You might know Ben Strothmann as a keen-eyed photographer, capturing the essence of performers for headshots, album covers and theatrical productions in New York City. Or you may know him for his smoky-eyed drag persona Honey LaBronx, whose “Big Fat Vegan Radio” podcasts and “Vegan Drag Queen” videos are popular with too many demographics to name. On Aug. 4, 2017, at the experiment-friendly Dixon Place, you’ll see Strothmann through new lenses: as actor and playwright in the autobiographical solo show Virtual Memory.
(Update for 2018: The show is back, under the title Coming Clean, June 22 & 27, 2018, at the Kraine Theater as part of the Queerly Festival. Get info here: www.TinyURL.com/
In the 80-minute play, Strothmann performs as himself, dipping into the pages of his childhood diaries. “It’s deeply personal and maybe a little bit incriminating,” he told me.
Here’s how Virtual Memory is billed: “As a boy, Ben knew he was gay when he had his first crush on a cartoon character. Through this tale of embarrassing childhood memories, hilarious misunderstandings, and bittersweet brushes with fate, Ben shares his journey of self-discovery, and how he learned to love himself exactly as he is.”
Strothmann first tested material that became the play a few years ago at Judson Memorial Church. “What I learned was that this wasn’t just a throw-away piece,” Strothmann told me. “That people weren’t just there to be supportive as I got something out of my system. I swore that I would only do this show once in my lifetime. That’s kind of what made it so special. But people have been talking to me about that performance for the last three years and asking when I’m going to bring it back. So I learned that in telling my story — as much as it means to me — other people are getting something out of it.”
Check out my longer interview with Strothmann below.
Mark Finley directs the coming-of-age reminiscence. Get tickets and information here.
The 7:30 PM Aug. 4 performance is part of Dixon Place’s annual HOT! Festival: The NYC Celebration of Queer Culture, which ends Aug. 4 following a month of eclectic events.
Find Strothmann’s cooking show “The Vegan Drag Queen” here.
Find the podcast “Big Fat Vegan Radio” here.
How did the idea of you doing a solo show come about?
Ben Strothmann: After seeing my friend Michael Harren perform his first solo show at Judson Memorial Church, as part of their “Magic Time” series, I thought. “I’ve got to do this!” I literally dared Michael to dare me to approach Micah Bucey at Judson to express my interest. Micah was on board from that moment and we set a date maybe nine months in the future: Way too far away for an artist with AD/HD and poor sense of time. Despite capturing my thoughts and bouncing ideas off of friends, nothing was coming to me.
When it was a month away, I called Micah to say that I had nothing and I needed to cancel the show. He reminded me that I could literally do anything I wanted to and he encouraged me that it would all work out okay. About a week before the show, I still had absolutely nothing. I called Micah again, this time insisting that I absolutely could not do the show and apologizing profusely. Again he reminded me that I could get on stage and read the phone book. Literally. Anything I wanted to do. Finally, with a week left, I thought. “What if I just got up there and read my childhood diaries?” And that’s what I thought I was going to do. I started scrutinizing all my childhood writings looking for the best, most embarrassing stories.
Were the diary entries connected, suggesting a larger narrative, or was it all random kid stuff?
Ben Strothmann: The moments I started gathering seemed to tell their own story. Perhaps a story I hadn’t considered. In my mid-30s, I had enough distance from the past few decades that I could see how those pieces all fit together, and a story just kind of emerged. I told my roommate that I didn’t know how to find a director to go over all this material and trim all the fat. So he told me he’d be happy to do it. My roommate at the time was Bob the Drag Queen, winner of Season 8 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Bob sat — so patiently — as I read him five hours’ worth of notes, ramblings, and stories. It took two days to get through it all. At the end of that, I had an outline of what fit into the show and what didn’t.
So, you had raw material for the Judson Memorial Church presentation.
Ben Strothmann: When they asked me how many seats they thought I should set up, I told them 30 because that way, if only 20 people showed up, it wouldn’t seem too empty. Micah comes back stage to tell me they’ve had to stop letting people in as they reached their limit of 85 people, yet people were willing to stand and watch from the doorway. It was insane. This is a very personal, very revealing show. It’s well outside of my comfort zone, but I find there are things that can be said to the anonymity of an audience that can’t be said one on one.
Now it’s appearing at the HOT! Festival at Dixon Place.
Ben Strothmann: Dixon Place is one of those places where, I just never thought I would have what it takes to perform an original piece on that stage. That kind of talent seemed reserved for the gods or something. So I submitted the play thinking, “Whatever — fat chance they’re gonna even see this.” A few months passed and I figured they weren’t interested, but later they emailed me! They wanted my “play”! As soon as they called it a play, I realized, “My God, you’re right! I guess I did write a play!” When I talked to Ariel Mahler at Dixon — this is silly, but I had to ask — “Does this mean I’m a playwright?”
I always thought a “playwright” was something one would have to want to be, then set their mind to becoming that. I guess I created this play the way some mothers create a baby on the show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”
Can you share what Virtual Memory centers on?
Ben Strothmann: Once I had the idea to do this show, it was clear that it would be about me. I guess the “conflict” was: what are the most embarrassing stories I could ever tell on stage? It’s one thing to sit in your room and write it. I already know all the embarrassing things that have happened to me. But then there’s this moment where it becomes real that: “Wait, I’m gonna say this — to an audience?”
I pretty much play myself. Though there are moments where I recreate conversations that took place between myself and others. The show is really just a conversation with me and the audience. I suppose if someone missed this show, I could basically recreate it for them sitting across from them at a table in a diner.
