Progress Has No Ending / Notes for Joe Dante- An interview with CJ Higgins

 

photo by @courtlynlouise

Hello, My name is CJ Higgins, and I am a non-binary Philly theatre artist. I also host a queer interview podcast called My Gay Agenda: An Investigative Podcast. You can also check out my website if you want to know more than that.

 

Who are you?

 

I am CJ Higgins.

 

 

Why did you say it like that?

 

I typed it because that’s my currently communication tool of choice, and I said my full name because branding is important.  Plus, I like how it sounds.

 

 

Where are you from?

 

I am from South Jersey.  Lived in Mount Laurel, NJ my entire childhood, lived in South Philly for a year, moved to Collingswood to live with my partner.

 

 

What is it like living in Collingswood?

 

Delightful, which is why it’s a real shame that I’m moving to another (albeit close) town soon.  The apartment complex I’ve lived in became a hell very fast, thus the move, and I’m hoping the new town will be equally enjoyable.  I call the area “East Philly” to the chagrin of my Philly friends.

 

 

How long have you been acting for?

 

Technically since elementary school because I was a kid in a school play.  I started getting serious about the possibility of making a career out of it in seventh grade.  Or as serious as a seventh-grader can be, which is typically “I’m gonna STAR in RENT and Wicked!!!!!!”

 

 

What is the worst production you were a part of?

 

It was a staged reading, but the character I was playing was absolutely insufferable. The script was by this older man who clearly thought millennials are the devil and women are worse. At two different points I had to say the phrase “We females” (you know, like how no woman has ever talked before?) and talk about how all “we females” want is dick. I also had to pretend to orgasm on a washing machine, which I can only imagine why that bit was written in. The post-show discussion with the playwright was entirely older people agreeing that millennials are the worst, after watching a performance by millennial actors.

 

What do you think about while you are acting?

 

It depends on to what degree I am attempting to establish a relationship with the audience, and how much of one.  I’ve done shows where we absolutely could not perform it without at least a few audience members, and some where the audience acted more as observers.  If I’m doing the former, I think a lot about how the audience is reacting, what kind of vibe they’re giving, if they get what I’m doing.  For the latter, I try to keep my focus more toward my character’s circumstances, and trying to live truthfully within those.  I also occasionally think about bagels or whatever, because nobody’s perfect and focusing is tough.

 

 

What do you hear in your head when you are happy?

 

Music, which is probably everyone’s answer but hey.  I’m a musician and I do musical theatre, I like music and I’m happy when I think about it.  If a person was to guess I was thinking of a Dave Malloy musical, they would likely be correct.

 

 

What do you hear in your head when you feel negative?

 

A detailed recollection of every time I have wronged another person.  I have a cool, cool symptom of my anxiety disorder where every fault of mine gets blown up to a mentally self-flagellating extent.  Which I do try to keep internal, because there’s nothing less self-serving than wronging some and making them comfort you.

 

 

When did you realize you were non-binary?

 

I have simultaneously always known to an extent, and only known for a year.  It’s hard to explain or understand, and I’m still trying to figure it out.  The Big Moment™ where I really had to confront it was last summer.  I was working box office for a children’s show, and a kid asked my coworker if she was a boy or a girl.  The jealousy I felt has yet to be rivaled, and at the time I had no clue why.  Now I know it’s because being identified as a gender is not something I want, and it’s not who I am.  I was, and am, androgynous.  And I hope that someday I confuse a child, though I did recently confuse an old couple and that was fantastic.

 

 

I was interested in the notion of you saying nothing is less self-serving than wronging someone and then making them comfort you. I would think nothing could be more self-serving, but perhaps that is a self you don’t wish to serve.

So while I was trying to find a good way to phrase that thought, I originally typed “less helpful”, decided on “more self-serving”, then forgot to change the descriptor.  So, my actual thought on the subject: Nothing is less helpful, and more self-serving than wronging someone and then making them comfort you.

 

How often are you able to internalize your mentally self-flagellating instead of expressing it to others?

I used to be not-good at it, but quickly realized that wasn’t helpful.  So now I can pretty often tone it down around others and keep it to myself.  I try to have a 100% success rate there, but of course that’s my perspective, not others’.

 

I appreciate your ability to be candid about your anxiety and also having the self-awareness to be conscious of it. How old were you when you realized it was something you grappled with?

I try to be candid because anxiety feeds on silence.  If you don’t talk about it, and if others don’t talk about it, then we all think we’re alone in it.  But we’re definitely not alone.  I had my first panic attack when I was 10, and a doctor first told me it was anxiety-related shortly after.  I’ve never had medical treatment for it (my doctor told me to keep a hair tie on my wrist and slap it when I was feeling anxious) but it’s been around for a very long time.

 

Do you have a code you live by?

