John Cameron Mitchell on playing 'Cassette Roulette' with Amber Martin

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
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Amber Martin and John Cameron Mitchell's 'Cassette Roulette' (photo: Betty Can Snap)
Amber Martin and John Cameron Mitchell's 'Cassette Roulette' (photo: Betty Can Snap)

John Cameron Mitchell is a lot of things; an actor, a musician, a director, screenwriter, podcaster, and even a nightlife host. Of course he's best known for his rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which started Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998, winning two Obies and an Outer critics Circle award, went to Broadway in 2014 with a series of impressive lead actors. That production won four Tony Awards (and an additional one for himself in 2015) and then toured around the world, and has been produced in hundreds of productions in multiple languages. His 2001 film adaptation of "Hedwig" also won acclaim.

Beyond the wig, Mitchell has won acclaim for his acting in the limited series "Joe and Carole," about the Tiger King scandal. He's also had numerous guest spots on creative series like Neil Gaiman's "Sandman."

An actor since his teenage years, Mitchell, now 60, has a strong background in theater, from playing Huck Finn in "The Big River" to Dickon in "The Secret Garden." He won an Obie Award for his role in Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me."

Next, he takes to the stage on November 4 at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall with multi-talented singer Amber Martin, who's also an old friend. The duo will play "Cassette Roulette," a fun night of prepared and audience-request songs performed with their band. Only days ago, they performs the concert in Nashville as a benefit for Tennessee's ACLU. Mitchell will also host Mattachine, his roving vintage vinyl club event, at Oasis on November 5.

In a phone interview from his new home in New Orleans, Mitchell was gracious enough to not only discuss his upcoming shows but his previous accomplishments, and also delved into some queer theory as well.

John Cameron Mitchell (photo Matthew Placek)  

Jim Provenzano: "Cassette Roulette" sounds like a fun live mix tape night where the audience gets to pick the songs you and Amber sing.
John Cameron Mitchell: About 40 percent is preset and 60 percent is random, depending on the audience. I kind of got the idea from Elvis Costello, who did a show where he just spun a wheel. It's very fun to be doing this kind of show. I was trying to find a way to show off Amber Martin, who is probably one of the most powerful performers today.

We've been working together a long time and I finally wanted to make something that was truly showing her off because she's got a million characters. She's like a kind of Bette Midler meets Madeline Kahn with a little bit of Carol Burnett. So I wanted to find a way that she could show her characters and her incredible voice that still allowed for Hedwig fans and fans of me to enjoy. It's a very integrated type of show and I would say it's the most fun I've ever had on stage.

And you've known her for decades.
Yes. We've been doing the party Mattachine for about 16 years. We've done it a few times at El Rio over the years. And we always have a blast in the Bay Area, of course. And our favorite shows, favorite dance parties, and favorite screenings. Of course, my favorite screening of "Hedwig" ever was at the Castro Theatre, and same with "Shortbus." So there's always a great joy in coming back, even though lately the Bay Area is getting a bad rep in the world, right?

You've shifted gears over the years so deftly from being a musical theater kid performing on Broadway, to creating "Hedwig" with Steven Trask, starring in it, and just switching gears to something very different like directing "Rabbit Hole." Is this show just another gear shift?

It doesn't feel like a gear shift as much as what I've always done since college. When you're in college, you try everything, right? When you're young, you experience everything. You have different kinds of sex. You find out about different kinds of art. From the beginning I was always just writing, directing, singing, acting, and so I just continued that. People are like, "Wait a minute, what are you?" I was like, "I don't feel the need to identify myself."

Amber Martin (photo Matthew Placek)  

And that follows through with things like gender and things like... There is lately, understandably, a kind of desire to correctly and precisely identify who you are in order to protect yourself. It feels a little defensive as opposed to proactive. "I'm this therefore you're offending me." As opposed to, "I'm this. What can we do together?"

In journalism, we have a bunch of new standards.
And I understand it. Especially when you're young, these things are to separate you from the people who ruled you: your parents, your school, your job. And this is your way of saying, "I'm free." And great. So much the better.

