The first time I saw Rosewood perform I felt like I was watching a long lost cousin perform. As Lou Reed sang, “Take a walk on the wild side”, Rosewood dazzled the crowd with the countless ways one can stuff drugs in orifices and managed to turn a pair of high heels into a crack pipe. Rosewood bends gender and uses the body unlike any other I’ve ever seen. And it brings me great pleasure to announce, a few months ago, my friend Jordan Schimmetti and I sat down with Rosewood for an interview.
We met up with Rosewood at the studio wherein s/he produces woodworking and stores the numerous persona’s neatly stashed away in boxes with the name of the outfit written on the front of them. As Rosewood showed us around s/he explained that often s/he will be busy refurbishing a vintage antique when the time comes to whisk off to a performance so it’s best to have everything always ready to go. And all over the walls of the studio are pictures of Shamans Rosewood finds inspirational. One of her favorites lived in India and was famous for turning shit into food or other precious items for the poor and downtrodden.
Lately Rosewood has been causing a scene in both London and NYC, performing her decadent show at The Box and other venues. For those familiar and unfamiliar with Rosewood I suggest you take a walk on the wild side and read on:
SB: You’ve told me that you went to school with Keith Haring in the late seventies. Were you performing then? What was your relationship like?
RW: We intersected at a funny time because I was hitting the curb at that point. Sex, drugs and rock n roll. I had hit the wall. By 1980 I was wrecked. Bleeding from every hole. Drug burnt and sex burnt. And I couldn’t keep going so I had to abandon all that stuff and focus on repair. I did a lot of artwork but it changed from being sociable and relational to private. I went to the woods, the country.
SB: So you completely left the city at that point?
RW: I was in and out of the city. I spent 3 months living in Morocco. Then I moved to New Jersey for a while, then here (NYC), then Connecticut for a while. I really needed to be outside and to keep it simple. I wasn’t sociable at all. I stayed away from people for quite a number of years.
JS: So by 1980, how long had you been in New York for?
RW: Five years.
JS: You are originally from New Jersey, right? So what was that first transition like? Had you always planned on moving to New York?
RW: Well, you know, I got into a lot of different schools, but I was such a freak, I just couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown and New York sounded perfect! Once I got here, I felt liberated. However, with that kind of liberation came all the pitfalls. And I fell into every one of them.
JS: Did you have a decent relationship with your parents as a young person? Were you running from something or trying to expand? Was there an antagonism back in Jersey you were running from?
RW: I had identity issues. Even then and now I fit more into the gay world of my town, which was small. I wasn’t as easy to categorize because everyone else was hiding and I wasn’t hiding in any way and I received a lot of antagonism for that.
JS: So you were never closeted in anyway?
RW: Never. I’ve never spent one moment in a closet.
SB: Were you doing drag then?
RW: Not full drag, then. I wasn’t doing female impersonation. It was the time of hair bands and glam rock, so I had big hair and wore makeup and it was always hard to say because there was Queen and a few of their members were reasonably known as gay but it wasn’t talked about quite the same way is it now. So, I just looked like I had stepped off a stage.
JS: So you’ve been performing your entire life?
RW: I went in and out of it. Everything started at the age of ten, at my local Jewish Community Center. I took woodworking and theater (lifts hands in the air, as we’re in Rosewood’s workshop which consists of drag and woodworking tools, showing that to this day that is Rosewood’s reality). Theater for us was Vaudeville. My teacher was a New Yorker – she was a hardcore, jaded lady who was interested in doing Vaudeville shows in the middle of New Jersey. So I was doing Vaudeville, mostly magic and comedy. And then, when I came to New York, everything shifted, I studied to be a spotter in gambling casinos. I had learned all sorts of card cheating. My Grandfather had been a kind of hustler. He taught me card stuff and referred me to people and I wound up spotting card games to make sure things were legal.
SB: So gambling was legal in New York City then?
RW: There was so much gambling.
SB: And it was legal?
RW: Oh no. They were shady, backroom, gambling games. They had me there in case someone was cheating; I was supposed to point them out. But what I came to realize, very quickly, was, “now what?” If I say something, someone is going to get shot and there’s a good chance that someone would’ve been me. Finally I asked myself, if I wanted to be around the gambling world and after all that study and training I realized I had made the wrong turn.
JS: So when you first came to New York you were doing spotting. Were you doing any stage work at that time?
RW: I did stage work on a small scale. When I first came to New York I went to NYU and I was doing some stage work there. Varying crowd sizes, lets say up to 250 people. Most of the work was magic related performance. I stopped doing that for a while then came back to it for a while. I did a lot of parties and smaller gatherings with audiences ranging from five to 30 people.
