Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"BORDERS IN A BEDROOM": Ethnicity, Religion, Politics, Philosophy... and Love!

Meet the two characters in Shivali Bhammer's new play Borders In A Bedroom.  Maya is a smart, free-spirited artist in her late 20's.  Imran is an equally intelligent, pragmatic architect in his early 30's.  Maya is Hindu.  Imran is Muslim.   These two are clearly in love, with their cozy synchronicity often erupting into heated passion.  Inside their New York apartment, everything should be tranquil for this easy-on-the-eyes couple as they prepare for Maya's upcoming birthday party.  However, stories about terrorist attacks and political angst-- courtesy of the news-- frequently interrupt Maya and Imran's domestic life to remind the pair (as well as the reader of the play) that there's a restless world beyond the bedroom of the play's title.

In the setting of an intimate evening with Maya and Imran, Borders In a Bedroom explores such topics as ethnic and religious disparities, philosophical differences, and the challenge of identity when you are a "product" of two cultures. (In the case of these characters, British Indian and Pakistani-American...)  Needless to say, these issues would be difficult for any couple to face, particularly two young people wanting to take their relationship to the "next level" (i.e: marriage and children).  Bhammer, however, is not afraid to approach the subject matters with candor and intensity... and, as a result,  her characters never tiptoe around the provocative subjects. Bhammer tells me: "The script is brutal in some parts, there are things said in there that you would just never dare to say in real life.  I think I would be too ashamed to even think some of the things Maya and Imran say to one another. But I think that is the point of theatre: You bring to light some of the many thoughts that could run in our minds, and give them a safe platform to be expressed-- and you then challenge their validity."

Serious themes aside, however, Borders In a Bedroom is far from an exercise in theatrical "heaviness".  The play is imbued with a great deal of humor and warmth.

Borders In A Bedroom will be enjoying its New York City premiere as part of the annual festival Tamasha, which celebrates South Asian performing arts.  Bhammer will be playing Maya.  Like her character, the playwright and actress was also raised in England.  In addition to her latest project Borders, Bhammer has found a wide variety of successes in investment banking, journalism, music, and other areas of performance on a worldwide level.  Imran will be played by New York City actor/producer/lawyer Shezi "Shez" Sardar.  The play will be directed by Celine Rosenthal.  Shivali Bhammer took the time to speak with me about Borders in A Bedroom:

JR: Hi Shivali.  Thank you for speaking with me!  So,  is this your first play?  What was the journey like, from the first idea to the actual completed project?
SB:  Actually, this is the second play I have written but the first one to be staged. When I originally wrote my first play A Soldiers Wife, it had so many characters and was a full length drama and dance.  After one reading, I realized it would need copious amounts of experience that I just did not have at the time.  I then set myself the task of writing something far more intimate: a tale of just two characters in a one-act play. The idea first came to me when I was looking to produce and act in a play at a festival and needed material. My co-producer and co-star Shez Sardar and myself went to the Drama Bookshop to find a play that would suit us. However, for people of South Asian backgrounds, it is a real struggle to see yourself as a "Polly" or a "Tom".  A casting director would never cast us because we wouldn't fit the profile.   I looked at the "World Section", and it consisted of maybe ten plays or less. That is when I thought to myself: If you want something to exist and you can't see it, then manifest it: Create it yourself. That's when I committed to write this play: A play that other South Asian actors can act in.  Something that involves us in the Western circuit, and not just as these stereotypes of "slumdog", "arranged marriages", "Bollywood" and "terrorists". But also, something that shows us as this hybrid of the East and West, which is what many of us are. 

JR: I get it!  So, was Borders in a Bedroom inspired by a true story?  Were Maya and Imran inspired by real people?
SB: It is hard to write a play when you know who you are writing it for, i.e. myself and Shez, because I needed to divorce our personalities and lives from it to give space for an authentic Maya and Imran to exist. I have some of Maya's traits in that she loves current affairs, philosophy and knowledge.  She  is also an artist and a free spirit like myself. However, she is also the opposite of me in many ways.  She is unromantic and can be quite cold in her perspectives of the world.  I would not say she is a traditional "British Hindu" girl.  She is eccentric and far more outlandish than myself.  Imran is probably a rare breed of New York man in that he is serious about relationships, love, and  having a family.  You definitely won't find him swiping right on Tinder.  He is probably a lot of women's dream man, apart from that he has not picked a typical woman who would notice that. I have tried to turn stereotypes upside down to show another "reality", but also to really highlight how social conditioning can lead to deep racial and religious prejudices. I have been asked a few times now, "Did you have a relationship with a Muslim?  Is this based on you?". The honest truth is I haven't. Growing up in England, I never experienced racism the way I know Shez had growing up in America.  But  we were firmly taught never to bring a "BMW" home.  That stood for "Blacks, Muslims or Whites". You were scared to date outside a Hindu, and even if you weren't scared you just ended up sticking to your own because it was easier. However, writing Borders in a Bedroom has made me a lot more open-minded in general which has been a great learning experience.

