I interviewed J. Stephen Brantley and David Drake in 2014 for their collaboration on J. Stephen's show Fried-Chicken Ciccone. I was so moved by that show that when I heard they were going to work together again, I knew I needed to do a new interview. Then I found out Todd Flaherty was also going to star in this show and I was like, bam, let's talk with everyone!
Bareback Ink, written by Bob Bartlett and directed by Obie Award winner David Drake, tells the story of a beautiful boy who is forcibly tattooed in this erotic new plays at IRT (154 Christopher Street) from March 4-18. Click here for tickets!
1. This March you are all part of Bob Bartlett's Bareback Ink. J. Stephen and Todd, you are starring in the show and David, you are directing. What made each of you want to be part of this production?
J. Stephen Brantley: I put out a call for plays last year when Hard Sparks was awarded this residency at IRT, asking for a "sinister two-hander." I was hoping for a vehicle for Todd and myself, one that would fit in that raw dark cinder-blocked space. In Bareback Ink, I got it. It haunted me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Todd and I have done…five shows together? - two directed by David Drake - but it seems like we never really have much interaction. In Pirira, we were both onstage the entire show and never spoke a word to one another. This time we do. I’m all over him!
Todd Flaherty: I would follow J. Stephen Brantley to the ends of the earth. As a writer and artist, he is redefining what American Theatre is and can be and I trust his taste in other writers’ work. Coupled with the fact the David Drake was on board to direct…I didn’t even have to read the script before saying yes. It could have been about toilet water and I knew it would be brilliant. Icing on the cake was reading Bob Bartlett’s poetic story. I jumped at the opportunity.
J. Stephen Brantley: The play wrestles with some uncomfortable stuff. Bob (Bartlett) wrote it in an effort to make sense of the legacy of a story about kidnapping, basically, and a trove of art that celebrates it. This production is unapologetically queer, so we are mainly looking at the ways gay men pursue and eroticize youth. But it’s cross-cultural. Young people are sexualized. They are rewarded for being servile, and punished for taking power and, often, made to feel irrelevant past a certain "sell-by" date. We’re taking a hard look at that, through the lens of myth, but also pushing it aside to find some love underneath. The relationship of the two guys in Bareback Ink may not be quite as it first seems.
Todd Flaherty: Bareback is incredibly nuanced and layered so there’s actually quite a lot to glean from Bob’s story in relation to our modern times. The play’s nature is very homo-erotically charged, so naturally we are connecting the myth to modern intergenerational gay relationships, daddy fantasies and the journey to manhood, particularly for boys who have no father figures due to displacement from the home. Other times in the rehearsal room, we speak in jest about Melania, but there is some real relevance to our story there as well. Surviving an abusive relationship using tools of beauty and youth…and what happens when those tools are no longer available. Another layer entirely focuses on the outcast in society being controlled and manipulated by unseen powers that be, and the daily struggle for freedom in a world where the cards are stacked against you.
3. Bareback Ink is an erotic tale of the struggle between comfortable corruption and the cost of true freedom. This description seems perfect for the post-election climate we live in. How do you feel Trump is using his power under the guise of true freedom, but everyone else views it as corruption?
J. Stephen Brantley: Let me count the ways! Aside from the ban that isn’t a ban? There’s FADA, which hasn’t happened on a Federal level yet, but may still. These "First Amendment Defense" and "religious freedom" laws have nothing to do with liberty, of course, they’re a license to discriminate and the ripple effect of such measures could be catastrophic for LGBT Americans. It’s easy for most people to look the other way, to think that "bathroom bills" have only to do with whether and where trans folks pee – which should be where they want - forgetting that these same laws strip away protections for all sexual minorities. My mother recently wrote her governor voicing her opposition to such a proposed law. It’s not something she’s used to doing, and she was outraged by the condescending, sexist form-letter reply – some bullshit about "protecting her privacy." It pissed me off too, but I was also delighted to have her in the trenches! Even if it’s an uphill battle, it’s infinitely better to be on the side of justice. There’s freedom in the fight. But for anyone joining the fray, you have to know, it’s uncomfortable. All the time.
4. Some tattoos are removable, while others are more permanent. Based upon Trump's first few weeks in office, what decisions do you feel he has made that could be considered a removable tattoo and which ones do you think are a more permanent tattoo?
