Described as an emancipation play, playwright Roger Q. Mason’s “Lavender Men” was in rehearsals under the direction of Lovell Holder when the pandemic hit. It is the second of three world premiere productions slated for Skylight’s 2020 season, which opened to rave reviews with “West Adams” written by Penelope Lowder. Now on hold, Roger – known for his unique talent to write historical fiction – and Lovell – a seasoned director of stage and film – continue to create and develop projects within their new normal.
In “Lavender Men” Mason entices his audiences to enter the historical fantasia of Taffeta, a self-proclaimed “fabulous queer creation of color,” as she invades the private world of Abraham Lincoln to confront issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion and visibility, areas which still challenge us today. It balances fresh fun while inviting a deeper discussion on parity in America. Both Mason and Holder took the time to talk about their new normal now that the show was postponed.
AFTER THE INITIAL FEELINGS (FEAR, UNCERTAINTY, ISOLATION), HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THE IMPACT OF THE CANCELLATION?
ROGER MASON: I knew that the cancellation was the right and responsible thing to do. Afterwards, I wasn’t scared about the future. I hold fast to the idea that human beings possess a natural and persistent need to connect; it is in our DNA. And collective experiences, gatherings, and group rituals like theater provide important avenues for such connection. When it is safe and legally permissible for theatre to return, we – the storytellers – will be here. I have faith that those whom we touch through our work will be back to see their hopes, dreams, fears, dreads, and lived experiences reflected back to them from the stage.
LOVELL HOLDER: The most important feeling that resonated throughout our entire team was one of responsibility, protecting the health and safety of everyone. Moreover, I think we all felt immense gratitude that Skylight Theater Company was so committed to the continued development of the play. They have assured us that we will resume rehearsals exactly where we left off in our process, and that is a gift that very few projects have at the moment. Our hearts go out to all the many productions and artists whose circumstances have not been as fortunate in this tumultuous time.
ARE YOU BOTH STILL WORKING ON THE PLAY DURING THIS SHUTDOWN? IF NOT, WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
RM: We have been enjoying ourselves in the Zoom-Zoom Room. For the past few weeks, we continued to revise, tweak, and – finally – lock (for now) the script until we can return to rehearsals in person. I am fortunate to have shared many inspiring, productive hours with Lovell; and we’re both looking forward to resuming rehearsals with my cast mates Greg Nussen and Nich Witham. I’m so incredibly proud of the blueprint we’ve built together on the page, and I cannot wait for the day when we’ll be able to share it with our Angeleno theatre family.
LH: Roger and I have been meeting virtually with some team members, and it has been an unexpected gift to deepen relationships and understanding of the text. Moving forward, we plan to meet once a week for “office hours,” where we will have some time set aside for whatever, things like looking at a particular scene or even discussing a book or podcast that is related to our historical subject matter.
WHAT’S YOUR NEW NORMAL IN A DAILY ROUTINE?
RM: Let me tell you about this #saferathome life! I wake up every morning and go on a 3-5 mile walk (10,000 steps, baby) in my neighborhood. Then, I dedicate about 5-6 hours to writing – either actual script development on some projects or “the business” (vying for opportunities to support work I’m building). In the evenings, I either do a yoga practice or Crossfit class virtually. I usually try and call one or two new folks per day just the see how they are doing. I watch an episode of “Golden Girls” (Oh, and of course, some cooking). I recently learned about the joy of butter-braised savoy cabbage, and last week I made some gone-in-a-day-or-two gumbo.
LH: For me, I’ve been trying to carve out as much structure as possible. I think so much of the first week in quarantine was a bit of a freefall, working to respond to the situation at hand (both professionally and personally) as quickly as possible for every project I’m currently attached to. In the weeks since, I’ve tried to steer my personal time (phone calls, cleaning, cooking) to specific hours so that I can focus other hours on writing projects and other logistical commitments.
WHERE DO YOU TAKE SOLACE, PERSONALLY, DURING THOSE MOMENTS WHEN YOUR THOUGHTS GO TO THE DARK SIDE?
RM: I take solace in the work I’m building, the people whose lived experience it reflects, and the community of collaborators that continue to connect and innovate with me. They keep me going through moments of darkness or doubt.
