Dramatizing the Story of a Gay Mid

Through it all, Steward never stopped writing: There was the Stud File (the subject of a Museum of Sex exhibition, “Obscene Diary,” in 2011) but also a detailed journal, essays, fiction. After a “legitimate” novel tanked in 1936, he went on to publish, under the name Phil Andros, erotic pulp fiction. Walking over to a low table in his living room, Kelly picked up some Andros books, including “The Boys in Blue” and “Greek Ways,” that he had managed to procure. “They were very expensive,” he said with a sigh.

Steward’s punctilious, frank documentation of his sexual adventures was one of the things that appealed to Kelly, himself a diarist whose decades-long practice fueled his 2018 “live memoir” of a show “Time No Line.” But despite the abundance of biographical material, the new piece, which was first presented at N.Y.U. Skirball in 2019, is not a straightforward retelling. “Samuel Steward touched every single aspect of gay male sexuality over the course of the 20th century, and his life demanded to be theatricalized in some form, and obviously not in an episodic manner,” said Jay Wegman, the director of N.Y.U. Skirball, who commissioned the show. “John’s interpretation is more a meditation on his life.”

The show is designed as a series of vignettes pulled from many stages of Steward’s life, sometimes re-enacting scenes he had described in his diary. To properly channel him, Kelly immersed himself in primary sources. “I wanted to find as many of his actual words as I could,” he said. “I had to find his voice, see photographs of him at different points in his life, see his drawings, see his tattoo designs, and develop a sense of his trajectory. What kind of flesh do you put on the bones? That’s a recipe of movement, of design, of video, of music.”

For him, “Underneath the Skin” is a semaphore that signals a presence now too easy to forget. “I’m trying, in a polite way, to shove this story down people’s throats — meaning the 20th-century history of gay and lesbian and trans people who found ways of having a life when there were so many risks,” he said. “What makes him unique is the fact that his ephemera comes down to us so we have actual proof, so to speak, of his existence.”

The specifics of Steward’s life can feel remote today, yet one thing still resonates loudly — his formidable will to be true to himself, and to connect. “Even when he’s musing on mortality and old age at the end of the piece, there’s still these images that come in the video of that quest for contact,” Kelly said. “It’s human nature: We need to make contact, we need to find warmth.”


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