JR: Wow!  That's fascinating to hear.  From my experiences, the stories of  South Asian women are vastly under-seen on the New York City stage.  Was this part of your motivation to tell this story?
SB:  It has always bugged me that on television or in movies you see many ethnicities, but you rarely see South Asians. Is this because we all became doctors and bankers? Or we are just type cast as "comedians"? I don't think our stories are told that much, and if they are, it is always based on just common stereotypes. Oh, you're the yoga women, you are the bindi-wearers, you are the people who dance like screwing a light bulb... It is boring. I want to give more, push all the boundaries, and really get people understanding who we are, where we came from, and what we stand for.  Storytelling is a powerful way to eliminate ignorance... and in a political climate such as the one we are currently experiencing, sharing history and creating synergy and unity between people is very important.

JR: Yep!  Now, as we spoke about before, a lot of what we know about other ethnicities, cultures, or religions is often based upon what we were taught back in school, as children-- if anything was taught at all.  Those impressions are often firmly ingrained.  Our views are also shaped by what we see in the media, especially the news.  The same way we don't see many South Asian women in the media, we don't see too many positive images of Muslims-- especially positive images of Muslim men, given our recent political climate.  Do you feel that Muslim men are portrayed fairly in the media? And, do you hope to challenge stereotypes with Borders?
SB: The media presents things very differently in the UK to the way it is here in the U.S. I find it rather sensationalized here, and to be honest I can't really tell what is real and what isn't.  Maybe that is my fault as a dumb foreigner, or maybe it is because the media is generally misguiding. I personally have never felt Muslim men are portrayed badly in the media; however, people might not be smart enough to differentiate between a Muslim man and an Islamic terrorist.  That is the danger. Now does the fault lie with the media or with the recipient of the news? I would hope our views are not formed in this way.  However, if if they are then I definitely have challenged them in the play.

JR: Thank you for that.  What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced as both the actor and writer of the play?
SB: I've managed to let go of control over the script.  I'm surprisingly very open to edits and cuts-- which is hard for a writer-- but I have an exceptional director, and so really it is a trust game. The challenge I faced was actually acting some of the more provocative and sensual scenes. Ironically, some of the Indian stereotypes and cultural differences really came to life when I felt I couldn't be that close to my co-star. From my director and assistant director's  (both non-South Asian) perspectives, they found it hilarious that I treated my boyfriend in the play like a brother.  My shyness was insurmountable.  Everything was inappropriate to me. Thoughts kept running through my head: "What would my cousins say when they come to watch this?"  "If I have a boyfriend and he is watching this, is he going to doubt my integrity towards him because I can do this on stage?" I had my mother calling me up worried about the poster of the play and the effect it has on my eligibility as a potential bride to someone one day. And the truth is, I had all these fears and then I thought to myself: Is this not what I am fighting against?   I expect others to not be judgemental, but when will I be strong enough not to judge myself? I am not over it yet, but hopefully by opening night I will truly be acting rather than thinking.

JR: Wow!  Thank you for sharing.  How has the support been for this project? Was your fellow theater community supportive?
SB: My friends and family have been really supportive. The Tamasha festival we are part of is supportive, and I am hoping the wider theatre community will follow... but being a new timer is really hard. You are like an ant shouting at the giraffes, and none of them look down to hear you. I am tired of the divide-- South Asians performing for just South Asians.  We are all a melting pot of creative consciousness.  I want my audience to be a true reflection of this country, which is a rainbow of diversity in its richest form.

JR: How true.  Thank you for speaking with me.  I look forward to seeing the show!

Borders in a Bedroom plays on Thursday, September 29 at 8PM and Saturday, October 1 at 2PM at Paradise Factory Theatre, 64 East 4th Street.  For more information, visit  The play is part of Tamasha, an annual celebration of the diverse perspectives, ideas, and imaginations of artists from the South Asian subcontinent and/or who belong to the South Asian diaspora.  The festival runs from September 26th to October 2nd.  For more information, visit

Sunday, September 18, 2016

TAKING THE GOOD, TAKING THE BAD: Charlotte Rae Shares The Facts of Her Life

Charlotte Rae Shares The Facts of Her Life

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who grew up in the 1980's who can't sing the famous theme song to "The Facts of Life".  Of course, it wasn't just the show's catchy opening tune that won the affections of the American public for over ten years.  Television audiences fell in love with the sitcom's four girls: Blair, Jo, Natalie, and Tootie.  At the heart of the show was Charlotte Rae's iconic Edna Garrett, who ruled over the all-girls Eastland School (and beyond...) with a mix of common-sense advice and quick wit.  "The Facts of Life" was not a hit when it initially debuted in 1979, but the Season Two premiere of the retooled series saw an immediate boom in ratings.  By its third season, "The Facts of Life" had become the number one comedy and the number two overall program for NBC.  For the first time, it even beat out its predecessor "Diff'rent Strokes", the show that first introduced us to Mrs. Garrett.  "Facts" went on to become one of the longest-running sitcoms of the 1980's, and Rae received the Primetime Emmy Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy in 1982. 

