Queer Theater Artist Dan Fishback: Performing (and Activism) Is in His Blood

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday January 16, 2019

Queer playwright, performer and activist Dan Fishback comes to the Cambridge, Massachusetts performance space Oberon this week for an evening of songs and patter. EDGE spoke to Fishback about the show, his career, his controversies, his politics, and what to expect at Oberon.

Fishback has such a funny, easy-going manner that it was hard to believe he is a political firebrand that was at the vortex of controversy some 15 months ago. That was when a reading of a new play was abruptly canceled by an organization that had planned to produce it.

The play, "Rubble Rubble," was to get a reading at the American Jewish Historical Society, a scholarly agency that is housed at the Center for Jewish History in New York. In a report in the New York Times Fishback described the play as being about "how Jewish families are broken over the politics of Israel-Palestine," but, as he pointed out, those who canceled the reading hadn't read it.

The reason was Fishback's politics. He is a follower of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement, which according to its website is "a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity... Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law."

That "Rubble Rubble" is a musical points to Fishback's talents as a musician, which he brings to Oberon Thursday night for an evening he calls "Dan Fishback Alone" as part of the partnership between the American Repertory Theater and the Afterglow Festival (Afterglow @ Oberon). Delving into his catalogue for the past fifteen years, Fishback promises an evening of pointed and quirky mix of songs and patter that have defined him as an artist and activist.

For more information about Fishback's Oberon appearance, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

He has toured the world with his band Cheese on Bread, whose latest album, ""The One Who Wanted More," dropped in 2018, along with a music video for the song "Bad Friend," directed by Stephen Winter and featuring Justin Vivian Bond. Fishback is also the director of the Helix Queer Performance Network. His play "You Will Experience Silence" was called "sassier and more fun than 'Angels in America' " by the Village Voice, and his musical The "Material World" was called one of the Top Ten Plays of 2012 by Time Out New York.

EDGE spoke to Fishback about the show, the "Rubble Rubble" controversy and his ongoing struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which has affected his performing career. (He chronicles his illness and interviews guests on his podcast Sick Day with Dan Fishback, which recently released its 10th episode.)

On being queer and Jewish

EDGE: What will you be doing at Oberon?

Dan Fishback: It's a concert. I will be playing some songs, some new songs, some from 15 years ago. And I talk a lot between them. I have been working on this particular set for a couple of months, so it's going to be a lot of fun.

EDGE: You have described yourself as being queer and Jewish and unable to distinguish between the two. Why can't you tell them apart?

Dan Fishback: Well, being a white Jew and being a white queer person are similar. When you are one of either, there is a way in which you have power and a way you don't have power. There's a way in which you are in the mainstream, and there's a way you are in a margin. There is a way in which oppression is concealed for you, and there is a way when oppression is completely unavoidable. I feel that so much of my life is about being on that boundary, between having an enormous amount of privilege, and also being constantly threatened and excluded from the way that we as a culture tell stories about ourselves.

EDGE: You have also written that you love a dirty stage with a loud, drunk audience. Are you hoping to have that at Oberon?

Dan Fishback: I would love that at Oberon. I mostly make theater, but I came up in bars and clubs as a performer. So I have often said that I would not put something on stage in a quiet theater unless I think it would work in a loud bar. Because if you can get someone's attention when they're drunk and would rather be talking to their friends, you have created something worthwhile. If you can get someone's attention that is not prepared to sit quietly, then you are making something of quality.

EDGE: Have you ever had a performance of yours disrupted by someone disorderly?

Dan Fishback: No one has ever interrupted a play or a performance because of the political content, but I have been heckled at talks because I am very involved in the Palestinian liberation movement. I have been disrupted by people that scream out and interrupt.

The 'Rubble Rubble' controversy

EDGE: And you have had a play of yours, "Rubble Rubble," basically blacklisted when a reading of it at the American Jewish Historical Society was canceled abruptly in October, 2017. Can you talk about that experience?