LH: I’ve been joking with people that I’m an only child who lives alone, works freelance, and has never had a healthy romantic relationship – hence, I’ve really been in a dress rehearsal for this all my life. Really, there are so many more people whose lives have been much more meaningfully and devastatingly disrupted than mine, and I can’t express how thankful I am that my family and friends continue to be healthy. I’m in awe of our medical personnel and essential employees who are keeping the skeleton of our society assembled. I’m finding solace in structure, and I also have to give credit to Roger for being a dream collaborator and close friend at this bizarre time. I wouldn’t want to confront the challenges that our production has faced during this crisis with anyone else.
ARE YOU STAYING SOCIAL WITH YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY?
RM: Yes, very, very social. My family is always near me, and there’s never a dull moment with the Masons. I’m loving the Zoom, copper-wire landline, and cell phone calls I’m having with folks, some of whom I speak to all the time and others whom I haven’t conversed with in a long time. This is a time of connection, reconnection, and infinite kindness towards our global villages.
LH: I’ve been very blessed all my life in that I have wonderful parents and a tremendous group of friends. As such, I’m doing my best to stay as present as possible for them even though I’m not able to see anyone in person at the moment. It’s truly the best thing we can all do for each other at the moment.
TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT ANY AWARDS OR PRESS ACCOLADES THAT YOU’VE RECEIVED. DO YOU THINK THAT THEY HELP TO GET YOU MORE WORK?
RM: This year I was the recipient of the Chuck Rowland Pioneer Award, given to a playwright for achievement in queer theatre writing. The award previously honored Billy Porter, Robert Patrick, Tom Jacobson, and others. It’s a true honor to stand in line as an LGBTQ+ dramatist with legends like those. My hope is that this award will introduce my work and my mission as a playwright to more theatre decision-makers, both in LA and nationally. I’m interested in building theatrical work that makes cultural space for previously marginalized peoples – queer folks, people of color, immigrants.
LH: I’ve been honored that the feature films I’ve worked on as a director and producer have been recognized with a variety of film festival prizes; and I’m very pleased that my most recent feature, Robert Jury’s “Working Man,” will be released on VOD on May 5. It’s currently available for pre-order on all major platforms. Starring Peter Gerety (“The Wire”), Billy Brown (“How To Get Away With Murder”) and two-time Oscar nominee Talia Shire (“Rocky”), the film explores unemployment in the Midwest. I think it has a beautiful and optimistic message that audiences really need right now. Yes, accolades have definitely helped the film find increased press coverage, which hopefully then leads to more audience engagement – and then eventually to further projects.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR NEXT DREAM PROJECT?
RM: What’s always excited me most about playwright/director María Irene Fornés is that she built work from a holistic place. For her, creating a play on the page and manifesting it in three dimensions through production were part of one integrated, interdisciplinary artistic expression. My dream project would be to develop a piece on the page and then direct its first production as an exercise in this aesthetic holism. I’d choose my play “Burns in their Veins, A Pio Pico Play,” which explores the Faustian undoing of Mexican governor and real estate mogul Pio Pico. He tried to belie the limitations of his Afro-Mexican race and disability (a disfiguring tumor) to curry favor within white American capitalist circles. The piece fuses epic theatre with movement performance and ritual work to tell a story of American ambition’s dark consequences.
LH: For the moment, I think that resuming our rehearsals for “Lavender Men” is the current dream. But, I’m also very eager to complete a novel that I’ve been working on over the last year, in addition to several feature film projects which are currently in development.
DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS TO OTHERS ON HOW TO THRIVE IN QUARANTINE?
RM: We first need to be supremely in tune with our bodies and what they need. This is a time of self-care, self-patience, and self-forgiveness. We need to be wildly and genuinely concerned for others. We must check on folks and see how they are doing. We are all alone together. Knowing we have the support of others is how we will survive this moment in one piece.
LH: A great piece of advice I received is to find time each day to do three things: something for one’s personal environment (the laundry, cleaning the apartment); something for one’s career (sending an important email, meeting a professional deadline for one’s self); something for one’s happiness (watching a movie, going on a run). This can help provide some achievable measures of success that help give each day some purpose.