Three years ago, as novelist, playwright and social critic Sarah Schulman — deep in thought — strolled the sprawling grounds of the Sundance Institute’s Utah mountaintop compound, a young Jewish professor watched her intently then whispered with reverence, “She’s the big Jew.” And then some. A sturdy hyphenate — old-fashioned New-York-Jewish-artist-intellectual-lesbian-social-activist with unwaveringly progressive politics — Schulman has built a career on works that tackle issues of class, homophobia, racism and misogyny as they play out in the lives of urban dwellers, against large-scale political and cultural canvases. An associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, Schulman has written novels that include Rat Bohemia, After Delores, Shimmer and People in Trouble. That last title is, in some ways, her most important work to date.
People in Trouble was inspired by the writer’s days as an activist with ACT UP; she was a member almost from the start of the protest collective. Set in New York’s East Village and peopled with fags, dykes and artists of every hue and inclination, the book was one of the first American works of fiction to tell of the queer community’s activist reaction to the health crisis. And while Puccini’s La Bohème is the clear musical framework for Jonathan Larson’s overrated musical Rent, the play’s updated characters, issues and urban flavor are lifted from Schulman’s novel.
Schulman attempted to turn People in Trouble into an opera with the help of Michael Korie, but was told repeatedly that the subject matter wasn’t right for the stage. To her surprise, in her capacity as a theater critic for New York Press, she was sent to review Rent and saw a work that bore more than a passing resemblance to her own novel. But where multidimensional queerness and people of color were the locus of the world Schulman had created, Larson had tweaked the center, making the heroes straight white boys (for whom HIV is delivered via the needle, natch) — the Puerto Rican queen dies, the lesbian lovers show everything but love, and the status quo song remains the same.
Schulman recovered from her shock and wrote the book Stage Struck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, in which she exhaustively documents not only her claims that Larson used her work as the backbone for his own, but the ways in which a deep-pocketed corporate machine — having backed Larson’s play — made the prospect of her receiving compensation or acknowledgment a pipe dream (a difficulty obviously compounded by Rent’s multiple sources, including La Bohème and its predecessor, Muger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème). But Stage Struck uses Schulman’s perceived injury as a jumping-off point to discuss everything from the marketing of queerness, to racism, to the way the American theater carefully doles out homophobia on its big stages. Now in Southern California to workshop her play The Burning Deck in La Jolla Playhouse’s Page to Stage development program, Schulman recently sat down in a Silver Lake diner to discuss the play and upcoming stage projects. She’s also working on film adaptations of her novels After Delores and Shimmer. Closest to her heart, though, is the ACT UP Oral History Project, an ambitious online documentary that, when completed, will include interviews with almost 200 people who were part of the first ACT UP group in New York. She says it will completely transform the way that AIDS is understood in this country.
L.A. WEEKLY: The play that you’re here working on, The Burning Deck, what’s it about, what inspired it?
SARAH SCHULMAN: It was commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse. It’s vaguely inspired by Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette. When I was in college, I was a French major. Balzac had a lot of homosexuality in [his work] in this very interesting way and it was a novel that stayed with me all these years. It’s about a spinster who’s wronged by her family and destroys everybody and everything until she gets revenge. That was a story that appealed to me! [She laughs.] So, I wrote about a woman who’s living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s.
Actually, I was born in Greenwich Village in 1958. And in the building in which I grew up, there was a single woman who was from the Midwest. She was a Christian, and not from my world at all. My parents had no friends who weren’t Jewish. But this woman was American. She lived alone in her apartment. And I always wondered about her, why she left Ohio or wherever she was from. Later, I realized — Oh, a single woman living in the Village in the ’50s and ’60s. So, I went to her and made her be this Cousin Bette figure. What happens in the play is that a black man uses his heterosexual privilege to humiliate this single woman and she uses racism to get back at him and they battle it out. It’s not a tolerance play at all . . . And I thought, you know, when you’re really wronged and you have to make it right, when stakes are really high, is it okay to use racism to get back at somebody who has really, really wronged you?
Talk a bit about your experiences with People in Trouble and Stage Struck, and what effects time and cultural shifts have had on the commentaries you made about representation and the commodification of queerness.
