“Circle Jerk” in the Square: An Interview with Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Ariel Sibert

January 16, 2021   •   By Kyle Turner

All images courtesy of Fake Friends.

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IN CIRCLE JERK, theater company Fake Friends, with co-writers Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, co-star Cat Rodríguez, and dramaturg Ariel Sibert, throws its audience into the deepest, dankest corners of the internet, a phantasmagoria of viral TikToks, Sondheim, The Hills, the Real Housewives, Tony Kushner, and Leo Bersani, tracing the “contagion of a thought” as white gay supremacists on “Gaymen Island” devise a scheme of misinformation conspiracy. The show, a loose adaptation of Charles Ludlam’s The Mysteries of Irma Vep (a play that knowingly defies easy categorization), bounces back and forth between not the virtual landscapes of internet videos or looping GIFs and more concretely physical spaces such as a meme-making laboratory and an immaculate but hollow living room straight out of a YouTube interior designer’s shallow, cerulean-splashed fever dream. Livestreamed in October using multiple cameras, Circle Jerk’s concern with the future is both rooted in the way we experience art but also in the way we engage with politics through culture, questioning what our hermetic cultural bubbles might say about us and pushing us to imagine who we could be — for better or worse.

Supported by Jeremy O. Harris’s theater fund, a component of the award-winning playwright’s deal with HBO, Circle Jerk contains what Harris told me was “its own theatrical language that [he] could see was scaring people.” He continued, “Nothing scares white people more than the idea of a white person maybe saying something offensive to the general liberal populace. And therefore, by association, them also being offensive, which means that most white people end up not saying anything. And so, I saw two white people trying to say something loud, proud, and like, angry about what the stain of white supremacy looks like, in their skin, in their bodies and their identities.”

Circle Jerk’s focus on how its numerous characters (all played by Breslin, Foley, and Rodríguez) either seek power or are dragged along by it is mesmerizingly disorienting. The two main characters, Jurgen and Lord Baby Bussy, design a meme from the scraps of an Amazon Alexa and an abandoned Facebook profile in the form of an artificial influencer named Eva Maria as an ideological grenade to be tossed from their base on Gaymen Island, spreading a plot through the web encouraging straight people to effectively self-destruct. Meanwhile, Patrick, under the auspices of being Jurgen’s new lover, turns a blind eye to the scheming on the island, while his friend Michael tries to convince him of the alt-right inclinations of the new beau. Yet, even in Michael’s attempts to intervene in this conspiracy, he’s hardly immune to his own ideological weaknesses. In the dizzying plot (a term which finds multifacetedness in this spectacle), the show waggles its eyebrows at conventional narrative, while the show trains its jaundiced eye on gay culture and the white supremacy that so often circulates within it. Circle Jerk’s hyper-referentiality ensures that every laugh is venomous, every joke tinged with acid, and every winking citation the suggestion that gay culture as we know it is a parasite, both something borne of oppression and a foundation upon which identities can be understood, but also damaging to the possibility of openness, inclusivity, and even interrogation. The more you recognize, in other words, the more you’re implicated in the object of the show’s critique: namely, gay culture in the hyperconnected, hypermediated age. In late October, I spoke with Breslin, Foley, and Sibert about the politics of memes, gay sex jokes, and if audiences should trust this show.

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KYLE TURNER: Sorry to get all Merrily We Roll Along on you, but what came first, the memes, the critique of gay white supremacy, or Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep?

MICHAEL BRESLIN: The white gay supremacy idea was the first researched area that we really went into at Ars Nova, back in May 2019. Patrick and I were very fascinated with this article in The New York Times that was about gay men on the right. Then the research was like a kaleidoscope out of that question. Then the Charles Ludlam piece really came in, [thinking], how many actors can we actually get in here? The way we work[ed] before this piece, Ariel, Cat, Patrick, and I had never written down text and brought it into a rehearsal. [Our methodology] was very improvisational. But we were like, we can’t just bring actors in and make them improv.

PATRICK FOLEY: … improv about white supremacy.

