Playwright Joshua Conkel’s best known work, 2009’s MilkMilkLemonade, which is making the leap from New York’s East Village to London’s Oval – an area, which with its classical music playing, fern-filled, tube station and what’s apparently a reasonably well-known cricket ground, is far more than an ocean away. But with a dedication to queer theatre that’s taken in transgender commissions, readings from lesbian pantomimes and an exhibition on alternative theatre including Gay Sweatshop, Ovalhouse feels like an appropriate home for a “bitter-silly, gender-bending” children’s story that’s too dark for before their bedtimes.
It’s told from the perspective of Emory, a ribbon-twirling 11 year old boy who dreams of Broadway stardom, but whose only friend and dancing partner is a depressed chicken under imminent threat from a processing plant. Conkel finds it “pretty easy for me to find that child’s voice, because my influences are pretty lowbrow – weird or overlooked everyday throwaway culture rather than high art films.” These are a snow day marathon of 1970s and 1980s kids television like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, John Waters movies, as well as “all the weird puppet shows that would come to your elementary school or church basement shows” – if not in SE11, then at least in his hometown rural Washington state. He also “mined memories from my childhood to use in that play, and some of those weren’t even true – some were nightmares, some were remembered incorrectly.” Together, they make a dark, frightening punk and Pop Art influenced piece that’s “a kind of collage, cut and pasted into the frame of childrens’ theatre.”
Conkel explains that “I’d wanted to write something for a while that was a bit Dadaist, where I could allow myself to be really loose and free with the writing and to go really wild without judging myself.” He both wrote and directed the original staging in Under St Marks Theater in New York’s East Village –“full of a lot of young and queer people, and I always had those people in mind when I was writing it.” Wrapped up in directing in his own show, Conkel explains that “I meant it to be a comedy for a late night audience, but what I didn’t know until I saw it on its feet is that it’s accidentally quite beautiful and touching.” This emotional depth comes from “writing from a very personal place of the fear gay teens experience. That was a shock for a lot of the audience, including my parents – they had no idea that I never felt safe as a child, that a lot of children never feel safe.”
I wondered how unusual MilkMilkLemonade’s success was, and Conkel explained that “the theatre scene in New York is geared towards naturalism and quiet, thoughtful plays, so for something like this to break through is really rare.” Conkel’s almost uncomfortable modesty makes him admit that “I would love to take credit for (its success) but I think it’s all in the timing! At the exact same time it came out people became interested in bullying of gay kids and childhood trauma, just before the It Gets Better campaign and all the focus on gay teen suicides.” There’s a slight note of frustration, too, as he adds that “I thought I was writing about the body, identity and gender and the way these things trapped you and defined who you are. Gay bullying was so obvious to me, that I took it for granted, so it surprised me when people became so interested in that element.”
Conkel’s in a similarly paradoxical position as a playwright. As he explains, MilkMilkLemonade has had 70 or 80 productions around the world, but it’s never been staged in a big Off Broadway theatre. And despite his avowed lowbrow influences, his work is produced at universities including Yale, and is studied in gender studies and theatre courses. Appropriately for someone with a fascination with throwaway culture, Conkel supplements his writing with full time work in advertising. “Luckily I’m sort of a loner – I don’t like to go out, so I just write when I can, late at night and at the weekends. Advertising is a great place when you are a creative and funny person.”
As he’s become more integrated into both his day job and the world of US regional theatre, he’s “naturally changed direction a little bit – I spent all of my 20s writing these really big loud plays, but now I’m strange in a more quiet way.” His most recent work was Okay, Bye for Chicago theatre company Steppenwolf, famous for being “an actor’s theatre, very naturalistic and gritty and serious. It was my first attempt at writing a drama. It’s about two women at an AA meeting in this world where it’s been snowing for months and months even though its only September, and drugstores are selling these suicide kits. It’s about disappointment and whether it’s worth carrying on.”
It sounds bleak, I suggest, as the rain lashes down outside. “Yeah. All of my plays are quite dark – I think about this a lot. I’ve always had a gallows sense of humour, and in my writing it’s a mechanism. When people are laughing you can talk about things that are scarier and more painful, but that’s harder to pull off because people are getting less sophisticated in their understanding of satire and camp, they’re all so painfully earnest!” He draws a line back from the current mood back to the protests and idealism of the 70s, and suggests that “they’re trying to effect serious, positive change in areas like gay marriage, whereas people a generation before them used satire and irony and kitsch as a weapon. I understand where this seriousness is coming from, and I want all the same things, but I don’t think being humourless is the best way to achieve them.”
It’s often hard for humour to make the leap across the Atlantic. Conkel might be an ad exec not a nightmare-plagued child, but he still admits to feeling depressed by reviews of his work. “I hope people in London like it and get it. I get nervous because Americans are always nervous that English people are too sophisticated and will look down on things.” He’s tickled by my half-thought out suggestion that the junk Americana that inspires him will also fascinate an English audience that’s lapping up pulled pork sandwiches and John Hughes club nights with unequal abandon. “I lived in New Zealand for a while and there were all these American-themed parties, all these “upscale” American joints, people fetishising trashy culture – it’s so weird and silly!”
Rebecca Atkinson-Lord has already directed one of Conkel’s plays at the Ovalhouse, and there’s another in the works –“she’s commissioned me to adapt The Birds by Aristophanes. I’m setting it in a nursing home, talking about Alzheimer’s and dementia.” It sounds bleak enough to depress a chicken, or two women trapped in endless snow, but Conkel says that “I think it’ll be a funny play – what I learned from Okay, Bye is to let go of comedy, and just trust that it’s there. It’s more important to write a play that I know I can believe in.” Conkel might be letting go of his childhood wackiness in New York, but it’s still being played out in all its feathery, glittery glory in South London – a world to believe in for a whole new community.
MilkMilkLemonade is on at Ovalhouse, London, from the 8th to the 25th October