In the introduction to her translation of Euripides’s Herakles, Anne Carson cites Maurice Blanchot’s interview with himself from La Nouvelle Revue Française in April, 1960.
Q: Will you admit this fact, that we are at a turning point?
A: If it’s a fact it’s not a turning point.
Those who know the play will appreciate Carson’s citation here; it succinctly distills a core tension threaded throughout the play’s dramatic action and its very structure: what sense can be made in moments when we leave established norms behind? Or, said another way: we can’t reason our way out of ambiguity, can we?
What is the state of theater in this time of crisis? Can we even say? There seems no better word to describe the current state of theater than ambiguous. American theater continues to be dogged by the sustained proliferation of COVID-19 and its impact on the viability of live performance, institutional bias and the systematic disenfranchisement of theatermakers of color (especially Black artists), and the overpowering role that money plays in gating access to create and consume art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no shortage of cerebral and urgent discussion about these specific issues. But only recently has more attention been paid to theatermakers who have persevered, continued to make art while their industry’s hypothetical future form is bandied about by critics, bureaucrats, and established producers alike.
Jonathan Hoover, the creator and performer behind the Instagram sensation @inappropriatepatti, is one such artist who has soldiered on. His posts, the majority of which are filmed in his bathroom with increasingly boot-leg and elaborate costumes, answer the question, “What if the queen of kook, the diva supernova, the Tony Award winning-actress Patti LuPone played every part, especially the ones she’s not ‘right’ for, in all the musical theater shows you know and love?” Hoover’s talent for mimicry cannot be overstated; go see for yourself. Viewers have been treated to micro versions of Into the Woods, Mamma Mia, Waitress, and Wicked that feel goofy, comforting, and camp all at once—all with Patti LuPone as the lead.
Recently, Hoover wrapped up a fundraising campaign where he recorded custom videos, greetings, and full-on musical performances in exchange for donations to Black Visions Collective, a Minnesota non-profit whose intention is to shape a political home for Black people, including transgender and queer individuals. At the end of the summer, he donated $5,000 to the organization at the conclusion of the fundraiser and is still cranking out the final performances.
Cam Cronin (Rail): While you’ve been an actor in New York for over a decade, you’ve “been” Inappropriate Patti for the last three years and have amassed a dedicated following. What drove you to start this fundraiser?
Jonathan Hoover: I’ve always been a social activist-y type person—radical social justice is always something that I’ve believed in and this year has just been so fucking bleak and so hard and I’ve felt so helpless. Then George Floyd was murdered on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery, it just felt like too much, it really did. The truth of it is, one night my partner was getting ready to release an episode of his own Instagram channel right when the protests were starting and he said, “I don’t feel right, I’ve announced that I’m going to do this so I’m going to do it, but I’m going to attach a fundraiser to it,” and a lightbulb went off in my head. The fact that my largest audience is people in the 18-30 age range, those are people I want to vote, people I want to care, and that Patti is already so outspoken made me feel like my audience was already on board (although they can go fuck themselves if they don’t believe in Black Lives Matter). This whole thing came from feeling helpless: I just felt like I had to do something—more than march in the streets—and this gave me that something.
Rail: It sounds like there was a real “clarity of purpose” that came from this fundraiser. How did you think about your motivations, drive, and purpose related to @inappropriatepatti and your work before the fundraiser?
Hoover: In my professional life I’m very process-based; the work is my favorite part, performing is just the cherry on top of the sundae. For this, I normally just get stoned and go sing in my bathroom! And the newness or “off-the-cuff” nature of the videos really makes a difference in the perception of the videos; when I have done something last minute with basically no preparation, those are the videos that people love the most. The truth is I am the worst actor when it comes to the stuff outside the actual art form: I don’t take my classes with the casting directors I’m supposed to or send out my postcards. I’ve always said, “You either like it or you don’t, and I’m not going to kiss your ass because I’m just here to get something from you.” In New York, I’ve always been the fourth guy in auditions. I make it to the finals and there’s the first guy who gets it, the second guy who gets the understudy/ensemble cover, the third guy gets the swing, and then me, I don’t get anything. I’m a comedian but my look is so innocent and “not-character-man” that it’s a facet of me that doesn’t get to be expressed in the audition room, so I started doing this so people would know I’m weird! I don’t have a lot to offer in the way of advice to people for social media; I’ve just created this parlor trick that people laugh at. But the one thing that feels right to say is, “Put your shame out there.” It’s a part of myself that I used to be really ashamed of as a young kid. I think the reason it’s caught on is that we can all recognize something about it in ourselves.
Rail: “Putting your shame out there”—I imagine that has resonance for both social media spaces and theatrical ones. Have you found the theater industry as welcoming as social media in that way?
Hoover: I’ve found my fellow performers incredibly kind and welcoming. What I do find problematic is that we are an industry for the privileged. I come from a poor family. They’re wonderful and will support me however they can but I can’t get financial support from them, it’s on me. I can’t afford to not work, I can’t be in auditions all the time and taking classes all the time. My number one critique I get from casting directors all the time is “I forgot you exist” because I can’t be there all the time doing “the thing.” I don’t think anyone’s actions are insidious but the industry set-up that we have absolutely accounts for a lack of diversity; it’s set up for the “haves” to have more and I would love to see that change. Reflecting on where we are with COVID-19, I feel like I’ve worked my whole life towards a goal that may not look the same after this period of uncertainty, so I’ve been feeling a little hopeless, a sense of “what’s it all for,” and a depression for what was. I will pair that with the statement that I think going to the theater will be the most essential thing when we can get back to it; I know I can’t wait to go and have a collective experience with a bunch of people. So I’ve started to look toward the hope of what will be.
Rail: That hope is hard to come by these days! What’s been the most buoying force for you in these times of uncertainty?
Hoover: Now that I’ve been given this time for reflection, I have a better understanding of what’s really meaningful. I know there are things that I won’t go back to and I’ve been hearing others making definitive decisions as well. I think every artist still flies with the intention to do something more meaningful. Even if I’m not changing your perspective, I’ve helped you laugh for an hour and that’s enough. That’s why the fundraiser was so enticing—it felt like real change, that thing we tell ourselves as artists was so much more tangible. And the response has been so good. I was so touched by the amount of people that came forward and gave money, it was overwhelming. I hear a lot of “don’t read the comments” from people who do things online and I have to say the people that follow me seem to be so kind and so loving and this reflects even more so the beauty of this musical theater, comedy community, wherever we come from.