I have a few codes, actually.  Two big ones are empathy and communication.  I always try to understand where others are coming from, and if I don’t understand, talking to them about it.  I also strongly believe that problems have solutions.  Maybe that’s my optimism and there are in fact not solutions to every problem, but I will fight as hard as I can to solve an issue if it arises.

 

What patterns of behavior, positive and also negative do you recognize in your life?

Positive: If I’m trying to impress people, my sense of humor kicks up several notches.  Suddenly I’m trying to be the wittiest person in the room, and it generally works.  My partner gets a kick out of watching that switch happen. Negative: It’s not always easy for me to adjust to a sudden change in plans.  I certainly try to be adaptable and improvise, and I always prioritize problem-solving over my own feelings, but if I’ve planned something, I really feel much better sticking to that, and I’ll try to stick to it come hell or high water.

 

How has your identity as a non-binary person affected your identity as an actor? Was there a marked change in knowing who you are leading to more comfort playing characters? Or are the two not connected at all?

In the midst of solidifying my gender identity, I was playing Irina in Three Sisters.  I had changed my name and pronouns the week before opening, but didn’t really correct people when they used my original ones, because I wanted to feel consistently feminine while playing that role.  I think for a show like that, where I’m trying to stay true to my character’s circumstances, I lean toward trying to understand their gender.  But in general I am very comfortable portraying any and all genders.  Hey, any casting directors reading this: hire me!  I can play anyone!

 

What do you usually eat for breakfast?

Bagels.  There’s a toaster oven at my office specifically so I can toast my morning bagels, I don’t think anyone else uses it.

 

What talent or talents do you have that at times astonish you?

Memorization!  That’s my Freak Talent, I am really good at memorizing stuff.  Not like I have photographic memory, but in any show I’m in, I’m usually the first person off-book, and I also know other people’s lines.

 

Do you ever shop at Ross Dress For Less?

Nope.  Not because I’m against it, just because I don’t.

 

What show are you working on for Fringe?

God Forgive These Bastards with The Hum’n’bards!  I’m the co-director.

 

What is God Forgive These Bastards About?

God Forgive These Bastards is an authorized adaptation of the eponymous album by The Taxpayers.  It tells the story of a man named Henry Turner who was infamous in his town as a homeless person with a history of addiction, abuse, and regrets.  He also happens to be a master storyteller.

 

 

Who are you co-directing the show with?

My best friend, Jessie McCormick.

 

 

When you are acting, what do you generally like to do five minutes before a show starts?

Go to the bathroom.  Drink some water.  Make sure my props and costume are good to go for the tenth time. Do a quick body check and stretch whatever needs stretching.  Then I wait. 

 

 

What are some of the stranger things you have witnessed in a show?

I have a pretty high barometer for “strange” because I work with The Hum’n’bards Theatre Troupe.  That said, I did once see a burlesque number with a Thomas the Tank Engine theme, and that’s certainly not something I would have thought to do.

 

 

What is the closest you have ever come to having an idea in your mind and seeing it in reality?

Any of the times I’ve worked on a devised piece.  Those all start as just an idea in your mind, then making a whole thing out of it.  The past two shows I was the lead artist on started with the following two thoughts:

– “What if I did a show about Craigslist ads?”

– “What if I used my prom dresses in a show?”

Those are now two hour-long productions, complete with scripts, songs, costumes, set, and more.

 

 

What book are you reading right now?

The Wicked + The Divine Volume 1.  It’s a graphic novel my friend gave me as a gift.

 

 

Where is somewhere you would like to never go?

Any location where tarantulas are free-range creatures.  I cannot handle that level of stress and paranoia.  Australia is top of my list there.

 

 

How did you meet your partner?

My freshman year of college, first semester, my academic advisor placed me in a night class gen-ed even though having a night class as a theatre major is suicide.  Because that’s when rehearsals are, and as a director of the show I auditioned for the night before my first class told me, there was no way I was being cast with that kind of schedule.  So I showed up to this gen-ed, Essentials of Psychology, pissed off to high heaven.  When asked to introduce myself and a give a fun fact, I said “My name is [insert old name here] and my fun fact is I’m not continuing this class after today”.  The guy next to me passed me a note asking if I was okay because I seemed upset.  He’s been my partner for almost seven years since.

 

 

What do you do when you aren’t acting or directing?

Professionally, I’m the Audience Services Manager at Theatre Horizon, so if I’m not doing my freelance work I’m usually there.  I also co-host a queer comedy-education podcast called My Gay Agenda: An Investigative Podcast.  When I’m procrastinating on either of these things, I’m watching movies with my partner that are “classics” and one/neither of us has seen before.  We recently watched Gremlins and, honestly, weren’t big fans.