Of course when we get older, we forget what we are. We don't remember what we ate. And it's like there is a certain confusion about, by the end you're sort of you're you, right? You're a category of one, you're a gender of one, and you don't sit down with your friends and think, "They're gay, they're straight, they're trans." If you really know them, they're your friends.

That's where we want to get to, I think is the goal. In the meantime, there is a kind of rush to identity, which feels a little defensive, a little bit even escaping, dare I say, as opposed to my old punk rock hippie thing which is, "What do you got? Let's do something. What are we going to do now?"

Amber Martin and John Cameron Mitchell in a recent Nashville performance of "Cassette Roulette," which was a benefit for the Tennessee ACLU. (photo: Anna Minerva)  

And all options for expression are open. There's a little bit less of that feeling today where there's a bit of, "You can't say that. You can't do that." How about how you say it, not so much what you say? We all know the people who call us faggots, and the way they say it they don't mean well. And then our friend might use a word and we're like, "Yeah." It's like a metaphor. And when we start fighting over who gets to do things, who's oppressed more, what are you allowed to.

I just get exhausted and that's what makes me feel like I'm back in Catholic school. We can get carried away with what we're not supposed to be doing as opposed to what I prefer, which is creating alternatives. I don't even like the word ally because it implies some kind of military alliance as opposed to, "I like you. I like you and we have things in common. Let's make shit happen." Whether it's helping women get an abortion or putting on a show, and sometimes it's both.

So Amber and I are taking this same show to Tennessee. We're doing a benefit for the ACLU because of the anti-drag and anti-trans laws over there. So that's an example of, "What do we do?" And then we ask people on the ground, local people, "Join us. You've been fighting this fight. We're here to help. But sing with us. Tell me what's happening."

There's a band in drag that does Grateful Dead covers really well. It's called The Grateful Drag. There's a trans singer named Supernova that we're going to add to our show. We always have guest stars. Amanda Palmer's joining us. It's always open.

It's like a traveling show. I could just see the tent and everything. You also have a connection to a former band member for Lez Zeppelin, whom I've seen live here in San Francisco.
Shannon Conley, who is our very close friend who also played Yitzhak.

I'm wondering about your self-identification. It's now a standard in LGBTQ journalism to also use 'queer.' But for me it's like I just want to stick with gay because it seems like a relic to claim, like 'pansy.'
I'm gay, I'm queer. Obviously queer has less to do with sexuality, but alternative lifestyles fit into that, so I don't mind an umbrella term. There's going to be people who feel a little bit lost in their own lives who aren't necessarily going to identify with someone else. You know what I mean?

John Cameron Mitchell at the September 2023 opening night of the Paris production of 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.' (photo: Greg Juppin)  

There's going to be some people who aren't particularly that queer, but feel that they are. And you think, "Who cares?" It's not like someone gets any benefits monetarily for calling themselves queer, so come on in. Lady Bunny used to laugh at the LGBTQ alphabet because suddenly everybody was in there. She's like, "Why do we get the asexuals?"

She's so irreverent. I miss the Wigstock days. Speaking of wigs, "Hedwig" was so pioneering and explored all these issues we're discussing, but it seems like it came more from a creative idea, not, "I'm going to declare these things."
Yes, and we were too busy just surviving to identify ourselves. We didn't have a lot of energy for that with AIDS, and just being beaten up all the time. So to me it's like identity and pronouns are all important, but they happen in peace times, or let's say relative peace, because there's still obviously no peace, especially for trans folks right now. And your love and your pride is absolutely vital to survival, and your sisterhood and your brotherhood.

When identity separates natural friends, I get annoyed, also when a sense of humor disappears and a sense of play, because as queer people we've always played with language. We've always been right on the edge of offensive, but we understand that it's about intention rather than the actual words. It's how you use them and what you need to do with them. Do you need to hurt? And some would say, "Oh, there's casual transphobia and racism." Which I agree, it can be there too and you're not thinking clearly.

But it's all case by case for me. I don't believe in a blanket statement and I don't believe in censorship. I believe in saying what you think and if it does bother you, talk about it. But let's talk about it rather than cancel. So I am working on actually a new podcast series called "Cancellation Island." Holly Hunter plays a woman who's sort of a Gwyneth Paltrow-type wellness person who starts a rehab for canceled people...

