Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 April 2012

Interview #1: Joshua Mikel

For my first interview, I talk to playwright/designer/fine artist/filmmaker/musician/actor Joshua Mikel. I ask Josh about collaboration, labor, and being a genius. Enjoy!

ACT: You work across media, including writing and performing and fine arts. Do you consider yourself a particular kind of artist primarily or do you have some other way of thinking about what you do? How would you characterize yourself?

JM: Say, if someone asks me what I do at a bar, I say, well, I do graphic design (because that tends to get me into the least awkward conversation) and if I'm with a friend they might fill in the blanks for me while I pretend to be modest. I think most artists have a hard time classifying themselves. I know I have a hard time with it. I think folks tend to use the term artist pretty liberally. I don't think just practicing in the arts necessarily makes you an artist. Not to talk anyone down or what have you, but I rarely think of myself as an artist. It's more of a title you earn. Something you're awarded at the end of your career when you look back on your life and see how you changed the game... so to speak.

So an artist is something someone can be only in retrospect?

Photograph by Robert Bryce Milburn
No, I don't think it's a title meant for just retrospect, but I do think a key part of earning the title has to do with a number of factors that only come with real maturation of craft. It has to do with influence, with innovation, with audience, with impact, maybe a dash of luck, and of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with money. I've been thinking a lot about it lately – for instance, I came across a video of a kid playing drums to some real complicated songs. The ability was impressive in any light, but I think it's important to note that there's a world's difference between the ability to play the part, and the ability to write the part. If you put that kid in the room the day the song was written with the other band members, would he have filled out the rhythm section like the band's actual drummer did? Maybe so. Probably not. Another example I've always loved is with the band The Velvet Underground and their first album The Velvet Underground & Nico which peaked at at #171 on the Billboard charts (granted it saw complications with its release – thanks, wikipedia), but despite its puny commercial success, the story goes that nearly everyone that bought the album was so influenced that they went and started a band of their own. I mean, that's powerful shit. That's artistry.

In many of the situations in which you work, you are working in collaboration with other artists or, well, just folks. What do you think of collaborative work? How do you approach it? Are there specific things you look for in a collaborator?

I'm absolutely turned on by other artists. Believe it or not, I lack a lot of self motivation, and I find that collaborations help me bring a lot more to the table. It's having someone in my corner, and someone holding me accountable at the same time. I also have learned recently that my best collaborations happen when I collaborate with folks who are performing their duty in the collaboration where either a) I consider them an expert in their craft and trust them wholeheartedly or b) it's something I have no clue about or don't care to have a clue about. My best collaborations (for instance when I work with Geoffrey Kershner, whom I would consider a master director, and Krista Franco, whom I would consider a master scenic designer) luckily fall into both of those categories.

I recently introduced you to a mutual friend of ours and I used the word genius. By that I meant that I think you see the world in a way that I cannot really conceive. How do you think about how you think about the world? In other words, do you think that your perspective on the world is unique in any way (I obviously do) and if so, how is it unique and where do you think this particular perspective might have originated?

First off, I've never been paid a bigger compliment. I've never considered myself a hugely intelligent person, so I love this definition of genius. I guess it's only recently that I've recognized that I might see the world a bit differently than other folks. I feel like a lot of that has to do with understanding people. Something we (hopefully) learn as theatre artists is empathy. I think empathy goes huge ways in terms of understanding the world around you, and anyone who has traveled (and eventually advocates traveling to other folks) develops a greater sense of empathy. Thankfully, I've done my fair share of traveling. Genius makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I would say I have an acute sense of empathy which lends itself to my art. It has to do with the compassion I saw in my parents and grandparents growing up, leaving my home town for college away from home and then traveling the States multiple times with the band – everyone I met along the way – I think it all gave me an invaluable perspective.

Because you are a working artist – that is, an artist supporting himself only through his own artistic output – I am curious about how you think that different way of functioning in relation to art has affected your output. Many artists I know supplement their artistic work with other work that pays them a steady salary. How do you see your different status in relation to capital as affecting your work?

I think a lot of my friends will resent this statement, but perhaps the worst thing an aspiring artist can do is anything else that keeps him or her from aspiring to be an artist. It's a lot easier said than done, but maybe I've just been stubborn enough not to allow myself the comfort of a job that pays the bills. It's done wonders for my work. I have a huge sense of Catholic guilt brought on by the scam I've pulled to get my parents to pay for my tuition – that also has done wonders for my work. I'm worried that once I pay off my college loans and maybe set my parents up in a nice pad, I'll become an apathetic loaf of a man.

Your plays are often very funny, but I find that your graphic art can be quite funny, as well. What is the place of humor in your work? How do you see it standing with or against the darker themes in your work?

A mentor once told me that I try to make a joke of everything. It was meant as a critique, but I'm sad (er, happy?) to say I don't think I ever grew out of it. The world, for better or worse, is a very funny place and it absolutely scares the shit out of me. I'm not the first person to say it, nor will I be the last, but you just have to have a sense of humor about it all, or you're going to get swallowed up. As far as writing goes, I think my more macabre work is a reflection of how scared shitless I am of death, or just daily life, coupled with not taking anything seriously.

For more information on Joshua, you can read his bio at Playscripts, Inc., check out some of his film-work at IMDb or Vimeo, and his designs via the facebook.