SB: At this point had you already begun to infuse gender bending into your work?
RW: It didn’t mix at all.
SB: When was that moment? When was the birth of Rosewood as we know you today?
RW: Well, Rosewood as you know today started in 1999, about twelve years ago. That’s when it became a full on assault on all boundaries. Before then, I couldn’t find a way that made me happy that blended what I was doing. It was all one or all another: dancing in tranny bars, doing go-go, full on impersonation with no entertainment value and then, in 1999 I had my turning point.
JS: Was it a particular show or a particular opportunity?
RW: Oh definitely… It started with a strip tease contest in a drag bar. Drag at the time, and still to a large extent, is a full body character that you don’t interrupt in anyway. The only one who was doing anything character disruptive was Poison Eve, who’s a major influence for me. Poison Eve wasn’t doing straight glam; Poison Eve was including horror stuff and being messy. She had characters with other themes and was the first person I saw doing that. Everyone else gave one-dimensional characters that only talked or sang, I mean, lip-synced or danced. They never disturbed the painted-on surface. I liked the idea of strip tease, of carrying the illusion, and where do you go and draw the line and whether or not I should reveal that I am a man and if I am going to reveal that I am a man how am I going to do it? What should I do with that?
The thing I thought most interesting was that the people who were watching were all tranny chasers. So I had sexual attraction working in my favor because everyone watching was attracted to me just like girls in a strip joint have a crowd that is there to see boobies and girls. An audience that is sexually attracted to the entertainment will forgive a lot. So it created a kind of soft little world for me, with the grace to experiment without a level of rejection. The tranny bars also were the opposite, in that they hated me. I was the token white person, many of them were people of color and Latina yet the bar needed white people, it’s the politically incorrect truth of it… otherwise it was just too ghetto. Their crowd was largely white people coming to purchase the services of the prostitutes, so naturally I was a good addition to that but the other girls resented me. I was a necessary evil.
SB: Because you got more business?
RW: No. It was because I gave them the right look. I gave them the right credibility. I made it okay for them to be who they were. They didn’t have to be less ghetto. They could be themselves.
JS: So, at this point you were doing your full numbers?
RW: I was doing strip tease numbers.
JS: OK. Because one of things you do is dismember the illusion of the tranny by revealing your dual gender identity. Was the resentment in the tranny community due to your pulling up the veil?
RW: They resented everything. Their primary resentment was the flow of business. The possibility that the men were attracted to me really pissed them off. And finally, what I was doing wasn’t their style. I could never win. I wasn’t “fierce” enough, nor “cunty” enough. I wasn’t the right kind of glam. Nothing I did was right. They’d say, “girl, your tuck is bad”, “girl, your make up is bad”, “girl, your mother dresses you funny”, “girl, you’re mediocre”. I was told many times that I was mediocre.
JS: What I really enjoy about your work is that in the trans community there are built in resentments, there are hierarchies, because it’s a man feeling more comfortable as a woman and you completely dismember that. Do you agree that there is a self-loathing in that community?
RW: Look, there are all sorts of hierarchies! The drag queen looks down on the cross dresser, he guy who’s married and likes to wear his wife’s clothing. The transsexual, the she-male, looks down on the drag queen because they wash it off at the end of the night and there’s no commitment. The full transsexual looks down on the she-male because that’s just business, the she-male is only there for business. Then it swings back around and everyone looks down on the full transsexual.
I grew up in the Jewish community wherein I learned every religious group has a hierarchy and everyone is always looking down at someone as wrong. They really hated me for every reason, which really freed me to do whatever I wanted to do since nothing I did was right. I learned wonderful lessons during that time. When I was in high school I did volunteer work at a prison and I learned that every demographic has a different idea as to what constitutes entertainment, and each had a different way that they’d respond and show respect. So I learned that I really had to make the audience look, make them like me and force them to pay attention.
SB: A lot of the work you do isn’t about you being friendly. I read in the New York Post that you puked on Susan Sarandon when she sat front row at the third year anniversary show at The Box. Did you intentionally puke on Susan or was it an accident?
RW: Laughs It was an accident! Well… that night, it was funny because after the show I ran into her assistant and was told she loved it. She had a ball. Right after the incident, two handsome men popped up and wiped her clean and she was just as happy as could be. Everyone knows Susan Sarandon loves a handsome man! And it was a lovely, beautiful evening. She had a ball.
I also threw up a lot of pills on Scarlet Johansen and everyone got a huge kick out of it because in context, it’s a show, a performance. But once it got into the newspapers it got out of control – “TRANSSEXUAL VOMITS ON SUSAN SARANDON” – no one said anything about it being a show and no one said anything about it being fake vomit. But it was a sensational headline so it went to thirty countries and countless papers.
SB: Did it get you shows in thirty countries?
RW: You know I have a lot of shows like that… I emptied a condom on Leonardo DeCaprio and we have video footage of it, but it’s supposed to be quiet yet that also went all over the press and was badly distorted. And I peed on Adam Lambert!
SB: Who hasn’t?!
RW: It’s true!
RW: The Box was upset… you know, I’m a computer and tech drop out, a moron, so I didn’t tweet anything to anybody but the media got a hold of it and it got around. But yes, with a New York audience, I often look out and see people right there in front of me with their backs to me texting, and a performer has to acknowledge the audience is part of the show so I really try to make pieces that interact with the audience. I want to force people to want to stop texting.
SB: I’ve only seen you perform at The Box and you always stand out at The Box because you receive the most attention from the audience. Is this the case everywhere you go? What is the reaction like from audiences outside of New York? Lately, is there anywhere you’ve gone where you’ve received bad reactions or has your experience always been playful and fun?
RW: The audience has always responded to me very, very well. What happens with the response is just that, it’s a gut response. What’s interesting to me is that some people will respond and then reject because my performance is strong. After they have the experience they layer over it their own cultural positioning, and then, suddenly it can turn into something negative. Like when I perform at the Chelsea Gay bars, and which many have banded me umpteen times, they respond instantly with a wonderful reception and then they don’t like it because there is a politic of normalcy going on: “we’re normal and we want to be able to marry and you are an eyesore going on in our community and you’re the black sheep of our family and we don’t really want to know you’re around”… and it doesn’t change the fact that they responded beautifully, the initial response was absolutely positive.
I’ve also had similar reactions from trans groups. They say I’m giving trans people a bad name. So I say, from my timing, from where I was when I began my transition, when I grew up, when I came to New York, this was not the case. The character I am was a creature then. You’re enjoying the fruit of our labor. Your world isn’t the same world we came into. I wish they’d acknowledge that I’m of another time. If you’re saying I’m giving you a bad image, I wish you’d realize I’m just giving you the characters that walked this city before. Not the characters that you are, because I don’t know you yet.
JS: Speaking of mixed audience reactions: you told me a story wherein the Prince from the House of Saudi Arabia puked during one of your performances. How do you deal, knowing the majority of your audience is straight and they’re looking at you like you’re a freak show?
RW: Oh yeah, they’re slumming.
JS: Yeah, you cater to it but you cater artfully. Obviously you don’t have a negative opinion of yourself…
RW: Oh yeah! In some ways the show is a freak show for the wealthy. It’s a place for them to slum. They’re hiding in a bad neighborhood, seeing things they shouldn’t see and all that stuff. Fantastic! I think doing something low quality is more denigrating than being in that relationship. I give what I give. I give them my best, with my heart and so I’m happy because I feel like I’ve given.
JS: My favorite aspect of that story is that the Prince of the House of Saudi Arabia comes back the next week with all his friends and vomits again.
RW: Well, you know, this is a side story but it’s fascinating… I found out after that, that one of the members of the Saudi Royal family was charged with murder in London and the murder was very much in the fashion of my “Whisper” piece.
SB: What happens in the “Whisper” piece?
RW: The “Whisper” piece opens with what looks like an SM or hostage scene. There is someone duct taped to a chair, hooded, covered, bruised, torn stockings, naked and it is suggested that there was sexual abuse. And it is progressively revealed that the body had been violated in each orifice, in an obviously sexual way. And as the number progresses, the hood comes off and you see the person has been beaten, the teeth have been knocked out and the reversal in the end is that the person sees in the mirror the condition of their body and is turned on by it. It becomes what they needed to get off. What was at first a horrible incident has now become fetishized.
SB: And how does that relate to the murder?
RW: I’m not sure the exact relationship between the Prince that saw the show and the family member charged with murder, but the person that had been found murdered had been found in a similar condition and it was obviously sexual. And it was obviously ferocious, because there were bite marks and bruise marks and it wasn’t just a killing. It was a sexual role-play scenario.
SB: Scary! I had a relative of a Saudi Prince as an SM client in Los Angeles a few years ago, I walked right by his father and the father was in such denial he thought nothing of it…
RW: Dean Johnson supposedly died from a Saudi client. A prostitution/escort evening went bad. So, it’s just very ironic, when the news broke that the prince killed a man in a gay SM killing way, a member of the same family was sitting there in the audience, vomiting, when I put something up my rear end, despite the fact their relative was beating their gay lover to death.
SB: You spoke earlier about your characters being from old school New York. Did you ever hang out with Candy Darling or any of the Warhol Superstars? Did those characters influence you?
RW: I was too street for that. I was never a Warhol Factory person. I knew a lot of them. But I was very street; as was Keith Haring early on. We were both very street and the Warhol Superstars were apart of the characters we saw walking around. It was a part of the gay community. There wasn’t the separation there is today. Now there are muscle bars, waspy-very uptight-dry bars, there are the East Village queens, the Brooklyn queens, hipster queens, Queens queens, the financial district queens, honestly, there are so many distinctions separating us. Back then, punk rock was really raging, it was the late seventies and the fact was, there was a very politicized gay community that wore bomber jackets, bandana’s and mustaches; and there was the art crowd which was a really free form, hooker, escort, sleep with whoever and whatever and do punk rock, which was kind of the East Village scene. And even when I did a punk number, I had to ask what a punk looked like because we weren’t that way… we just wore black or cheap clothes and did a lot of drugs and had a lot of sex. My friends, without any real skill, would just jump on stage at CBGB’s and do stuff. So the influence was there. All those characters were there. Patti Smith was floating around and the Ramones were floating around and I saw the Ramones frequently.
SB: I grew up reading about that lifestyle in my suburban town and I glamorized it and desperately wanted to move to New York to find it, yet it doesn’t exist anymore. How did you survive the transition from the city being run by people like Warhol to Guliani and Bloomberg?
RW: Oh my god! Well I was really street, so it was wonderful. In 1971 the dressing laws were repealed. Before 1971 you had to wear three articles of men’s clothing or you could be arrested for being in drag.
SB: Shoes, pants and a t-shirt?
RW: Everyone had their thing. Some would wear a wristwatch or whatever you could get away with. But you could be searched publicly in order for the authorities to establish that you were wearing at least three articles of men’s clothing. By the time I got to New York, in 1975, if you saw someone in drag on the street it meant trouble. It was deeply subversive at the time. Which I loved, it’s why I came to New York. Drag spelled trouble. There was danger around it. There wasn’t any quality, now there is a theatrical quality to drag. Back then, it was a real subversive FUCK YOU gender craziness and that was my first experience with New York City drag. I didn’t wear wigs at the time because I had tons of hair but drag then wasn’t about hair, it was just a big FUCK YOU. And those characters were on the street.
SB: So now dressing in drag is considered to be somewhat vanilla and acceptable so you’ve pushed that to shoving things up your ass to keep it subversive?
SB: So that’s why you keep pushing what people expect?
SB: What’s the most interesting or biggest thing you’ve put up your butt onstage?
RW: LAUGHS My attitude.
RW: Truth be told…
RW: You know, it’s funny, the issue now that is coming up in performance art a lot, now that I’m often going back and forth to London… I’ve noticed a bit of culture shock. London never had much of a performance art scene, as we know it. My coming to London is a little like the Cockettes, when the Cockettes came to New York, their drug addled craziness was never for the New Yorkers – they showed up three hours late, and drugs influenced everything onstage, and they had no real focus other than to be on the same drugs.
In London there is a fetish scene and there really isn’t one in New York, so the idea of sticking something huge up your butt is something you can make money doing. There is a guy there, that takes out progressively larger bottles out of a paper bag and pushes them up his ass and then he puts them back in the bag then leaves. Also, there is a girl that does long distance enema squirting… It’s a little like what happened here (in NYC) during the 70’s, woman would smoke cigarettes with their cooch or shoot ping pong balls or whatever… as an art crowd, pussy tricks never caught our imagination. In New York it’s always been more about, “how does this fit into a statement?” Or, are you just doing a trick? Tricks for us are something an animal can do. A dog can pick up something and carry it. So I have a lot of things I can do but they have no relationship to a story. For example, I can open up beer bottles with my asshole.
JS: How did you figure that out?
RW: Someone challenged me. But there is nothing I can do to make it interesting. And the idea of self-fisting, okay, I can do it, but what do I want to say?
SB: So you’re avoiding being pornographic, in favor of being erotic with a narrative?.
RW: Yeah… it’s essential the trick become part of a story. There needs to be some theatrical sensibility. For years now, I’ve known how to insert a knife through my rectum, a long knife, and bleed, not with my own blood but with a blood pack. I stick the knife in my rectum and pierce the blood pact and drain blood, and the knife keeps an opening so the blood runs out at enough of a rate so if I’m onstage it appears interesting to the audience. If it took an hour to run out all the blood, you’d be dead in the water on stage. At first I didn’t have a particular need for this skill, so I came up with a murder story wherein I was apparently raped and tied to a bed and upon releasing myself I cut my bonds with a knife. And there is a dead body there who has been castrated after apparently raping me, and at one point I take the knife and stick it in my rectum just enough to remove his dismembered penis and put it under his sheet and then the rage of that violation goes further and I kill myself and I bleed the same way. So I have a reason now I remove the member with the knife then reinsert the knife. Which is a story about the nature of rage and anger. And then I bleed. So suddenly I have a reason for the ability and it makes sense at a theatrical level.
SB: Why do dark subjects like anger, rage, and murder interest you?
RW: I love that question. A lot of theater performance that one would see at a mainstream theater is all above the belt. Everything is implied and very little is actually seen. I never saw “Oh, Calcutta” but I believe it was more a celebration of being nude, which is a trick. Rather than saying why one should be nude they simply say, “Yay I’m naked!” And then on the other side, in venues where there is the opportunity to use that trope of nudity and other transgressive acts, performers are more concerned with tricks and the identity issues around it are simple… “aren’t I sexy” is the dominate one, or, “aren’t I campy” and that doesn’t usually involve nudity. Like in nightlife, especially in gay nightlife, the main performative looks people create are, “aren’t I clever”, or, “aren’t I campy”, or, “aren’t I sexy” and that’s the range.
As an adult we have other needs and other concerns and for me this is where the role of theater steps in. I don’t want to necessarily call it “community therapy” but we have a relationship going with our audience, not just to let them know I’m sexy. For instance, I debuted a piece last night about the ability to get an erection. This is not a subject regularly talked about. Normally it’s avoided entirely. But this is a real human subject. I want to explore other issues of boundaries, body boundaries, what is right and wrong, what constitutes pleasure, what is appropriate pleasure, what is one persons pleasure is another persons nightmare. So there are rules in regards to which pleasures are okay and which are not and these are major adult issues. And many of them are best dealt with in a full body way so it’s really brought home.
SB: You’ve mentioned a few times now, that you’re resistant to the Internet and technology.
RW: Not resistant, I believe one can only have so many friends…
SB: Do you consider yourself a sort of Luddite?
RW: Definitely I consider myself a sort of Luddite.
SB: Does this influence how you create work? Are you trying to be proactively against the technological age where, for example, people are texting during your performances?
RW: No. I’m not trying to be oppositional. There is a lot of value to the Internet. I rail against the loss of quality human interactions that has come as a result of the Internet. Sometimes I’m walking from the stage covered in blood and poop and someone walks by me with their eyes on their phone and I think, “I’m a walking image and you’re missing it…” So there are places where technology is used inappropriately and counter developmentally. But I’m not opposed to it. It’s very compelling and involving and my observation is, that you really go for it or you don’t. It’s very valuable to certain fields; for a photographer, writer or businessperson, it’s essential. But for what I do, I don’t feel a real need for it, except from a promotional side but I’m not interested in that.
JS: So much of who you are as a performance entity is about living in the actual reality of the moment and technology definitely establishes a reality separate from the actual one. You’ve been mentioning a lot about your full body being involved in your performance and I have a question about the surgical augmentation you’ve had done. Is that an extension of your body as a tool for performance or is that connected to a specific personal gender identity?
RW: They’re linked. None of it’s separate.
JS: So you consider your personal identity linked to your performance work?
RW: Very deeply and definitely. You know, maybe it’s cultural but I was raised with servitude as part of how one lives ones life. My parents were involved with it. And even in high school, I was doing volunteer work. Like I said, I was doing volunteer work in a children’s prison. Then I ran an AIDS organization for 18 years and that was tremendously impacting on my sensibilities. Because it’s really in taking care of others and in taking care of ones community that you grow into another place. I watched countless friends living a very hedonistic life and I have no issue with that. But there is a moment when you take on another mantel and you say I have a relationship with this community, I don’t simply take what gives me pleasure from it and forget the rest.
An issue I’ve had with the gay community comes from observing the straight community. In the straight community, a couple marries and has a kid and this guy that was otherwise artistically and professionally sort of a loser suddenly gets a job, puts on a suit, cleans up and takes on the responsibility of family life and of raising other people. And I think the gay community is ideally fixed to serve. They do that in careers but there is more to it. The gay community has been exemplary in so many forms of service. The gay community is one or 2% of the population affected by AIDS and all of the attention, publicity and organizing they did to stop AIDS has served 99% of the AIDS population. It’s an outstanding contribution and it’s completely overlooked. I think service is an essential part of being a human being. If you’re only living for yourself you’re a dog.
In 2004 I stopped the AIDS organization. It continues but it doesn’t function as much. The climate changed in New York and I didn’t feel like we were making any headway, Guiliani changed the social structure so much that I felt like what I wanted to do and the way I saw doing AIDS awareness was completely undermined.
SB: What were you doing?
RW: Poster campaigns, events, raising awareness, awareness events, and creating support systems and groups.
JS: What was his oppositional stance?
RW: He managed to close down a lot of the sex clubs, bars, backrooms, and places where people could gather for more than simply sex. He forced the movement underground and to the Internet and then the motive of gathering shifted to sex. It became impossible to include other views.
SB: Like with porn… in the 1970’s there were porn theaters and everyone would go to the theater to view it and jack off and afterward there would be dialogue between people but once that was shut down, porn moved into the privacy of the home and has been hidden under a veil of secrecy. And it’s harder to have a dialogue about it now that it’s not in the open.
RW: Yeah. The social element has been drained out and now it’s harder to discipline and it’s changed the whole landscape. But for me, I try not to look at what separates and I see my performance as a kind of service and a place for me to get messages out.
JS: Knowing about your past AIDS work, it has always seemed kind of ironic to me that so many of the characters you portray onstage seem like the kinds of people that would acquire AIDS. And it must be difficult for you, since you draw on characters from old New York and most of them did die from the disease or drugs or the behaviors you portray.
RW: Yeah, well you go through your early life watching people and seeing what works and making decisions for yourself. You watch enough of your friends die and you don’t watch anymore. I take people and I throw them up against the wall and I tell them what I think, hard. And that’s what I’m doing with performance.
JS: Do you feel like AIDS forced a more conservative society? I don’t mean only sexually, I mean morally. Like you said the gay community used to be the black sheep stepchild of the American household. Their identity was deemed wrong, so why not push it further and do drugs and be frivolous sexually. Do you feel like AIDS caused this new gay cultural that promotes a normalization of the sexuality and promotes a gay familial identity that wants a white picket fence and the ability to adopt and marry?
RW: Yeah. AIDS was kind of a divisionary thing. A bunch of queens saying we’re equal doesn’t go as far as “there’s a disease affecting our community and it’s going to affect your community and other communities, let’s fix this.” There’s something admiral about a community warning another and now they don’t have to shout, “we’re equal” because it’s implied. It did swing people more to the right both politically and socially because people got a taste. There’s a book I love called “The Trouble With Normal” by Michael Warner. There is far too much politics in that book for me to unravel. The book made a huge change in the community, in terms of conservatism and the goals of the community. When you never thought some of the things that happened were possible, nobody thought about it, but suddenly the carrot is dangled. Wait a minute, my partner could be recognized as a marriage, and I like that idea but then they look at me as interfering with that, because I’m weird. Suddenly a whole new dynamic emerges and the book discusses that.
JS: But do you feel like the book is a false promise? I mean, I grew up in suburban New Jersey and I know for a fact that it doesn’t matter how many children a gay couple adopts or how many 9-5 jobs gays have or how “Leave It To Beaver” they become, they’ll never be accepted in the houses of a lot of the Republican parents of children I grew up with. Do you feel like a lot of people are fooling themselves, thinking change will come?
RS: I’ve heard straight people saying, “Gay people deserve the same right straight people have of being unhappy”.
RS: So that’s all. It’s all politics. Politics are just one group dominating and then another group dominates and then another group dominates. It’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is never in politics. The end of the story is with people finding happiness that is more deeply rooted and within themselves. Society will not give you happiness and politics will not give you happiness. You have to find your own happiness.
JS: A lot of people that were living in the gay community in NYC during the late 70’s and early 80’s talk about the drastic changes that took place within the scene and one of the biggest they talk about is the aspect of safety. And now, people can be out and not fear for their life. How violent antagonism has dropped significantly. That’s definitely a good thing, but do you feel because of that something has been lost? That maybe there is an edge that has been lost? Was there a daringness that was there, that no longer exists?
RS: Good question. I don’t know. I know I still get tons of antagonism. For me it’s a daily reality.
JS: It hasn’t changed at all?
RW: No. And it’s been constant since I was a little kid. So when I was little I tried to blend in. And it didn’t work or I guess I was just unhappy with it. It wasn’t who I am. I experience that antagonism every day of my life. For example, often I perform at clubs where I’m a well placed figure, a sort of star figure, and then I can walk one avenue away to perform at another club and on the way people will throw eggs and bottles and nearly kill me and call me a faggot and it’s 2011 in New York City.
JS: Does it feed you? Considering how in your face your shows are, it almost seems kind of like a challenge…
RW: This is again the non-separation between performer and audience, if you look at Shaman in the Native American community, that’s not a separate entity, that’s an accepted figure. In our modern world we exclude a lot of figures, we try to ostracize them or de-identify with them. As opposed to saying, they’re apart of our community. So one of the ways I give back to the community is a kind of gender terrorism. Where I antagonize. I visually antagonize the world. I try my best to break up a lot of old ideas on as many levels as I possibly can. For instance, I became a member of a Chelsea gay gym which is very fashion oriented and like any group, everyone there is looking down their noses and judging one another very heavily by which t-shirt and which brand of sneakers and how tight and how long… and I saw what was going on and naturally decided to throw the whole thing off the chart. It’s fun and I enjoy it, but I also feel it’s good for the attitude of the place to have something that puts everyone on one side and polarize them.
SB: What did you wear?
RS: Boots and skirts and I took things that didn’t match. Every Wednesday when I go in there, I see Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs and we’re all within ten feet of each other and I’m wearing the worst combinations I can think of while they sit there in the colors of the season. And everyone is looking at them, to see what they’re wearing. For me it’s a continuation of my performance.
JS: So does the performance ever stop for you? It seems like it’s incorporated into every moment of your identity.
RW: I think performance, depending on ones awareness, doesn’t ever stop. For instance, I’m a trained calligrapher. And calligraphy, unlike regular writing, is a performance because there is rhythm; you have to be in the right mind state. The moment you stop, it’s like stopping a movie… it’s like sitting in a theater and yelling out, “stop the movie!” You can do that with a DVD in the privacy of your home, but you can’t do that in the theater… there’s a flow to it and continuity and this is something one does alone in their room. And you’re really in fact doing a performance. Or, if you’re rehearsing something, you’re in fact doing a performance. If you’re studying, you don’t just pick away at your guitar acting like it’s not a performance, if you are then you’re not really studying your guitar. On some level there is a performance mentality that I possess wherein I focus on giving my all to everything that I do. I think that is ultimately performance.
SB: Do you plan on doing a full-length play that will incorporate all your skits? Like Taylor Mac has a lot of plays that are about his life yet are fictional, theatrical performances. Or why do you prefer to work in the form of shorter skits?
RW: I come out of the burlesque-vaudeville tradition. I’ve always felt that if I have something to say, I can say it in three minutes; anything more than that is just extra words. I’ve had a lot of offers from people and places. Were I to produce something, they would give me the space and the support. I just haven’t found something. Right now I’m working on several films. Which will combine a lot of my individual pieces. I’m working on one, which is a murder story of a performer that does a number of staged murders and then one of them turns out to be a real murder. And there is a full reversal at the end. My stuff is challenging to string together because of the full body quality of it. At the end of three minutes I’m covered head to toe with something and it’s hard to get out of that. So I’m considering it.
Each is another audience. The club world is one audience. And what I like about the club world is that it’s the lowest common denominator. It’s where everybody goes to relax and to be. The theater is another place, another crowd. And I don’t know if I want to talk to that group of people. The club crowd doesn’t come to the theater, but the theater crowd may come to the clubs. The Box was partly founded on this, the director was producing plays and found that none of his friends wanted to spend an hour and a half watching a play but they’d spend five hours in a club. So he decided to bring the theater to the clubs, where they’d be comfortable being. So, I don’t see a big separation between clubs and theater.
SB: Me either. I see the theater possessing the same possibility for a party. I could easily see your work stretching out into an hour and a half piece.
RW: Well, The Box has offered for me to have my own night once a month, where I’d just do a series of performances with periodic breaks. And I spoke to a whole bunch of people that are interested in working with me on something full length. Right now I’m trying to find the same kind of commitment to it. I write compulsively. I have a list of pieces I want to make and tons of things I want to say.
SB: How has your style evolved or shifted since you first started with Rosewood… How have you matured?
RW: In the beginning it was all based on what was happening… there was a performance art phenomena based on the Blue Angel Cabaret. It was a real “anything goes” kind of thing and attracted every type of crazy performance. For example, a woman friend of mine was fisted by two midgets at the same time, under a big dress. People were peeing on pasta and throwing it at the audience. There was every kind of craziness. But it was completely unstructured and undisciplined. It was complete craziness. In response to that was the burlesque movement, which was very codified, “this is burlesque and this is not burlesque”. And I moved from the tranny bars into the burlesque world and the burlesque world felt too restricted to me. Once I learned the basic rules of burlesque, which I won an award for…
SB: What was the best move that you won the award for?
