Over the past few years Dan Fishback has made a name for himself as one of the most talented young writers and performance artists in New York. When reviewing Fishback’s 2009 play You Will Experience Silence, the Village Voice wrote that he displayed a “[Tony] Kushnerian sense for the complexities of historical memory,” even though Fishback’s piece was “sassier and more fun” than Angels in America. But at the same time that Fishback was experiencing success, an illness was in the process of changing his life drastically. Now Fishback is hard at work on a new show, titled thirtynothing, which will premiere at the end of September and run through October 22nd at Dixon Place. thirtynothing tells the story of Fishback’s quest to learn about unknown queer artists who who were lost to the AIDS epidemic – and how doing so changed his life for the better. Fishback has launched a fundraising campaign on Indie Gogo – which ends tomorrow, and is throwing a benefit tonight at Dixon Place featuring performances by future downtown legends like Molly Pope, Kim Smith, Max Steele, Max Vernon and The Lisps. I called Fishback at home on Sunday night to talk about his show, his health, and what it feels like to turn share a birth year with the most devastating plague in history.
Adam Baran: Why did you decide to call your show thirtynothing?
Dan Fishback: I turn 30 as soon as this production is over. I’ve been looking forward to it for the past five years. When I was 25, I was in this arts fellowship and was the only person in their twenties. Most of the others were in their mid-thirties. So when I would complain about boys or whatever my problem was they would all just yell at me, “Dan, these problems aren’t real problems and as soon as you hit 30, you will see that everything that’s bothering you right now is really stupid and changeable and everything’s just fine. You’ll gain this cosmic wisdom and everything will just be easier.” I believed them so intensely that for the last five years, I’ve just been, like, killing time.
As someone in his 30s, now for about six months, I don’t know if I’ve gotten this newfound wisdom. Problems are problems are problems. Of course, they’re not going to go away when you turn 30. But I’m with you. Just waiting.
Yeah, waiting for the cosmic wisdom of age to descend upon you.
What about your Saturn’s return? That was another thing I didn’t experience.
Really? My Saturn return was fucking intense. It’s still going on.
Tell me about it.
When my Saturn return began, I had a really brief and latent adolescence. I sort of went buck wild in this way that I never did in my early 20s. I was drinking way more than I had before, doing way more drugs, smooching way more boys. Then I became sick—chronically ill in this way that completely changed my life at the same time that I was having a lot of professional success.
Can I ask you what happened?
I have chronic fatigue syndrome, which I mostly control now through an intense lifestyle change. But near the beginning of my Saturn return, I thought I was going to have to completely end my life as I knew it and I was not going to be able to perform anymore and that I wasn’t going to be able to live in New York. I thought I was going to have to move in with my parents and be an invalid for the rest of my life. But that has not happened.
We’re very similar. I also had, like, a chronic illness sort of crop up when I was 28 or so. Crohn’s Disease.
Oh, that sucks. I’m so sorry to hear that.
And I’m sure people don’t believe you when you tell them…
Oh, it’s the worst! People roll their eyes. When you have diseases like this, like chronic fatigue or Crohn’s, you say that you have it and people just think you’re being weird or think you’re being a hippie or think you’re being…
They think it’s all in your head basically.
Right. You don’t know how many people told me I just needed to see a therapist.
So your chronic fatigue, how did that manifest itself?
Well, I was just about to begin rehearsals for a show I did in 2009 called You Will Experience Silence. I got really sick with pneumonia and then all of my symptoms went away, but the fatigue persisted. I somehow pushed through the rehearsal process and got through the entire production just on adrenaline, even though my body was completely falling apart and I was having fevers all the time. I was shaking in cold sweats before and after performances. Yet it was a successful show. The reviews were great and the public appearance of me was that I was having this great success and everything was cool and it was a turning point in my career. But the truth was that I was in bed whenever I wasn’t on stage and it took a few months of changing my lifestyle. I completely changed my diet, I stopped drinking, I stopped smoking pot, I started going to sleep early and waking up early. I no longer eat wheat or sugar or caffeine. I started doing a lot of yoga and meditation and exploring herbal remedies. I became a much more steady, domestic person—very different from the sort of crazy, wild, stay-out-late-drinking-all-night kind of person that I had been beforehand.
For someone in the downtown queer art world, that must have been a drastic change.
Prior to it, my relationship to the queer community had everything to do with nightlife and performance, the kind of performers and artists who would perform at one A.M. Suddenly I could not participate in that anymore. It’s only in the past year that I’ve started to plant deeper roots in the queer daytime community. It’s been tremendously rewarding and that’s one of the reasons why I began working on Thirtynothing. I was trying to get in touch with some element of my queerness that existed apart from partying at night, something that I could relate to without ruining my body, that could take place through researching the history of my people and relating to people who came before me.
You said in your fundraising video for Indie GoGo, that you’re finding a connection in the show to your queer forefathers, people who came before you, who died of AIDS, who aren’t around to teach you things. And you’re going through something massively life-adjusting that has changed your view on what life can be like. Is your illness going to play a big part in the show?
