On Point With: Dandy Darkly

Georgia-born actor and writer Neil Arthur James debuted his creepy/funny Vaudevillian storytelling character Dandy Darkly on the Stonewall stage in 2010. Since then, he’s been haunting dreams and tickling funny bones around the world with “gay ghost stories” of Grindr hookups gone wrong and drag queens gone wild.  His latest stage show Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth! previews this month in the HOT! Festival in Brooklyn, but first catch him hosting the festival’s opening ceremony. Thotyssey swaps yarns with Dandy Darkly!

Thotyssey: Hi Dandy! I’ve been watching to some of your monologues on YouTube, and reading excerpts in some write-ups of your shows. It’s very Shakespearean (no, really!) in a way that it can look a little dense on the page, but is given such life when you speak it. Especially when you’re decked out in vaudeville gear! Is this all your own writing?

Dandy Darkly: Yes, I write everything that comes out of my mouth on stage. The density of prose can be daunting, especially when I sit down and start memorizing a new show, but I write with the spoken word in mind – so much of my language incorporates alliteration, internal rhyme and rhythm builds that help make such dense prose easier for the listener to follow.

And thanks for the Shakespearean compliment – the Bard is a major influence. He, in fact, makes a cameo appearance in my newest show Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth

So for the uninitiated, I’ll say that the character Dandy Darkly is kind of like a creepy storyteller, but in a way that’s both old-timey Vaudevillian and also very modern. I mean, your tales are about killer rentboys and Grindr, after all! But the stories are also funny. Is that a fair description?

Very fair. When I try to describe my work, I often fall back on the quick and easy “gay ghost stories”, but I mine from a wide swath of influences, among them vaudeville and traditional storytelling. But my shows and stories are decidedly modern. Last year’s Trigger Happy featuring a horror tale about a shooter at a gay bar, and this year I’m delving into virtual reality addiction. And, yes, very funny.

So, let’s talk about how Dandy came to be! Take us back to the beginning… what inspired all of this?

My biggest inspiration is undoubtedly my grandfather. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting on his lap while he regaled us kids with Georgia ghost stories. I grew up in a very rural area of north Georgia, and these regional tales fascinated me. I have 8-track recordings of me at 5 years-old telling my first ghost stories.

I also became obsessed with bitchy Hollywood queens: Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Liberace. Somehow, I spoke their secret language of innuendo and backhanded compliments. They were the court jesters, and it’s a role young Dandy relished at school.

I studied drama in college at the University of Georgia, a curriculum very focused on the classics (Shakespeare, the masked Commedia dell’arte).

But into my twenties, I moved away from performance and began writing. My love of ghost stories and horror led me to create a website–a fiction blog–detailing the life of a bitchy gay exorcist. Fast forward to October 2010, when a dear cabaret friend invited me to tell one of my stories at his Halloween variety show at Stonewall, and Dandy Darkly was born!

How did you wind up in Stonewall, and New York?

I’d always wanted to live in New York City. In 2001, I was living in Atlanta and working at a local theater in the box office. I was moved by 9/11, and decided to take the gamble. So in 2002, I packed up my meager belongings and moved to Brooklyn.

I ended up making my grand entrance at Stonewall thanks to local vaudeville cabaret star Brent Fein of Fein and Dandee. They produced a Halloween variety show, and he was a fan of my writing. So I was born that holiest of nights on the holiest of stages. I think my emergence upon the Stonewall stage has really helped shape my voice, particularly in terms of my decided focus on LGBTQ issues and content.

Where do you generally get your costumes, by the way?

I tend to piecemeal my costumes together from thrift stores, vintage shops and high-end costume retailers. For Myth Mouth! which has a more dark science fiction vibe, I enlisted the help of an incredible costume shop in Memphis, Coquetry Clothing. Ellie and her team have been invaluable, pouring me into skin tight lycra cat suits. They even made me a little matching purse for fliers at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. Hats, shoes and detail work on the costumes I do all myself.

And your painting skills, is that stage makeup you picked up from studying drama, or would you describe it as more clown / drag?

Friends sometimes ask “Can you do my makeup for such and such project?” and honestly if I did, they’d come out looking like Dandy Darkly [laughs]! Yes, a bit is makeup training, but most is just doing it over and over. The look has evolved, and I’m sure will continue to.

What was the first festival you presented a show in?

My first festival (that was 2012?) was the lovely hometown HOT! Festival at Dixon Place, to which I owe so much. Ellie (another Ellie!) and the staff and crew at Dixon Place are incredible and so supportive of emerging talent. This will be my fifth year presenting work in the HOT! Festival.