(Laughs) Oh my God.
...on an uninhabited island that used to be a CIA black site. We want it to be an animated show. We're already developing the look of it. It's a lot of fun and I'm putting my money where my mouth is. So in effect, it's a left-wing critique of cancel culture as opposed to letting the right-wing people run with it. Because they can't understand the nuance of anything that's going on, they just want to use it as a weapon.

No, they can't even define the word 'woke.'
They don't even know what it means, but they're marketing it as something that's not good for the so-called regular folks. So we are trying to have a little fun with some of this stuff and over-PC policing and remembering how we grew up in '80s and '90s. Which is not to say any way things were better then, because we were dying of AIDS. All hell was breaking loose. But we had a clear goal to stop AIDS, get those drugs out, and 'anything goes' to get that goal. It was like interacting with corporations, there was shaming politicians, there was whatever fucking works. And that's how I feel about my work today. I do not want to be censored.

John Cameron Mitchell in the film 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'  

"Hedwig" was kind of canceled in Australia. Yeah, there was a major production with a cisgender queer guy, Hugh Sheridan, who was just then coming out.

And a recent Australian "60 Minutes" episode all about the cancellation wasn't very complex but it was definitely sympathetic. And he got into a fight with the young people who had started a petition saying, "But this is trans, therefore the actor must be trans." And probably like a 20-ish-year-old person started this. And basically I think they wanted to play the role. Interestingly, they didn't cancel the piece because I wasn't trans, which if you're going to be consistent you might as well cancel the whole thing. But they canceled the cast.

And Steven and I responded saying, the character... I don't know if you would call it a trans story when your boyfriend forces you into a sex change against your will to get married. That's the complexity that they can't imagine. In Iran, the government pays for femme boys to get sex changes because that fits with the Quran, whereas a femme gay guy is punishable by death.

So that's closer to the "Hedwig" story, which is patriarchy telling us what man and woman is, and what gay and straight is, and that they define a woman as a man without a penis. The mutilation is a metaphor for what male-dominated straight society tells us what to do. And Hedwig recovers by using drag and rock and roll and then abandons the drag at the end of the show, takes it off because it becomes stifling. He started to feel trapped.

And I don't really care about my own gender or pronouns, but I understand why other people do. And after that, Steven and I were both, we had never been asked before, but I guess we're non-binary. I think we all are, if you think about it. But I don't feel the need to change my pronouns. I'm too old. I can barely remember my phone number.

Non-binary feels like a temporary term because it's a negative term. It didn't feel like it's going to last. I prefer androgynous. But it feels very medical, right? Non-binary. Not binary. The first terms for gay was invert, Uranian.


And Uranian. And those fell out of fashion. So who cares? Because the words change. For Black Americans, there was Negro, there was African-American, there was Black, there was Afro-Americans, remember? I have a feeling the term "of color" might actually go away too, because it feels a little bit like "colored," so whatever.

I've seen several different versions of "Hedwig" over the years here in the Bay Area, and in New York. You've said that you're okay with other versions taking liberties with the show as long as they're true to the music.

Yes, of course. I'm not a controller. Once I met Richard O'Brien, who wrote "The Rocky Horror Show" and film. And he was very sweet. It was interesting to meet people who were known for their characters. I'd met Peewee Herman at that time, and they all were very solicitous and fatherly and I loved it because I love them. But Richard kind of bummed me out a little because it seemed like most of his job was kind of controlling various productions, saying, "You can't do that." It's kind of weird. I guess when you don't produce new things, you just cling to the old ones.

It's funny because the screen versions, and even some live shows, include the callbacks. It's too bad you won't be in town for the 'Night of a Thousand Hedwigs' (Oct. 20 at The Ivy Room).
Like the Boxcar Theatre version; they had ten Hedwigs with each of them doing a different song. In Brazil, they had two Hedwigs kind of playing comedy sometimes. To me, I just say respect the text as is, but add to it, make it local. You can't legislate that someone be good, but you can legislate that they have a good time and don't think of it as unchangeable. It's a living document. It's like the constitution. So you add amendments, the basic things stay, you can make it more of your own.