MB: Yeah, exactly. So we said, let’s keep it to the three of us, and then the Irma Vep idea came up, and then the memes that have always been at the forefront of our minds.

Memes both describe and articulate politics; they are political in terms of their content, form, and distribution. Was there a particular meme that you immediately knew was riff-worthy or really emblematic of what you were trying to do with the piece?

PF: I think in general, one of our areas of interrogation was this notion that the right had some claim on the funny meme — that the right somehow was more adept at using internet language comedically than the left was — and a dissatisfaction with that. Obviously, Pepe [the Frog] is major because it is so bizarrely innocuous and also scary. [This isn’t a meme], but the Pizzagate scandal was a great distillation of the craziness of how QAnon and meme culture meets with real-life consequences. That was very exciting and inspirational to us as we set about writing our own gay white supremacy conspiracy theories.

ARIEL SIBERT: This [Israeli digital] artist [we spoke with] is making these incredible super cuts of important influential celebrities from Angela Merkel to Mark Zuckerberg, basically speaking very openly and frankly, about surveillance, algorithmic manipulation, and kind of popular opinion control in the mouths of these deep faked personages. It’s really interesting, now that the show’s come out, [to see] apps that are widely accessible to make these short GIF deep fakes, to do that kind of image substitution. And it’s funny because one of the other ways that we got into this [project] was a meme called Twinks for Trump. 

Ah, yes! I remember.

AS: It was meant to be an active critique, but then it was quickly adopted by some of the young white guys on the alt-right to claim it and to claim it as a gesture of support for Trump. And that kind of instability of queer parody actually becoming the default strategy of these young men at their computers on the alt-right, is partly how you get to the spectrum of Charles Ludlum to gay white supremacy in this play. This idea that what was a queer aesthetic of send-up, satire, subversion, and irony is now the default mode of an internet discourse of plausibly deniable hate speech was the problem that we wanted to explore. That kind of takes you from Pepe the Frog to Twinks for Trump to the aesthetics of queer theater.

The internet has become somewhat of a substitute — at least for younger queer people like myself — to the shadowy bars where identity construction used to take place. The way that we consume and engage with these images and digital artifacts of gay culture is very different from the pre-internet age. What is the path forward in terms of confronting that active cultural appropriation of (white) gay culture and, to paraphrase Jeremy O. Harris, the stain of white supremacy that infects the landscape of that culture?

MB: It’s an interesting question. There’s the referentiality of meme culture in gay male culture — in white, gay male culture — [which is] not ever just one thing, [but rather] multiple things going on at the same time. Using a GIF of NeNe Leakes as a response in a text message, from one perspective, is racial appropriation, [but] from another perspective, [that] is a gay man who feels oppressed by a patriarchal system expressing an allegiance with femininity. I think the sort of dimensionality of these images is very interesting, because white supremacy masks itself in interesting ways. And at the same time, this question of pleasure and joy — you know, we don’t want to stiffen and harden ourselves to not be able to laugh.

AS: Michael was reading Claudia Rankine talking about a photo dossier on white supremacy; one of the things she talks about is the obligation to witness and to look. And partly what we wanted to think about is [how/that] we’ve created this massive moving image that’s saturated with images as a way of looking at our own complicity. And I think that is a first step. That kind of staging, confronting and showing the pieces that you use to construct an identity that are appropriative, that are oppressive, that are misconstrued, that are piecemeal, that are stolen, is one way that this play, I think, tries to move forward. The idea that the white gay male supremacy is actually a construction of many different appropriated ideas from the cultures that it actually tries to set itself apart from, borrow, use, occupy, and identify with.

There’s a tactility to the show in terms of the physical sets, but that tactility is also in conversation with the ephemerality and the intangibility of the digital spaces and digital images that circulate within it. How are those aspects not only in conversation with one another, but simultaneous/synchronous?

MB: In the show, we were interested in liveness and the construction of liveness. How can we “prove” to an audience that the show was actually happening live? Sometimes, of course, it was pre-recorded content to cover a change or something, and even then — how to fake the failure of liveness? Patrick’s face mask, for example, looks strange in the pre-recorded sequence — certainly not how we would set it if we were making a “feature film.”

