Photos (c) Tom Nelson
As a young gay man growing up in Texas in the ‘80s, David Schmader wasn’t exactly living in an environment that encouraged innovative performance art, in general, let alone queer-centric pop culture appreciation in particular. Thanks to formative early exposure to Guns ’n’ Roses and a natural ease on the stage, he found his way to Seattle via a BFA in Theater from the North Carolina School of the Arts and evolved from bookstore clerk to playwright and performer of critically lauded one-man shows Letter to Axl and Straight, eventually helming the darkly sardonic ‘Last Days’ column for The Stranger and serving as the paper’s associate editor. He recently stepped down from the latter role to focus on writing his first book for Sasquatch Books, a modern guide to responsible marijuana use.
What are your earliest memories of falling in love with music?
As a young kid, I was super into the soundtracks to movies I loved—The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz—but this was more about reliving the movies than loving the music. The record that made me fall in love with music in the way that I’ve been ever since was Cheap Trick At Budokan, which my older brother had, and “Surrender” was my first favorite rock song, the one that made me pretend to be sick so I could stay home alone and crank the stereo and jump around, the one that set my expectations for the type of feelings music should give you. “You’re always chasing that first high!!!”
Do you feel like your awareness of your sexuality shaped what music you were attracted to in any way as a young man?
Absolutely. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in West Texas, and homosexuality was something that was only mentioned on suicide reports. It was so forbidden it wasn’t discussed, and music seemed to be about communicating things that can’t just be said. As a kid, strong women were the closest thing I felt I had to a representative in the world. Even at ten, I had a visceral response the first time I heard “I Will Survive.” After Gloria Gaynor came Donna Summer and Debbie Harry and the Go-Gos. Back then, being fiercely devoted to a female artist or “girl band” was kind of the closest I could come to acknowledging my queerness, at least until I found Prince and Morrissey.
When do you recall making the decision that writing was something that you wanted to do for a living?
After I did the first performance of my first solo show, Letter to Axl, in 1993. I was writing the final draft up till five minutes before curtain, and then I got to watch as these just-written lines landed on the audience. I had no idea if what I’d written would be of interest to anyone but me, and when people responded in all the ways I’d hoped they might and a lot of other ways I hadn’t thought of, I thought, “This is something I can do.” I’m embarrassed by how contingent my drive was on that initial positive response—if the show had bombed, or been ignored, I don’t know if I would’ve tried again. Writing is hard, and the fact that what I wrote made sense to other people was invaluable in making me want to write more. It made it a conversation, rather than a cry in the wilderness.
Tell me more about the book. Do you have a working title?
Yes. It has a working title, working cover—it’s called Weed: The User’s Guide. It’s basically all the good stoner information you would want in one place. My big thing was what I DIDN’T want it to be: no cartoon pot leaves, no tie-dye, no Stoner puns scattered throughout. They came to me and said they wanted it to be like a guide to scotch and I was like ‘perfect!’ Let’s do adult lifestyle enhancement and not naughty, stoner stuff. There are a couple of stoner jokes, but I try to make new stoner jokes. I didn’t want it to be Cheech and Chong-y. I think we talked about this before—the thing about Cheech and Chong is that they were pretending to be stoned while they were making independent films. They did a lot of things that were hard to do, but we did buy into those characters for a while…[the idea that] stoners are people that don’t do anything and laugh at things that aren’t funny, when actually they [can be] surgeons and good parents. Let’s be grown-ups about this now.
You’ve often found pretty fantastic ways to analyze or satirize pop culture in your work in ways that are subversive without being preachy, and I feel like the way you conduct your Showgirls presentations is a fine example of that, particularly your choices to skip over the movie’s rape scene and to donate the proceeds from screenings to domestic violence causes. How important do you think it is to infuse personal politics into cultural critiques?
First things first: the couple years I did of Showgirls screenings, proceeds went to the domestic violence organization New Beginnings, and after that I did a big benefit show for Washington State CASA (helping kids in the court system). But once MGM signed on and the shows became promotion for their product, the screenings have just been regular old gigs, with proceeds going to me/producers.
And an answer to your question: “How important do you think it is to infuse personal politics into cultural critiques?” For me, it’s crucial, and a big part of it is including not just personal politics but personal critiques and self-incrimination. All of my solo plays involve me grilling myself as hard as I grill any outside entity—and by “me” I mean my worldview, my biases, my blind spots. Showing that you yourself are not off the menu for critique is a great way to build trust with an audience, and create the best environment for your message to land properly.
About this “best environment for messages to land”: I’ve found that people like to use their brains and to be approached as intelligent creatures, rather than as idiots who need to fix themselves. So I aim to give audiences the opportunity to use their brains—trusting them to glean a moral from assembled evidence, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. This allows audiences to be active participants, rather than just passive recipients, with the fun bonus that stimulated brains are better at absorbing messages.
As for Showgirls: It’s subject to this “best environment for messages to land” concept too, but the message is “look at this ridiculous hilarious piece of shit a bunch of grown-ups made!” And I’ve found the best way for this message to land is for me to play the straight man to the Showgirls’ punchline: I give an opening speech, introduce some themes, provide running thematic commentary, and skip over the tonally ruinous rape scene. But all the heavy lifting is done by Showgirls, and I want audiences to experience it in full, with any and all of my input restricted to stuff that actively enhances the viewing experience. I do the set-ups, the movie does the punchlines.
Let’s talk about the wonderful wave of new female comedians that we’re experiencing. What do you think of Broad City?
I love it. Love it. I’m so gay that I feel like a need to say when a woman zings me down there, and Ilana Glazer. She’s. the one who had sex with herself and she went so far with it. I was shocked. I love being made to feel old by comedy.
What else are you into these days, comedy-wise?
Amy Schumer, Amy Schumer, Amy Schumer. Who knew we needed this so bad? She does the faces that women learn to make for guys and dissects it in a way that I’ve never seen before. How to keep a pretty face while someone says something completely disgusting to you. The poses she does to show how to send the proper cue to a man and just, ‘Oh my god.’ She’s amazing.
I want to go back to what you were saying about expressing your queerness at a young age through an allegiance with strong female musicians. It seems like an obvious correlation, but not one that immediately occurred to me…
It kind of goes beyond music. There’s this breed of woman that gay boys in America at that time felt were here for them. It was Dolly Parton, Madeline Kahn…someone who was a weirdo but had power and figured out how to enjoy their life. There was this kind of female superhero that was designed for both young women and gay men. I went to talk to my publisher recently and meet everyone and they were all women. I was so happy. There’s this basic humanity…if you’re a woman, or you’re been gay, or if you’ve been fat, there’s something I trust more about you than someone who’s been on a straight path their entire life. I trust that and I respect it.