A writer and performer who Michael Musto described as “Oscar Wilde meets Whoopi Goldberg,” Justin Elizabeth Sayre is a fixture of New York City’s downtown cabaret scene, first with their long-running monthly show, The Meeting of The International Order of Sodomites, and now with a series of new shows at Joe’s Pub called Assorted Fruit. Their work has also appeared at Dixon Place, The Wild Project, The Celebration Theatre, Dynasty Typewriter, and La MaMa Experimental Theatre.
Sayre is used to juggling multiple projects at once, and they have no intention of slowing down. In addition to Assorted Fruit, which will play next on Sunday, May 22, they recently released their new book From Gay to Z: A Queer Compendium, which is a humorous collection of the rich legacy of gay culture, told through the letters of the alphabet. They will also present the 10th annual Night of a Thousand Judys, a Pride concert to benefit the Ali Forney Center, on June 5.
Check out Instinct’s exclusive interview with Sayre below.
Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, Justin! Can you begin by talking more about upcoming book From Gay to Z: A Queer Compendium, and what readers can expect?
About four years ago, I did a show called The gAyBC’s because I was getting a lot of letters from younger people who had seen my videos or seen things that I had done, and they were interested in queer culture but didn’t have a resource. I thought, well, I’ll do a show and take them through it, and very fortunately, the people at Chronicle Books saw the show and we’re interested in turning it into a book.
So, we’ve been writing it for the last three years, and it’s a witty take on queer culture. It’s informative, it goes through most of the who’s who in the LGBTQ community, it’s opinionated, but it all comes from my vantage point. I think it’s a nice building block to start talking about queer culture as a whole. I don’t handle it as if it’s a definitive tome of queer culture because I think such a thing is impossible, but it’s a nice beginner, refresher, and compendium of who have been making queer culture for the last century.
Who are the people that are important for the people that are perhaps underrated or kind of pushed to the back? Who are some people you didn’t know about? I think that’s very important, and I feel my generation has to be the bridge to that a little bit more.
It’s also a celebration and starting point to remember LGBTQ history.
Absolutely. It’s purposefully diverse, and it’s trying to eliminate the theory that queer culture is just a bunch of gay white men sitting around and cracking jokes with each other. There are a lot of queer, trans, nonbinary, POC in the book, as it should be. They’ve made the LGBTQ community just as important.
Boiling down the entirety of queer culture into one book is impossible, and it’s constantly evolving. How did you pick and choose who and what would be included in the book?
That was the hardest part. Not only because I felt an enormous pressure from the readers and the community to try to get it as right as possible, but I also felt an enormous personal pressure. Other books have been written like this over the years, but I don’t think anything’s been written as up-to-date or as wide reaching. I know nothing has been ever written with such a sense of humor, but I kept saying during the whole process, you’re going to leave out somebody super important and the whole book is going to be ruined.
There are people that are left out that I wanted in the book. What I started to think of, and why the book begins with an apology is because we in the queer community has always been faced with scarcity. Because of that, everything matters so much. Every form of representation has to get it right, and ultimately, I think that forces creators into a very difficult spot where they can’t make good work because they’re trying to please two masters at the same time. Also, it’s an impossible task. I cannot write a story about gay people that encompasses all gay people because gay people are infinite and varied.
When I started to go into the book, I said, this isn’t definitive. This isn’t ‘the’ book. This is ‘a’ book. This is a tool to talk about queer culture and doing that kind of lightened it up. It didn’t mean I didn’t do my due diligence to try to get people who I thought were important in the book. It didn’t mean I stopped looking at people that were making art in the moment. It just meant that this is one book that can start a conversation. It didn’t have to include everybody. I mean, it’s 250,000 words. I turned in the first half and Chronicle was like, wait a minute, how many people are we talking about? They had to find the paper to have the book printed off because it was so long.
So, it gets a lot of folks in there, but even within that, I wanted to put in a drag queen named Manette, who was very popular in New York in the 50s and 60s. At a certain point, it was like, okay, sometimes you have to give a little to take a little. Was I not going to do that to put in somebody like Troye Sivan, who’s making art right now? There was a lot of push and pull. I don’t know if I got it right, but I think I made a very valiant attempt.
Are you open to possibly doing a volume two or three?
I don’t know simply because it’s no fun writing a dictionary [laughs]. Everybody was really kind and great to me, but it’s not happy work. I kind of feel like I did what I had to do, and I would love to see somebody else do another volume just to have a different perspective of people. I really think of the book almost as a gift. It’s like, I’ve been asked about queer culture for so long, here’s what I know. Take it and run with it.
You are a fixture of the downtown cabaret in New York and recently started a new monthly queer variety show called Assorted Fruit at Joe’s Pub. What can you tell us about this?
It was supposed to start in 2020, as most things were supposed to happen, but we didn’t actually begin until this past February. The next show is on May 22, which will be a big celebration of the book. It’s been a great, wonderful new path in this kind of variety. I’ve been working with my friend Dusty Childers, who has been directing and helping with the process indefinitely, and we’ve featured some wonderful drag queens, performers, and new voices. As much as I love my work and putting on shows, it’s always great when other talented people are involved. I love showcasing them, and this has given me an opportunity to meet new talent and work with new people.
Have you always had a passion for acting and storytelling?
Yes. I think I was in my first play in preschool, and it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. It’s funny when people talk to me about figuring out what they’re supposed to do because I always knew what I wanted to do. Of course, it’s changed and evolved into different things and spread into ways I didn’t expect, but it was always that. I always wanted that, and I still do. It’s still the most exciting thing.
I was recently in L.A. doing a play of mine that I’m taking to the Edinburgh International Festival this year, and we were working on a scene. Cutting jokes, rewriting this and that, stuff writers really cringe at. The director turned to me, and I was beaming from ear to ear. I’m like, this is my favorite part! Getting it to work, making it all make sense and happening, I love this. Cut all the jokes, I don’t care. I’ll write new ones! The first day of rehearsal, I always tear up a little because I’m very grateful to keep doing what I love. This is my life.
You have another Joe’s Pub show coming up on June 5 called Night of a Thousand Judys, is that correct?
Yes! This is our 10th anniversary show, and it’s Judy Garland’s 100th birthday this year. Night of a Thousand Judys is a charity event that raises money for the Ali Forney Center, which helps LGBTQ youth. They are a fantastic organization that not only gets young queer youth off the street, but it also helps them with life skills, getting into schools, and finding jobs. It’s a full-service enterprise that I am very, very grateful to be part of. It’s been an absolute joy.
We get singers from Broadway and downtown to perform Judy Garland songs in their own style, so it never sounds like the same show. It’s always different and evolving, and it is an absolute joy and a wonderful way to kick off Pride. The show that it developed out of was my previous show The Meeting, which was all about community and coming together at the end of our season every year. It’s a great accomplishment that myself, Dan Fortune, and Adam J. Rosen have been doing, and I’m very, very proud of it.
How much more meaningful will this year be since it’s Judy’s 100th birthday?
I know everybody is really excited, and also, I think it will be very meaningful for us because this is the first time in two years we’ve done it live and in front of people. That energy and life force was so intrinsic to who Judy Garland was. The power of her presence, and I’m just excited about being in front of people and getting to do it again. That is a hardship that has hopefully come to an end.
What kind of impact has Judy made on your own personal life?
Judy Garland was somebody that I saw as a young person, and it was one of those amazing moments of, oh, that’s something special. There were about three or four people I remember as a very small child going, that’s something that not everybody can do. That’s something extraordinary. People like Lucille Ball, Whitney Houston, and probably Fred Astaire. As a very small child, I remember seeing them and going, that’s something completely different.
Judy kind of dropped out of my life for a little bit because she was so connected with gayness, and I didn’t want to be that connected with gayness [laughs]. But I think how impactful she was as a performer, and many people who have worked with me have said this, my primary concern is what the audience is seeing. What are they getting? What are they understanding? How are they being communicated to?
It’s not about you. You’re there as a conduit for their emotions and stories. You’re telling your truth, so it inspires them. It’s really about them, and that’s why you hear those concepts. So, Judy has affected me in that way where I’m very concerned about what’s happening to the audience, but I also think she’s affected me as a person because she has this mystique of being this great, tragic person. In all honesty, she was hilariously funny.
I always think about the story Lona Luft told about how Judy kept a scrapbook full of disaster stories from the newspaper. Like, people’s houses that burned down on Christmas or other crazy stuff that she’d clip out of the paper. When she was really in a low place, she would flip through it and be like, there are many worse things that are happening to people than what’s happening to me.
In addition to theater performing, you have written for television, most notably for CBS’s 2 Broke Girls and Fox’s The Cool Kids. Do you have any projects currently in the works?
I do. I have a play that I wrote called Ravenswood Manor being developed by Sony Television. We’re getting ready to shop that around, so I’m very excited. I am also working on a film, but I can’t say too many details about that right now.
How are you constantly juggling multiple projects at once?
I have a corkboard with cards all over it that tells me that I need to do today and what I don’t need to do today [laughs]. I like working on multiple projects because you can never go stale on just one. I’m working on an adaptation on The Importance of Being Earnest, and we were talking about all the multiple projects we’re doing, and that’s just the way of the modern world. The luxury of sitting back and taking time off, you can’t do it anymore. So, I’m very organized with my writing, and luckily, I have a lot of ideas. I need to continue finding audiences that want to hear them.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug?
I will say, for anybody who is going to be in Edinburgh this summer, we’re taking a play of mine, Lottie Platchett Took a Hatchet, which is a Lizzie Borden comedy with Kirsten Vangsness. We’re bringing that back to L.A. for one weekend, and then we’re going for the whole month of August in Edinburgh. So, if anyone is going to be there, we’d love to see you. It’s a very exciting play and I’m very proud of it. The company of actors is incredible.