With election celebrations going on outside their windows, three members of Fake Friends’ Circle Jerk team (Rory Pelsue, Cat Rodríguez, and Ariel Sibert) sat down to chat about the process of making a live-streamed play about white gay men spreading disinformation on the internet, and how it feels different (or doesn’t) with the new presidential administration on the horizon.
The group wrote questions to ask of each other. They debated whether or not to name who asked what—or, if it was better to assume the standpoint of an omniscient, Ira Glass-type fake interviewer. Would that be a kind of self-effacement and a refusal of accountability? Like, where’s the line between self-identification and navel-gazing? In the full transcript, someone asked, “How do we make things illegible and interesting and interrogate form and then still hold ourselves to exactly who we are and exactly what we said?”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Ira Glass: We're having this conversation just after Joe Biden was declared president-elect. Does this news change the way you’re thinking about Circle Jerk and its impact?
Rory Pelsue (Co-Director): Maybe I wish that Circle Jerk felt irrelevant now! I hope our audience doesn't get complacent, or think a piece like Circle Jerk becomes purely historical and stops thinking about the questions it poses about privilege, self-victimization, and disinformation. Yet I will also say that it was very exciting to work on a play that felt so au courant to such a particular historical moment that affected every single audience member. And Michael and Patrick's script is so smart that I think it will feel relevant in new ways as time goes on!
Cat Rodríguez (Performer and Company Member): I think Circle Jerk is [even more] urgent now. I share Rory’s fear that a wave of complacency will overtake the energy of activation and of curiosity that comes from when people are outraged and ask, “How do we stop this? What do I do?”
Certainly the threat of disinformation and the feeling of something being taken away and the feeling of being replaced [that fuels the characters of Circle Jerk and] that fueled the prior administration (and that the prior administration threw gasoline on in order to maintain itself) don't go away now.
Ariel Sibert (Dramaturg and Company Member): I experienced this electoral process through memes, and through micro-cycles of think pieces and response pieces and data visualizations overlaid with filters and commentary. And I keep looking for both more nuance and for more simplicity. Simplicity, because at bottom, really very simply, white supremacy is behind Trump’s platform and behind the way he motivates voters’ desires. But the way that plays out is complex, and Circle Jerk is a play about white supremacy’s idiotic complexity, its dumbass intersectionality.
Glass: Can you speak about the development of the show over the year you worked on it (from workshops at Ars Nova in the fall of 2019 to the live-streamed version shown online in October 2020)? How did the piece change—what was added to the dramaturgy, direction, and performances, and what fell away?
Sibert: In some of the discourse about this production of Circle Jerk, in this totally online iteration, we’ve been seen as Millennial, techno-savvy, children-weaned-from-the-internet who have a deep pocket of theater references. Circle Jerk is almost assumed to be a product of the internet in a way that obscures the show's claim to theater. It used to be that the live theater was our background, and we put screens and apps and memes in the foreground. Now, it’s switched. Switching that foreground and background changes the reception of the show.
When we put Circle Jerk on stage, we had giant projection surfaces on the set for the third act showing live feeds of the actors’ phones; we were making the screens that mediate our self-perception visible, and hopefully giving the audience an experience of the characters’ filtered access to themselves, and even the actors’ filtered ability to embody “character.” But those things disappear when you put the show in the livestream. The technology and its filters kind of disappear along with the theatricality of these media.
Which is why I think the behind-the-scenes moments where you see wires and the quick changes became remarkable in this format, when they wouldn’t have been otherwise. And we actually had to work against our technology to make these theatrical signifiers apparent. The hardware and software we were using were set up to create seamlessness. You almost have to break them and force them to work against their own interests in order to make something like physical reality apparent.
Pelsue: The challenges that you see in getting a camera angle to see something that is supposed to be “backstage” took more tech time than almost any other piece of the show!
Sibert: Yes, because technology has its own ends and those ends are—to a certain extent—anti-theatrical, and they're also anti-user because you don't actually get to see how things are put together. And when you put on the kind of shows that we do—I mean, we're working in a lineage, from Brecht to the Wooster Group and Dumb Type—you don't and can’t hide the technological apparatus. You make it very, very clear, and that's so much more time consuming in a totally digital format because you're working against the interests of both the hardware and software that you're using.