Charlotte Rae's beloved Mrs. Garrett won the hardworking actress a new level of professional success as well as worldwide recognition.  Although she was now seen in living rooms across America every week, Rae was no stranger to show business.  Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky in Milwaukee, the inimitable actress got her start in theater, where she received Tony nominations for "Pickwick" in 1965 and "Morning, Noon, and Night" in 1969.  And, before she ever donned Edna Garrett's apron, Rae had already been seen in over 28 TV shows and commercials.  With a career spanning six decades, the actress has just released her autobiography, named "The Facts of My Life".  In the book, Rae recounts many colorful stories about her career as a performer, from her beginnings as a fresh face in 1950's New York City.  Her life, however, wasn't just a constant stream of spotlights and applause.  Alongside the glory, the star faced many personal and professional hurdles-- and in her new book, she candidly shares them with the reader.  Those struggles included alcohol dependence, the shock of her husband coming out of the closet, serious health issues, and the challenge of raising an autistic child.  In the end, Rae emerges as a true survivor.

Today, the actress is busier than ever.  The self-described "lucky lady" is currently recording the audiobook for "The Facts of My Life".  She will also be returning to her beloved Big Apple on October 24 to participate in a one-night-only reading of George Bernard Shaw's "On The Rocks" at New York City's Symphony Space, as part of The Gingold Theatrical Group's monthly "Project Shaw".  Now living in California, Charlotte Rae took the time to speak with me about her new book, as well as her life at 90 years young:

JR: Thank you for speaking with me.  Congratulations on the new book!
CR: Thank YOU!  I hope you enjoyed the read.
JR: Very much so!  How has the response to "The Facts of My Life" been so far? 
CR: Everyone feels that I'm actually talking to them; that it's very intimate and very honest.  People tell me that they read it straight through, and that they have really gotten involved with it.  I've gotten lots of letters and lots of e-mails. People seem to have enjoyed it very much... and I hope you did too!
JR: Oh, yes!  As a child of the '80's, I grew up with "The Facts of Life".  I watched it religiously when it was on-- as did a lot of other people, obviously!  The show and all the characters really made their mark on American pop culture.  But in the book, we learn that it was actually a long, hard road to your success on TV.  There were the endless auditions, and the previous TV shows that didn't quite make it, and a lot of small acting jobs along the way.  When "The Facts of Life" became a success, did you finally believe, "Wow!  This is the reward for all my hard work.  The moment has finally come!"?
CR: Yeah!  I was very grateful.  It was a beautiful experience.  The girls were really quite terrific.  (Laughs) I mean, they were going through puberty!  Today they say, "Oh my God!  What we put you through!" (Laughs)  I felt like "the old horse".  I was very patient.  They were going through what they had to go through, but they were good girls.  And now that they are women, we are still very close-- especially Nancy McKeon, who played Jo; and Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair; and Kim Fields, who played Tootie. It's  "woman to woman" now.  We talk about children, and about life... and it's quite marvelous that we've been bonded all these years. They're grown up, in their 40's and 50's. It's amazing, isn't it?  
JR: Yes it is!  And, "The Facts of Life" is still being shown on cable TV.  People really loved your Mrs. Garrett.  She was a motherly figure and a great role model for the girls, but it was rare that she out-and-out told them what to do; She instead tried to get them to figure out the right thing to do on their own!  She guided them.
CR: Right!  She only talked about and shared her own experiences.  She really didn't want to give advice.  She didn't want to be one of "those" people!  You know what I mean?
JR: Yes!  So, as we were talking about, it was a long road to "The Facts of Life".  Early in the book you wrote about how at one time, in your theater days, you went from being in two shows at the same time to being unemployed. 
CS: You got it!  Being an actor is not like any other job.  It's not easy.  I felt like a hooker! (Both laugh)  You never know when your next job is going to come along.

JR: Does it ever get annoying for you when people see you on the street and yell out, "MRS. GAR-RETT!"? 
CR: I don't mind.  I don't mind at all.  When I used to go to New York, I'd sometimes take the subway.  I don't do it anymore! (Laughs) I just celebrated my 90th birthday, so I'm not like a little gazelle anymore, going up and down those stairs like that!  But I remember coming up the stairs of the subway at 77nd Street, and I bumped into this big, tall, handsome guy.  I looked at him, and then we embraced each other without saying a word.   And then he went down to the subway.  So, I love it all.  I don't mind it.  No, no, no!  If people had a positive experience with Mrs. Garrett, that makes me so happy!

JR: Wow!  That's so good to hear.  So, when a lot of people read a celebrity autobiography, they may expect a lot of, shall we say, "dish" about other celebrities, or an expose of show business.  I didn't really notice that with your book.  On the contrast, you seem to really make a point how wonderful and supportive most people were...
CR: I'm very glad that you noticed that.  I didn't want to do that.  I just wanted to celebrate the people that I love.  As for the people who were difficult, I didn't see any point in trying to put them down.  I say, "God bless them".... and I stay away from them!
JR: (Laughs)
CR: But I really do "let it all hang out".  I really do tell it all, don't I?
JR: Yes!  You are very open about your life, and there was a lot of heartbreak along the way.  You talk about your sons: Larry Strauss, who I see you co-wrote the book with...
CR: Yes!  The book never even would have been written if he hadn't been like, "Mom, you're 87, and I think it's time you wrote your memoirs!"  I said, "I can't do it.  I'm not a writer!"  He answered back, "Well, I AM!"  He's written many beautiful novels and other things.  He said, "You tell me about it, and I'll write it."  I thought to myself, "I'm not just gonna make this a boring 'And then I did this... and then I did this... and then I got this award and then I got that award...'"  Then, I thought that it wouldn't do any harm to tell people that my life, like most lives, has been full of a lot of "stuff".  Some of it has been fabulous and great.  Some of it has been really tough.  So I tell them about my son Andy who was autistic.  There was nothing about autism in those days.  NOTHING!  No one even knew what it was.  When the doctor said that he was autistic, I thought he said, "ARTISTIC".  I was like, "Thank God.  He's just a little offbeat, a little artistic.  It's OK."
JR: You said, "It runs in the family!"
CR: Yeah!  Anyway, that was a long, long thing... I think we did well with him.  My husband John, and my son Larry, and I did everything possible to make his life as good as can be.  God bless him.  He passed at the age of 45.  And then, there was the alcoholism.  I've been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 42 years, and it's really saved me.  I was going through so much anguish.  My drug of choice to go to sleep was alcohol.  I found the program, and it's been simply wonderful.  I'm still hanging in there with it.  I also talk about my husband John.  He found the program too.  I was his little channel-- his angel to find it.  I loved him dearly, and then he finally told me that he was bisexual.  That was a blow.  But we continued to have a beautiful relationship even after the divorce.  I loved him until the day he passed.  He was a good dad and a tremendously creative man. 

