When Ken Roht first saw Mike Figgis’ 1999 film Miss Julie, an idea was born. As a gay man, Roht (best known for his 99cent holiday shows) thought he could completely relate to Julie. He knew at once he wanted to embody her on stage. Ten years later, although Roht has handed the title role to Jonny Rodgers, Ken Roht’s Miss Julie(n) opens at MorYork Gallery this week for 12 performances through March 10.
More than a few artists have shared Roht’s impulse to recreate Miss Julie. August Strindberg’s 1888 play popped up in 1971 on television with Helen Mirren, again as the Figgis film starring Saffron Burrows, and in 2007 at LA’s Fountain Theatre, this time set in 1964 Mississippi with an interracial twist. On May 1 the Geffen Playhouse presents Neil LaBute’s adaptation directed by Jo Bonney, and it was recently reported that Liv Ullmann will direct a new film version starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell.
Roht’s piece features a cast of 12, and song and dance.He maintains that his is a responsible adaptation of the play. “What works is that we just changed the gender and sexuality of the lead character,” Roht says. “To me that’s an interesting experiment that works out. It’s not meant to be some abstraction so I could make a gay play.”
Miss Julie(n) follows Julien, a lonely gay man who feels oppressed by his father. He is fond of John, an ambitious and opportunistic straight male servant, who is engaged to Christine, a religious and conventional woman. While Miss Julie addresses the issue of class, Roht’s version tackles sexuality.
“I watched the [Figgis] film,” Roht says, “and I was so moved by [Julie’s] psychic state and what she was experiencing with this conflict, and how oppressed she was in her environment as someone who is marked to be less-than as a woman and as a frail woman. I just sort of understood.”
As Roht ruminated on adapting Miss Julie, he always thought of the lead as a gay man. In his eyes, Julie’s predicament was a metaphor for the gay male experience.
“I sort of understood from a gay man’s perspective what it was to be the other and the lesser-than in society; how battered Julie felt through her father, through the servants that thought she was some sort of frail freak. That’s what I think a lot of gay young people feel in an environment that does not support them.”
Determined to see Julien come to life, Roht approached Erik Patterson (Ovation-nominated Red Light Green Light/GLAAD-nominated He Asked For It/LA Weekly-nominated Sick) to write an adaptation of Miss Julie that converted the sex and sexuality of the lead character. For the next 10 years, Roht continued to make adjustments to Patterson’s script based on his own experiences, immersing himself in contemplating the complexities of Julien and John. John’s character changed the most.
“Julien really goes through the same sort of psychic battles that Julie went through,” says Roht, “but John, I was trying to put him in a context that was most relevant to the battle between the straight man who finds power in seducing gay men, or using sexuality to in any way manipulate gay men. Gay men try to manipulate straight men into the same sort of power game, so the power game is super interesting to me, the battle of it. I was trying to figure out what John’s perspective was. Originally I had him be much more bisexual. John was being opportunistic as far as trying to get out of his station and move on and change his life. John is basically a sociopath as far as really wanting to change his state, and seeing exactly how he’s going to do it by manipulating Julien. And, unfortunately, at the end of the day Julien is physically too weak to take on that kind of challenge. It brings him to the point where he’s having a major catharsis.”
For a decade, Roht never let go of Julien. “I felt like the character of Julien needed to be seen and experienced,” he says. “It speaks to the gay experience and to what some people feel when they’re feeling oppressed in the gay community. It reflects part of my psychic landscape and my psychosexuality. Not that I’m always Julien. Sometimes I’m John. Having that relationship between the different aspects of myself and how that changes and evolves.”
Miss Julie(n) stayed on the page until Roht discovered Jonny Rodgers while casting for his upcoming film Perfect Cowboy. The musical film centers around two gay fathers raising a straight country-western singer in a rural community. Rodgers got the part of the son in the film, but Roht also knew he was the man to play Julien.
“I’m not wrong,” Roht says. “He’s exactly what I’m hoping for. That’s when I decided I would do it.”
Roht approached his friend Clare Graham of MorYork Gallery in Highland Park. Not only is the gallery Roht’s favorite place in Los Angeles (“and probably in the United States,” he adds), but Graham has lent Roht a hand with costumes and props for his 99cent shows.
“Clare Graham is an artist and amazing curator of beautiful things and whimsical oddities,” says Roht. “[Miss Julie(n)] is a nice holistic invasion of this space.”
As people enter the MorYork Gallery, the servants will already be in character, interacting with audience members. After experiencing the space, people will find a place in the limited-seating bleachers.
Roht denies any political stance in his work. He does, however, acknowledge an inherent message, which becomes apparent through the role of Christine.
“In my version, what’s really relevant about Christine is that she’s a pragmatist, and she’s also very conventional,” Roht says. “She’s tied to religiosity and her Christian beliefs. I’m not interested in making indictments about Christianity, but I am interested in saying that kids in the Midwest and the South or wherever are feeling disenfranchised from their own selves and their community because Christians are saying they are evil for being gay. That’s happening. She represents that aspect of the repression that Julien experiences.”
Roht points to a 2011 Rolling Stone article about Michele Bachmann’s congressional district in Minnesota. “There was a rash of suicides because of such an oppressive environment,” Roht says, recalling the article. “I really earnestly feel for these kids. Even if kids are not killing themselves, they are feeling horrible about themselves, and something has to be done about that. If there’s a way to demonstrate the complexity of the relationship between gay men and straight men, it does a service. I think more sociological than political, more spiritual in nature, definitely emotional. I wanted to create a piece that resonates psychically and emotionally more than it does make a statement.”
Ken Roht’s Miss Julie(n), MorYork Gallery,Â 4959 York Blvd, Highland Park. Opens February 21. Thu-Sat 8 pm.Â Through March 10. Tickets: $20. Cash Only. Sundays are Pay What You Can. www.missjulien.com. 323-515-2482.
***All Miss Julie(n) production photos by Ashley West Leonard.