Walker and Di Monaco describe their company, On the Rocks, as “the product of an endless list of ideas and a hunger to make new work. The work is bold, it’s fearless, it’s provocative and it’s queer (really, really queer). We’re not trying to make well-made, easily-produced plays. We want to push the envelope and create an indelible, theatrical experience for our audience.”
Haygen’s often sold-out new play, “Birdie’s Pit Stop (and The Tribe of Queers Who Fucked Everything Up)” features popular Philadelphia actors Iman Aaliyah, Joe Canuso, Ashton Carter, Abby Garber, Jenna Kuerzi, Campbell O'Hare, Aaron Palmer, Katherine Perry and Richie Sklar.
Haygen grew up as a gay, Puerto-Rican American, living in the most conservative, Confederate flag-waving backwoods county of Virginia on a 103-acre farm — an only child with professional body-building parents. “I was lonely, and as a result, I write a lot about displacement,” he confessed and gave this example how he spent his childhood on a farm, becoming “weird and creative”:
“One of my favorite things to do was to play Crime Scene Investigation in my shower. Along with soaps, loofahs and shampoos, my shower shelves were stocked with an industrial-sized box of latex gloves, a scalpel (I got it from a chemistry set), a 1-gallon bottle of fake blood and a tub of Vaseline (to congeal the blood). I would take the blood, dump it on myself and find an interesting way to lie in the tub as a murder victim. After I found a suitably ghastly way to lie in the shower, I would stand up, wash the blood off of me, strap on my latex gloves and become the investigator of the crime.
“I would juggle these roles back and forth in the shower until all my hot water ran out. Sometimes I was a hooker who was bludgeoned in an alley, other times I assumed the role of the young boy that tragically fell from his bedroom window. I’ve been the cop investigating the crime, or the medical examiner dissecting the victim. That’s what I did from ages 7-11.”
Haygen admits that “literally, all of what I write I’m wrestling with something from my past or something in my present.”
That wrestling with one’s identity included his first short play, “Hi. My Name is Wendy. And I’m In Love With a Lost Boy,” which premiered in Philadelphia. “It was an allegory of Peter Pan, but it was also about my struggle with sexuality as a high schooler,” he explained.
His next play was bolder, dealing with a major taboo subject: “Dad Shot Himself and Left Behind a Box Of Kink Porn,” which was about his grandfather’s suicide and the role of pornography on the psychology of relationships.
Recently, his in your-face “Buzzfeed, Donald Trump & Dead Black Kids” premiered during the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival. It shocked the audience with its honesty and led to many discussions.
Asked about his latest, “Birdie,” featured at the FringeArts Festival through Sept. 17, Haygen said he’s “super excited … because it’s balls-to-the-walls nuts. The show is the second entry in my ‘Dead Teenager Trilogy.’
He provides this summary of this year’s Fringe sensation: “For me, the play, in its latest form, is about acceptance. And how our pre-conceived notions inform our viewpoint on ‘the other’—whoever or whatever ‘the other’ might be.” Set in rural West Virginia, the play brings Haygen back to his roots “Birdie’s Pit Stop is the shittiest bar in the shittiest part of the shittiest town. When a tribe of queers (from up north, obviously) crashes in, all hell breaks loose. Literally. A weird play about possession, human sacrifice, guns, drag queens, drag queens with guns and Jennifer Lopez."
Tough as Haygen can be in his use of language, he also can defy language in going to the opposite end of the spectrum, for example, when he comments: “What definitely surprised me about this play is how fucking cute it turned out. It’s darling. I’m not used to writing things that are cute, but this is the cutest I’ll get. It’s like baby-Easter-bunny-in-a-purple-dress-cute. But there is still a lot of blood vomiting.”
Haygen is known for going where many writers dare not go if they want to become a commercial success.
“People often tell me that my writing ‘shatters taboos’ or is ‘explicit’ or ‘uncomfortable, ’ which might be true, but I never sit down and write to shatter a taboo. I write the world the way I experience it. I write people the way I see them. I write places the way I taste them. The world is beautiful, but also hella scary. I think by not exposing the horrors of the world, we’re doing audiences an injustice.”
He then goes head-on and describes the traditional theater world: “I wish I saw more risks happening in theater. I think part of the reason that theater audiences are dwindling — particularly with young audiences — is because theater feels dated. I write plays about queer millennials doing fucked-up shit. Risk is in the DNA of everything I write. I want to change the stigma.”
In conversations with Haygen, his honesty in coming to terms with “a place of displacement” that many young members of the LGBT community experience, shines through strongly.
“I knew I was gay when I was 4 years old. I literally gave a boy a kiss, with tongue. My parents were fairly conservative — less conservative than all the other Confederate flag-waving people that were in my town, but conservative nonetheless. And they are super-athletic professional bodybuilders; however, I was not athletic.” And then he adds, “Don’t get me wrong, my parents and I are super close. We’re practically best friends, but growing up, we didn’t have a whole lot in common, except that we were all exceptionally weird.”
Haygen integrates much of what his friends experience and say into his play, and often talks about how blessed he feels by his collaborators here in Philadelphia. “They have been the best crew I’ve ever worked with. They even have written this play with me. They’re incredible,” he said about this Philadelphia friends who have impacted his writing.
He mentioned Abby Garber whom he saw in a University of the Arts production of “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation.”
“I knew that I wanted to work with her. It took me two years to finally nail down a project for her. She’s phenomenal as the queer millennial Penelope in the Tribe of Queers.”
And then there is his director, Elaina Di Monaco, whom he describes as “my soulmate. Working with her has been a dream. Each time we work together, it gets easier. We complete each other’s sentences. We’re in each other’s heads. We may have been separated at birth. I’m waiting for the news that we’re secret twins or something. We really embrace every actor’s individual nuances and quirks.”
When asked whom he would like to see in the audience, Haygen said he’s eager for non-traditional spectators.
“I want to get asses in seats that aren’t the typical theatre-goer. I want to see my Point Breeze neighbors in the audience. I want to see the customer I rang out at Express in the audience. I want to see Trump supporters in the audience — because they would protest it.”
And then he gets serious. “Not every theater experience has to be deep, prophetic, moving and emotional. Too often, theater artists take themselves too seriously. Sometimes, shit isn’t that deep. Theater doesn’t have to be one thing. It can be many things — and it should be many things.”
However, he also noted the challenges he faces to balance his personal life, his day job and his writing. “I think I just want what every writer wants: I want writing to become my career and not a hobby. I want to keep challenging the system,” he added. “Keep provoking people, making them scared, making them uncomfortable, showing them something new. I think it’s important for makers to remember that realism and truth are not the same thing at all. Not even a little.”
And then, typical for the very human Haygen, often seen as the enfant terrible of the Philly theater world, he adds this declaration of love for his boyfriend and his many other friends: “Kevan Sullivan [Koresh Dance Company], bless him, is always in my work, a lot of direct quotes. I just surround myself with fascinating people that always have crazy shit to say. And then I compile it and make it into a story. My friends are ridiculous humans. Beautiful, ridiculous humans.”
Catch “Birdie's Pit Stop (And The Tribe Of Queers Who Fucked Everything Up” at 11 p.m. Sept. 15, 11:30 p.m. Sept. 16 and 11 p.m. Sept. 17 at The Pharmacy, 1300 S. 18th St. For tickets, visit http://fringearts.com/event/21199/.
Originally published by Philadelphia Gay News.