And when I say I'm going to see "Hedwig" in France and they're like, "In French?" I'm like, "How else?" When they're doing jokes in a different language, it has to be local. So I love that. I'm a proud parent who doesn't need to criticize their kid all the time.

John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic in 'Joe vs. Carole' (photo: Peacock)  

Is it still running in Korea and Japan?
It comes and goes there. Korea and Japan are preparing for a new season. Australia's coming up again, too. So yeah, it's constant productions all over the world, and I'm not even aware of all of them. Some are tiny. The biggest ones, I'll pay a bit more attention. You know New York, London.

I have to ask about "Joe vs. Carole," which was astounding.
It was the most interesting role I played since Hedwig. I was fully able to dive into something completely different than I've ever done, but integrating elements of my own life because I'm the same age as Joe and we're from the same part of the country. I'm Texas, Oklahoma, and where I lived. So to me it was a great joy. I could get as crazy as I wanted because we had great writers who took my opinion. Kate McKinnon was a blast. Sadly, nobody saw it. I think it was just people were tired of Tiger King, but it's actually really good.

Are there other acting roles or directing works coming up beyond the podcast series?
Well, you may know that we're having a strike.

D'oh! Yes.
It's not ending yet. I have a feeling it might go to the end of the year, for the actors. I'm developing a TV show, so the writer's strike makes it a little tough. I can go back to that. But in terms of acting, everything's on hold. My last cameo was in "Yellowjackets" where I played a talking, singing parrot. I love trying new stuff and being kind of the go-to Silver Twink.

That would be good theme for a bar night. You said in an interview that you wanted to do Shakespeare later on, to play elder roles if possible. Is that something that you hope to do?
I still look younger than I am, so I don't necessarily get offered 60-year-old roles. But my favorite roles are older gentlemen, and ladies. I'd love to play Blanche DuBois. I love Beckett. I love Pinter. I love Joe Orton. It's like there's all kinds of things I'd like to experiment with.

I'm writing a new play, for the first time since "Hedwig." And it's about Claude Cahun, who did a lot of theater and photography and writing in the surrealist era, 1920s and '30s, in France, who was a queer icon that sadly is not known as well as she should be. She was kind of almost a proto-trans lesbian who worked with her wife, in effect, to make the work. And then later they settled on the Isle of Jersey and they fought the Nazis in the Resistance.

So it's a story that I want to do on stage with a surrealist bent to it. I've been doing research the last few months and I'm getting ready to leap into the first draft this fall.

Will it be a play or a musical?
I don't know. There will be music. There's always a bit of music. I just don't know if it's more like a play with songs; probably not a full-on musical.

Have you been asked to play certain roles that you didn't want to do? I could see you as the Emcee in "Cabaret."
I've actually been offered that a few times. When I was younger, I certainly wanted to play it. But after "Hedwig," it felt like it was not as interesting a German androgynous person. And he doesn't have as much going on character-wise. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of the "Cabaret" musical. The movie improves on the musical.

The musical is just 'scene' and then 'song about scene.' And it feels very 'plotting by the numbers,' even if the songs are great. Whenever they do a new production, it's like, "Ah, it's so racy." And I'm like, if you really want to do something crazy, then have a fucking orgy on stage.

You've worked with some brilliant people like Glenn Close and Nicole Kidman. Are you more selective now with projects?
It's lovely to be my age and feel like people think of me as a pro; "Oh yeah, John's going to make that great." And I've paid my dues. I feel proud. But for me, I just moved to New Orleans and a lot of that has to do with finding a smaller community that I can be part of, to know my neighbors. I have a ballroom in my house that has a stage, and people are going to be performing there, and it's a 150-year-old building that was many churches including an occult church, nearby. I want to make it an artists' residence. So I'm trying to pull up its profile and do some press stuff to get people excited. So that's what I'm doing the next couple of weeks apart from these shows.

John Cameron Mitchell and Amber Martin's "Cassette Roulette" $42-$120. Nov 4, 8pm at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus.

Mitchell and Martin host Mattachine, $20-$60. Nov. 5, 4pm-9pm at Oasis, 298 11th St.

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