John Cameron Mitchell on Mattachine, Hedwig and the ‘dangerous gay agenda’

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Mattachine flyers by Paul Dawson

Mattachine flyers by Paul Dawson

John Cameron Mitchell is one of our most valuable queer art pioneers. He was born in Texas to a US Army major general and a Glaswegian émigrée, played the Virgin Mary on stage at Catholic school, and landed acclaimed Broadway and TV roles in the 80s and 90s. He discussed being gay in a New York Times profile in 1992.

Then in 1998 he and composer Stephen Trask created Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical oddity about an East German trans wannabe rock god with real shitty luck, in which he starred. The show was an off-Broadway sensation that, in 2001, became an award-winning instant cult movie, directed by Mitchell. His follow-up, 2006’s Shortbus, was a superb offbeat portrait of underground New Yorkers in the post-9/11 years, which used real sex on screen in thoughtful and moving ways.

The following year, Mitchell and one of his Shortbus stars, PJ DeBoy, along with performer Amber Martin, set up Mattachine, a monthly party night that took place at New York’s oldest surviving gay bar, Julius’ in the West Village, and took its name from the US’s first gay-rights organisation, founded in 1950. They play rock, pop, soul, country, funk, punk, New Wave and hip hop and the vibe is friendly, open, fun, silly, sexy and political (because what thinking person isn’t). Its coterie soon included fellow Shortbus alums Paul Dawson (who makes the cool flyers) and performer Justin Vivian Bond, who took me along to one of the first nights. It was great. The likes of Michael Stipe and Antony Hegarty have also been known to drop by.

Since then, Mitchell made the movie Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, appeared in Girls as an ebook editor, and retooled Hedwig for a triumphant Broadway run, for which Neil Patrick Harris won a Tony. Meanwhile, Mattachine has played a dozen US cities and international locales including Berlin and Rio de Janeiro. Now it’s coming to the UK with dates this weekend, in collaboration with TheMenWhoFell2Earth (Rebel Rebel) in Bethnal Green and with Yes! in Glasgow. I spoke to Mitchell – who will be singing a few songs from Hedwig at the parties “to get bums on seats” – and here’s what he had to say… 

John Cameron Mitchell (image Nick Vogelson)

John Cameron Mitchell (image Nick Vogelson)

I’m more of a Glasgow person than a London person. I lived in Scotland as a kid and went to boarding school there… I’m going up to Scotland to meet my mother and visit relatives before we do Mattachine up there. I like the instant congeniality of Glasgow. In London there’s a chill that you have to get through.

People tend to turn off their phones at our parties. We play slow dances. We play complete songs. We’ve done it for seven years and it’s remained delightful in New York and we’ve enjoyed exporting that feeling to other places. San Francisco and New Orleans are already geared towards that feeling, so it’s fun.

Dance parties can change things. Young people having sex and drinking and getting together is what started pretty much every revolutionary movement. Dance clubs like the Stonewall and the Stud fomented change in the 60s and 70s. So did punk, to an extent. People gathered in bars to revolt against the British when America broke away. And getting together in the same place in a convivial way is a bit revolutionary in this time of screens.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist but if you wanted to quell those revolutionary instincts, you’d invent the internet. Now everything is so atomised; people are distracted by information overload. Occupy lasted for a second, there’s no mass musical trend like grunge.

You meet a lot of young people who seem older now. There’s a weird fuddy-duddiness about them: they can’t remember what they just said, they can’t bring themselves to get out of the house. The new normal is scary for people coming up now: this is the first generation of kids being told it’s all downhill. But young love can still change things.

Hedwig’s been my matchmaker with the world – I’ve met so many people through her. I’m very proud of the lady. It was always a weird thing – it wasn’t an award-winning respectable thing, it was for the cool kids. But she has legs. Broadway was too conservative at the time but we knew eventually it would come around, and now so many people have met her. Maybe I’ll do it again one day to get it out of my system…

A lot of people who saw Hedwig on Broadway said, ‘Oh, it wasn’t what I thought it was’ – whatever they thought it was. Something that was just trying to shock or be weird, perhaps. It’s about a neglected, ignored megalomaniac who tries to break out and by the end hopefully learns something about herself. Like Gypsy.

Eclectic used to be mainstream. Gay has got a lot more homogenous. Our great queer forebears – straight, gay, trans, whatever they were – used their difference to make great art, to push politics, to change the definition of gender. Those were great figures of history. Homogeneity is the price of acceptance; there will be more gay Republicans in the US but less teenagers killing themselves. But queer is not a marketing brand. It’s not another thing to adhere to. It’s a thing to free you. The Mattachine Society inspired us to get back to our roots and DIY – to make your own thing rather than subscribe to the dangerous gay agenda. Why is it dangerous? You end up unable to move – rigid in the same haircut and same clothes, screaming about your individual rights and ending up a bit of a sheep.

Unlike some non-traditional activists, I’m not afraid of marriage inequality as an issue. The thing that conservative people are afraid of is you’re changing the definition of marriage. For God’s sake, let’s do change the definition of marriage! For many heterosexual people, it’s been a huge failure. With queer relationships, we’ve always defined it for ourselves by nature. The best queer marriages I’ve seen are the best longer-term relationships I have seen – they understand sexuality, honesty, how sex changes over time, things like that. So yes, let’s change the definition of marriage. Let’s make it stronger.

My next film is a punks-versus-aliens Romeo and Juliet set in Croydon – the ultimate young-adult romance. It’s based on a Neil Gaiman short story called How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a London punk-era story which involves extraterrestrial travellers. They forget to get accommodation and it’s the Jubilee so they’re stuck in Croydon. Elle Fanning will be in it – I’ll talk to some other actors and do some location scouting while I’m in London, though it might end up being mostly shot in Montreal.

There are plans for a Hedwig sequel – maybe as a TV mini-series. We’re taking a little hiatus, Stephen is working on other things, but we’ve got a strong script. I know what it is, so it’ll keep. The first half of life is finding yourself. The second is preparing to lose it all. That changes something – sometimes in sad ways, sometimes very exciting. Death can depress but it can also concentrate the mind. So now Hedwig is dealing with impending death and recent death and deathdeathdeath. There are plenty of jokes and as much joie de vivre as the first one but also death and God. Or Goddess…

The DJ booth at Mattachine in New York

PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson in the DJ booth for Mattachine at Julius’s, New York

Mattachine is at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on Friday September 12 and the Flying Duck, Glasgow on Saturday September 20.