My sit-down with performer, writer, and librettist Erik Ransom to ask some of the many questions this enticing show title begs.
Sibbes: So, Mr. Ransom, what has been your personal experience with Grindr? Do you use the app yourself?
Ransom: I do. But only for dramaturgy. Just kidding! I was a bit of an addict/ for a while. There’s a sort of Pavlovian satisfaction that comes from opening the app in new cities and seeing who messages you. At a certain point it starts to feel like you’re dating the app itself. I think I had the tagline, “Grindr is my boyfriend” for a while. It was a problem, but I’ve toned it down and now I use it, primarily, to promote the opera. At least that’s what I tell the press on record!
Sibbes: Haha! Understood! The last time we spoke, you were discussing musicals-both those you had written and those you had performed in. Why “GRINDR The Opera” and not “GRINDR The Musical”?
Ransom: Easy answer? “GRINDR The Opera” sounds funnier. There is an immediate humorous juxtaposition in the three-word title. Grindr is crass, opera is class. The (melo)drama that comes out of this story of love, lust and technology is a patently operatic tale. The stakes are high to the point of hyperbole. This show is parody, after all, and part of the humor comes from the exaggerated circumstances of taking Grindr to its extreme heights and depths.
Sibbes: I agree! The charisma of the title is what attracted me to it most. More on the opera itself-how would you describe the setting of the story of GRINDR The Opera? Is this a tale specific to New York City? to the East Coast? to America? How did these variables influence your decision to hold your first concert in Manhattan?
Ransom: I think the story is pretty universal throughout the modern gay world. These characters could exist anywhere. We’re holding the concert in Manhattan, because it’s pretty much the world capital of musical theatre, and it just seemed to make sense. There is a huge audience in the New York market who intimately knows the scenarios explored in the opera, so it seemed pragmatic to offer it to them.
Sibbes: Tell us about the characters. Who will we meet on that Friday and Saturday night?
Ransom: Well, to give you a spoiler-free rundown, we have a slutty twink, a serial monogamist geek, a closeted DL daddy and a cynical boy-next-door who knows his way around Grindr all-too-well. Then, of course, we have the prima donna of the piece: Grindr, herself, who is an actual character in the show who serves as a sort of puppet-master dominatrix manipulating the fates of the four gays.
Sibbes: How did you decide which “tribes”, or “type” labels, were important to be represented in the opera?
Ransom: I think it mostly had to do with their goals. Grindr is about finding connection with another human being, whether fleeting or lasting. The characters were all derived from archetypal Grindr ‘Tribes’ and extrapolated based on what they’re seeking. Grindr can be a very dark place, it can make a love connection, or it can be a very efficient way to get one’s rocks off.
Sibbes: When writing, was it always your intent to create a piece with such a small cast?
Ransom: Yes. This show was written to be portable and easy to produce. It’s designed so it can be done in a proscenium theatre, the back room of a dingy club, or a lovely cabaret at 955 West End Avenue (wink wink). We recognize that this is neither a traditional opera, nor a traditional musical and that it may find a strong audience in the nightclub world. And I wanted to write a show that could comfortably be presented almost anywhere, for that reason.
Sibbes: Even with such a small cast, through what you’ve explained off the record, each character seems to have a unique motive, fancy, doubt, and pain. What inspired you to focus on these particular dimensions of the human condition?
Ransom: I just felt that they were a realistic cross-section of the Grindrverse. Somebody on there is liable to ask you on a date. Someone else is liable to send you an unsolicited picture of their penis. Grindr is dismissed as a hook-up site, but there are genuinely people looking for romance there. That’s its own sort of tragedy. There’s opera in that.
Sibbes: This is true! But, even with the diversity you represented, each character does seem to share a common sense of inexorable ambition. Many of those who have worked with you have described you similarly. How much of yourself do you see in these characters?
Ransom: Have they, now? I hadn’t heard! Of course, I wrote the thing so they’re all part of me. I’ve played saint, slut and cynic in my life, and I’ve certainly met all of these characters. Even Grindr itself.
Sibbes: Ooh, we’re so anxious to learn more about what that means! So, when writing such varied characters, how did you best combat their categorization into typical, “tired” archetypes?