PF: We spend a fair amount of time trying to stage our own humiliation so it looks accidental and framing our failures so they appear intentional. When we performed the third act onstage, the audience could always see the iPhone projection and our bodies simultaneously, and that dichotomy provided many opportunities for humor and humiliation. When Michael was performing a tragically still death scene to Imogen Heap on screen you could see Cat crouching below him with paper towels to make sure the blood didn’t get on his costume and me trying to get her attention so we could pre-set for a wig change.

For the livestream, we had to be more decisive about the visual storytelling. We discovered that, in this medium (a TikTok approximation made by thirtysomethings, streamed on Vimeo) cutting to a behind-the-scenes moment of staged-but-actual failure oftentimes had the effect of taking the air out of the experience, as if the medium itself was Mama Rose in the wings whispering, “Sing out Louise!” which is also to say, “Get on with it.” Of course, the whole enterprise is an exercise in staging failure, moving away from the ephemerality of the theater and into the permanence of the internet. There was a more macro deterioration at play as we moved from the Instagram influencer/Petra von Kant visual language of the living room to the Hitchcock/Young Frankenstein surveillance of the basement to the Ghost Hunters/Blair Witch kineticism of the third act, where the cameras become extensions of our bodies, ourselves, to the final and queerest failure (which is to say a failure of queers) when Michael and I poorly perform an adaptation of Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Bob Fosse’s original choreography for the [Chicago’s] “Hot Honey Rag.”

AS: [The phrase “queer art of failure” has] become a kind of shorthand that aestheticizes what, in [Jack] Halberstam’s reading, is a suite of tactics and strategies for resistance, refusal, and survival.

In terms of digital landscapes and user design, I often think about how seamlessness is valued as a principle of excellence — seamless design, and elegant, economic code. In terms of silicon values, those are equivalent to what might be called virtuosity. And this seamlessness is a way of blending edges, of obscuring the way things fit together, of preventing technological failures that would show the user how things work.

In terms of the spaces [by set designer Stephanie Osin Cohen], the living room and the basement are really genre-specific. I think the living room is a wonderful mixture of the classic living room farce and also Instagram-friendly Museum of Ice Cream monochrome spaces: [they’re] prepared to be photographed, and not exactly to be inhabited. And the basement looks like this livestreamer Matrix-influenced decor on top of Young Frankenstein, Ex Machina, and the Gothic tradition that’s completely constructed. But they have this spatiality that I think is really, really immediate to viewers. People understand where Michael’s and Patrick’s and Cat’s bodies are in space eventually, especially when we get to the end of the play.

Sex, I think, plays a really interesting part in this in this piece. You have some jokes about top/bottom discourse in there, which I think it is quite apt, as far as the examination of relational power within gay and queer communities as well as within broader systems and institutions and power.

MB: Those jokes come from deeply personal places. I think the idea of being a top or a bottom is such a loaded and intense and uncomfortable idea in the gay community. It’s not [necessarily] an expression of your personality, [but] there are physical and pleasurable aspects to these identities. The Fake Friends are always talking about that, and it’s a major reversal when someone goes from being more of a top into being a bottom, or the inverse, in their life narrative. I would say that that element of the show, [of] the question “Are you being penetrated or not?” is a loaded one.

AS: We spent a lot of time on TikTok during the earlier phases of the show and I think several of us got served this one meme. I can’t remember the username. It’s a young, young guy saying, “You are not a top, you are not a bottom, you are 14. Get to class.” And we loved it, because we really were seeing in regards to outside of queer culture and queer community of Gen Z embracing top/bottom discourse, without any pushback to the idea that maybe this is also replicating gender binary and power binary, and also, misogyny and also homophobia. So, for Jurgen to say at the beginning of the play, “There is only one gender,” and then to be a big fan of top/bottom discourse, I think kind of actually encapsulates that chaos to top/bottom discourse and the way that it’s just been broadly culturally mapped outside of a situation of talking about anal sex. Broadly culturally-mapped-on passivity and activeness in a way that is just taken to be funny. There’re so many TikTok memes about paying the bill at a restaurant being top/bottom discourse.

