Spit and Tears: Hedwig and the Angry Inch Work With What They Got

photo by Anna Henschel

An East Berlin glam-punk singer with a botched sex change operation, the search for a soulmate or the healing freedom in finding wholeness within yourself— however you describe it, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has enticed and entranced audiences ever since John Cameron Mitchell created the musical over a decade ago. Combining catchy pop, punk rock and power ballads with monologues and quirky animation, Hedwig has a little sugar and spice for everyone. Skin Horse Theater is pulling the wigs down off the shelf and bringing back their production of Hedwig after their first wildly successful run two years ago. I got together with Evan Spigelman (who plays Hedwig) and director Anna Henschel to talk about realistic anti-realism theatre, no-tricks audience participation and the puzzle of selfworth. By the end, we were all mascara-smeared and flying our freak flags high.

Skin Horse moved as a group here to New Orleans just three years ago, but you made a strong impact immediately through your original work, Curiouser: An Historical Inaccuracy, in the 2009 Fringe Fest. A year and a half later, you put on a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, your first non-original piece here. Why did you choose to add this show to your repertoire?
Anna Henschel: Hedwig is the perfect show for New Orleans, with its combination of emotions and raucous party. The city has a lot of heart and personality and cares very deeply about issues, but wants to get it all out with glam and glitter and ridiculousness— which is what Mardi Gras is. The last production of Hedwig was ten years before and it was hugely popular. We thought, no one has done it for a while and it is an amazing show, so why not? Skin Horse was still very new to the city then and we thought it would be a great way to get our name out and draw crowds we would never draw otherwise. It sold out so successfully two years ago at the Backyard Ballroom. We had to close on sold-out nights, leave people on the streets and say, sorry we will try to bring it back another time.
Evan Spigelman: It is a play we love and had done before in college… Original work is our bread and butter, but we have come up with a mode where we have both, like our last show, [Oscar Wilde’s] The Importance of Being Earnest. It allows for audience-building. Some people may not see original work but would see a classic or a play that is like a rock show. We like classics and musicals as much as we like butoh. We want to scratch all those itches.

Why did you choose to remount Hedwig specifically during this season?
AH: January is awkwardly sandwiched between New Year’s and Mardi Gras. You can’t really put on a show that doesn’t buy into that. It’s not a good time to do original work because it doesn’t get the right attention, with football playoffs and Mardi Gras and Twelfth Night and Krewe du Vieux. But Hedwig would love that. Hedwig gets to be a part of all that madness, to kick off Mardi Gras and enjoy the ridiculousness of the Saints not being in the playoffs. The show fits perfectly with this time of year. We enjoyed it so much the last time and people kept asking, “When are you going to bring back Hedwig? Please bring it back!” It has been on our minds and we found the right opportunity.
ES: The time period is really nice because Hedwig is a party as much as anything else. You can see the show and scream to rock music and get drunk, just as Mardi Gras is starting. A lot of theatre companies have shows that help make the rest of their work possible, whether it is A Christmas Carol or The Mousetrap. Ours just happens to be Hedwig.

Which says a lot about your company.
ES: [Laughs] I guess so!
AH: This isn’t the number one reason sets. The show loses a lot in those spaces. There is specifically a note at the beginning of the script to ad-lib and make the show fit the place you are in. To see it on a fake set in a really nice theater is so weird. The Marigny-Bywater area includes a lot of unique venues (like the AllWays) that are not replicated in other cities. We will be performing in the front lounge, not the back theater. The show feels very natural there. It is as much a rock show and stand-up gig and drag act but a side benefit of doing Hedwig is we are doing a fully original production in the spring. Hedwig is partially a fundraiser for it. It is a low budget show with great attendance and there is a lot of excitement around it. We are also going to have merch: not really for fundraising but because we all want Hedwig tee shirts. We will be screen-printing them there at the show.

This production will be at the AllWays, which seems like a really perfect space for this type of show.
ES: I’ve seen productions of the show in really nice theaters with well-built as it is a play.
AH: For all its anti-realism, you get to be realistic with the show because it is where it is. Hedwig wouldn’t be able to get the AllWays theater. She would only be able to get the bar. She would get the cheaper option with a smaller stage and shittier sound system—
ES: —While Tommy Gnosis [Hedwig’s love interest] plays the Superdome. Also, in other productions you see a lot of the glam influences. A little more Bowie, a little more Bolan. We decided to take a different tack and look more to punk and grunge. Even though they reference Bowie and Lou Reed and those guys, we were more into Patti Smith, the Gits, Bad Brains—

