MAC- Nominated Justin Sayre Brings ’The Meeting’ Downtown
Performer and writer Justin Sayre has been making quite a name for himself in the past year with The Meeting, his gay comy/variety show that takes "the gay agenda" back downtown where it belongs. The show features monologues and commentary that skewer the political scene and culture, and also often has monthly guests who pay tribute to gay icons with both music and comedy.
Sayre has just been nominated for a 2011 MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Award in the category of Comedy/Musical Comedy Performer-Male. He brings The Meeting back to the Duplex on May 12th.
Born and raised in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, near Wilkes-Barre, Sayre was brought up mostly by two grandmothers, to whom he credits his humor and his voice. He arrived in New York in 1999 and studied Musical Theater at New York University's Steinhardt School.
Although he was hired for shows immediately upon graduation, since developing his solo act, Sayre has appeared at Joe's Pub, Symphony Space and Comix, among other venues.
Greeting this reporter at an East Village coffee bar to talk about his art and career, Sayre-taller and grander in stature than one would imagine from the YouTube videos-appeared with a ready, toothy smile (he could be the bastard son of an Osmond and Roseanne) and bouncing dark locks, his shoulders draped with a paisley shawl. His voice, not unlike Kathleen Turner's stage dialect, is anything but put on-simply fitting for someone who might be this generation's new Oscar Wilde.
EDGE: What was it like growing up in rural Pennsylvania? Were you encouraged to be yourself or did you have to repress your natural tendencies?
Justin Sayre:: It was very isolated and rather old-worldly. It was an old mining town and everybody knew everybody's ethnicity for three generations back. I didn't conceptually know what it was to be gay and when I found out, I didn't like it because I didn't particularly like boys. Coming out was evident early on.
I was always in plays and musicals and wrote a little. I was able to be very popular. I went to 26 proms. Think about it: I was a very safe date, I wasn't going to get anybody pregnant.
EDGE: As an out gay artist, do you feel there is discrimination in the business that limits you from doing what you might want to do?
JS: Yes and no. I think musical theater is now very hetero-conscious. Back when I was doing it, everyone I knew in musicals was gay, but if you couldn't play straight we all talked about you. "You are very vulnerable," was what the casting people told me. I got jobs right away, but I was interested in being more of a classical actor.
A big shift came when I saw Justin Bond. Really great artists grant you permission and he made me hear and trust my own voice. Being a gay artist is not a limitation. It is my perception of the world and I join a legion of great artists who were or are gay.
EDGE: Have you always been interested in the political?
JS: I have been for many years. Politics is a self-invented game and I'm fascinated by that game. Politics is dealing with humanity in a removed sense. Politicians are dealing with people but not treating them like people. Everybody is in a group. As a gay artist today, where politics is on so many people's minds, it can all be seen as kind of a farce. I learned very early on: don't listen to what they are saying.
EDGE: I like how you have embraced that right-wing phrase "the gay agenda" as your own, turning it on its ear. What would you say is your agenda? How would you describe what it is you do?
JS: I would say it is three things:
Number one, I think the gay culture is fascinating. Not only how gay people live together, but also the art we create and embrace. As part of the show, every month we celebrate a gay icon or artist and mention other upcoming gay events.
Secondly, I try to celebrate all of the things that make us different and all that makes us the same. I make fun of the stereotypes but also recognize that some of them are true. I mean, a friend of mine once told me, "I think you're gay so the rest of us don't have to be."
Finally, I like to point out the ways in which we don't take care of each other. For example, we have these shows where the gay stylist travels to the Midwest to help a frumpy, overweight woman, and that's great. But those characters are not allowed to do that for a young gay teen who may need encouragement. I urge people to get involved.
Gay Jesus jokes
EDGE: Your stuff is pretty edgy; I’m thinking of the gay Jesus jokes. Do you think this plays into the fears the right wing has of gays? Do you care or do you want to push some buttons?
JS: All the right wing fears of us are 99% unfounded. I don’t care about pushing those buttons and in fact I probably push them further than what you’ve seen! The point is, if Jesus were gay, what would happen? Look at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, taking a stand against gays and yet they’ve been employing them for millennia!
I want to dispel a certain anger that doesn’t get said. I don’t like being told that I am the ruin of culture and the American family. It’s not true!
EDGE: To this day, gay performers still embrace icons like Judy and Liza. Why don’t we have any good modern ones, do you think?
JS: I guess there are some great people around. I know some guys who are obsessed with Patti LuPone and some of the girls on Broadway. I’m not a Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan person, but I once asked a young man why he was and he said, "It’s kind of like a deathwatch." So morbid!
The literacy and the wit are not there. I supposed Lindsay Lohan could be the new Tallulah Bankhead-they have the same drinking habits-but there is no wit there. Adele has a huge gay following. Beyonce. But there are no more of those camp-tastic movies. Except for "Black Swan"!
EDGE: How does comedy play a part in the larger Gay Rights movement?
JS: It does a huge thing in dispelling the vitriol that the right wing throws at us. It’s kind of like the Don Rickles effect: when you can see how preposterous the prejudices are, you see that we’re all part of the same group. When Jon Stewart makes a gay joke-not at our expense but to illustrate the absurdity of prejudice-that’s a huge step for us. Humor has a huge part to play in the Gay Rights movement. It is much more inviting than anger. I’m not the person to lead the screaming march to the Republican National Committee.
EDGE: Who are your influences?
JS: Justin Bond, of course. I learned timing from Jack Benny. My grandmother had his comedy records and I listened to them over and over again to learn how a joke was made, and timing. Joan Rivers. Sandra Bernhardt. Jackie Hoffman. People who are willing to say whatever they want.
EDGE: What do you like about the cabaret medium?
JS: I like the intimacy and the interplay with the audience. I wish there were more rooms. I feel the loss of that all the time. But a lot of amazing work gets done in those rooms. Natalie Joy Johnson, Lady Rizo: great shows! I think there is resurgence. Broadway has gotten so big that I think people are longing for the dynamic of hearing stories and songs up close, and more young people are coming to the cabaret rooms.
EDGE: How does it feel to be nominated for a MAC Award?
JS: It really is nice to be nominated! I hope I win, but there is a lot of talent in my category. But it is nice to be acknowledged. Otherwise, you’re just one show out of a thousand.
EDGE: Looking forward, I see you’re working on a play about Marie Antoinette. What other career aspirations do you have?
JS: I am finishing the play, and I have a one-act and another piece going up. Right now, the writing and performing aspect go hand in hand. I’d love to write for "The Daily Show" or something like that. But I just love being part of the New York scene, being and creating.
EDGE: What can we expect from the show on the 12th?
JS: We’re doing "Valley of the Dolls." I’m getting some actors together and we’re going to pare it down, and also some great singers to do the four songs from the movie. Our guest is Frank DeCaro, and he is going to play Helen Lawson! It’s really the end of our season, so it’s a great send-off.
Also, we end every season with a benefit and this year at Joe’s Pub on June 13th, we’ll be again supporting the Ali Forney Center. It will be a Night of 1000 Judys!
The MAC Awards will be presented on Tuesday, May 10th at BB Kings. Go to www.macnyc.com for details. Justin Sayre will appear at the Duplex on Thursday, May 12th at 9:30 pm. Go to www.theduplex.com for details.
Watch Justin Sayre sing ’The Marathon’: