Writer, producer, performer Justin Sayre's episodic camp extravaganza Ravenswood Manor closes this coming weekend after a very successful run at Celebration Theatre. Between episode rehearsals, I buzzed with Justin to spill some tea on the show, it's origins, the production process, and more. Catch the last week of Ravenswood because they are ending with a BANG, honey!
For tickets, go to CelebrationTheatre.com/ravenswood
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): Justin, you are a riot! What you've done beautifully is successfully shown audiences the breadth and depth of authentic camp (in the best way). Tell me about the origins of Ravenswood Manor.
Justin Sayre (JS): I wanted to write a long-form play for a while, and I was searching for something Camp. I'm very dedicated to Camp. I think it's the cornerstone of Queer art, and I really thought it was time to take the leap. For a long time, my best friend, whom I've pitched every project I've ever written, had always told me of my similarity in thought and practice to Charles Ludlam. It took me a little while to catch up. I thought doing something episodically would be helpful since I had been writing for Television for a couple of years. I loved Dark Shadows, and thought a gothic setting would be perfect for Camp. Then the ideas just started flowing. I did a first reading of the first six episodes at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre with an incredible cast that included Jeff Hiller, Nathan Lee Graham, Jenn Harris and many more. It was so fun, I just wanted to keep doing it. Now I've had another chance. I'm already looking forward to the next.
(RQM): You are writer, performer, and producer on this project. As a fellow multi-disciplinary artist, I'd love to learn more about your process from page to stage.
(JS): Well, that's very broad! I started as an actor, so I have to see it. I don't write a lot of stage directions in my plays unless the lines need it to make sense. I like to find rhythms and space in the room. The stuff I know and want, I write in. But I love problem-solving. So much of my creation is about problem-solving. I also like using the theatre for what it is. You can't do CGI or crazy special effects in the theatre, or at least it's very hard to do them well. I like to create theatre magic, which is more about imagination and human stagecraft. I like making things in front of people and making the audience an active participant in the process of making the show, even if it's just imagining the scenery. I like the collaboration of making in the room. So I always want to work with the best. That's why the actors I strive for are always so brilliant. I don't like to micromanage. I like to facilitate flight.
(RQM): Serialized theatre is an exciting and rigorous beast. It relies on the magic of a killer script, fantastic, adventuresome actors, and grounded, inspired directors. What's it been like building this piece in the room with your team? On the afternoon I saw the show, you were readying for rehearsal of the next episode right after taking well-deserved bows from the work just presented.
(JS): I should say, that we go in with the script, and I would say 98% is on the page. I am a firm believer in doing my work. But I've also been trained not to be precious about a joke. If one doesn't work, we'll find another. What I'm always first listening for is, does the story track and does it all make good dramatic sense. I would be disingenuous to say that the show lives all on the page. I'm working with some of the most brilliant and insightful comedic actors in the country, to not let them form a joke to themselves or to add a little aside, that comes from their character, would be folly. But we all begin with the page, and then it's play. We've often said backstage that we're working so terribly hard, a new play each week for 6 weeks, but we're all so happy doing it. We all have our bits, we all have our weeks to shine and we all generally and genuinely like each other. It's a brilliant process.
(RQM): This show feels very much like work I've seen in New York. I love that it is happening and being received well here in LA. How do we continue challenging and engaging our Angeleno theatre audiences?
(JS): I think there is great theatre going on out here, and I think LA is only ready for more. Ravenswood feels like New York because I still feel like I'm in New York and come out of that sensibility. I think the thing that needs to happen in LA, is that we all, artists and audiences, need to create a culture of going to the theatre. Of making things the MUST SEE event in LA. We need to make the reality of the theatre here a bigger deal, simply because there's already great work going on.
(RQM): After the final episode of Ravenwood, what's next for you?
(JS): I am working on a few TV projects, but I am headed out of LA for a bit to go and work on my newest book. My show The GAyBC's has been turned into a book that will be released by Chronicle Books in 2020. I'm also going to New York next week to do a show at Joe's Pub and celebrate my 10 years in Cabaret. After that, two new plays this year and the second season of Ravenswood Manor. You know a few things, just to keep me off the street.
Featured photo: Justin-Sayre - Photo by Matthew Dean Stewart