of Steward's estate, and attending a symposium at Ohio State dedicated to the rediscovered Steward.
While there are bits of Steward's journals, correspondence, and photography scattered in various archives, the breakthrough that gave Spring the needed documentation to write Secret Historian came when Steward executor Michael Williams invited the biographer to sift through his San Francisco attic filled with artifacts that Steward had hoarded in his Berkeley house.
As part of his Homo File research, Eisen interviewed Williams several times about his personal experiences with Steward. "Michael was this younger man going and visiting this old guy who had all these extraordinary stories," Eisen said. "I was just fascinated by that passing on of the lineage, and I got a lot more insight into the man himself than from just reading the book."
With so much personal and historical information available, Eisen had to be a strict editor. "What I've tried to do is isolate key moments and tipping points that I think will help people to get an understanding of Sam," he said.
While the techniques Eisen is using are generally not the stuff of traditional theater, he is following a chronological format and using projected titles to help ground the audience. That is not always the case with Ned Brauer, who plays Sam Steward.
"I come from a circus background," said Eisen, who has worked with Keith Hennessey's Circo Zero, "and the lead actor also happens to have a background in aerials. So there are times when he is in aerial straps, upside down, and we're using that as a metaphor both for bondage, which was part of Shepard's sexual life, and also as a metaphor for sexual inversion, which was the term from Havelock Ellis' book [published in 1896] that was such a big influence on Sam."
Two forms of puppetry bookend the biography. Working with artist Diego Gomez, Eisen is using shadow puppets to represent Steward's earlier life, and Japanese-style bunraku puppets to illustrate his older self, when he was largely forgotten in post-Stonewall fervor. There are also scenes of more-or-less traditional dialogue between actors. "I'm very excited about the Kinsey scene," Eisen said. "It's dialogue, but done in a very special way."
Eisen's previous show Blackbirds: Honoring a Century of Pansy Divas looked back at performers who broke barriers of sexual identity. "Since a really young age I've been into connecting to our gay ancestors," Eisen said. "There aren't many obvious role models for young gay people if you want to know about relationships and sex," Eisen said. "Those aren't taught in school."
Sex was a big part of Steward's life, as manifested in the still-extant "stud file" he maintained on his encounters. "We're still experimenting with how to represent sex on stage without being too literal," Eisen said. "You feel the sexuality more than see it because Sam was bigger than just his sex. I'm trying to write about the human being."
Homo File will run through Sept. 30, and tickets are available at www.counterpulse.org.
Rhino at 35
As noted a couple of weeks back in the fall theater preview, Theatre Rhino will launch its 35th season on Nov. 24 at Thick House with Slug and Kicks, a new backstage comedy by Rhino Executive Director John Fisher. Here are the other plays and events making up that season.
Tennessee Williams wrote an early version of Something Cloudy, Something Clear in 1941 after a fight with a summer lover in Provincetown. He revised it for a 1981 production, and this seldom-seen play will begin its Rhino run on Jan. 2 at the Eureka Theatre.
Starting March 7 at the Eureka, Shirlene Jones' A Lady and a Woman tells the story of two African American lesbians in the 1890s who find a way to a loving relationship.
Caryl Churchill (Top Girls, Cloud 9 ) uses two gay men in an obsessive relationship as a metaphor for US power and UK servitude in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You. The 45-minute play, first staged in 2006, will start its run on May 30 at the Shelton Theatre.
Rhino will also present two special events in its 2012-13 season. Comedian-singer Lea DeLaria will headline the annual New Year's Eve celebration at the Victoria Theatre, and an all-local, all-queer roster will take the stage for a March 24 benefit performance at the Eureka. Season subscriptions are available at www.therhino.org.