 

 

Is there a piece of art that makes you feel as if everything will be okay?

Anything by the McElroy Brothers.  They’re three brothers who host some of my favorite podcasts, such as My Brother My Brother and Me, The Adventure Zone, and Wonderful!.  Their work is a master class in how to be absolutely hilarious without relying on “punching down”; since starting the podcast they’ve stopped making jokes rooted in bigotry.  They loudly profess alliance with members of all groups besides jugglers.  If they slip up, they apologize and put in the work to make things right.  I see a lot of comedians and creators who prioritize their feelings over their audience, and appreciate seeing a team that has chosen a path of empathy.

 

 

Do you speak any other languages?

I studied French for six years through my academic career, then promptly forgot a lot of it.  I also know the alphabet in American Sign Language, which I thought was common knowledge but apparently is not.

 

 

How far back can you trace your family tree?

For my father’s side of the family, someone once made a booklet with extensive details about the family tree.  For my mom’s side, I don’t ask too much about them but I assume I could trace it back a good while.

 

 

Do you know where you were a year ago today?

Since last year today was a Sunday, I was likely at home resting.  I had a very busy August in 2017.

 

 

Where do you think you will be on August 20, 2019?

It’s a Tuesday, so I’ll either be at home or doing something for my off-day.  Tuesdays are one of the days I get to catch-up on the errands and rest I don’t have time for throughout the week.  It’s a boring answer, but I genuinely do value that time.

 

 

If you see two people with one arm in the same day, do you think there is a pattern leading you somewhere or you don’t think twice?

I once read an article about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and now I see it everywhere.

 

 

Regarding strange things happening in a show, I should have said outside what you were expecting. Like a fight broke out in the audience or an actor dropped a cue and someone responded by reciting a monologue from another show.

Oh!  Then yes, I’ve seen a few of those.  Most memorable was a production of Singin’ in the Rain, at the end where [spoiler] Kathy is revealed as the true singer and tries to run off from embarrassment, this production had the actress playing Kathy run down the aisle through the audience.  The character Don yells “Someone STOP THAT WOMAN!” and Kathy was presumably blocked to stop herself.  An audience member took it upon himself to physically obstruct her path.

 

 

How do you approach co-directing. Is conflict or difference of opinion hashed out during rehearsal or away from the cast?

The co-directing dynamic is very case-by-case, and I encourage anyone going into it, even with a friend, to COMMUNICATE.  Start conversations early about what you’re looking for, who will do what, and so on.  With God Forgive These Bastards, we chose co-directing because Jessie is the one with the artistic dreams and vision for this album, and I’m the one who has more experience running a rehearsal process and devising.  So we divvy up duties accordingly, while always checking in with each other to make sure we’re working together toward our common goals.  If there’s a difference of opinion, it is not discussed in the rehearsal room.  Though we haven’t had a lot of those.

 

 

What did you not care for regarding Gremlins? How would you make it better?

There were a lot of scenes that were dependent on how funny the Gremlin creatures and their antics would be perceived by the audience, like the bar scene or the movie theater scene.  It’s just 20 minutes of watching (sorry to anyone who likes Gremlins) the Minions of the 80’s.  I would edit those scenes a lot.  Also, change the main protagonist to Billy’s mom because she does way more badass shit than Billy.

 

 

What is the most amount of money you think I have ever had?

The most amount of money that I, CJ, think that you, John, have ever had?

 

 

What animal are you attracted to the most after humans?

Attracted to in what regard?  “Attracted” is a pretty loaded word.

 

 

Where do you shop since you don’t shop at Ross Dress For Less?

Usually Target.

 

 

If you were to invite me and my ladyfriend over for dinner, what would you serve?

My partner and I have perfected a vegetarian jambalaya recipe.  Well, mostly him.  Well, entirely him.

 

 

What music would you play?

Probably something that could fit really easily into the background of a conversation.  I find it tough to concentrate on several auditory things at once, and want to make sure I can stay focused on conversation!

 

 

Do you have a mortal enemy?

Not in the sense that there is a Sherlock vs. Moriarty mutual hatred.  At least that I’m aware of.  I’ve never sat down and established with someone that we hate each other, so if I hate them, it’s a mystery if they hate me back.  In that it’s a one-ended relationship where I’ve hated someone for a while, my first ex (I will leave it at that) and Johnny Depp.

 

 

What adorns your walls?

Some art work my partner has made, some art work our friends have made, some nerd stuff like a map of Skyrim, and a bulletin board of kind notes I’ve gotten from collaborators over the years.

 

 

I take it you have not seen Gremlins 2?

I have not.

 

 

Haha, yeah. Billy is pretty fucking worthless in the movie. What does Billy’s mom do?

