Turning in Time: An Interview with John Kelly
September 15, 2017

John Kelly spoke with A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley and Publications/Education & Community Programs Intern Zoë Sonnenberg about his upcoming piece, Time No Line (OBERON, September 21, 2017). Kelly has previously been seen at the A.R.T. in Dido, Queen of Carthage (2005) and Orpheus X (2006). Kelly’s performances as historic figures, including Egon Schiele and Joni Mitchell, have appeared at Lincoln Center, PS 122, BAM’s Next Wave Festival, the Warhol Museum, and The Kitchen, among other venues. In Time No Line, Kelly weaves movement, music, and projections into an autobiographical narrative reflecting on the AIDS crisis in New York City.  

Zoë Sonnenberg: Could you give a brief description of Time No Line?

John Kelly: I’m calling it a “live memoir” because it’s based on 40 years of journal writing. It’s extremely autobiographical—it’s self-reflective. In the 70s and 80s there was this amazing scene going on in the East Village with these incredible artists and this great vitality, until the AIDS epidemic started clobbering the community. I lost my first partner in 1982. And as my generation got obliterated, I feel a mission to tell my story. So that’s really where I’m at with this piece: I’m pursuing the memoir idea by making this performance a work about my experiences.

ZS: You’ve written that Time No Line seeks to address “a rift” in the cultural dialogue surrounding HIV/AIDS. What divided elements does this piece seek to bridge?

JK: In my current journal, I’m making a list of all the friends that I have lost to the epidemic. And, you know, they would all be alive now. They would all still be around making work. They would be sages; they would be mentors; they would be leaders. I think the world would be different. I think culture would be different. And I am a survivor. It’s just part of my DNA. This piece is not seeking to be complaining, not to be preaching—it’s really more for me to be processing. In my habit of pondering this unworkable quandary of absence, the only thing I can do is continue to work.

Robert Duffley: What theatrical forms do that grief and reflection take in Time No Line?

JK: There’s one section, a litany of dated journal entries specifically ’89 to ’91, specific to my experience of the AIDS epidemic. I’m on the ground drawing body shapes around my body in chalk on black paper: it’s like being in a graveyard. It’s an extended and fairly quiet moment of contemplation and reflection and residue that I make on the floor. Drawing on the floor is a device I’ve used in the past. In my Egon Schiele work he draws a chalk line around the body of his dead wife, Edith. It can be an effective cliché.

ZS: You’ve appeared as historical figures including Egon Schiele and Joni Mitchell in a range of performances. What was the process of constructing yourself as a character like?

JK: It happens in a very subtle way. I’ve noticed that when I talk about the piece, I refer to myself in the third person, as “he.” Early on, I carried the mirror of the dance studios into the mirror of the self-portrait, so all of my work has been self-reflective, even when I’m playing a specific character. In the process of constructing this extremely autobiographical work, I’m (essentially) also attributing a character to my presence. The drag thing, the gender thing, that’s a whole big other theme in Time No Line (this piece)—that’s the more fun part of it. 

In the early 1980s in the New York clubs, the drag thing was really underground, and kind of nasty, in that it was culturally annoying. And I love being culturally annoying, and I had a lot of rage to vent. It wasn’t at all like RuPaul; it was really punk, you know, no tits, kind of teased out hair, black eye sockets, very heroin chic. It was a great irreverent gesture that allowed me to be onstage through a character completely different from who and what I am, in a way, but it also allowed me to channel a lot of rage and emotion. My modes of communication are artificial enough that it’s pretty easy to relegate my presence in performance to a character of some sort.

ZS: What do you hope that audiences are going to bring with them to your performance, and what do you hope that they leave the performance with?

JK: I aim completely to communicate with my audiences, but I don’t really know how to be an entertainer, even though I can be entertaining at times. I prefer the word “engage” as opposed to “entertain.” What the audience can expect is a pretty even-keeled recipe of components: visual, sound, video, audio, movement, speech, (all without one at the helm.) I’m good at constructing works that take people on a journey. What they leave with are some parts of me that I’m laying out or revealing to them, and maybe also a sense of what it was like for me in the late 80s-early 90s, attempting to survive a challenging time. 

Publication date:
September 15, 2017

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