Interview: Tom Stuart – ‘I Am Not Myself These Days’

I am not myself these days, Tom Stuart’s stage adaptation of the 2006 New York Times best-seller of the same name, was a big hit at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe.

I am not myself these days

Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s original memoir is the true story of the author’s touching but increasingly desperate relationship with Jack, a high-class rent boy addicted to crack.  It’s largely told through the eyes of Josh’s alcoholic alter ego, the hilariously outrageous but increasingly fragile Aqua, a well-known New York drag queen.

Stuart’s show has been described as breathtakingly physical, heart-breaking and profoundly moving, but the play, like the book, is also very funny.

As part of a national tour, it’s now coming to Brighton Dome Studio on February 13, so GScene met up with Tom to talk about the joys and challenges of bringing this deeply moving, funny and sometimes brutal work to the stage.

You’re currently in rehearsal. How’s it been, coming back to the play after a six month break? “It’s beautiful to revisit it. I’ve really genuinely missed playing Aqua. It’s extraordinary to be back inside her skin again. It’s like wearing a layer of armour when I’m playing her. She makes me stand taller and a bit braver.”

The show was very well received at Edinburgh.  Are you doing any rewriting or fine tuning now that you’ve had some time to stand back and reflect? “I’ve done a bit of trimming and refocusing. Playing Aqua so many times in such an intense period at Edinburgh gave me a real feel for what works and what doesn’t.  What’s also lovely about coming back to the role after a big break, it’s that it’s become more layered in the performance. I think the performance has more depth because time has passed and the role has sunk into me in a different way.”

One of the wonderful things about the book is the distinctive character and voice of Josh as himself and as Aqua. It’s so well written, honest and funny.“The reason why I was attracted to the book immediately was that there is something very clean and direct about Josh’s writing voice that speaks very clearly to the reader. There’s something very immediate about it – a visceral honesty that I knew would work well on a stage.  Setting the book as a play allows me, the actor, to talk directly to the audience.”

The book is quite long – was it a challenge to make it manageable for a one man performance? “In my play I tried to get to the core of the book without losing any of its colours and depths and layers. You do have to be careful what you take out or you lose how multi-faceted the characters are, and how complex the situation is, and how funny it is, and how sad it is – you want as much as possible to translate that into the play.”

So how did you hear about the story, and what made you want to adapt it? “My friend Kathy gave the book to me because she thought I’d just enjoy it as a read, not knowing that she would spark off this amazing five-year journey. I was going through a break up at the time and though my circumstances where completely different, I felt a real affinity with the characters.  Josh’s writing made me feel really understood, though his circumstances in the story were very extreme.  But I thought the story could connect with anyone.”

And bringing it to the stage was a way of doing that? “Yes”.

Did you have much experience of drag culture before writing the play? “This has been a massive series of firsts for me. I’d never written anything, I’d never performed a one man show, and I’d never worn high heels. I’d never had to wear so much make-up, or lip sync. But I’ve always admired drag queens and culture, and been fascinated by it. Part of the real joy in researching was going to these incredible bars, enjoying different types of drag and getting a deeper sense of queer theatre.”

In the book Josh talks about the intensity of the ritual of transforming into Aqua, and also about the agonising pain he endures every time he dons the corset and high heels. Is this something you can relate to having created the stage role? “Even now as we speak my feet are absolutely throbbing.  Playing Aqua is a real undertaking. It takes me two hours to put the make up on. Thankfully I wear a stage version of a corset so it’s actually a lot more comfortable than Aqua’s. And having to have my body waxed – I don’t know how people can keep doing that and maintain that level of upkeep.  Having the hairs pulled out of your legs is really painful and on some level it’s the strangest thing to do.”

“But for Aqua, her transformation is about putting on her armour, and I do get a sense of that in the role. I do feel very powerful in the heels and the costume. But what’s also fantastic is that I slowly get to strip back the armour and the character becomes more and more vulnerable. It’s beautiful in the book where Aqua talks about Josh gradually seeping through the mask, and it’s a fascinating thing to be able to interpret that when performing.”

What would you like audiences to take away with them from the play? “Well, I want people to have a really good time. It’s a powerful and emotional story but it’s also extremely funny. But I think whatever your background you’ll find something in Josh’s plight, because he’s experiencing deeply human problems, and if you peel away all the crazy circumstance they’re the same problems as we all go through.  If there was an intent behind me doing the play, it’s that there’s more that connects us than divides us. The bare bones of the story are incredibly human. We all love, and lose love, and struggle with our sense of self so it’s a deeply human struggle. Pain is pain and love is love, loss is loss, no matter what age, background, gender you are – any of those things. We’re all just human beings underneath it all.”

I am not myself these days plays at the Brighton Dome Studio on Saturday, February 13, 2016

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