Ransom: I attempted to explore their reasoning three-dimensionally. Although they’re living in this exaggerated world of parody, their wants and choices are all tied to the real world.
Sibbes: In your opinion, does this story have a hero? A villain?
Ransom: I’d really rather know what the audience thinks. That’s what I love about theatre! I get to find out in the room.
Sibbes: In addition to your efforts with GRINDR The Opera, it is my understanding that you are currently working as a lyricist for another upcoming musical production. How different is the process of writing an opera than writing a piece that incorporates both song and spoken word?
Ransom: Well, I’ve been writing poetry and lyrics since I was a kid, so the lyricist gig with The Anthem was easier. It wasn’t my story, it wasn’t my music. I had specific instructions telling me what to accomplish from each song, so all I had to do was make it witty, structured and rhyming. That’s how it felt, anyway. I know there’s more art to it, but it’s a strong suit. “GRINDR” was harder, because I was in charge of what everything was about, and what needs to be said. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a story in song, and you have to pick and choose what parts of the story to tell very carefully. This is true in plays with spoken dialogue also, but I think music complicates the issue immensely. Fortunately, this story lent itself to song, though I’ve had tougher times in the past with other stories.
Sibbes: How important is rhyming to your creative vision as a lyricist and as a playwright?
Ransom: Hugely important! I typically don’t write lyrics that don’t rhyme. I’d feel lazy or sacrilegious if I didn’t!
Sibbes: That said, many colloquial phrases and text-message-style abbreviations are written into the lyrics for GRINDR The Opera. Was it difficult to balance this method of representing cultural competence with your ambition to craft an intellectual, weighty piece?
Ransom: I think, the way it’s structured, the beginning of the show has more of that than the end. I hope to draw you into the world of Grindr with that sort of comedic, musical representation of the app. As it becomes more familiar and as the characters interact outside of their 4G network, I think the weightier issues start to rear their heads.
Sibbes: On the topic of colloquialism, Many of your previous works have told epic, fantastical stories, with colorful imagination embedded throughout. Was it a challenge to write a piece of realistic fiction?
Ransom: I’d like to think I found something epic, fantastical and colorful in this piece. The otherworldly presence of Grindr-as-character helped with that. Although the story may be small for me, (No Armageddon, no mushroom clouds, etc.) there’s grandeur to it. Grindr can be a religious figure, and there is always something of the epic in religion.
Sibbes: Was it important to you to comment on the revolution of dating in the modern world with this piece, as, say, an epic theme of its own?
Ransom: I think it’s huge. The change from the bar hook-up era to the Grindr era is palpable. It was abrupt and extreme. Suddenly, physical appearance became everything. And with no context. You don’t hear the sound of their voice, you don’t see their swagger. You just see a selfie of a torso, asking you that new classic of a query: “Looking?”
Sibbes: That said, in your opinion, what new emotional obstacles have apps like Grindr created for you, your contemporaries, and these characters? Have any barriers been broken since the arrival of these apps on the gay scene?
Ransom: I think Grindr is what you make of it. I still use it. I’m not against it. It’s just a different aspect of the human experience. It’s broken some barriers and erected others. Don’t say ‘erected’ on Grindr, by the way. Those queens love to jump on anything remotely sexual. I think Grindr is great and it has its place for me, but when it comes to actual dating? I prefer acoustic to electric.
Sibbes: What would you like GRINDR The Opera to accomplish?
Ransom: [I’d hope it would] inspire thoughtful dialogue on the subject of technology and intimacy. I’d like it to run in multiple cities simultaneously. I’d love to see how it might be received abroad. And I hope people want to see it more than once. That’s a great honor for an audience member to give a show. Honestly, I just hope someone will pick of night of theatre over a night on Grindr, once or twice!
GRINDR the Opera will premiere on Friday, May 2nd at 11:00pm with a second performance at 6:30pm on Saturday, May 3rd at The West End, 955 West End Avenue New York, NY. There will be a cash-only cover charge of $25.00 payable at the door the evening of the performance. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/grindrtheopera.