There’s the entire kitchen scene where she single-handedly kills several Gremlins with various kitchen appliances.  She microwaves one, blends another, it’s to the point where another character enters the room and it’s all Gremlin blood!  What can’t she do?

 

 

As an aside, I think there is a great subtext in Gremlins about the fear white people have about the minority invasion of America.

 

True, though a subtext is about as useful as how it’s perceived.  There was a lot of controversy about the Gremlins falling into POC stereotypes, and in the end, they’re a vermin that is killed off.  If that subtext was the filmmaker’s intent (which it probably wasn’t, and that’s okay) they could have worked a little harder.

 

 

Yes, the most amount of money, me, John has had.

Gotcha.  That’s a hard thing to guess since I don’t know you very well at all, but based entirely on my knowledge of other people who have moved back to the area after going to LA, the answer may be “enough to buy a ham sandwich”.  But, again, that’s all I have to go off of.

 

 

Haha, you can define attracted however you react to it.

Well I’ve heard that word most frequently used to mean romantic/sexual attraction, and not to yuck the yums of my furry friends, but I very much do not fall into that category.  So in the use of the word “attracted” to mean interested in or having a positive reaction to something, red pandas.  They’re my favorite animals, those endangered goofs.  

 

 

Why do you hate Johnny Depp?

He beat his now-ex-wife Amber Heard, then blamed it on the fact that she’s bisexual and he was jealous.  That biphobic mentality, that it is justifiable to be violently jealous of your partner because they have the ability to be attracted to other genders besides yours, is very dangerous to bisexual people like myself.  He still gets work all of the time, while Amber Heard gets slandered.

 

 

What is Skyrim?

 

It’s the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls video series.  The word “Skyrim” also defines the providence in which the game takes place, thus the map.

 

 

What is the art your partner has made/makes?

 

He’s a graphic designer, and he has created art using screen printing in the past.

 

 

Have you done your astrological chart with your partner to see if you two are compatible according to the stars?

 

I have not, because neither of us are really into astrology.

 

 

What is the Baader Meinhoff phenomenon? How did you come across it?

It’s a cognitive bias in which something that has recently come to your attention feels like you suddenly see or hear it all the time.  So in the case of the one-armed person, I don’t see a lot of one-armed people daily, so if I noticed more than one in one day I’d assume it’s because the first one was such a new thing for me that seeing the second one was much more notable.

What show or person inspired you to work in theater?
My parents.  I mean, they more specifically inspired me to go forward in the direction I want to go in life, and I know that as long as it didn’t hurt anyone, whatever path I chose would be the one they supported me in.  A lot of things inspired my love of theater, but they are the ones who helped me to make it my career, and who put their faith in my goals.
What shows do you have in your head that you are still trying to figure out how to bring to life?
Most of the shows that I have ideas of how to create or direct need “figuring out” because of money.  I know how I’ll stage them, but how I’ll bring them to life is having any amount of money.  That’s the tricky part. 
Where do you see yourself fitting in the Philly Theater community?
Not incredibly prominently in the field of my interest, frankly.  If someone in the Philly Theater community recognizes me, it’s usually because they saw me working the box office at Theatre Horizon.  My artistic goal is not fame or prominence, and I try not to make that a prioritized metric for my success as an artist.  It’s just tough to feel like I won’t be known unless I’m cast, and I won’t be cast unless I’m known.
How would you describe the Philly Theater community?
A just-the-right-size theater city that celebrates both the traditions of theatre and its evolution.  Yesterday, on the same day I finalized how my name/pronouns would be used at work with my boss, I went to the Barrymore nominations, where they premiered the new gender-neutral performance categories.  It can feel like an institution with the same people doing the same work sometimes, but I see the community putting in the work to promote new and/or marginalized voices.  It’s easy enough to say they’re not doing enough yet, which they aren’t, but that’s because we’re at the beginnings of progress, and progress has no ending.
Who are some actors you would like to work with you havent had the chance to work with yet?
All of them. Casting directors reading this, please hire me.
How many plays have you seen this year? What are some of the shows you enjoyed?
I made it a goal of this year to see at least one show per month, which is a sadly minimal goal but I’m poor and anxious.  That said, I’ve seen twelve so far, and the year’s not over yet!  Some of the shows that really stuck out to me are:
-The Revolutionists at Theatre Horizon (not just saying that because I work there, it was STUNNING.)
-Passage at the Wilma Theater (That one has stuck with me for a long time.)
-Ghost Stories with Going Dark Theater (Josh Hitchens is a master storyteller.)

 

 

How do you talk to actors when directing them?

 

Ha!  I’m still trying to figure that out.  One habit I really try to maintain is asking questions instead of immediately giving my answer.  It’s so much more special to hear the actor’s discoveries, and can lead to perspectives I hadn’t considered.  Usually, perspectives that are more interesting than mine!