NOTE: This article was intended to be published on February 20, 2019 in promotion for AMERICAN JUGGALO, but was subsequently rejected by every publication I sent it to.
My journey with the Juggalos began in a very banal way: in my pajamas, nuzzled in my squeaky full size bed in my roach-infested apartment on 207th Street browsing Reddit, mildly stoned, browsing the /r/Documentary subreddit around three in the morning. Something caught my eye: a thumbnail of a couple with black face paint outlining their facial features. The woman has dyed pink hair in pigtails that looks as if it’s been braided with chunks of rope and the man has several facial piercings. I clicked the link, and it took me to the documentary AMERICAN JUGGALO on Vimeo by Sean Dunne (which you can view for free). It registered with me really quickly--oh, Juggalos. Like, those hardcore fans of the Insane Clown Posse. The wheels are turning, Haven’t I made fun of these people with my friends? As I watched, I saw some things that downright shocked me: people using actual spray paint to paint their face in clown makeup, a girl named Maniac that claimed to be sober but acted like she tripping face, a guy spitting one of the most gratuitous raps I’ve ever heard to the camera, and an 18 year old whose six month pregnant smoking a cigarette. It was a mixture of confusion, shock, but mostly overpowering fascination.
Picture from AMERICAN JUGGALO (2011) by Sean Dunne. Subjects unknown.
You could say what really captured my fascination with Juggalo culture is my adoration for the way they looked. The people on camera Sean captured were a slice of the population that is not widely seen on film, or especially in theatre. As I begin to analyze them, I eventually realized that they weren’t far off from people I’ve known in my own life. I mean, I grew up in Jersey, lived in North Carolina, upstate New York, and by the time I saw American Juggalo I had spent a little under a year in New York City. I’d known people who were like Juggalos: people who were rowdy, with an affinity towards the macabre who love really violent music. People with weird hair, piercings, tattoos that were completely anti-establishment felt very familiar to me. While I’m not saying that I saw myself as a Juggalo, I’ve always been around weirdos and freaks, because I am one. I’ve never considered myself to be a conventionally attractive person. I’m fat, I have a beard, I have piercings, a receding hairline and am not very athletic. I’ve always danced to a different beat. I’ve always been a strange gay theatre kid who loved the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and B-movies. I’ve always had a taste for the occult, paranormal and the darker side of life. I was socialized in this world as an outsider; and because I have only lived this world as an outsider, it makes sense that this population of people has captured my heart. Besides, who wants to write about a bunch of normies anyway? So I made a promise to myself: I was going to write a play about the Juggalos using their own words.
Picture from The Webster Hall Sessions (2016) by Sean Pollock. Subjects unknown.
You could say my intentions to write this play have always been political. I wanted this play to be for punks. It’s a demographic of people that theatre specifically does not care about tending towards. While I don’t think theatre can ever really be punk, due to the amount of classism and “rules” associated with theatrical spaces and institutions, I think there are many plays that will resonate with punks. The Juggalos are punks in the truest sense of the world: they really don’t give a sh*t about what anyone else thinks. Insane Clown Posse has been around since 1989--and they’ve never gotten air time on the radio, never been on MTV, and is the only independent record label in the country to have ever gone platinum twice. Violent J and Shaggy2Dope, the lead singers of ICP grew up in poverty eating food from canned food drive--and they give back to those in need constantly. The Gathering of the Juggalos is funded out of their own pockets to give Juggalos a weekend of their lives that many wouldn’t otherwise have because of the overwhelming amount of poverty among that community. It’s a music community built on survivorship, generally out of blue collar and rural areas, to a population of people who feel really, really misunderstood. They also dress up in clown music, spray Faygo soda, and rap along to horrorcore lyrics. Oh, and did I mention that they’re a registered gang with the FBI?
Picture of Violent J and Shaggy2Dope by Devin Doyle.
Writing a play about Juggalos has been far from a day at the beach: I’ve been faced with a lot of opposition and challenges, more so than most plays I’ve worked on. I’m not new to rejection and self-producing, but this particular play has been rejected around 30 times from different residency opportunities, producers, and theatre companies since I started submitting it in 2016. My director, Drew Weinstein, and my producer, Alyssa Berdie who have been by my side since the very, very beginning and for all of us, it has felt like a hopeless eternity of us sending out emails to every entertainment industry contact we’ve had to get other producers into the room. A majority of our emails have gone unanswered, sitting idle in someone’s email with probably hundreds of requests like ours. It has felt like shouting into the void at times; and there were often moments where I wanted to give up. In AA, there’s an expression that insanity is doing the same thing over an over and expecting different results. But because theatre people are naturally insane, me, Drew, Alyssa, along with my friends Hana and Emma, decided to form a production company: Unattended Baggage--and mount the show on our own along with other projects. We decided we weren’t going to put the play up until we could get a real multi-weekend run in a venue that we respected and we weren’t willing to bend on that. We poured in our time, a lot of our own personal money (as well as funding from family members and friends) because we wanted to create a piece we believed in that we would want to see. I wanted to make this play for punks, young people, and specifically not typical theatre goers--because I think it's crucial for people who don’t go to the theatre to learn that not every show is going to be like Annie, or Melodramas, or Shakespeare or the Greeks. It can be about anyone, for anyone.
Picture from The Webster Hall Sessions (2016) by Sean Pollock. Subjects unknown.
As much as I want to tell you that we’ve been able to put our minds to it and by the power of positive thinking that it’s all worked out, that’s not the truth. The play has seven actors, one of which requires an older actor in his 50’s, and a five year old boy. Only two of the actors have remained with the project since the very beginning. It’s taken a lot of trial and error in order to find a group of people that have believably felt like Juggalos. We had so many lovely actors come in over the last few years and for one reason or another, didn’t work out. Plus, don’t get me started on the mechanics of having a minor (in the case of our HERE production, two different minors to share the role) involved in a production that has nudity, vulgarity, hate speech, and discussions of gang violence. To borrow a term from one of my all-time favorite artists, Erin Markey, dramatizing the Juggalos in many ways has been an “ethical nightmare”. When you decide to make a play that is decidedly not fiction (although there are parts of the play that are dramatized and therefore, fictional) about a culture you don’t belong to; you have to do your homework. Alongside the documentary as its basis, the rest of the play is based on real interviews with real people, some of my own personal experiences with an LGBT-inclusive narrative. I paid out of pocket for tickets to Insane Clown Posse’s concert at Webster Hall (and later, The Well in Brooklyn) where I just went up and interviewed people with zero experience and a bundle of nerves. I read Steve Miller’s sociological study called JUGGALOS AND THE WORLD THEY MADE, Violent J’s 600-memoir BEHIND THE PAINT in addition to watching countless documentaries. Along with the invaluable help of my dramaturg Anna Schultz, we scoured every corner of the internet for socio-economic statistics from 2011 (the year documentary American Juggalo is filmed which I chose to honor). I sent what feels like hundreds of emails to Psychopathic Records to get a press pass to the Gathering of the Juggalos which they never responded to, so out of my savings I bought a ticket to the Gathering, a bus ticket from Chinatown, NYC to Columbus, Ohio (which took 12 torturous hours on a bus filled to the brim which broke down), rented a car (which I would later get into a minor accident in which has resulted in a collections agency calling me every week because Hotwire decided it didn’t accept my out of state insurance at the eleventh hour) and stayed with cousins nearby. I loaded up on Doritos and water which I gave to my subjects in exchange for their stories.
Picture from the Gathering Of The Juggalos Sessions (2018) by Sean Pollock. Subjects unknown.
What I experienced at the Gathering is a whole other story in itself, but I had one of the wildest experiences of my life. So even knowing all of what I went through to tell this story--I know that there are still Juggalos who aren’t totally satisfied with their representation. The response at our final workshop presentation at The New Ohio with actual Juggalos in attendance was very positive, but it wasn’t without some major grievances. Since the very beginning, I vowed that I would tell their story as honestly as possible with warts and all. Showing the good and the bad. The humor and the tragedy. It has taken me awhile to make peace with it, but I can’t please everyone in a community as large and diverse as theirs; but I like to think I’ve subverted the narrative of what the public’s perception of them are more than I’ve done harm. My play has a heart, and it beats very loudly. I only have ever had the best of intentions, and I never wanted to make a play that mocked them. So Juggalos, if you’re reading--know that I mean this very sincerely.
Rehearsal photo from AMERICAN JUGGALO by Sean Pollock. Pictured: Lauren Butler and Maxim Swinton.
Our recent transfer to HERE Arts Center feels very surreal after a massive amount of rejection, and reminds me a lot of a quote from Violent J in Steve Miller’s book JUGGALOS AND THE WORLD THEY MADE where he speaks on going platinum for the first time in 1997: “They all look at us as outsiders, and they want to fuck with us because we didn’t use their power structure to get where we are. We used our own. They feel like we snuck in. We did sneak in. We’re not supposed to be there.” I get to wake up every day for the next month and say: “I have a show at HERE Arts Center”. It does feel like we’re not supposed to be here sometimes. I struggle with a lot of imposter syndrome.
The road my team and I have travelled has been windy, financially and emotionally draining. My play has been met with lots of closed doors, gatekeepers, unanswered emails, and barely any institutional funding. Self-producing theatre in New York City--a place where every show is inherently competing with Broadway--is painful, and has pushed so many people to leave the business because of its cruelty at times. But for now, I’m here. Cliches are cliches for a reason, and what I’m about to say is very cliche: but if you believe in something, fight like hell. Because you never know when the fight is going to pay off.
AMERICAN JUGGALO premieres at HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue) on February 13. It runs February 13, 14, 20, 27, 28 at 7:30 and March 3rd at 2pm. The show contains mention of abuse, violence, rape and sexual assault, and contains extreme profanity, and hate-speech (i.e., language that is racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or sexist). Information can be found at http://www.here.org/shows/detail/2057/