Even though my illness wasn’t life-threatening, all of these stories about gay and young gay male artists who were suddenly very ill, obviously really resonated with me, especially artists who documented their own decline. I was really, really drawn to that. But my director and I ultimately decided that if I were going to start talking about chronic fatigue syndrome, it would be too specific and it would make the show too personal in this way that would be really distracting. But the personal subtext for me in the whole show that’s never mentioned is that I spent months out of the past two years lying in bed, unable to do things for myself, having to rely on my friends, trying to come to terms with how my queer identity was so wrapped up in going out and being with people. When you’re chronically ill, you can’t do that anymore. But that’s one of many things that started the journey. It didn’t define the journey.
You hear stories of people who survived the ‘80s where someone says, “Well, I just stopped having anal sex. And I was so terrified of getting it that I just stopped and so I’m lucky because I didn’t get it.” Or, “Well, I had a boyfriend and I was married basically.” Or another disease, like this, that didn’t let them be in the nightlife world. So many of the people who are around are the people who were for one reason or another lucky enough to avoid it in some way. They had some out.
It’s so weird and terrifying how people from our generation don’t understand that if you are a certain age and you’re a gay man and you’re alive, it’s almost like you needed a reason. I’m really hopeful that we’re at a historical moment where a lot of that ignorance is being corrected. It was so moving for me to be in the audience at The Normal Heart and know everything that was happening on stage and to be familiar with it all. But to hear around me the reactions of the people who had no knowledge of that…The weird thing is we all grew up knowing that AIDS existed and knowing that it had to do with gay people. But you actually have to hunt down information to understand the scope of the disaster and that should just be something that we know. My outrage about my own ignorance has been a real drive for this piece. Every time I encounter an artist who really moves, who I didn’t know about, I just get so angry that I didn’t know about them. I just think about how lost I felt for so long and how empty my life felt for such a long time. It really sucked to be a gay teenager in the late ‘90s and to be in your early 20s in the early aughts. Everything in the world was telling you gay culture existed and that it was this commercial, stupid, vacuous, dance club, waxed, muscled body, shopping kind of thing. In retrospect, I see that my people were in shellshock. That my people had not had the opportunity to emotionally or spiritually or culturally recover from this fifteen year disaster, which has only just begun to sort of reprieve. It’s very helpful for me to understand that there was a historical context for the vacuous culture that I found when I came out.
I couldn’t agree more.
I had this experience of coming out and looking at gay culture and thinking, “Oh, my god. Gay people are so stupid.” I kept thinking, “How is possible that gay men—the thing that makes me interesting and smart—how is it that this is the very thing that makes all these people stupid?”
So that vacuousness is really just people pretending?
There’s a lot of pretending that goes on in mainstream gay culture though I think we’re seeing less and less of that. Like when I look at younger queer people now who are looking for radical queer culture at 15 years old, they have so much. I’m so jealous because all I had was Rent to tell me what interesting, artistic gay people were like and that was a lie. I used my experience of Rent for the high school student as a sort of demonstrative moment in the show because it’s this quintessential example of gay culture being marketed toward gay people to sort of teach gay people who they are, but to be lying about it. Which I think is the experience of our generation and I think the experience of the past decade for me has been about watching me and my peers sort of start to explode that, to make more ubiquitous our own version of queer liberation, which is more revering for the past and less commercial and less…
Stupid. Less fucking stupid. And it’s a real relief. It’s a real relief to know a young queer-minded gay boy today has more than like XY Magazine to choose from because that was the fucking travesty.
So just tell me about the mechanics of the show. The show is a performance piece. The show is a monologue. The show is…
Yeah, it’s a monologue-based performance piece. But it’s multi-media. In a way, it shows my journey in exploring my cultural path as a gay person and starting out knowing very, very little about the AIDS process and about gay artists who died of AIDS and becoming more and more immersed in the stories of artists who came before me and falling in love with them and through their work discovering more things about my life and understand my life through their lives. Through my experience, the audience learns a lot about artists like Mark Morrisroe and David B. Feinberg, Patrick Angus, Sam D’Allesandro. There are few more legendary people in the show. There’s a bit about David Wojnarowicz and Essex Hemphill. But I tried to focus mostly on artists that most people wouldn’t have known about. People have come up to me after workshop performances begging for a syllabus and saying “I never even realized that I had a culture history and now I’m seeing that I do.” And older people come up to me and say, “I had no idea that people of your generation cared about any of this.” It blows my mind.
When I was 20—and maybe you experienced this—there was a very strong thing where you didn’t want to go near an older gay person as a younger gay person because they just wanted to have sex with you. But in seven years, the culture has shifted so greatly that now every young guy you get with wants like a daddy and they don’t wanna avoid older people anymore. Porn or whatever—has made a total fantasy of it.
Totally. It was a fear of older men. What we didn’t know growing up and coming of age is that the porn and the ideals that we were being barraged with were the porn and the ideals of an adult gay community that was scared of AIDS and scared of older people and were fetishizing younger people because younger people were seen as being pure and seen as being free of disease. Which is so weird and twisted that we were implicated in that. And it’s taken, like you said, this time for our sexual matrix to be reorganized so that twinks aren’t so intensely fetishized. The late ‘90s was such a shiny, hairless, twinky scene kind of time. And as like a hairy, gawky Jew who never looked like that, I felt very outside of that economy. This is actually a very Jewish project for me. As a Jewish person, I feel responsibility to commemorate or memorialize the lives of my fallen ancestors. It’s a very pivotal part of my identity and the lack of memorialization of AIDS feels criminal to me. As a Jew, it just feels wrong. I’m so used to mourning all of my ancestors as a Jew. I’ve no collective means to mourn my ancestors as a gay person. That just seems silly and I wanted to remedy that.
So who are your current inspirations?
Well, first and foremost, do you know Dave End? He used to live in New York, now he lives in San Francisco. Really unbelievable songwriter and drag performer. Obviously Justin Bond has created a new paradigm for queer artistic success that I think is really starting to ripple out and affect the work of other people. I get really giddy whenever I see Joseph Keckler, Max Steele, Glenn Marla or Erin Markey. My New York artistic community is still gives me goose bumps every time. I think we’re all good. It’s exciting. I think we’re at a nice moment. But I want our moment to be even more infused and informed by the works of people who came before that people don’t know so much about. I feel like I’ve only just begun to skim the surface of talent in gay men who died of AIDS. One of the tragedies of AIDS is that, as far as the arts go, so many people died who never even got a chance to get good.
They could’ve honed their craft to a point where they would’ve been working at their full potential.
Look at the backyard of Metropolitan on a Sunday and think, “What if all these people died out of nowhere?” Some of these people are geniuses, some of them are just really cool. Penny Arcade will mention every once in a while, “It’s not just the artists who disappeared, it was the audiences.” There was a cultured audience that just was eradicated and it changed the way people looked at art because there was no longer this booming desirous audience of people who were hungry for challenging work. It comes back to the Jewish thing for me because as a Jew, you’re constantly instructed to imagine that you were the one that experienced tragedy, that you were the one who was a slave in Egypt, that you were the one being sent to the concentration camp. You’re always being asked to empathize with people who are suffering and dying.
Well, you’re taught that suffering is part of your experience as a Jew and that you should somehow be emboldened by all this suffering because that means that you are stronger if you get through it. It’s a test by God.
Yeah. There’s something to be said for that.
I hate that.
Taken to an extreme, it’s fucked up and can really fuck you up and be emotionally crippling, but there’s something about compulsory empathy, there’s something about being ordered to imagine what it would be like to experience extreme suffering that at it’s best can create a culture of solidarity and so my experience with projects is constantly imagining, “What would I do if I was in a situation? What would it be like if all of my friends were dying? What would it be like if I no idea whether or not I was gonna die? What would it be like if I had to take care of someone who was not gonna be there tomorrow? What would it be like to live my life afterward?” So a lot of the dramatic force of the show has to do with what happens when you start asking yourself those questions, what happens to you emotionally when you start forcing yourself to consider these things. And that can get pretty ugly. But I think they’re important questions to ask and they become very formative questions for me. And the exciting thing about staging those kinds of questions in a dramatic format is that it encourages the audience to ask the questions along with me. And if I do my job right, then everyone in the room is all at the same time interrogating themselves.
When we’ve been interviewing people for Art & Autobiography, we’ve been asking them to respond to this quote from Quentin Crisp. “An autobiography is an obituary…”
…”With the last sentence missing.” Oh, man. What a fascinating provocation. [Laughs] I’ve always enjoyed that quote. I like the idea of thinking of my life as this story that I’m holding, that I’m crafting, that I’m writing. So in a way, that quotation is a provocation to live in general, a provocation toward a certain kind of mindful living, which he seemed to be in favor of. It’s funny that you end with Quentin Crisp because the original, original moment of conception of the show was watching that film Resident Alien, the film about Crisp where he takes the painter Patrick Angus to a gallery to have his painting seen by the gallery owner. It’s a really minor scene, it’s not that long, but the paintings are so incredible. I was watching it, oddly enough with Dave End, who lives in San Francisco. We were watching it together and we saw the paintings and we were just like, “Oh, my god! This guy is so good! How come we’ve never heard of him?” And his paintings are all sort of awkward scenes of gay sexuality, gay men in sexual situations, but they all seem very awkward and lonely. We had never seen gay art that was like that, except for each other’s art. I immediately emailed Penny Arcade and was just like, “Who is this person? How come I’ve never heard of him?” And she just wrote back, “Yes. It’s crazy. I live with this loss everyday and it motivates most of the conversations I have with well-meaning, unfortunately stupid people.” I was just like, “Oh, wow,” and that’s stuck with me: “I live with this loss everyday.”
The benefit for Thirtynothing takes place Tuesday night at 8PM at Dixon Place, (161 Chrystie St.) There is a $20 dollar suggested donation. Fishback’s Indie GoGo fundraising campaign ends Wednesday.