At Mitchell tea, porn, drag all in a day’s work

Not since February’s Sex Week at Yale has the campus seen such an open discourse on sex and sexuality as it did last week.

Following the appearance of sex therapist Dr. Ruth at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Monday, Branford College on Friday afternoon hosted John Cameron Mitchell, an actor and director best known for his film and Broadway musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a rock story about a transsexual, and “Shortbus,” a film controversial for its use of real sex. Mitchell spoke openly to a packed room of students and faculty for an hour, hitting on subjects ranging from gay sex to pornography and masturbation.

John Cameron Mitchell, right, speaks with a guest following a Branford College Master’s Tea on Friday. Mitchell, best known as the director of “Shortbus,” discussed topics ranging from masturbation to pornography during his visit to campus.
Meghna Agarwala
John Cameron Mitchell, right, speaks with a guest following a Branford College Master’s Tea on Friday. Mitchell, best known as the director of “Shortbus,” discussed topics ranging from masturbation to pornography during his visit to campus.

Sitting at the front of the room in jeans and a black Stax T-shirt with neon-yellow records on the front, Mitchell explained how he originally attended Northeastern University, before dropping out.

“Some things don’t need a diploma,” he joked dryly.

Mitchell acted on stage, on screen and on television for 15 years, performing in Broadway musicals until he got bored with acting. When Mitchell came out in 1985, he said, he was told that he would never be cast in straight roles again.

“People told me, ‘You are destroying your career,’ ” he said. “I came out the year that AIDS hit headlines, when being ‘out’ was attached to mortality.”

The concept for “Hedwig” came out of the Squeezebox in New York City, a rock ’n roll gay bar that opened in 1994. Mitchell, whose boyfriend was in the house band, performed drag and rock simultaneously for the first time for the Squeezebox audience.

“The drag scene was stale, and we wanted to infuse new life into it,” he said. “We took the traditional boring drag thing and made it something else.”

“Hedwig” drew celebrities like David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and Danny DeVito to its opening performances.

“It almost became like a scene from ‘Hedwig,’ it was so bizarre,” Mitchell said when describing his encounters with Hollywood stars.

He explained that the concept for “Hedwig” was so new that there would be shows at wnich no one would laugh or react at all.

Mitchell directed the film version of “Hedwig” himself, refusing Forest Whitaker’s offer to direct it.

“I wanted to use my own vision and safely make the final decision,” Mitchell recalled. “If I’m going to make something, then I’m not going to focus on selling.”

The tea then switched directions, when a student asked about Mitchell’s use of real sex in his film “Shortbus.”

“It was not for shock value,” Mitchell replied. “We were trying to do something new that no one really wanted. There are so many things that sex is attached to in our lives.”

For a time, the Internet Movie Database blocked users from searching for the film, and Blockbuster still does not carry it.

Mitchell said his film was about a first love, and sex was a large part of that relationship.

“Why skip that?” he asked. “The sex is part of the story, the way that it unfolds, the way in which it takes place. Dissolving the camera into the curtains and skipping that act implies that it is exactly the same, there is nothing different about it.”

He shared stories with the audience about the awkwardness of filming real sex.

“I needed the camera in front of me to validate why I was there,” he joked.

After the talk, many of the students in attendance lingered for a chance to talk with the director, snap pictures and ask questions. Michael Nedelman ’08, a film-studies major, was interested in Mitchell’s filming techniques and subject matter.

“It is interesting that he created films from the opposite direction, casting his characters first and then working with the actors to create the plot,” Nedelman said.

Gabriel Bloomfield ’11 and Yinshi Lerman-Tan ’11 waited excitedly for their chance to speak with Mitchell.

“We are, like, his biggest fans,” Bloomfield gushed. “I’ve been looking forward to this event for months.”

Bloomfield, who saw “Hedwig” for the first time four years ago, confessed to owning “a lot” of “Hedwig” memorabilia. Lerman-Tan, who wrote an essay for her English 120 class on the fictional character of Hedwig, described the production as “life-changing” and “the best stage production ever made.”

A film screening of “Shortbus” in Silliman College followed the tea.

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