JR: You went through a lot of emotionally rough circumstances in life, especially with raising Andy.  The whole time, you were working one job after another to support your family-- not like a celebrity who was working just to buy a third Rolls Royce, for example.  What gave you the strength to get through all those rough times?
CR: I do believe that there is some power higher than me.  I'm not a religious freak, but I do believe that there is a higher power.  Obviously I've pulled through so many things.  I was going to give up acting and just devote myself to Andy-- and then I found this wonderful woman named Elsbeth Pfeiffer who worked at Bank Street School. She had worked with Anna Freud.  She used to come to the Bellevue Deviant Children's Ward.  They called it the "Deviant Children's Ward".  Isn't that awful?  I used to bring him to Bellevue every day to be with Elsbeth.  She was one of God's little angels who supported me.  She said to me, in her German accent, "It's not your fault, Mrs. Strauss!  No, no, no!"  She always made me feel like I was doing all the good things, and she said, "No, you mustn't give up your work!  It is very important that you continue with your work. It will be very helpful for you and your spirit... and for your son."  All along the way, there were people there always being supportive.  God's little angels, I call them.  I still think they are around.  Don't you find that sometimes?
JR: Absolutely!  As the song says, we get by with a little help from our friends! 
CR: And as another song says, "I'm Still Here!"

JR: Yes!  So, in the book, you also write about some moments in television history that are now lost.  One of those was the controversial 1975 series "The Hot L Baltimore".  You wrote about how Norman Lear told you that this was his favorite TV show of all.  Sadly, it appears that the show is truly lost.  It's not on video and isn't shown on TV anymore.  It would be great if we could watch you on that show once again.  You wrote about how you had a great time working on it.
CR: Yes, I remember.  It was a wonderful show.  Before there were any other shows that had gay people, this show had a beautiful episode about the gay couple at the hotel.  They were celebrating their anniversary.  Two of the show's main characters-- the hotel manager and the hooker-- were having trouble relating with each other.  They were always quarreling with each other and having a terrible time.  In contrast, the gay couple were celebrating their anniversary with such dignity and grace.   Norman Lear handled it so beautifully.  It was way ahead of its time.  I always told Norman that I thought he did such a magnificent job.  I wish you could see it!  Too bad you can't.  That was a great show.
JR: Damn!
CR:  I did a lot of wonderful things for Norman.  I did a lot of wonderful theater too.  I did a Samuel Beckett play called "Happy Days" at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. It was a wonderful part.  A challenging part.  Then they took me to CSC Repertory Theater to do it in New York.   It was just a wonderful experience.  Recently, I did a Beckett play at The Kirk Douglas Theater in L.A., called "Endgame".  My name was Nell, and I was in an ash can! (Laughs)  I'm just so grateful that I've been able to do all these wonderful things.  In the book, I also talk about playing at all these supper clubs-- the Blue Angel, and the Village Vanguard...
JR: ... which is still there!
CR: Yes!  My experience with Sheldon Harnick, and how I led him to New York, is also in the book.  I was his channel!  He wrote "Fiddler on the Roof" and "She Loves Me" and so many other shows.  I talk about all the people in my life: Cloris Leachman, Paul Lynde...

JR: While we are on that subject: Was there a fellow performer in the business who you really felt a special bond with?  A real true friend?
CR: Quite a few.  But the one I really felt a bond with was Charles Durning.  We did a play together called "In The Boom Boom Room".  He passed a couple of years ago.  We were real buddies. We played mother and father to a girl named Chrissy, played by Madeline Kahn.  She's gone now too.  It was a fascinating play.  We were friends forever.  So many of the people who I played opposite, or just worked with, became friends forever.  One of them is Marilyn Maye.  I adore her.  We admire each other enormously.  Jo Anne Worley and I started a group called "Ladies Who Lunch".  We get together once a month.  We're going to lunch today, in fact!  It's me, and Jo Anne, and Millicent Martin, and Anne Jeffreys, and Miriam Nelson.  It's just a joy to get together once a month, and laugh, and have a great time!