J. Stephen Brantley: All tattoos are removable, I should know. But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, painful process. I still believe that we will, eventually, create a world in which everyone is treated with human dignity. I have to believe that. But I also think the events of the last several weeks have set us way back, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The President has angered world leaders, alienated our allies, and emboldened terrorists both foreign and domestic. He’s lifted all the wrong restrictions from law enforcement and appointed to top-level posts the very people who would dismantle the agencies they now head. We’re headed for disaster. Truthfully, I don’t really expect to survive this administration. But I am certain the damage that’s about to be done can, and will, be reversed someday. The marks may not be removed entirely, and maybe they shouldn’t be: we have a bad habit of ignoring the uglier parts of our collective history. Bareback Ink is a sort of trial by fire. It’s about discovering that the very thing that’s kept you down is actually your ticket to freedom. I hope that we as a nation learn from this moment, use this opportunity to become better informed, fully engaged, more compassionate people. Maybe next time more than half the population will actually vote.
Todd Flaherty: The most permanent tattoo being inked into the fabric of our nation is actually a very beautiful one…however painful the process of receiving it. I did not vote for Trump, but I think he is the president America deserves at this tipping point in our history. As a millennial having grown up with a father in politics and an activist mother, I know all too well just how fragile our democracy is and always has been. But (not unlike our character "Artist") I know many people who have lived comfortably enough, wanting more but never asking for it, for fear of loosing what they already have and ignorant to the plight of those who have even less. Trumps agenda is ruthless and those with half a brain are finally being called to action. The permanent tattoo I’m speaking of is intersectionality. No longer are we dealing with women’s rights, black rights, queer rights, gender rights, etc…we’re dealing with human rights.
5. Bareback Ink tells the story of a beautiful young man who enters a purgatory-like tattoo shop where an isolated and withdrawn artist forcibly inks the boy’s back over the course of several months. Has there been a time in your life when you were forced to do something you didn't want to? If so, when/what was it?
J. Stephen Brantley: Not really. I’ve chosen to do a lot of things I didn’t really want to. Everyone does. But I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I’ve never endured the kind of brutality and coercion that so many queer people do.
6. Bob Bartlett has taken The Rape and Abduction of Ganymede and brought it into a modern-day world, touching on the subjects of one being rejected by family, community, and culture. Have you ever been rejected by your family, community, and/or culture? If so, how did you initially react to the rejection, but ultimately find your own family, community, and/or culture?
J. Stephen Brantley: Again, I didn’t have it too bad. But growing up in Texas during the '80s I was surrounded by the message that gay was definitely not okay. A lot of kids don’t survive that. A lot. Those who do, we develop a thick skin and a quick mind, and we use what we’ve got. Todd’s character in Bareback uses his beauty like so many boys do – being objectified is better than rejection, and there is power in sex. If we’re lucky, we have a mentor, a teacher, who doesn’t take advantage. And perhaps we become that person for someone else someday. In that, Bareback Ink is really about family, about finding home.
Todd Flaherty: Luckily I have been blessed to be born into one of the most loving families ever. As an artist, however, I face rejection everyday. Every. Fucking. Day. Sometimes multiple times a day. That rejection used to leave me completely incapacitated. Not because of some idea that the work I was creating was bad, per se, but because the work I was creating was irrelevant. I was irrelevant. My presence wasn’t necessary to the growth of our community. That’s a tough pill to swallow for anyone. A few years ago, I changed my outlook on rejection and started thinking of it as an opportunity. You can’t grow if you're not making mistakes and if you’re not growing, you’re not living. I began to act more fearlessly and I found new friends and communities who felt/worked the same way. That’s how I began working with J. Stephen and David.
7. The show is also described as being about desire, possession, and the perversion of power. What is something you desire? What is one of your most cherished possessions? When have you altered/distorted your own power over someone?