Even in rehearsals now with my director, Mark Finley, there are moments where he will say a line to me from my script and I cringe thinking, “Oh my God, I am choosing to put myself in this position.” I know I must be doing something right if performing this show requires walking through that much self-centered fear. I want to know what [it’s like] being on the other side of that [fear]. And yeah, that’s gonna have a cost. Sure. But the cost hasn’t happened yet — it’s in the future — and so there’s no point thinking about that now.
You’re a suburban Midwestern guy, raised in Wauwatosa, WI, outside Milwaukee. Does that world surface in the play?
Ben Strothmann: Oh, yes. Though perhaps not with as much of the cartoonish Midwestern-ness it could have. If anything, I think my Midwestern identity is something I hadn’t distinguished until I got to New York and saw how out of place I was.
Is there a literal physical journey in the show? Do you go from Midwest boy to NYC man in the show?
Ben Strothmann: Definitely. It’s very chronological. I don’t know why that’s so important to me, but writing this show had me researching all sorts of dates. Like, “When did I see that one show?” and “What month did so-and-so die?” So it starts with my birth, and ends not exactly in the present (the last eight years or so would be a whole ’nother play) but maybe circa 2009 — once I “made it through the wilderness,” as Madonna would say.
Were you a theater kid, growing up? Did your parents take you to shows?
Ben Strothmann: Oh, God, yes! I remember when Annie came through Milwaukee on tour I was about three years old. I grew up with three siblings, and yet my parents took me to see it. Not my two sisters. Just me. Smart move, mom and dad! I remember thinking how weird it was to be in a movie theater, but the screen was gone and I could see real people on stage in their very own house. I remember thinking that whatever Miss Hannigan was drinking looked good and I wanted some. I definitely enjoyed the experience, but I sort of forgot my love of the theater until I was 11 years old and started middle school. I don’t remember hearing the announcement about auditions for the school musical. I don’t remember thinking, “Audition? For a musical? I want to do that!” I only remember walking onto the stage, singing eight bars of the little song they taught us (“On a Wonderful Day Like Today”), and being cast in 42nd Street… an ambitious show for a middle school! I was transformed. The songs just transported me to my own world. If you saw Björk in the movie “Dancer in the Dark,” that is what the music from 42nd Street did to me.
So I did most of the school plays, then dabbled in community and professional theatre. It wasn’t until choir class in high school when I started to discover that developing my talents as a performing artist was really what I wanted to do with my life.
Family and parents are so much a part of autobiographical shows. Do your folks figure into Virtual Memory?
Ben Strothmann: Not a whole heck of a lot, other than their facilitating my move to New York and how hard that must have been for them. Though there are one or two hilarious scenes that involve family members. I’m just gonna say: I was 13 years old, nobody knocked before entering my room, and they deserved whatever they walked in on.
As a drag performer you get to hide behind mascara, lashes and cantilevered hips. Virtual Memory is just you, without the bosom. It must be a very naked feeling. Does it terrify you, or excite you?
Ben Strothmann: First of all, how dare you suggest that Honey LaBronx wears makeup. Hers is a natural beauty — and those hips are mine, too. I carved them myself. It is a little strange to think I’m performing — on a bare stage — out of drag. Like it hasn’t sunk in yet that I won’t need to put makeup on. The face the audience sees will be the one my parents gave me, not the one I make up. But no, performing as a guy isn’t foreign to me. I’ve been an actor since I was 11. Drag is something I started about eight years ago. What I will say is — until I did drag — there was a comfort level I didn’t have as a performer. Now it’s a lot easier for me to go outside of my comfort zone, to make an ass of myself, to improvise. Honey LaBronx is like this Wonder Woman costume I put on and it gives me special powers — but I know now that power doesn’t come from the clothes. I always have access to it. I’m looking forward to going out on that stage and letting Ben just be Ben, and letting the audience have all of him.
What has Mark Finley brought to the table, as director?
Ben Strothmann: I’m just thrilled that he said yes to this dress, honey! I’ve worked with Mark for years, and if I respect someone, I’m automatically a little intimidated by them. I’ve asked Mark for a lot of help reeling it in. Cleaning up the language. Making things clearer. At first I thought the work would mostly be about fixing and reworking the script. And we’ve been doing a lot of that; heck, we’re still doing it.
But when we got into the studio and started putting this show on its feet — you gotta remember, I’m completely new at this. In the studio, when he started to direct me how to physically embody and interpret my script, I just kept thinking “Of course! That makes so much sense!” With everything I do have to worry about, it’s so nice to know that with the direction of my play, I’m in very experienced hands. It’s kind of like knowing you’re with that friend who will tell you if you have something in your teeth.
Since you’re also known and respected as a photographer, I assume photos/projections are a part of the production. Or is it barebones?
Ben Strothmann: There will be some projections and sound. Other than that, it’s just me and a bench on a bare stage. We were going to have a helicopter come down at the end of the act, but I feel like I’ve seen that done recently so…
Can you share what the title means and how you came to it? Were there other titles you kicked around?
Ben Strothmann: As a kid, my dad told me that virtual memory, in computer terms, is like a partition of a hard drive reserved for the computer to use as extra memory. I liked the idea that by keeping a diary (or a “journal,” as I called it, because diaries were for girls) I could record moments of my life that would otherwise not make it into the archives of my brain — like I was augmenting my biological memory with a paper one.
Yeah, honestly: I don’t love the name. It’s like knowing you’re pregnant, expecting a boy, and you name him, and buy clothes and things with his name on it — and then you have a girl. And you realize it’s too late. The invitations have been sent out. The birth certificate is printed. And your daughter’s name is gonna have to be Franklin at this point.