JR: Wow! With that group of ladies, how could you not have fun?  I'm jealous!  So, what else do you do in your spare time, when you're not working? 
CR: I have a granddaughter Carly.  She's in her 20's.  She teaches art.  I have a grandson Sean.  He's 15 and a junior in high school, and interested in making movies and making music for movies.  I live in California and try to get to New York twice a year: in May and in October.  It's a beautiful life.  I'm just grateful.  I'm a survivor of pancreatic cancer.  I don't know... I'm just a lucky lady!

JR: Is there a romantic interest in your life right now?
CR: Uhm... no! (Laughs) I'm in love with everyone! (Laughs)
JR: That's a great thing.  So, lastly, is there anything else you'd like to tell your fans?
CR: You can get the book at Amazon! (Laughs) That's about it.  Oh, wait... I'd also tell them to live one day at a time.  All we have is today.  Just live it.  We don't know about tomorrow.  So, enjoy the day.  Love yourself, and spread love around.  Sometimes I'm in an elevator and I'll say something cheerful, even if I don't know anybody in the elevator.  What the heck?  Everyone can use a little love, right?
JR: Absolutely!  Thank you again, Ms. Rae.  And have a great time at lunch with the ladies!

Charlotte Rae's "The Facts of My Life" is now available at

The Doctor is OUT! Dr. Vince's Mission to Eliminate Gay Shame with New Movie

The Doctor is OUT!
Dr. Vince's Mission to Eliminate Gay Shame with New Movie

Vince Pellegrino, Ph.D., is affectionately known by both his students and friends as "Dr. Vince".  At 64 years young, he's clearly at his happiest when working on multiple projects at once.  A board certified Drama Therapist, Dr. Vince is an Assistant Professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, about 30 miles east of New York City.  With a background in both the performance arts and education, Dr. Vince has dedicated himself to the mental health of the LGBT community.  He produces and hosts a weekly talk radio show at Hofstra called "Talk it OUT with Dr. Vince", which focuses on issues, events, and concerns of LGBTQ's and their allies.  

Dr. Vince came out in 1972, while performing in the then-notorious play "The Boys in the Band".  He played the character of "Cowboy", the hustler.  While it was an affirming experience, a far less positive situation came in 1980.  Pellegrino was gay-bashed on the Will Rogers Beach in L.A. while with his boyfriend-- in broad daylight.  Ironically, the incident was initially sparked by the two beaus trying to intervene when another man was getting attacked.   Pellegrino remembers  his attackers "foaming at the mouth" and trying to push him off a cliff.  To make matters worse, there was dealing with an LAPD which was not exactly sympathetic to the gay community at the time.  Looking back, Pellegrino reflects, "The world is safer, but still not safe for LGBTQ's."  He uses the recent Orlando nightclub tragedy, which he was written about, as proof.   
Dr. Vince has written columns for "Edge" Magazine as well as The Huffington Post.  In 2014, Pellegrino wrote a full-length book called "Talk It Out: No More Gay Shame". The book featured in-depth interviews and analysis with 20 gay men and one gay woman on the under-explored subject of "gay shame", tying their own personal experiences with the culture of the LGBTQ community at large.

Dr. Vince's newest project is a full-length documentary based on his book, which he's produced and directed.  "Talk It OUT: No More Gay Shame", the film, features a diverse group of LGBTQ students from his own Hofstra University asking six intimate questions to an equally diverse group of out-and-proud gay men, and hearing their in-depth stories related to those questions. The students were also asked to relate their own personal experience to the question.  The issues addressed in the movie include growing up gay, experiences with gay shame and bullying, gay elitism, prideful moments, and desires for both their own futures as well as the future of the LGBTQ community at large.  Among the participants in the documentary are singer/songwriters Ari Gold and Eric Alan, journalist/pop culture raconteur Michael Musto,  artist/photographer Rob Ordonez, and radio personality J.C. Alvarez.  The film is set to premiere, appropriately enough, at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Dr. Vince took the time to speak to me about the origins of gay shame, his new documentary, and more:

JR: Hello Dr. Vince.  Thanks for speaking with me.  The name of your bupcoming documentary is "Talk It OUT: No More Gay Shame".  We often hear about "gay pride", but many people haven't heard of "gay shame". When did the concept of "gay shame" first enter your consciousness?
VP: "Gay shame" is the opposite of "gay pride".   I studied years ago with this friend named Rob Eichberg.  He had a thing called "The  Experience".  We called it "the gay EST".  I took it in California.  It was all over the West Coast.  I had been to the "The Experience" seminar that weekend, which was the same weekend I had gotten attacked; I believe that was 1980.   I shared my gay-bashing story with about 300 guys.  I remember crying.  "The Experience" was very popular at the time.  It did very well for a while.  Rob talked about the "victim mentality".  That's the lowest level in our consciousness.  Above that, there's aggression, and as we go higher and higher, we get healthier and healthier.  Then comes responsibility, and abundance, and empowerment.  You go through these stages where you're basically taking more responsibility for your actions, and becoming more aware of who you are, and are living your life powerfully.  I feel that gay men who deal with shame are not living their life powerfully... not for who they genuinely and authentically are.  I felt shame because I grew up with shame.  It wasn't just about being gay.  It was also about being heavy.  There was "fat-shaming".  I never felt anything was good enough.  We feel shame for who we are, and guilt over what we do.  So, "gay shame" is feeling shameful for being gay.  Also, we feel guilty for doing what we do, because we are part of a culture where we were taught that what we do as gay men is wrong-- that there is something "bad" or even "evil" about you.  Religion also plays a part in that, whether you grow up Catholic, Jewish, or whatever.  When I was coming out, I remember a lot of gay men converting to Buddhism, because they felt that it was a more embracing religion. 