J. Stephen Brantley: I did some escorting for a while. This is no secret, I talked about it in Chicken-Fried Ciccone. There was actually very little sex involved, it was mostly Dom-sub role play. It’s a weird dynamic, being paid an hourly wage to humiliate the very person who’s hired you. In the back of your mind, you know you’re not in charge. At the same time, you do wield power or at least it feels like you do and it feels good. That’s why I always said it was essentially site-specific theatre, "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances." But like any acting gig, it can turn into a mind-fuck real quick. If sense-of-self can be possessed, I cherish that. And freedom. At one time in my life I almost lost it. My character in Bareback has given up on ever having it, until this boy comes into his cell. More than anything I fear a loss of control over my own well-being.
Todd Flaherty: I desire water-front property, be it a lake, river, or ocean. I cherish none of my possessions because I can’t take anything with me when I leave this earth. All relationships are a delicate balance of power…I can’t recall any instance where I have unfairly asserted mine, but maybe that’s something I should delve into in therapy.
8. Bareback Ink casts a raw, voyeuristic gaze at the intergenerational homoerotics of Greek myth through a decidedly contemporary and surprisingly sociopolitical lens. Between all of the shows you have either starred in or directed, which one do you feel cast you at your rawest and most vulnerable?
J. Stephen Brantley: Well, I’m was completely naked onstage six nights in Mope at EST, so that’s raw and vulnerable. But actually, once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal. The last show I did with David and Todd, my play The Jamb, was scarier. I was close to that character. And there have been others where I appeared to be transformed – "Doc" in The Night Alive, or "Saul" in Church Of Why Not – but I felt completely laid bare.
Todd Flaherty: I recently wrote and acted in a web series called Undetectable (www.undetectabletheseries.com). The story follows a young gay man navigating personal and romantic relationships with the stigma of being HIV positive. It was one of the most horrifying and rewarding experiences I have ever had, showing up to set every day, saying words I wrote, constantly questioning whether or not they were good enough, and trusting that my need to tell the story was greater than any one person’s reaction to it…good, bad or otherwise.
9. Bareback Ink is an erotic play, but with an underlying horror. What has been your most pleasurable erotic encounter? What has been an erotic encounter you wish to forget?
J. Stephen Brantley: I have never had an erotic encounter that was as pleasurable as what I’m imagining right now. And there are none I wish to forget. Actually, I wish I could remember more.
Todd Flaherty: Adam, they’re all so pleasurable…I couldn’t possible pick just one. One that I wish to forget involves a barely 17-year-old me, two high school girlfriends, the back seat of my car, a mall parking lot, and a security guard nearly calling the cops on us for public lewdness and indecent exposure.
10. Since the show is called Bareback Ink, if you could tattoo your back, what would you get drawn on it?
J. Stephen Brantley: I’ve long wanted a big bird of prey on my back. I have songbirds on my forearms, and I love them, but I’m feeling more falcon than sparrow these days. Of course, for the price of such a piece one could produce Bareback Ink so, for now anyway, I’m going with that.
Todd Flaherty: A watercolor-like scene of the dunes leading to the secret beach in Provincetown.
Off-Broadway: Mope (Ensemble Studio Theatre), Murder In The First (The Directors Co. at 59E59), and Theatre 167’s Pirira (West End Theater). Regional: The Night Alive (Guild Hall), Of Mice And Men (Bay Street), Slap & Tickle (Provincetown Theater), and Romeo And Juliet with its zombie sequel R & J & Z at Stonington Opera House. J. Brantley has also worked with Big Dance, Blessed Unrest, CapsLock, and Jewish Plays Project, and at venues including Queens Theatre, LaMaMa, Metropolitan Playhouse, The New Ohio, and P.S.122. J. Brantley is an eight-time New York Innovative Theatre Award nominee, and winner of the Micheál MacLiammóir Award for Best Actor at the 2013 Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival. He is the Producing Artistic Director of Hard Sparks and a member of the Indie Theatre Hall Of Fame.
Off-Broadway: Pirira (NYIT Nom) also by J.Stephen Brantley, Fresh Kills (59E59). Other New York credits include: Sleep No More (Punchdrunk/ Emursive), Dead Letter Office, I Like To Be Here (Theater167), We Are Nebenienander (American Laboratory) and Hard Sparks’ The Jamb. Regional: Slap & Tickle, also directed by David Drake. Film/New Media: Pretty Girls, The Fuzz, Tracy&Cal. Todd wrote, produced, co-directed and appears in Undetectable, recently nominated for seven Indie Series Awards.