MICHAEL KEARNS: "LOOK WHO'S STILL HERE"
February 22, 2014
A mini-review and statement of appreciation:
(Note: This essay first appeared in the arts blog Practice Based Re/search written by Michael J. Masucci)
Michael Kearns is an acclaimed actor, writer, and director. He is also an activist and has, for decades, lived openly as an HIV+ survivor. Michael Kearns is an American hero.
'Hero' is a term I rarely use, as I really don’t know what it means. But I know it applies to acts of bravery and, therefore, must be applied to Michael.
Highly respected in the Los Angeles theater community, Michael Kearns forsook fame and fortune to become arguably Hollywood’s first openly gay actor. Born with movie star good looks, charm, enormous talent, and an insatiable love of life and its experiences, Kearns has proven just what it is to put integrity before career.
At a time when being publicly acknowledged to be gay would mean an end to a mainstream acting career, Kearns bravely, defiantly, and provocatively refused to deny who he is. He never did and he never could. This has no doubt cost him numerous acting opportunities but hopefully also gained him many others. His works include what are now considered milestones and classics of LGBTQ theater, including not just his current productions but also his early collaborations with playwright James Carroll Picket, which are still produced, to critical acclaim, on stages throughout the world.
I had the pleasure last weekend to sneak away for a few hours from my seemingly endless duties to catch his latest one-person musical performance “Look Who’s Still Here” and join some of his dearest friends and fans in wishing him a ‘Happy Birthday'. Although I unfortunately can rarely find time to get away like this, that event was something I simply could not miss. As I expected, I wasn’t disappointed.
Michael’s love of the uniquely American art form that is Broadway (I do realize the West End Brits will disagree about the uniqueness) came rushing out of him with an honesty and appreciation that could never be faked. No, this was not him acting: this was him living the role he was playing.
Michael has just turned 64; a remarkable achievement considering the prognosis that being diagnosed HIV+ in the 1980’s meant. A miracle? Perhaps, but I choose to believe it was an artistic choice, rejecting a role which he refused to play. Michael beat the odds, beat the system, and beat the disease that had threatened to take him down as it had done so for many of his friends and loved ones. He has always managed to maintain his movie star good looks but now he also has the look which only character, experience, and wisdom can bring.
His autobiography “The Truth is Bad Enough” chronicles his amazing journey; sometimes painful and sometimes reaching both the heights and depths of the human experience. Part time-capsule of a world and time which seems so distant, yet is as relevant today than ever, this book is a must-read for anyone attempting to grapple with the extremely complex history of the gay awakening, the AIDS pandemic, homophobia, show business, defeat, and triumph. The book reads both heartbreaking and humorous, just like its author.
I’ve had the privilege to know Kearns on and off since 1986 when we both joined the board of directors for Fringe Festival/Los Angeles, an enormous presentation of over 800 art events, in all its forms, from painting to dance and from performance art to cirque. Decades later, we also both briefly served on the board of Highways Performance Space.
Michael had worked on some of the very first video experiments that were to result in what later became known as EZTV. This was actually a few years before I was to make this video art group and space my life’s longest act. He has always been a friend of EZTV, through good times as well as bad, and it was he who first presented the idea that USC’s ONE Archives should become the permanent home to the EZTV collection.
Michael once told me that EZTV is "an AIDS survivor" and he gave me the courage to try to fight for the legacies of all those early EZTV artists who succumbed to the AIDS pandemic. Both a realist as well as a dreamer, Michael, when so few others took the time to care, encouraged me to take the long path that is finally beginning to get some tangible results. If EZTV ever does take its rightful place in media art history, it will partly be Michael Kearns whose instigations helped make it so.
I’m so glad that I got to race across town to catch his show, say ‘Happy Birthday’ and call him someone I am truly proud to know.
The back page of the program for Michael’s show humorously quoted the old Beatles song “When I’m 64” - "Will you still need me, Will you still feed me, When I’m 64?”. The answer is an unequivocal YES!