RW: There was a little debate, but I think it was the tearing the panties away and revealing… I had a penis stocking covered in rhinestones and a tassel and at the end of the song my panties went away and there was the last dangling reveal. But there were other good moves in the piece, so I was never sure.
But the burlesque world always wanted to limit what I could say. After a while I had enough of, “aren’t I cute”, or, “aren’t I witty”, or, “aren’t I funny”, and then I got into a conflict with one of the old ladies, one of the god mothers of the burlesque movement… for instance, gay marriage isn’t divided by religion as it is more so divided by age, the older generations are the ones who are opposed and the younger of all religions are the ones who are open to it. The older burlesque crowd saw me as a gay man and nothing more. A gay man doing burlesque wasn’t as important.
SB: That’s interesting, especially considering burlesque was first done by men in the Victorian era, and then women took it over around the 1950’s or something like that… most people think burlesque is a female performance act, but in the beginning it was a male performance.
RW: Oh yeah, it was predominately male. It was baggy pants comedians and all sorts of male characters. Anyway, when I started doing, it they really made it clear that a burlesque performer had to, “know this”, and they had to, “do that” and couldn’t, “say this”, and if you didn’t adhere to their rules they said they wouldn’t respect you. And I thought, “Ok. For an art form that offers no money and the real award is that one can say what they want, they must have must respect what I’m doing and if not they’re not going to offer me anything, then I’m going to say bye!” And then I moved into my own style and doors opened and doors closed and peoples views got stronger, whether they liked it or not… but my work really came from the heart… I frequently would have the reaction of, “I don’t enjoy that but I’m great full it’s happening because it spells F.R.E.E.D.O.M. to me. And we should be able to have the possibility to do this.” And the only way people will be aware of the possibility is if someone is doing it.
SB: All around your room (we interviewed Rosewood in the work studio wherein s/he stores theatrical costumes and does woodwork) you have pictures of Shamans and objects representative of Eastern philosophy. How does eastern philosophy shape you or influence the work your doing?
RW: I don’t have a direct philosophical influencing me mentally, but I think any teaching one follows is oriented to making one free. A lot of my work is oriented to freedom. It’s about removing limits and boundaries and giving back decisions to the intuition rather than “this is right and this is wrong.” Some of my work could be considered cautionary tales as there is a horror element but it doesn’t say where the line is. It just says look at it and examine it. That’s my point of view with AIDS. Find out for yourself what is important and what you are here for. For me the Eastern philosophy comes in, in the way a lot of our boundaries come in as Judeo-Christian and American, they’re artificial. They aren’t inherent to our nature. The Eastern philosophy says, “we’re the self, we are a divine creature.” America says, “we’re divine from the waist to the head and the thighs to the feet.” I’m sorry but we’re completely divine. I’m opposed to the notion that every serial killer in American theater has no genitals and in no way has a sexual motive. It’s denying human nature. I don’t like a lot of the trappings of every religion. Religion is fun. It provides lots of stock characters. I have a rabbi character that I adore. The happy pervert and it really reflects the Jewish relationship to sex, which is “YES”! I like to pick on priests and nuns; religious stereotypes are fun because they read well in theater. But for myself, every religion has trappings and trappings have no real meaning to me. It’s like eating rye bread to show you’re Jewish – not really!
SB: What saved you when you were young and bleeding out of every orifice? Was it the horror of your life?
RW: I was dealing drugs and my best friend died on his birthday. He overdosed. And we were in a bar where I was working and he was 21 or 22 and that was hard because it was right in front of me. At the time we were doing everything together and it was his birthday and he died. And then another good friend of mine wound up in prison and maimed. Just wrong place wrong time. He had his fingers smashed off with a hammer. And then another friend of mine wound up in a prison in Colombia and has not been heard from since. Then another friend went to prison… just a whole string of shit. Then came marijuana scare, the chemical exfoliates or defoliates were being used to get rid of marijuana fields. And that marijuana was mixed with regular marijuana and the idea that I was selling a toxic substance and injuring people… all of that happened at the same time…
SB: And now you’re clean?
RW: I haven’t used anything since 1980, except recently, my doctor suggested I started to drink red wine because I’m an old bag it helps my blood pressure. That’s it.
SB: Does the irony bother you? Most your audiences are a bunch of young, straight kids fueled with drugs and money, viewing you as a freak, drug addict. Yet you’re a sober person that runs a yoga studio out of your apartment, you travel the world, and you’re highly successful. Does it make you angry or is it funny to you?
RW: Being misjudged is an underrated pleasure. It’s wonderful to have people think the wrong things. It’s really fun.
Here’s the interview as an MP3: