Rachael Gray’s interview with Sean Owens

INTERIOR, NOON– RG and SO are in a rooftop bar, drinking something sparkling with cucumbers in it. They are both in head-to-toe cream.

RG: While you call a singer/dancer/actor a triple threat, you seem to be an everything threat.

SO: *laughs* Yes, I’m a General Threat. I’d say Threat Level Orange, but I look terrible in orange. Do we have a Threat Level Salmon?

RG: Sadly, no. Tell us a little about your life on stage, behind the scenes, and how you got into writing?

SO: I’m discovering that writing’s a lot easier to get into than it is to get out of. *grins* I’ve been performing since I was five– by ten on the legitimate stage, Macbeth and all that. And on the side, I’d write things for other children– that’s what bossy only-children do, because they’ve been doing it with their stuffed animals. And when I got to college, there seemed to be this need to generate new material– actually, OLD material, I guess. I wrote a live serial, called “Cliffhangers,” which was performed all over the campus, and had an ongoing storyline. Then I wrote a two-part Noir series, about six female private eyes in 40’s San Francisco: The Saga of the Six Chick Dicks. Very high-minded stuff.

My first real writing job was as Playwright-in-Residence for Harvest Theatre Company with Cliff Mayotte. Which no longer exists. I mean, Cliff does — but not the company. That play was called “Getting To Know Your Mechanism: An Evening of Self-Help Vaudeville.” It was sort of second-tier Durang or David Ives, if that means anything to anyone.

And then for a year-plus, I wrote live radio theatre for the stage of Cafe du Nord– we opened for Lavay Smith & Her Red-Hot Skillet Lickers, so the crowd were mostly there to eat their dinner and get a good seat, and I thought, an old-timey swing crowd that won’t be focused on the stage, huh? Perfect– let’s do radio! It was called “Radio Takes Stage,” and it had a comedy section, a horror serial and two new musical numbers a month. In a year, that meant I’d written about 24 hours of new material.

And there’s the pattern that shaped my career, thus far– cliffhangers, noir, vaudeville and radio. I’ve branched out since then, but it’s always there, if you look.

You asked about behind the scenes, I have to admit it’s not much different: I walk the walk & I talk the talk. I’m usually the only guy at the Farmer’s Market in a fedora, a vest & a bow-tie, but ultimately, it suits me. And it amuses me a little when the New dandies approach me– I love it, because (a) I think all men should dress well, and (b) I’m incredibly vain, but it is funny when their compliment is something like: Hey, man, I have a suit just like that! And I think Really? Because this suit is about five years older than you. But what I say is: Bravo. Because dressing well means you’re celebrating your life, and you’re not afraid to be seen moving through it.

I think I’ve completely exhausted that topic– and probably you– so let’s move on.

RG: What excites you about the concept of Spookeasy?

SO: Absolutely everything. In fact, when Scott pitched the idea to me, my jaw fell. I’d done a series of Haunted Home Tours here in SF that were very successful– but on a much smaller scale. The first was called “Meet The Campbells,”and it was a spookhouse disguised as a historic Homes tour, about the (entirely mythical) Campbell Soup Twins. And then I did one about the color wheel, called “Nightshades”– that’s when I coined the tagline: “No cobwebs, no coffins, no chainsaws– something much worse.” Because so much of horror today is shock and gore– which can certainly be cathartic and people like Rob Zombie raise it to an art form– but not those radio-station, black-garbage-bag splatter-shows that they put on nowadays. So the amazing thing was that I’d conceived of a show a few years earlier ALSO called “Spookeasy,” so when I saw that Scott had the machine going full-tilt, I tossed my little carrots in the pot, and the broth got much more sinister, I’m happy to say.

I think Scott’s take is really fresh– it’s got all the flavors people love right now, the high style and the craft cocktails and the Prohibition Jazz… but there’s also a great undercurrent of the Max Fleischer cartoons and Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone, and things that really border on Surrealism– which is a major draw for me. When I went to school and learned about Surrealism, I realized, “This is everything I’ve loved, my whole life.” It’s an actual art form, and I can contribute to its continuing existence and its evolution.

I’m also very excited to work with Jasper– he’s like the human version of whatever they put in the air vents in Vegas! The second he walked into the room and started talking, I knew, “Yes, this is a guy I want to make work with.” He may have felt the same, or not… you should ask him, and then tell me what he said. *grin*

RG: Why do you think the Prohibition era in particular holds such interest for America?

SO: Well, I think for starters, it was one of the great taboos in America– we’ve never had that many, and to all get to be naughty together, and do something we shouldn’t, well, it’s like how kids bond. Great alliances are made when you pass notes, and slip frogs into the teacher’s desk. I think Prohibition and the pre-Code Hollywood, that was America’s last shot at all being naughty together. Now, I hate to say, all the school-desks are tapped.

Also, I think it was a rebellious period– long before Watergate or the McCarthy era, this was a real moment of the lawmakers-slash-petty tyrants and the public directly butting heads. We all knew Abolitionism was horseshit– pardon me– and we knew it was just the Big Boys lining their pockets– and using some bogus morality to do it. If there was any illusion that the government was working for us, Prohibition was the wake-up call. I think piety happily went out the window for a lot of the country that day– whatever day that was: insert it later and make me look smart.

RG: Have you been watching/listening to anything in particular to inspire you as you work on the Spookeasy script?

SO: *nods excitedly, imitating an old radio announcer* “I Love A Mystery! starring Jack, Doc & Reggie”– I remembered my Mom talking fondly about those old radio shows– and I’d loved others of that ilk, the truly creepy stuff like “Inner Sanctum” and “Suspense!” But “I LOve A Mystery” is almost the 30’s precursor to Scooby-Doo! The acting is… insane. Very stilted and campy. The plots are… inconceivable. So labyrinthine and murky, I don’t know how people followed it for TWENTY episodes– it was like “LOST!” So that stuff is great, and then the cartoon scores that Cab Calloway created– I mean, if we’ve ever had a magical creature living on Earth among us, it may have been Cab Calloway. To see him as a roto-scoped walrus singing to Betty Boop does special things to the pleasure centers in my brain.

I also have to say, in total candor, that the electroswing movement totally snuck up on me. So when the artists making some of these tracks starting sharing with us, I was almost drooling. I mean, I love me some Big Band and Cole Porter, but that stuff isn’t gonna get you laid, most nights.

Thanks for your time, Rachael. And may I say, cream really suits you. *wink*


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