Pelsue: The acting style was a really big question throughout the year we worked on the show, and a fun challenge to tackle, directorially. I think I came into the first workshop assuming that “political” theater or satire required a style of acting that comments on itself. And the year of doing the show definitely made me question that assumption.
We tried a few ways of approaching the scenes and it was always the most disturbing (and the funniest) when we dove into the hurt and humiliation that each of these characters feels very deeply (even if we balked at their worldview). I hope the show made the audience think, “Oh! I am actually kind of like this fucked up person onstage,” instead of reassuring them that they’re distant from the characters with winky-winky performances. I mean, the acting was big and theatrical, but we ended up steering away from ironic distance, which was exciting and scary (to paraphrase Little Red).
Sibert: Cat, in Fake Friends you’ve been both a dramaturg and a performer, and in Circle Jerk, your character evolved from “Kokomo” whose birth name was “Karen,” in earlier drafts, to “Kokomo” born as “Catherine”—a parallel to the characters of “Michael” and “Patrick” (played by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley). And there was a different vulnerability to that.
Rodríguez: My early inclination [as a performer and a company member who wrote for my own role] was to take on right-wing or right-leaning Latinx people. And to look at how a community can buy into white supremacy because of the desire to align oneself, to “achieve” and to “arrive at” respectability. And that’s what’s distinct from other communities of color who don't have access to claiming whiteness.
I think through our conversations what became even more exciting and risky and scary to a certain extent was not the right-wing perspective, because I think it’s very clear that that is not my politic. What is also damaging is the really left-leaning Kokomo type. I think that there is an urgent conversation and reckoning within the community that has heritage in Latin America about what our histories are and how we can and are used to uphold white supremacy. And I think I could have been a Kokomo very easily.
I carry personal history in my name. When I was very young, my teachers wanted to change my name from “Catherine María” to something shorter, to Catherine or to Cathy. My mom said, “No, her name is Catherine María. If and when she wants a nickname, she will pick it.” But when I was born, my parents couldn’t agree on a name, and the nurse told them, “You name her now, or it will say ‘Baby Girl Rodríguez,’ and you will have to go through the legal procedure to have it changed.” My parents had to decide whether to name me after my father’s mother, Socorro, or my mother’s mother, Catherine.
Later in my life, changing my name from “Catherine María” was a sexy thought, to be honest with you. For many people who want to reconnect and rekindle, that’s important, but for me personally, I felt that it was more honest to keep my names intact because that is who I am and how I came up. There are things in a name and an identity that are choices, that are mine, and also that are the choices of other people.
Glass: In the spirit of Luann de Lesseps’ pioneering innovations in the art of cabaret, can the three of you shake up the world of journalism with “Fuck, Marry, Kill: Circle Jerk Edition”?
Sibert: I would kill Lord Baby Bussy because he’s got the know-how. I’m not confident that Jurgen could open a Word document. Like Rod Blagojevich, he was on the Celebrity Apprentice and couldn’t start a word processor. On the one hand I would want to marry Patrick because I think he would have sex with me and enjoy it …
Pelsue: Don't forget, Patrick kills people! He’s a mass murderer!
Sibert: But I feel like after he's gotten that out of his system, he's very docile and influenceable. But I think I'm going to marry Kokomo because it would be great to have threesomes with her and Eva Maria and be on their side of history.
Peluse: I'm going to say, I’ll fuck Jurgen, even though I have a hunch it might be disappointing because there's a lot of dialogue in the show about how great it would be, which is never a good sign. But, I’m often a sucker for false advertising, so there you go. I’m going to marry Honney because we could have informed conversations about Onna White and Adele Astaire and other showqueen ephemera. And I'm going to kill Lord Baby Bussy because he has such an implicit death wish already, so it feels more okay.
Rodríguez: Okay. I would marry Honney because she's lovely and I think we could have a sweet partnership. If I had a sense that people actually listened to Kokomo and she wielded actual influence, I might kill her, but I'm also going to kill Lord Baby Bussy because he has the nefarious logic, but also the means [to do real damage to the world]. I want to fuck Eva Maria—not just because it's me!
Pelsue: Well, she knows exactly what you want before you know you want it.
Rodríguez: Exactly. I am curious to know what I want. And she would tell me!