You spit on me, Patti Smith-style, at the last show, by the way!
ES: So you know then! The AllWays Lounge is perfect for that. The glam influences are still there in the show. We are just imagining an Angry Inch where Hedwig is more No More Fiction and less big stadium rock. We are playing with Whom Do You Work For? again. They have grown so much since we last performed together. They’ve always been good but they have gotten mind-blowingly good, especially because the electronic music scene doesn’t get as much traction and press as jazz or bounce or hip-hop. But they have really gotten attention, they are doing incredible stuff. They will have an opening set before the show, so I really encourage everyone to check them out. They are worth the price of admission alone.
AH: I’ve been to a handful of Whom… gigs and their music is nothing like Hedwig. Hedwig is pop, punk, rock. We do a little more grunge, too. Whom… has all kinds of pedals and synths and knobs and looping and shit that I don’t understand and never will. I feel like a Luddite grandmother watching, I have no idea what they are doing. It sounds so wonderful but it creates a really different atmosphere than anything the Angry Inch does. I think it’s incredible because what they bring makes Hedwig really fresh.

Evan, since it has been two years since you last played Hedwig, do you anticipate any changes in how you will portray her?
ES: It is a role that is really close to me. I saw the movie and then a production of the play while I was in high school; it allowed me to come out. It kicked me out the door. The message of selfconfidence is so powerfully delivered through the music. I was listening to System of a Down and Disturbed and Tool and crap like that in high school. I needed the rock’n’roll message. The pride parades were nice, but music was the form I needed to get the message delivered that gave me that extra boost. I actually did the show in high school; it was my senior project. I can’t believe I got away with it but I did. We did the whole production, too. We only censored one word in the whole play: “cunt.” People were uncomfortable with just that word so I said, huh, alright, I’ll give you that one. I also did the show in college, so it’s a role that has been following me in different stages of my life, which has been cool because it is different every time. This will be my fourth time. It’s fun to have a role where you can check in with yourself as an actor. Hey, what’s happened in the past two years? How is this one different from the last one? The nice thing about having a role you do so often is it allows you to be freer with it. You have more liberty to take risks. Like I said, the script says to ad-lib. So I can be loose with the audience, work them a little more, try new things every night and not be worried about it because we will all be able to find our way back to the center.

The show is very much about gender and sexuality. But the message resonates with people regardless of their specific gender identity or sexual orientation. Why do you think that is?
ES: Hedwig is about self-worth. Hedwig is someone who has been told all her life that she is not good enough for anything. She thinks to solve all of this she needs to find her other half. She has thought that all her life. But she has the wrong prescription to the right problem. The play is a journey about where to find that in yourself. Even though we know intellectually that you don’t have to have one monogamous romantic partner to be a whole person, in pop culture it is constantly reinforced that you do. So we all have the same crisis of self-worth that Hedwig has. She is not able to be proud of herself or her body because she needs it validated by a romantic partner. It is about that journey to not just be confident in yourself but to find your center in yourself. It is a surprisingly rare message in popular culture but a really important one.
AH: For me, it is about searching for home. Hedwig’s father was this American GI that she never knew. She lives with her mother in East Berlin but, growing up, she craves everything in West Berlin. Her mother lets her go through a ludicrous sex change to be with a man that neither of them knows, an operation that she didn’t ask for, so she can leave the country at a terribly young age. I think she is, in some sense, homeless. She finds home in music and she thinks she finds home in Tommy. She searches across America through her tour but eventually she finds home in her.

I also describe the show with those same themes and sometimes I forget that many people would look at Hedwig as a freak, including Tommy. But what makes her a freak to people, she owns completely. It is even the name of her band. Why do you think people still connect with her?
ES: If anybody tells you there was a moment in their life where they didn’t feel like a freak, they are lying. I think that ties into the universality of it but it ties into Hedwig’s journey, too. The glam and punk rock references are there because they came from groups of people who were also told they were freaks. Music allowed them to flip the bird to everyone who called them freaks but embrace it at the same time. Yeah, we are freaks, so what? Hedwig has that edge, too. Fuck you, I am what I am.

I always cry at the end when she is realizing that. I really cried when I saw you perform it. I’m crying a little just thinking about it.
ES: The play is so smart in how it is written. It ends with the audience. Even though it is essentially a two person show, the reason it is better in a club or backyard is because you want the audience to be a character too. You want the audience to participate. Not like, “Hello volunteer, I am going to bring you up to do a trick,” but knowing we are live and in the room with you. If you catcall or you spill your beer on the stage, we are going to respond. And at the end we are going to ask you to lift up your hands and sing.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs at the AllWays Lounge for the month of January. Whom Do You Work For? opens at 7 PM, followed by the show at 8. For more info go to skinhorsetheater.org

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