The “Get to Class” meme, and the broader conversation of how Gen Z is implementing and applying top/bottom jokes and discourse, is interesting in terms of it becoming its own framework. Are these jokes confined to an existing framework, or are they dismantling it within these jokes? Is it different from how millennial queer people engage with this discourse? And what about “vers”-ness in this landscape?

MB: To quote our show, which misquotes Andrea Long Chu: “Everyone is vers and everyone feels whatever about it.” I feel like peoples’ sex lives are so much more boring than internet memes about topping and bottoming, but we do love to double-tap for, like, an instant of euphoric identification and, like, half a second of horniness.

PF: Many of our characters find freedom within the binary. This is not to say they adhere (or identify) perfectly, but rather in the hypocrisy and contradiction, the toggling back and forth, the binge and the purge, they most honestly express themselves. I was raised Catholic, as was Michael, so the practice of holding two contradictory truths at once is not new to us. What’s interesting to me in the “Get to Class” meme, is that the punch line is delivered from the perspective of a teacher, a millennial. I suppose teachers are, in many ways, always the top — unless they’re particularly Socratic, in which case they’re a power bottom or … vers? In answering this question, I stupidly searched our script for the word “top” and the additional words that appeared were toppled, utopia, stop, zootopia, dystopia, and Christopher Columbus. “Bottom” naturally just turns up bottom.

AS: Circle Jerk is populated by comic characters, based on genres, types, and comic hierarchies that I think often map onto binaries similar to those implied “top and bottom” discourse. At the level of character, it’s a world of tops and bottoms. But at the level of structure in the play, we built a dramaturgy of flipping and reversals and switching — of allegiance, affiliation, of sympathies. So that’s how you get to a joke like what we have at the end of the play, where Jurgen tells Patrick that “Bottoms don’t kill, they die” moments before Patrick tells Jurgen that he’s straight now and shoots him. Maybe the world of the play is more switchy than versatile. [But] I don’t want to make any broad claims about how millennials versus Gen Z top, bottom, or make top/bottom memes. One of the things I do notice about Gen Z creators — not to fall into the trap of old-fogeyism or cringey millennial observation — is that they absolutely understand cultural criticism as a form of entertainment. And often, within that kind of framing a kind of self-undermining is almost assumed. There’s a kind of shrugging acceptance of inevitable hypocrisy — as another example, political TikToks starting with “Yes, of course, I know it’s ironic to make this political statement on TikTok,” etc. Political sincerity and glib irony are these oscillating, unstable categories.

I think, as I think about most meme discourses, that it’s impossible to divorce what is freeing, liberatory, resistant, from what is confined, co-opted and co-opting, and repressive/repressed, as creativity and micro-cultures circulate in these vast capitalist networks of affective exchange. And then you add to that the way that citational meme cultures are difficult to politically pin in any position — the way they can always collapse into irony and slip away. This is equally true of Gen Z joking about sexuality and the alt-right joking about white supremacy.

In your interview with The Daily Beast, you talk about the scene where you do find a conflict between white gay and liberal identities. You asked, “How do you hold someone accountable who has the exact same identity as you, without revealing your own hypocrisies?” What does accountability look like in this particular framework or paradigm?

MB: The way that white gay men interact with each other behind closed doors is a minefield; it’s a very different thing even than what’s represented in our play. And I think this question of accountability is [one of] action. And I think in that Michael/Patrick scene in the second act, you see that negotiation of “I’m trying to tell you what you’re doing is wrong.” But then 20 minutes later, Michael does the same thing.

PF: The show’s taking place online, right? What accountability looks like online is way different than what it looks like in the real world. I think that with everything that’s happened this year, we see this woke performance happening digitally, particularly among white people, in a way that I think is very disconcerting and that always, in some way, centers the white person having the conversation or having the awakening, [which] also erases their own culpability. We’ve seen all of these canned responses from leaders in various different fields that begin with, “I recognize that in my [insert institution here] or [insert this position here], I’ve succeeded because of white supremacist practices,” but I think rarely do we actually see what seems to be meaningful or probing self-examination. Just using a new vocabulary to re-establish oneself as a thought leader or any kind of leader is just repurposing the same structural issues.

