This is, in essence, the whiplash experience of livestreaming Circle Jerk. It’s okay if you don’t know these references: New York playwrights Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley don’t expect you to catch every detail in their extremely online, deeply memed play that just finished an eight-show run on Vimeo last week. It’s now available on demand through November 7th.
In a series of events almost too fitting for the show’s exploration of stan culture, Circle Jerk’s audience grew faster than the coke line at the Rosemon. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who financially supported the play through his overall deal with HBO, leveraged his status as Broadway’s darling (and one of the only good adults on TikTok) to create, frankly, a circle jerk of support. Sarah Paulson and Roxane Gay gushed online about the joyful return to live theater, while actress Hari Nef tweeted about the orchestrated pandemonium: “It felt like an honest Representation of the back of my eyelids when I’m trying and failing to sleep :).”
Breslin and Foley never expected their play about going viral to actually go viral, even though the digital stream features TikTok videos and references to bussy and deepfakes. In May 2019, they began researching a play, tentatively titled Alt-Light, about what happens to gay men radicalized online. What came of a year reading the works of Charles Ludlam and Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — chased with The Hills and Fire Island Instagram stories — was Circle Jerk, a play set to premiere at Rattlestick Theatre in the West Village this July. When the pandemic shut down Broadway, the duo pivoted online to release Circle Jerk and cause a maelstrom of gay chaos.
Breslin and Foley hopped on a Zoom call with MEL for a wide-ranging chat about tackling white gay male complicity, compensating performers on TikTok and openly watching the sordid new season of The Real Housewives of Orange County. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Traditional theater still largely has a reputation of being removed from the internet, but Circle Jerk addresses the real-world impacts of hate groups like the Proud Boys. Have you gotten any backlash for taking online so seriously?
Foley: I do think people have always been sort of hesitant to take our work seriously, so in a way we have an interest in taking other things that are not taken seriously, seriously. Our first show was a deconstruction about the Real Housewives franchise. We dealt a lot with online influencers in our second show as well. Taking seriously something other people turn their nose up at is a general interest of ours.
Breslin: Yeah, if certain people in the theater world or certain people in whatever world want to say, like, “Oh, that’s just about the internet,” well, the white nationalist movement that has led to Charlottesville and all these domestic terrorists in the United States started on the internet. So at a certain point, ignoring it or sort of brushing it aside is actually irresponsible and a little bit embarrassing for you.
Online radicalization is a talking point of the 2020 election, but you started working on Circle Jerk in 2019. Did people’s interest in the play increase this year?
Breslin: Sadly, no. [Laughs] From certain industries. But at the same time, people like Jeremy O. Harris and our producer Caroline Gart — there are people who do really understand it. But it’s still this constant struggle of trying to convince people that this is actually really important, very serious and not, just, like, a bunch of gay guys doing TikToks online to make people laugh. I mean, it is that. It’s definitely that. But there’s more, too.
I’m impressed with the range of quality TikTok references you guys had.
Foley: Thank you. We sort of dove into TikTok headfirst last summer, and we wrote the third act with these TikToks in mind. We would be on our feet coming up with a scene and then we’d be like, “Wait, Ariel [Sibert]” — our dramaturg — “find that TikTok.” It’s now cut, but there’s one about a raccoon fitting through a human anus. We’re like, “Ariel, find the human anus TikTok!” We would then workshop the scene around it.
Performers, especially teenage musical theater kids, are finding success on TikTok. What do you think of the idea that the app could shape the future of theater?
Breslin: On an aesthetic level, I think that TikTok is absolutely amazing. The way performers, makers and creators have been creating their own avant garde visions of performance on TikTok is absolutely astonishing. Ariel has all this academic stuff she could say about the relationship between TikTok, the Italian futurists and the 10-second clip being a full play onto itself. A question that I don’t really know — you probably know way more about this — is how do TikTok performers deal with compensation and proper crediting? It’s such a platform of appropriation. That seems to be the operating model, which our show obviously lifts.
I think the question of compensation on TikTok is still ongoing. Still, one of the big takeaways of Circle Jerk is how well-suited it was to be released digitally. I can’t imagine that you were aware that it was going to work so well as a livestream.
Breslin: We knew it was going to be an experiment, and we didn’t know which way it was going to go. There’s site-specific theater that happens in a very specific physical place to align with the themes of the show. So we were excited by the idea of this being site-specific theater, and the site being the internet. There was actually a lot of talk about platforms. Was it going to be YouTube? Was it going to be Twitch? Ultimately, all the cool creative discussions were squashed by the very basic thing: Vimeo had the fewest AI copyright bots. [Laughs]
The play gets into the precarity of being a white gay man today. We have so much privilege, and we don’t always use that platform for good. What made this a topic you needed to talk about?
Foley: I mean, all of our work is self-exploratory and delves into our own complicity with the various power structures we’re a part of. In a way, we’re at such an interesting inflection point as a collective, if we’re going to talk about, in general, white gay men. Folks who in the past decade have gained immense civil rights and civil protection but sometimes also find ourselves slipping into narratives of victimhood that might not necessarily describe or reflect our actual lived experience. Perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn’t. I think we’re culturally at a really interesting point: We have to examine where we’re standing and how we come to grips with the privileges we have always had and the privileges we’ve recently gained.
Breslin: There’s this amazing book — Patrick is going to bury himself alive because I talked about it all the time — but it really gets at this. It’s Sarah Shulman’s book Conflict Is Not Abuse.
Foley: It’s in the play.
Breslin: She talks directly about white gay people and mostly white gay men who have transitioned from the vision of the oppressed into the oppressor. That is such a vast oversimplification, but it’s definitely something that was at the forefront of our minds. Also, it was exciting to work with our co-director, Rory Pelsue, who is also a white gay man and also my boyfriend. [Laughs]
It was interesting to be in a room with another white gay man who could kind of look at it from the outside, because we were writing it and performing it and sort of working that into collaboration. It is a very vulnerable position to be in, to go that deep into yourself.
Your play debuted a few weeks after The Boys in the Band premiered on Netflix. Your play answered for me a lot of my concerns about Boys being, yes, important in understanding the history of queer people, but perhaps negating what’s happening now and how white gays are complicit.
Foley: I mean, maybe there should just be more gay plays then. If we’re still going back to Boys in the Band, there’s potentially a dearth of perspective. I think the great thing about Boys in the Band is it employed gay actors, which is sort of rare on Broadway. But they’re, of course, very famous people.
Breslin: Boys in the Band is an amazing play. And there actually was a really fun joke about Boys in the Band in the show that wound up getting cut. But it’s definitely a reference for our show, and it’s amazing and historic in so many ways. And I agree with Patrick that, well, one, there are other gay plays, also by non-white people and non-male people. So it’s interesting that this one has become so symbolic in a way.
What has it been like to see kind of your play gain attention during a finite week-long run?
Foley: We’ve been handling it in opposite ways. [Laughs] We’ve been talking about how we both have opposite responses to this sort of Twitter reaction. I have sort of, like, gone into hiding.
Foley: Every time we’re in the same space, Michael is on his phone and every 30 seconds I hear *gasp* *gasp* *gasp* and it’s, like, another tweet. [Laughs]
Breslin: Yeah, those guests are all genuinely surprising and for good reason. Most of the time, I’m gasping that Ira Madison has tweeted about our show, or, like, Roxane Gay. These are people who, a week ago, I never thought would be in this same ecosystem or that they would be watching anything that we made. So that’s an amazing thing about the internet and about Jeremy’s support. Jeremy’s first TikTok — maybe that was like a week ago — I was saying to Rory earlier today that it feels like it was two months ago.
Breslin: This has felt really long in a lot of ways, which is interesting about how time functions online.
Foley: It’s interesting, too, the audience Jeremy has been able to bring in. We have these boldface names like Sarah Paulson and Lena Waithe. You know, I’ll go on Eventbrite every now and Google domain names. Not many of the major theaters have folks coming to see our show. [Laughs]
Jeremy O. Harris is often heralded for making theater more accessible to a mass audience of non-New Yorkers. Funding this play is a reason for that. Did you expect Circle Jerk to reach beyond the New York theater and the alternative scenes?
Breslin: No. [Laughs] Not at all. As it’s been happening, it’s been really exciting because I think it actually intersects with your interest in TikTok and online performance. We come from an experimental theater space, but we always say the best experimental theater is happening now on TikTok. So to have those two things intersect for us in this way is really exciting because people all over the country are used to looking at weird shit online.