Dan Fishback: Jews who oppose the occupation of Palestine and Jews who support the BDS Movement are all essentially blacklisted from most mainstream Jewish organizations, and it has been that way for quite some time. So it was actually unusual that I was booked in the first place, because I am very outspoken in my politics and my play deals with those issues. I thought it was an act of incredible bravery that the staff of the American Jewish Historical Society booked a reading of my play; but I was very aware that their board could at some point could cancel it. I was braced for that from the very beginning because I knew something dangerous was already happening.

And so when the reading of "Rubble Rubble" was canceled, I knew from advance that I was going to swing into action and cause a ruckus and let everyone know that this happened and create an alternate, independently funded performance. What I didn't expect was how supportive my different communities were going to be -- I am a part of many, many different communities, and all of them swooped in and said they are so angry that this play was canceled and they are going to do whatever they could to support this work. People were really, really upset about the censorship, and I think it is indicative of where the world is going on a lot of these issues. I think people are really fed up with the suppression of dissent.

And I think being queer helped prepare me for being part of that dissenting movement. I already knew what it is like to be censored. I already knew what it is like when people didn't want me to speak my truth. And I know how to deal with it because I grew up queer in the 1980s and 1990s. It is easier for me to voluntarily to step out of the mainstream, which means I won't have access to resources, I won't have access to funding; but I choose to do that because it's not nothing new for me. I have been there before. That's where I started.

EDGE: You have said that it was more painful to come out to your parents for being anti-Zionist than it was to be a gay man. Why was that?

Dan Fishback: For me a lot of queer anti-Zionists have this experience because a lot of Jewish families are very supportive of their gay children. It was difficult at first to come out to my parents because it was the 1990s and there was a lot they didn't know. But I always knew that they would understand politically that I was part of an oppressed minority and that they would have the understanding that I needed to be protected. And they did. My parents are PFlag parents. My father is the advocacy chair of Metro DC PFlag. My dad is a major gay rights activist in the county where I grew up as a result of having a gay son.

But Zionism isn't so cut and dry. Once a parent gets over a child being gay, they're over it. But the idea that I would not support a Jewish state is a lot more painful for a lot of families to deal with because a lot of, especially my parents' generation, a lot of Baby Boomers grew up with the idea that Israel is the thing that is going to protect us, Israel is the thing that is going to redeem us.

My generation has grown up with a lot more access to the truth about the occupation of Palestine. We don't have the same kind of nostalgia that they do. I think it is easier for my generation to say we don't support this, we reject this. So there is an actual disagreement, but with being gay I knew that this disagreement was superficial and temporary.

Performing is in his blood

EDGE: What came first, being a playwright or being a performer?

Dan Fishback: I was always in plays when I was a kid, but I never thought about making plays. I never thought of being a playwright at all. But when I started playing music live, when I started writing songs and playing to audiences, I loved talking between songs. Some of my favorite moments on stage were talking to the audience, sort of kibitzing. So I created a show that was just me talking. I had a connection with the Queer Performance art world in New York City and I was connected to a lineage of mostly lesbian monologue-based performance art that came out of WOW Cafe from some companies like Split Britches, so I saw myself as a monologist coming out of a queer performance tradition; but then it just happened organically that I began to bring other people into those performances, so I would be talking to other people on stage. I was like, "this was sort of like a play."

Then I realized that if I called myself a playwright, my parents would be less ashamed of me. Like being a performance artist, it just sounds ridiculous; but being a playwright, sounds sort of fancy. So I defined myself as a playwright was almost as a joke; but I found in collaborating with my director Stephen Brackett that I actually really loved working in a theater and thinking of myself as a playwright. I loved the strategies of making a play.

I don't have any formal training in playwriting. I learned totally through my collaborations. But I think it gives me a helpful edge. A lot of playwrights are taught by other playwrights and they emulate their mentors, then they have to unlearn what they learned from their mentors afterwards to find their own voice. I don't have to do that because I learned by doing. I found everything in the room.

EDGE: On YouTube, you preface a performance of your song "Laughing with Lizards" by saying you have a bizarre chronic illness. What is it and do you feel comfortable talking about it?