JR: There has been an explosion of LGBT visibility in the media and in public consciousness.  There are are also support groups for LGBT young people, which there had never been when you or I first came out.  Some observers may actually think that, as a result, it's easier for someone to come out, or to be openly LGBT in 2016.  But as we know, the new generation has new problems of their own, like cyberbullying-- as evidenced by the interviews with the young people in your documentary.
VP: Yes.  Bullies are bullies.  Even in 2016, it's open season on your ass if you're gay.  If you're a kid whose dad owns guns and supports Trump, and whose mother hates homosexuals, then how can you come out?  As for cyberbullying and cybershaming, that's what The Tyler Clementi Foundation is all about.  I hosted a symposium with Tyler Clementi's parents, Jane and Joseph Clementi; and the Foundation's executive director, Sean Kofosky.  They were also on my radio show.  I know Sean personally.  That's what The Tyler Clementi Foundation is based on.  They used to be more about suicide prevention, but they decided to focus on cyberbulling and cybershaming.  Tyler's father believes his son was cybershamed, and that's why he jumped off the George Washington bridge.

There's shame in many different ways.  When you hear these evangelists say that we're responsible for floods, and that gay men should be "put down" or put into an asylum, or that we should have these "treatments"... That's all shame.  The young people hear that and they know they are hated.  Do you remember, in my film: When the young man Daniel overheard his father say that when he told him he was gay, he "couldn't have said anything worse"?

JR: Yes, I remember.  You are right: All these things add up.  You don't even realize it sometimes, but it's a cumulative effect: What we hear, what we see on TV...
VP: It's every movie too.  It always ended badly for the gay guy.  Like Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain", or in almost every movie in the '60's-- where the gay guy is executed, or commits suicide, or dies another way.  Do you remember William Windom?  He played a married, closeted gay man in this movie called "The Detective", with good old homophobe Frank Sinatra.  He kills himself at the end of the movie, after he kills another gay guy-- a very flamboyant gay gay.  We always met bad ends in these movies.  Or you'll always have something like "The Children's Hour", where Shirley MacLaine killed herself over having lesbian thoughts...
JR: Yes.  That subject of how GLBT's are depicted in the movies was explored in "The Celluloid Closet", the book and the documentary.  But thankfully, things are changing!
VP: Only once in a while is there's an exception, like a movie I remember called "All Over the Guy", where the two characters end up together.  More recently there was the movie "Looking", where at least everybody ended matched up.  That was nice to see for me.  If they weren't matched up, at least they were on the move, or they were successful in thier business.  All these guys had chellenges, and they met and overcame their challenges.  That doesn't mean that everything was going to be hunky dory the rest of their lives, but they were happy, and the show ended happy.  You should see the movie!  I also saw this movie last night called "Boulevard" which was one of Robin Williams' last movies, with this wonderful actress Kathy Baker.  She plays a wife who knew her husband was gay, but they never talked about it.  The husband falls in love with a gay hustler, who slowly begins to fall in love with him.  The husband ends up leaving his wife.  So, he finally came out of living a life in shame.  He even tells his father, who's dying in a nursing home.  The father was conscious enough to hear what he was saying, and the father actually turns away from him.  After all these years of his living a lie and realizing he has to come out, the father turns away from him.  This is the "shame"!  I'm a scholar of theater.  It was safe for gay men to traditionally be the "fop". That dates back to the 1600's.  But then, an actor like Rupert Everett can play  the hunky guy in "My Best Friend's Wedding".  People like him are groundbreaking in a way, because they can play gay and still be seen as masculine.

JR:  What has been the most exciting aspect of this project so far for you?
VP: Seeing my concept come alive: my fears, my experiences, my observations, my empirical data-- all expressed in the participants answering the questions and asking others questions as well.  That was very powerful for me.  Hearing other people's stories about being bisexual or transgender, which even many in the  gay male community doesn't fully understand.  That's what's the most exciting.  Working with the young people, and with the crew.  That's why I feel this film is very important.  I look forward to going to schools, and clinics, and youth centers, and film festivals... and having Q&A's afterward.

  JR: That's great to hear!  So. Is there something that all of us can do, on a day to day basis, to reverse gay shame?  What advice would you have-- not just for out and proud LGBTQ's, but also those in the community who aren't ready or able to come out of the closet?  What advice would you offer them, as well as to our straight allies-- besides, obviously, seeing the movie?
VP: Be there to listen.  We live in a very social world.  We're not  hermits.  We're all interactive with each other.  If someone reaches out to you, then just be there for them.  I'm speaking mainly about children and young people, but it applies to everyone.  If you can't do it right now, then say, "I can't talk to you right now, but can we talk later?  Can we set up a time to meet?"  Comfort and support are the two things that any one person can give to every human being who needs it.  If you're not getting comfort and support from your family or from your relationships, then you need to look at that.  That has to be addressed, because the relationship is not complete.  It's in the textbook that I use to teach about interpersonal communication.  There are other things as well.  We all need affection.  We need to feel included.  And, we need to feel that we have some control, that we are in charge of our own life-- that no one else is telling us what to do or how to feel.  But, to reiterate, it's mainly comfort and support.  If someone, especially a young person, reaches out to you, offer them comfort and support.  It's essential.  That's why I hope the movie increases awareness and promotes discussion on the impact of gay shame and how it affects our lives.  You have to live your life authentically!

JR: I couldn't agree more.  I'll see you at the film premiere!

"Talk It OUT: No More Gay Shame" premieres at The Student Center Theater at Hofstra's Student Union Building, Hoftsra University in Hempstead, New York on Friday, September 30 at 6PM.  The film screening followed by a Q&A session with the cast and crew.  The public is welcome to attend this campus-wide event.

Visit Vince Pellegrino Ph.D.'s website at



They're not married, but lovely singer/actor Julie Budd and acclaimed producer/arranger Herb Bernstein celebrated an anniversary of another kind this week: their 50-year collaboration of making music together.  The soiree took place on Thursday, September 15th, at New York City's quintessential cabaret hotspot The Metropolitan Room.  With a champagne toast, a Q&A with Frank Dain of Cabaret Scenes, and a performance by Ms. Budd, it was truly an "afternoon delight"!

The setting was highly appropriate, considering that Julie Budd is an audience favorite at the lively venue.  She is the Celebrity Artist in Residence there.  Back in 1968, however, Julie Budd was just a 13-year old Jewish girl from Brooklyn who was vacationing with her family at the Tamarack Lodge in the Catskills.  Word was spreading around that there was a famous producer at the resort.  That neophyte starmaker was Herb Bernstein, who would go on to arrange and produce records for artists ranging from Laura Nyro and John Denver to Dusty Springfield and Tina Turner.  There was a talent show one serendipitous Saturday night at Tamarack, and Julie admitted that she started following "Herbie" around, even knocking on his cabin door to insist that he come to the show.  The producer was used to people approaching him for a chance to show their stuff (He recalled the story about how Pia Zadora's mother followed him into an elevator with a tape recorder of her daughter's talents)... but Bernstein turned out to be very impressed with the vocal skills of the teenager, who received a huge standing ovation at that talent show.  Bernstein was amazed at how Julie "looked about 8 or 10 years old", but had the voice of a singer well beyond her age.  It wasn't just Julie's "vox", however, that caught his attention.  It was also her confidence and poise.  He remembered the budd-ing star walking onto the stage like she owned it.  After seeing her, he told Julie, "I have to talk to your parents!" (And, before you ask, Budd did win the talent show!)

Julie shared with the audience at The Metropolitan Room that she knew the Budd/Bernstein creative partnership would work well right from the beginning.  She told us, "We were a good team from the start.  I met him at the club.  There was nobody there.  It was nice and quiet. He played some stuff on the piano. I didn't even know him, and he didn't even know me.  There are a lot of musicians here tonight that will get with this: Sometimes when you are with somebody, even when you don't know them, you just sort of 'lock in' with them.  You have that kind of thing where it's almost like you knew them from another time.  You sit down and you start working with them, and you'll say, 'My G*d, it's like I know them already!'  Right from the start, we connected."  She added that the two are so "in sync" that they have even written shows together over the phone.

Julie Budd went on to appear on the wildly popular Merv Griffin Show, where she was often called "Little" Julie Budd.  She also performed on such American living room staples as The Mike Douglas Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and The Jim Nabors Hour.  She was a regular on the NBC TV series Showcase '68.  At the age of 16, Budd was the opening act for Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. (More about Sinatra later...)  Since her teen years, the little girl with the not-so-little voice has never stopped performing as both a singer and an actor.  Budd has acted on the big screen in several movies, and has performed live on stage at venues both big and small all over the world.  Starting with her debut album Child of Plenty in 1968, Ms. Budd has seven albums to her name.

After the Q&A, Herb Bernstein was presented with an award by The Metropolitan Room's Bernie Furshpan for his contributions to both the cabaret world and to arts and entertainment at large.  And, of course, what would a party at The Metropolitan Room be without music?  Julie Budd gave the audience a poignant song that Herb wrote for her, called Looking Back.

Also present that evening were performer/author Bobbie Horowitz; singers David Meulemans, Carla Gordon, Sue Matzuki, and Peggy Eason; musician Bryon Sommers, and performer/pop culture guru Tym Moss.  Richard Skipper, who produced the event, told me, "Working with Julie Budd, who I have idolized for years, is a dream come true. Bernie and Joanne Furshpan jumped at the chance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the musical collaboration of Julie Budd and musical arranger/conductor Herb Bernstein when I suggested it. Having Frank Dain, editor of Cabaret Scenes, come in for a brief on stage chat with Julie and Herb was the icing on the cake. My heart is full. Here's to the next 50 years!"