Well, the lesbian story is really the only story that hasn’t been told [onstage]. That hasn’t changed in the years since People in Trouble was published. There are lesbian characters in plenty of plays but to actually have an authentic lesbian protagonist on the American stage — it doesn’t exist. [Works by Jane Chambers and Anne Bogart notwithstanding] it’s still a forbidden life. Never being represented is an example of everyday trauma; it has a cumulative effect on an individual. Now I’m on a quest to break this glass ceiling in the American theater; it has been broken in literature. But there is a blatant bigotry against lesbians in the American theater. [Theater producers] tell me to my face why they won’t let these characters on their stage.
[Note: On its main stage, the Mark Taper Forum just completed the extended run of a commissioned work by Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, and will next be presenting a new play by our pre-eminent African-American dramatist, August Wilson. The current second-stage Taper, Too season has been entirely devoted to Latino and African-American playwrights. Meanwhile the Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director is an African-American, and his ethnicity is constantly represented on that stage. Also, South Coast Repertory has playwriting programs dedicated to Pacific Rim and Latino viewpoints.]
The thing is, when you show something from somebody else’s point of view, [the powers that be] have to face the horrifying reality that actually they are subjective. That’s a shift that they don’t want to make in their own self-image of being objective and value-free. I mean, they will tell you that they’re not interested in content and yet their entire season is about white men.
The final dirty trick is when they try to say that I’m a bad writer. Because when you have a point of view that people don’t want to see, that’s what they’ll say, “Oh, [you’re] no good.” That’s been used against everybody who is not part of the dominant culture. Fortunately, I’ve been around long enough now that I know what they’re doing.
Speaking of the dominant culture, do you think there’s any real interest in a diversity of voices or realities in the worlds of media and art — theater in particular?
Do you? Based on your own experiences?
Even when tokens of color are used, it’s to reaffirm someone else’s perspective
or primacy. That central narrative cannot be fucked with or you’re out of work.
Right. There’s absolutely no interest in diversity at all in the theater world. I have noticed that people who the system works for will always tell you that you’re wrong and bad because you want change. But change occurs because you don’t listen to them. Eventually these things will change. Eventually, lesbian life will become part of American letters and arts.
Can you explain the Page to Stage program and why it’s such an important working model in American theater?
Well, Page to Stage is the most extensive workshop development program for a play in the United States, as far as I know. You have excellent actors, three and a half weeks of rehearsal, and then three and a half weeks of performance in front of an audience, in which you can change it every day. There are no reviews. You actually have the chance to grow your play in a sane, safe environment. Then, at the end, you’re ready to have a full production and have your world premiere. In most productions, you have three weeks of rehearsal, then you have your three to six weeks of performance, at which time you get savaged by the press. By the end of the run [is when] you’re actually ready to open. But in Europe, you’ll have twice as much rehearsal time because it’s government subsidized. It’s really an investment of resources by the La Jolla Playhouse to allow me to make the play everything it can be.
In the last few years, so much attention has been given to theater revivals that it raises the question: How do you honor and keep alive theater classics while simultaneously fostering new works and new talents?
I’m not sure. Because the fact that you’re doing new plays doesn’t mean you’re doing new ideas and new voices.
Sometimes people argue that there isn’t enough money for the arts. I’m not sure that’s really the problem. I think it’s that the resources are going to the same people. If that money went to different kinds of people, the theater would look completely different from what it does today, with the resources that we currently have. There are plenty of people who are spending money on movies and CDs who would come to the theater if it spoke to them.
My play, Carson McCullers, got horrible reviews, but we sold 94 percent of the run. I would stand in the lobby and wonder, who are these people? It was lesbians, gay men and people who had read my books for 20 years, people who would never go uptown or pay $40 a ticket; they heard that there was a play for them and they came. These are people who know not to trust The New York Times. They showed up and supported the play and they loved it. Marion [McClinton, McCullers’ director] and I talked a lot about the critical reaction to the play, and at one point he said to me, “I’m black and you’re a lesbian, and ain’t none of these critics black or lesbian.” And it was this moment of triumph, because we realized — or, I realized because I think he already knew — that we had won because we had gotten our voices at a level where people like us did not have evaluative power, and that was huge. It was huge.
The Burning Deck is being performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla; performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; through August 3. Call (858) 550-1010.