Dan Fishback: Oh, yes. I have had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for about 10 years. It is a hard disease to describe because everyone gets tired at some point, and they hear chronic fatigue and think they've been tired and they know what that is like. But the fatigue that happens with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a complete debilitation. For a good chunk of any given month I am stuck in bed for days at a time, which has made my creative life very challenging. Before Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I would perform at least twice a month, usually a lot more than that. Since having this condition, it is much harder for me to go out, it is harder for me to rehearse, it is harder for me to use my body to perform; so I am really focusing more on my life as a playwright because someone else can perform it and it will be less taxing on me physically.

But I can't escape being a performer. It is in my blood. It is what I need to do. And so I have been trying to find my way back onto the stage. And the Afterglow Festival has been really instrumental in that. They gave me the opportunity to come and do a trial run of this concert last September in Provincetown and they were really accommodating around my illness. And now they are doing the same at Oberon.

I am trying to do a concert every once in awhile just to keep my attention to the audience. The longer I am away from an audience, the more insane I feel. I need to come back to the stage in order to maintain my spiritual health even if it is very taxing on my physical health.

All about time management

EDGE: How do you deal with that anxiety that comes with performing and having Chronic Fatigue?

Dan Fishback: I think a lot of it is about time management. If I know there's a performance coming up, I am going to try to clear my calendar for a few weeks in advance to really focus on that. To really tend to myself and tend to my health so I will be in tip-top shape when I am on stage.

That doesn't always work. I haven't had that many performances in the past year, but I have been very sick leading up to some of them, so whatever happens I just try to do my best. And what I am grateful for is that what makes my performances engaging to the audience is my connection to them. I know that when I get on stage I have the ability to connect to people, whether or not I am doing everything perfectly. I know I can create a group intimacy even if I am very tired. I am still learning how to reconcile the truth of my health with the truth to who I am as an artist. I have been ignoring that for many years, and this series of iterations of this concert has marked my return to trying to figure out how I can have everything that I think I need.

EDGE: Do you think the changes in the ways LGBTQ people are perceived by the larger society in recent years has made life easier for today's generation of queer people?

Dan Fishback: Oh, yes. There are a lot of young queer people in my life. I teach a lot. I have a lot of interaction with very, very young queer people, and they are very, very different from my generation in a lot of ways. There are a lot of them that take these changes for granted just as I took a lot for granted that the generation before me fought for and changed. I think a lot of the changes are really positive. That they feel entitled to a healthy cultural life is something I see as positive and healthy. But I think the danger for any queer generation is being disconnected from a lineage, to be disconnected from the generation that came before because every queer generation has wisdom to share.

There is a temptation when you are a young queer person to reinvent the wheel. But if a young queer person attempts to do things this way, they are going to be surprised how much the heterocentric nature of society is going to impact them. That's because most queer people are born into straight families, are born in straight culture, and that's going to influence the culture that they build. I think that some kind of cultural continuity, some sort of cultural connection is important for spiritual and cultural health.

A lot of the work I have done in the past few years has been about creating opportunities for the generations to encounter for each other. I organize an annual series at La MaMa in New York that is called La Mama's Squirts that is an intergenerational queer performance series that allows queer people from different generations to work together.

EDGE: Are younger straight people different now?

Dan Fishback: Oh, yes. Younger straight people are very queer. I think younger straight people that I come in contact with are very comfortable with queer ideas. Their sense of the world is being forged in a #MeToo Era where feminist critique is mainstream. I like young straight people more than the young straight people that were around when I grew up.

Homophobia and transphobia are really weird. They're strange interpretations of life. Once you start cutting away at those ideas, they just start to evaporate very, very quickly. They make little sense, but what also happens is a little more insidious. Even if we create a world where people don't think homophobic or transphobic thoughts, we are still living in a world where we are an extreme demographic minority. So growing up queer people are, for the most part, separated from each other and from queer and trans community; its culture, its literature, its lessons, its values. I think that is important for young queer people growing up to connect with. I always say that if straight parents have a queer child, they can be as open and welcoming as they can possibly be, but if they don't introduce their queer child to other queer people that they are perpetuating a homophobic culture even if they don't think homophobic thoughts.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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