Watching Circle Jerk honestly felt like watching Real Housewives, where you know there’s going to be an online dialogue happening in real time. Like live-tweeting a Broadway show.
Foley: Well, it’s more old-school in a way. I’m not a dramaturg, so Michael corrects me if I’m just butchering this, but this idea of theatrical decorum is a relatively new invention. You think of folks in Shakespeare’s time in the pit of the globe screaming and “live-tweeting” everything that’s happening on the stage. That kind of conversation around the event is maybe more classic than not. So, if anything, it’s like a throwback.
Breslin: Yeah, people have actually seen it multiple times, and they tweet the different meanings or references that they pick up. It’s exciting, and it’s dynamic. It’s not perfect yet. We didn’t know that this would happen as we were designing and creating the run.
There are “behind-the-scenes” moments when you’re changing costumes.
Breslin: There was always this question about having to prove to the viewer that like what we were doing is actually live and not pre-taped. So that first change that you really see in the second act is to hopefully prove this is happening in real time.
It gave me a Big Brother vibe, watching things from a voyeur’s lens. Do you think part of the reason Circle Jerk has done so well online is that it doesn’t have that air of stuffiness often associated with theater?
Foley: I mean, hopefully! [Laughs]
Breslin: Yeah, we’re obsessed with reality TV, which I hope is obvious from the show. So a lot of the camera dramaturgy is obviously inspired by reality-television camerawork. We both think reality television is high culture.
Your first play was about Real Housewives, so are you currently watching any seasons?
Foley: Potomac and O.C. Obviously, Beverly Hills and New York.
A lot of people are not watching O.C., myself included.
Breslin: Because of Kelly Dodd? [Laughs]
Foley: Okay, so here’s the thing: I’m wading back into it. What I will say is that I’ve never watched these shows thinking of these women as my moral North Stars. So I was not… surprised.
Breslin: I have a running joke with my other friend who watched all of them. We’re watching O.C., but we’re not telling anyone that we’re watching it. So the fact that it just came out in this conversation is, you know, deeply humiliating. [Laughs]
I think Potomac this season has just really risen to A-list Housewives status.
I would go further and say it’s like prestige TV.
Foley: Yes! But I will say about the O.C. of it all, I think the Real Housewives franchise is one of the few bipartisan entertainment spaces on television right now. Famously, Andy Cohen was one of the first people to predict the Trump win in 2016 on Watch What Happens Live. This whole franchise attracts a large swath of the country in a way that the current sociopolitical zeitgeist doesn’t want to accept, because we like to [project] our little ideological niches onto our entertainment.
Breslin: In terms of the behind-the-scenes camera dramaturgy [of The Real Housewives of Potomac], what we get in that wine-tasting fight and all of the production being made visible — I just think all of that is just amazing work.
Foley: Potomac is the first time I’m like, oh, it’s important to have the producers a part of it. As opposed to Beverly Hills this past season — the role of that producer felt unnecessary. It’s like, we don’t need to hear you talking to Garcelle [Beauvais]. We don’t need to see that.
I agree with you, but I’m also a Beverly Hills apologist.
Very much Team Denise.
Breslin: Are you serious?
One hundred percent.
Foley: Everyone’s team Denise except for us, Michael.
Breslin: I’m Team Brandi.
Bringing it back to Circle Jerk: You are showing how tastes have changed — that Real Housewives, memes and internet culture are not inherently less authentic or less legitimate.
Breslin: We totally, totally agree with you. I just want to say that we read a lot of books. We read a lot of criticism. The memes and the reality TV are part of a web of our intellectual interests. It’s not like we’re these shallow thinkers who only just send memes to each other, which is sometimes the assumption. I think our queer identities are wrapped up in that assumption. But, as you know because you write about the internet, there are incredible cultural critics, like [Trick Mirror author] Jia Tolentino, for example, who write on the significance of what happens online. And these are real concerns.
Foley: Also, [think of] a meme as a contagious thought. It’s sort of like a unit, right? It’s exciting to us. A meme is, in many ways, E = mc2, but also Wendy Williams walking into her studio with all the sound cut out and just her high heels. That those two things are both memes and both equal is exciting to us.
So, if you know yet, what’s the future for you two?
Foley: We’re going to Hollywood, baby. [Laughs]
Breslin: We’re working on a screenplay, Patrick and I. I’m going to eat a cheeseburger tonight, finally, after all this.