It was the next year, however, that I feel like really represents my first big step on the world stage when I did my first year at the Edinburgh Fringe

Festival   with 2013’s Dandy Darkly’s Gory Hole! 22 performances back to back. Up against 3,000 other shows for audience and critics. Unlike anything else on the planet.

And I know you’ve performed in London also. How  does the material translate there, and in Scotland? I guess it’s weirdly universal, especially among the world’s LGTB populations?

It is weirdly universal. But I also think that’s simply a side effect of the World Wide Web world in which we live. Pop culture references (mostly) land on either side of the Atlantic, for example.

And I get the impression UK audiences enjoy American slang (especially Southern American)  in the same we enjoy hearing UK terms and Britishisms. My first year in Edinburgh, I was warned to change up words to their English cousins, but I found it only made the prose clunky, and in some places didn’t exactly land. I advise any first time Fringe performers to keep true to their words. I advise anyone that, actually. Keep true to your words!

You’ll be in London again in August I believe, right in the thick of the Brexit madness! You should definitely get some new material just from that experience!

[Laughs] absolutely! I’m already considering the potential for a dystopian themed show. I think the world is very ripe for such a post-apocalyptic premise.

So, tell us about Myth Mouth! When did you write it?

Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth! is my baby. My work has continued to evolve. This is my fourth year producing a brand new solo show with music, and I feel like I’ve tapped into something very special.

Unlike my earlier shows, I had a firm idea for the theme and focus of Myth Mouth! prior to beginning the stories. I wanted to focus on “mythology into science,” how our Gods of Olde have been replaced by technological worship. Along the way, a focus on addiction and religious ecstasy also revealed itself. I typically start writing a new show in the Fall, and finish in the early Spring. From there, music production begins and then memorization, costuming and promotion.

What distinguishes it from your other work?

Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth! is very different from my other shows, in that the interstitial intros to the larger stories all focus, this time, on a single character, Cha-Cha the Caveman. He’s a pathetic little Neanderthal who becomes humanity’s first jester, storyteller, prophet – he’s the Stone Age sissy who created mythology and theater.

I feel like this show tackles the big picture–inspiration.celebrity, myth and creativity–in a way my other shows haven’t. It’s an incredibly ambitious production. I’m very proud of it.

The individual stories focus on Persephone the Goddess of Spring as a sullen junkie, Laika the first space dog as an extremist combat dog and a jaunt into virtual addiction set in a Tokyo Social Media Dystopia with Hiro’s Journey. This show is very influenced by Joseph Campbell, celebrity death and my own struggles with substance abuse. Dandy opens up without every saying “me”.

Sounds very compelling! It played in the Queerly festival on June 29th. How did it go?

It went really well! It was a first preview, so a wonderful chance to hear audience reactions and (most important) get in the costume, get to sweating and see what falls off [laughs] Nothing fell off! So that’s a good omen. The Queerly Festival is fantastic by the way. I recommend everyone check them out and apply for next year’s festival– a great new queer festival in the East Village.

And then on July 22nd, it’ll be a part of the institution where it all began for you, the HOT! Festival at Dixon Place! What else can you tell us about this year’s festival? 

Such talented, young queer performers–some doing their stuff for the first time, which is so fantastic. I can’t recommend it enough.There’s a sense of family at that festival I haven’t felt elsewhere.

But before your show previews there, you’ll be co-hosting the opening night of the festival on July 5th, with veteran comedianne Reno (whom I remember very well for a documentary she made in the 90s about finding her birth mother!) What are are going to be doing that night, exactly?

I’ll be introducing the upcoming talent, offering a bit of info. Very excited. I began my body of work producing and hosting variety shows and burlesque events. That, and my infamous shows in places notorious for public gay sex like the Meat Rack and Provincetown’s Dick Dock – where I’ll have my sixth annual show during Bear Week.

Okay, one last question!… there’s a new horror movie out now about a guy who can’t take off his hexed clown makeup and goes crazy. If that happened to you, do you think you could adjust to being Dandy full time, delivering your monologues to people on line in Starbucks?

[Laughs] That actually feels like my life during the Edinburgh Fringe. I think I’d adjust. Lord knows all my friends already have!

Thanks Dandy! Break a leg!

Dandy Darkly co-hosts the HOT! Festival’s opening ceremony at Dixon Place on July 5th (7:30pm). His stage show Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth! will preview at the festival there on July 22nd (8pm). See Dandy’s website for more details and show dates outside of New York. Dandy Darkly can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

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