By Timothy Rawles, June 2020 Issue.
There might be nothing more fitting this year than a theatrical performance about an alien invasion played out through the interface of a communications app. Stay-at-home orders have turned face masks, binge eating, and computers into necessities, all of this not really conducive to a traditional on-stage theatrical production. Enter computer screen left, theater ensemble Space 55, and playwright Ashley Naftule’s Radio Free Europa.
His name should sound familiar to Echo readers — he has been a frequent contributor for the last two years.
Ashley has lived in Arizona his entire life, which is becoming a rarity as people like myself from border states like California are finding the state to be extremely hospitable for its cheap housing, gas, and endless supply of fast-food chains.
“The rest of my family are from France; for some inexplicable reason, they crossed the sea and decided to put down roots here,” Ashley says.
I asked Ashley about his first passion, which, having done some rudimentary research, I thought was acting.
“I do act on occasion, but at this point I identify primarily as a writer (which was my first passion),” he explains. ”I grew up reading books by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, and Kurt Vonnegut and dreamed about one day writing huge sci-fi epics. I really had no theater ambitions at all until my late twenties when I (for shits and giggles) took a playwriting workshop by Kim Porter and that sent me down this rabbit hole that I’m still falling into, a decade later.”
With five full-length plays completed and saved somewhere in his hard drive, Ashley has brought three of them to the traditional stage, while a fourth, Radio Free Europa is getting a non-traditional production through real-time digital media. A fifth has also been picked up.
“Radio Free is coming out this month as a remote radio play production, and Peppermint Beehive will be produced and mounted next spring as part of Space55’s 2021 season (presuming, of course, society hasn’t completely collapsed into a Mad Max-ian hellscape by that point).”
A Mad Max dystopian setting, it seems, is a place Ashley might prefer over the tepid, staunch multiplicity of the status quo if only in a sartorial sense. His preferred pronouns are he/him/his which many misinterpret because of his first name, ultimately he identifies as queer.
“I’m attracted to women, but I enjoy wearing their clothes and makeup too much to comfortably fit into a straight and narrow box,” he explains. “Going back to the name thing — having the ‘wrong’ name growing up was really freeing.”
Freedom from labels gave him power to disassociate from the restrictive societal gender tag everyone gets at birth. “Being told constantly I wasn’t a man gave me permission to not worry about living up to accepted standards of masculinity. But I don’t have much interest in embracing feminine ideals, either. I just find the either/or approach to gendered behaviors and aesthetics to be regressive and limiting. And limiting not just on a personal level but a political level: how can we work towards creating a new, better world when we’re still confining people to this hoary, dull binary?”
Good question. Although he has come to terms with who he truly is, as with any good story there is conflict. And as with most queer stories that conflict comes from childhood.
He was bullied constantly from kindergarten through his freshman year, “but that’s because I embodied pretty much every trait bullies look for in playground marks: I was fat, nerdy, shy, effeminate, had a stutter, a girl’s name, was well-liked by the teachers, dressed poorly, etc.,” Ashley recalls before telling me that it wasn’t until his early 20’s that things began to change, “I started really questioning my identity and experimenting with makeup and clothes. By that point, I wasn’t getting bullied anymore.”
Except for one time at home when his mother, unsettled by his use of eyeliner and mascara, “freaked out, and splashed a full bottle of makeup remover in my face.”
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was a controversial artist who dabbled in a little bit of everything, including the occult, finding them was life-changing for Ashley, “it exposed me to concepts like ceremonial magick, body modification, and other writers like Robert Anton Wilson that have had a huge impact on my life. There are many things I’ve done (like taking psychedelic drugs or doing flesh suspensions) that I never would have were it not for being exposed to Genesis’s philosophies.”
Although Ashley also lists Aleister Crowley as a hero, he says both of these people were flawed and put themselves ahead of everyone else but, in terms of “creative pursuits and intellectual achievements, they are definitely north stars.”
Speaking of celestial beings, his Radio Free Europa might have a few. The play takes place in present-day Nevada, the epicenter of UFO lore.
“It focuses on Delilah Peel, the host of Midnight Wildlife: AM radio’s second-most popular late night show,” Ashley explains. “Callers from across the country dial in to share their personal stories about encountering UFO’s, Chupacabras, dead pop stars, Sasquatches, and other inexplicable phenomena. Delilah (Del to her fans) juggles answering calls while dealing with her burning train-wreck of a personal life. But when her equipment starts picking up ominous transmissions from beyond the stars, Del starts to worry that she might be turning into one of her own paranoid callers.”
Wanting to distance himself from writing another character-heavy work, Ashley says he wrote Radio Free taking a more “rooted approach.”
“For this play, I really wanted to stay in one location, a single reality, without breaking out into other dimensions.”
The late American broadcaster Art Bell also inspired Ashley to write this one. Bell was famous for taking calls on his radio show from people with weird tales to share.
“What I really found fascinating about Bell was his lack of judgment: he wouldn’t screen callers; he wouldn’t call them out as liars or fabulists or lunatics. He let people play out their strings, he let them share their lives, and he did it with this agnostic patience and openness that I found refreshing.”
During this time of quarantine, Ashley is still working a full-time job, catching up on the Criterion Channel, exploring sexuality in RPG gaming, and writing as much as he can, “I’ve got a draft of a new play, Sawdust Angels, that I’m about halfway through and I’m working on a series of pieces to put out via my newsletter, Chris Gaines Fanclub.”
When all of this over Ashley will still distance himself, but this time in a crowd of people who share his subversive interests, including manicures. He’s going “to any underground/new wave/goth dance night that’s still in existence and dance until I dissolve into a puddle of sweat and black nail polish.”
But for now, Radio Free Europa is at the forefront.
As for reasons why you should tune in, Ashley gives a few: “It’s an original story told by local artists. It won’t be a static cold-read: this is a fully rehearsed radio play production with sound effects, music, and visual art to complement and enhance the narrative. It’s a full theatrical run, so it’s not a one-night-only-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it production. It’s a funny, thoughtful play full of mysteries to ponder and weird shit that’s drawn from real-life incidents.” And it’s free.
Performances will be live-streamed mid-May through Sunday, June 7. Friday and Saturday showings are at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. It’s free to “attend” the show, but donations are appreciated. Visit space55.org.