Without question the wittiest, best-dressed bunch of bitches currently playing New York is the cast of The House of Von Macramé, a “pop horror fashion show” currently strutting its stuff at the Bushwick Starr. The musical is a grunge-glitzy slasher with generous doses of kitschy sass and bite, and springs from the talent of playwright Joshua Conkel, composer Matt Marks, and director Nick Leavens. Conkel, known for the plays MilkMilkLemonade and The Chalk Boy, recently answered some questions via email about the show, the state of theater, and where to find one especially potent piece of costuming—the vagina jegging.
Where did the idea for Von Macramé come from?
I’ve wanted to write something with built-in runway shows since college. I love fashion, and costumes are always one of the things little theaters have to skimp on. I wanted to write a show that celebrated costumes, that paraded them.
When I got invited to make work for The Bushwick Starr about a year and a half ago, I knew I could do whatever I wanted. Nobody could say no. The most painful thing for me as a playwright is people saying “no.” (When you’re relying on theaters to produce your work, but your work is naturally sort of crazy and queer, it can be really frustrating.) Whether explicit or not, a pressure has started to build to begin writing smaller, more naturalistic plays.
The House of Von Macrame is very, very me. I got to toy with clothes, blood, new wave music, camp… all the weird things that I’m passionate about. For better or worse, it’s probably the most pure expression of my obsessions and interests as I’ll ever write, and that’s because nobody could say no to me.
The show began in a serialized format at the Flea Theatre. How did those beginnings shape its development?
Most of the characters and a lot of the jokes come directly from The Flea serial. It pained me to have to cut some favorite characters, like a model named Corvette Summers who was actually a killer android, or kooky plot lines, like Topaz’s secret anal pregnancy.
The structure of a successful serial and a successful two act play are very different, but the new musical does contain a lot of those fun, soap opera-ish elements. In the end I probably kept too much of the serial, and now begins the long slog of perfecting the show.
You’re better know for your straight plays. What were the major challenges in making a musical?
Well, I don’t know about “straight.” Most of my work is pretty over-the-top and kitschy. MilkMilkLemonade, for example, is about five seconds from being a musical. It even has built-in dance breaks.
Our composer, Matt Marks, and I have so much in common. We both love disco, girl groups, new wave and horror films. We both have an interest in work being less pretentious and “dumber” if that makes sense. Working together was so natural and right.
The challenges on working on a musical, for me, are logistical. It costs a lot more, takes more time and there’s a greater chance that things can go wrong just because you’re spinning so many plates. This shit is hard. Just sitting with Matt Marks and director Nick Leavens and dreaming up songs or tasteless jokes? That part is easy and fun.
What’s it like being the producer AND the playwright? [Conkel is co-artistic director of The Management, which is producing Von Macramé.]
My greatest successes have been plays I produced myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy I’m a widely produced playwright. I’m so, so lucky to get produced as often as I do and in so many cool places around the globe. But the old adage comes to mind: if you want something done right, do it yourself.
I think it’s really useful to produce your own work, particularly in first productions. It gives a chance to work on things. Then you can perfect it by trial and error and send it out to other people. This was my model for MilkMilkLemonade and it worked really well.
Now we’re working on The House of Von Macramé. After this production closes we’ll make some tweaks and cuts and hopefully be able to send it on to somebody else to produce. We already have interests in out-of-town producers, so it’s looking hopeful.
Of course another part of this equation is the audience. I’ve built a perfect support for my work over the years and have a strong following that is young, queer, adventurous etc. If any of my wilder plays, like The House of Von Macramé, premiere before a general audience, they tend not to do as well. In short, these are cult plays and written for the cult. The cult nurtures and supports the work and sometimes it can move onto a general audience and sometimes it can’t. But this is the only way I’ve found to do adventurous work.
I love how some of your plays have this fascination with pop culture. What is it about that world that interests you?
Really, all of my plays are rooted in pop culture because I live here and now. The simplest reason is that I love it. I love B movies, comic books, pop music, fashion, television… I tend not to separate high and low brow culture and none of my pleasures are guilty.
In a larger context, I’m kind of floored by the theater’s unwillingness to move forward, by its obsession with the past. This is just my opinion, but our devotion to Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen is killing us. Even most new plays I see feel dusty as shit to me and now it’s getting worse because everybody is falling in love with naturalism again and every new play is about rich honkies on vacation. Blergh.
I know it’s just my personal taste, I know, but there it is.
Where do you think “VM” lives in relation to other pop-horror musicals like, say, Carrie or Little Shop?
I actually don’t know Carrie at all, but I was obsessed with Little Shop as a kid. I still know every lyric and line of that show and—I’m not afraid to say it—I think it’s as moving as it is funny.
“(Downtown) Skid Row” is the best chorus number ever, as far as I’m concerned. I think of it all the time when I walk along Broadway in South Williamsburg, with its above ground J Train, and I’m feeling particularly down and out.
In terms of other musicals, I think we owe a debt to Richard O’ Brien, who created Rocky Horror. Having said that, the musicals that Matt and Nick and I discussed the most are relatively obscure. They were Phantom of the Paradise, a 1970’s take on Phantom of the Opera, and O’Brien’s follow-up to Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment, a criminally maligned and overlooked new wave musical. God, Shock Treatment is good. I wish more people appreciated it.
What’s your favorite model/housewives TV show?
I love them all. I watch basically anything Bravo puts out, but I have a special place in my black little heart for Kim from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She’s such a tragic figure, and any shot of her riding in a limo alone after being ditched for the thousandth time is like food for me.
Did you make macramé as a child? (Because I definitely did.)
Actually, I didn’t. I didn’t do anything, really, except watch television. A childhood well spent!
And, most importantly, where can I buy a pair of vagina jeggings?
Maybe the costume designer Tristan Raines would make you a pair. You may have found a really lucrative business venture for him.
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
– The Carrie Counter
– Let’s Chat! with Adrienne Campbell-Holt
The House of Von Macramé runs through Februay 16th; find ticket info HERE.