AS: Accountability has to be an ongoing process that acknowledges hypocrisy, as almost inevitable, that acknowledges efforts for justice as a narrative that we tell ourselves that can’t possibly take into account the cumulative effect of every single tiny, everyday action. And for this play, it ends like a horror movie, right? There’s a reawakening of the monster in a different form. It’s the continual acknowledgment [that] I have blind spots, I have things I can’t see and I need this collaboration and all of the people in this room to maybe see more and say more and do more. And this is a process that is not assumed to be finished for any one person in that room.

One of the one of my favorite title cards in the show is “13 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD NOT TRUST WHITE GAY MEN WITH ANYTHING INCLUDING YOUR LIBERAL MEME.” Should we trust your show? 

PF: Should you trust our show? No. I think it’s related to accountability, too. It’s this hilarious notion that with enough apologies and enough penance, we’re gonna finally purify ourselves, and that’s absolutely not true. And our company is a company of four very deranged, flawed people making deranged, flawed work, that hopefully represents us in some way, shape, or form. So yeah, don’t trust us.

AS: Ah, no, no, no, of course not. Are you kidding? We were having this conversation with a group of people about the [use of] “avant-garde,” with regards to some of the aesthetics I’m displaying here. And I love that because I think the discourse produced around the term avant-garde is hilarious and completely unresolvable. Is it purely aesthetic? Or does it have a political responsibility? And if it has a political responsibility, does it betray itself?

I’m particularly thinking about maximalism, like the critique of the Dadaists and the Futurists’ love of chaos, is that it was easily co-opted by the right. And it actually just exacerbated the conditions of inequality and overwhelm that they meant to propose as an alternative life to capitalism — that was really easily co-opted. We’re never beyond that discussion. And the show and the discourse around the show is a symptom of the way that that discussion just reproduces itself. It’s a discourse-making machine. And to an extent, the show is also a discourse-making machine.

That includes a discourse-making machine in it.

AS: Exactly, exactly. And to say that it’s a snake eating its own tail is accurate and to say that we have a way out would be inaccurate. To say that we think that you reach peak noise and information saturation, and suddenly all identity falls apart and we reach the singularity — we know [that] is a probably racist and classist fantasy. And so yeah, don’t trust us. We’re telling you not to trust us.

As far as aesthetic modes having political responsibility, how do you feel about your show’s relationship to camp?

MB: One of my favorite quotes about camp comes from Charles Ludlam; he says the concept of camp has been so prostituted around that it is now worthless. And he said it as someone whose work a lot of critics and people would now classify in some way in relation to camp. I like to say that Susan Sontag’s essay on camp is an act of camp itself. It aims high and it fails in a way that makes it funny, enraging, [and] so stimulating for me to read. Every time I read it, I have a different response. I do think wigs are political. In many ways — in terms of gender, race, class, all that — and the wigs in the show, you know, might be read in relation to camp? Those are political.

PF: No comment.

AS: I mean, my love of Susan Sontag is storied in the company. And it’s a problematic love, where I identify very strongly with a closeted lesbian who longs to disidentify. And one of the objects of parody in the show, I think, is my longing to disidentify and to disappear and withdraw, and yet at the same time to be involved in queer community, and to diagnose, dissect, and describe it. And my feeling about camp, in terms of our company? I would say, I’m like the minimalist. I think camp is an object of desire that also for many critics has with it a kind of loathing for this freedom, a kind of loathing for the fact that if you call something camp, camp would respond, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean?” It’s infuriating, and that’s what I love about it. It’s this longing. I think there’s a critical longing for the freedom of camp that wants to chastise it when you even say the word camp. “Is this show campy?” I don’t understand the question, is what I would have to say. I don’t understand the question, I have to go brush a wig.

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Kyle Turner is a queer freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributor to Paste Magazine, and his writing on queerness and cinema has been featured in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Playboy, and Slate.