Julie Budd's newest CD is named Remembering … MR. SINATRA which she calls her most personal and authentic work to date: a tribute and valentine to Ol' Blue Eyes, who personally invited her to appear with him at Caesar's Palace when she was just 16 years old.  Budd and Bernstein will be combining their talents again on Wednesday, September 21 at 7PM for Julie's all-new show called A Show Biz Celebration...The Next Fifty Years.  Where else? The Metropolitan Room, at 34 West 22nd St., NYC.  Visit for tickets and more info.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

BEHIND THE "MUSIC": "The Radicalization of Rolfe" Gets a Second Coming at NYC Fringe Encore Festival

"The Radicalization of Rolfe" Gets a Second Coming at NYC Fringe Encore Festival

Andrew Bergh's "The Radicalization of Rolfe"
was one of the works being premiered at the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival this past August.  Inspired by the the classic musical "The Sound of Music", the new play is a "backstory"/re-imagination of what was going on when Julie Andrews' Maria von Trapp WASN'T singing.  This lively play expands the roles of several of the movie's secondary characters, with the titular Rolfe as the focus of the story.  "The Radicalization of Rolfe" was one of the winners of the 2016 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Awards, and it's being brought back to the New York City stage for an encore run this October.

Considering the intense devotion that many fans have for "The Sound of Music" worldwide, any new vision of the enduring musical or its iconic characters would be a risky move.  Thankfully, both the playwright and the cast pay great respect to their 1965 inspiration.  And, most engagingly, they all seem to have fun with the piece as well-- despite the underlying serious subject matter.  "The Sound of Music" had memorable songs and lovable characters, but there was still the dark cloud of upcoming danger moving in on the pretty scenery as the film progressed.  Likewise, "The Radicalization of Rolfe" does have its light and downright funny moments, but make no mistake: Despite its comedic and occasionally  campy touches, the play is actually smart, searing drama based on real history.  "Rolfe" deals with the persecution of gay men in Nazi Europe.  It's a subject which was previously covered in the 1979 play "Bent" by Martin Sherman (and the play's 1997 movie adaption),  as well as the 2000 documentary "Paragraph 175".  Still, this real life dark chapter of LGBT history has remained largely under-explored on the stage and screen.

The play's central character is "the perfect picture of Aryan youth", the tall and blond Rolfe Gruber (Logan Sutherland).  "Sound of Music" fans remember Rolfe as the love interest of the oldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl. Not a boy but not yet a man, Rolfe is "17 going on 18".  Rolfe, however, isn't romantically interested in Liesl.  He's carrying on a discreet love affair with a handsome, free-thinking university student named Johan (Alex J. Gould), who's also a Communist.  In an Austria on the verge of The Anschluss (annexation by Nazi Germany), this was a forbidden romance.  Rolfe is facing a seduction of a very different kind by the power-hungry, propaganda-spouting Herr Zeller (Dominic Comperatore).  Zeller is pressuring Rolfe into wooing Liesl, in the hopes of getting more knowledge about her father Captain von Trapp-- a person of interest in Berlin.  He also instructs Rolfe to watch out for "deviants", telling him: "I must warn you: A handsome man like you will attract the-- how shall I say?-- the advances of a particular type of adult male whose interest in you is of an unhealthy nature.  These men are deviants.  Diseased.  They corrupt from within.  They need to be rooted out and eliminated.  Do you understand?"   Zeller promises Rolfe power and status within the Nazi Party as a reward.  Conflicted about his own sexuality and also looking for some kind of "purpose" in his life, our Rolfe is torn.

At the same time, the Nazis are also putting pressure on the von Trapp housekeeper Frau Schmidt (Polly Adams) and butler Franz (Jay Patterson) to find a governess for the von Trapp family who would be cooperative with the Nazi agenda, rather than a singing, guitar-playing postulate nun.  Along those same lines, they also want the Captain to marry a woman who would similarly advance their cause (i.e: The Baroness Elsa Schraeder).

As the audience learns,  one of the goals of the Nazi Party was sending gay men (called "deviants") to concentration camps, where they were identified by pink triangles.  Needless to say, This puts the play's central character Rolfe, his lover Johan, and their circle of friends at their all-male "athletic club" in the most danger of all.  It all becomes a complicated game where loyalties are tested, ethics are challenged, and the stakes are high.  The story becomes a  cautionary tale about the politics of power and fear.  In 2016, that message couldn't be more timely.  

The aforementioned comedy in "The Radicalization of Rolfe" comes from the MANY humorous and frequently clever references to its inspiration, "The Sound of Music" (The playwright even inserts a joke about edelweiss, and has one character advise another, "Climb your own mountain, dear!" ).  The audience, clearly devotees of the musical, not only appreciated the jokes; they ate them up like homemade strudel. In fact, a critique that one could have for "The Radicalization of Rolfe" is the difficult question of whether audiences who never saw "The Sound of Music" would appreciate the play in its own right.  Others may question Rolfe's anachronistic use of the a certain term (Let's just say that it's the extended form of "WTF".) ... although the audience didn't seem to mind at all.

Director Abigail Zealey Bess keeps the pace moving, and the energetic cast keeps up with it.  The scenes between Rolfe and Johan are particularly poignant.  As the only drop of estrogen in a testosterone-heavy cast, Polly Adams as Frau Schmidt is a delight to watch.  Dominic Comperatore's Zeller is so unyieldingly cold in his adherence to Third Reich propaganda that his character is almost humorous.  That same iciness, however, becomes downright eerie in the final chilling scene.  

"The Radicalization of Rolfe" re-opens as part of the Fringe Encore Series 2016 at The Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, New York City on Sunday, October 23, 2016.  The play runs through Saturday, October 29th.  Visit for more information and tickets.

(Photos by Dixie Sheridan.)