Samedi, 25 juin 2022
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    Au audience with Harvey Fierstein

    “Oh you poor thing,” Harvey Fierstein told me as I was powering through full-on COVID symptoms during Montreal’s sixth wave in early April, despite being fully-vaxxed and boostered. There was no way I was going to delay our interview – which I had worked long and hard to get – since there are few opportunities to interview Fierstein who was promoting his hugely entertaining memoir I Was Better Last Night (Penguin Random House Canada).

    The poignant and hilarious bestseller by the cultural icon, gay rights activist, and four-time Tony Award–winning actor and playwright reveals never-before-told stories of his personal struggles and conflict, of sex and romance, and of his fabled career.

    Because of COVID, I hadn’t been able to finish reading his memoir by the time of our interview. “You don’t know I died at the end, huh?” the gravelly-voiced Fierstein cracked. “I won’t ruin it for you!”

    For our Q&A, Fierstein was generous, candid, and I quite liked him.

    Was writing your memoir a pandemic project?

    Absolutely! Look at all the books being published right now! (Laughs) Everybody was stuck at home with COVID. Everybody wrote a freaking book! I had all these projects going on, then all of a sudden everything was put on hold. So I clean my desk. After that was over, we were still in lockdown, so I made five quilts. And my agent said to me, “Why don’t you write your memoir?” I said, “I don’t really write long form prose.” Just try, he said, so I followed my own advice: Just do it. So I sat down and started, and what do you know? I ended up with a New York Times bestseller! Goddamn!

    How did you decide what to put in your memoir, but also what NOT to put in?

    Well, I certainly did start writing several stories that ended up not in it, mostly because I got bored. So those stories went in the toilet. Basically, I asked Shirley MacLaine because she’s written like nine autobiographies. I asked her for advice, and she said to let memory be the editor, that memory itself will guide you. Let your actual memories lead you along the path.

    Then I asked how do I decide what to put in the book? I don’t care about stuff about myself, but there are many people in my life who have passed, how do I represent them? And Shirley said, once again, it’s memory. You’re never really writing about someone else. When you’re writing this kind of writing, you’re always writing about yourself, and how that person affected you. So once again, trust memory.

    I thought it is the opposite of playwriting. In playwriting you really try very hard to stay out of it. Once you have your characters you want them to speak. You don’t want to have any bad plays when you know that it’s the writer talking to you, lecturing you. There are several very famous writers whose names I will not mention and you will always know that it’s their piece because you’re being lectured to. That’s not what playwriting is about, not even what movie writing is about. But it is what writing a memoir is about – you to want the reader to feel the genuine voice of the person writing to you.

    When Torch Song opened at the Actors Playhouse, you write that Carol Channing came backstage and proclaimed, “This is the gay Raisin in the Sun.” What was it like to be the toast of the town? 

    You put it that way but that’s not the way it feels for me at all. What it did was it felt like doors were opening. It wasn’t that I was the toast of the town, I was meeting the toast of the town. I was having dinner with Chita Rivera. I was meeting famous people and becoming friends with people that I admired from afar. I used to tease Elaine Stritch that when I came into the business, she was already ready to retire, and now the two of us were the same age! It’s a funny thing that happens when you’re in that kind of public eye but I never looked at it as I was the toast of the town. I had my work to do.

    What was your goal?

    My goal was never to be an actor or a writer. I was what they used to call in the 1950s, “artistic.” That was a word for gay: “Oh, he’s artistic.” So I knew I’d be in the art field but I didn’t think I was a great artist by any means. It was a slow process. I was coming out of a world of Off Off Broadway which you don’t really have in Canada.

    You know, in the 70s, I did a trip from one end of Canada to the other in a Volkswagen bus, looking for that kind of community. We found it in Vancouver but even then, it wasn’t big enough for me to stay. If it had been I would have stayed and maybe never come back to America. Because I just fell in love with Vancouver.

    As a young gay I adored that you chose to be proudly out from the beginning and chose to write about queer life and queer people. 

    I didn’t choose – I just never was in. Because I came from that experimental art side of the world. None of us were in the closet.

    Your career has been closely intertwined with the evolution of drag. I worship at the temple of the late great Craig Russell. I was wondering what you think of the mainstreaming of drag culture over the years?

    I only met Craig Russell once or twice. We weren’t friends in any sort of way, Craig was already not well when I met him. I was closer with Charles Pierce who I used in the movie of Torch Song. When I did drag in my experimental theatre world, it was daring and sexually dangerous. It was meant to be dangerous. We meant to fuck with your head. We were doing drag that dared to put in front of your face something that was frightening and questioned sexuality.

    Drag now is so gorgeously done. It’s not really about sexuality anymore. RuPaul has had a woman drag queen and heterosexual drag queens on his show. Drag is not so much about sexuality anymore. It’s not even about daring the audience. It’s about an aesthetic that really is its own fabulous aesthetic. It has changed a lot. It’s not the same. It’s a different breed. But I adore it. One of my friends is Bianca Del Rio and Nina West is playing my role in Hairspray on the road, and I just appeared with Ginger Minj. I adore them all.

    Recently you have been talking about your gender identity. Do you consider yourself to be non-binary?

    The whole non-binary thing is such a newer concept. The idea of non-binary never occurred to be a possibility to me. So I watch with great interest as people go through this process. My generation it was all about fighting for sexual freedom, it was all about saying that homosexuality and heterosexuality are absolutely equal. The next generation was more politically normative. They were the generation – right after AIDS – that took on marriage equality which led to a lot of really positive steps. Now this next generation seems to be taking on the entire idea of gender. Do I consider myself non-binary? I don’t know what the fuck I consider myself. I’m 70-years-old, I’ve gotten this far doing things without titles. I get to be a girl when I want to be a girl. And I get to be a boy. Doing what I do – being able to play drag roles, to be male, to be female – I get to express all those parts of my personality through my work.

    Are there days when you wish you could be anonymous again? 

    As a writer, one of my favorite things used to be to just sit in a mall, in a food court, and listen to people talk. That’s how you figure out what people are thinking. That’s how you figure out what people sound like. A writer needs to be anonymous, a writer needs to be able to disappear, so I do miss that.

    In your memoir you write that by 1981 “sex had become a habit” and you never again engaged in anonymous sex. You write, “Boredom was most likely the reason I escaped the oncoming plague.” Do you miss anonymous sex?

    You know, we’re boys! Boys just have to open their zippers, have some fun and then go for pizza. Not everything has to be a romance. So I do miss that. But that has nothing to do with being anonymous. It’s a different time. Though I have heard that the Central Park bushes are back, I heard there is action in the Ramble again after all these years. Whatever people are doing I hope they’re doing it safely. I just want everybody to be well and safe and that nobody gets mugged or sick and they have a good time.

    INFOS | I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein, published by Penguin Random House Canada.

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