Cleaning Up Glass: The Performance of Joshua Torres

3Josh Torres speaking with the cast of his musical, Revenge of the Inner City Catholic School Girls, before the doors open to a full house. (Photography in article by Brianna Rettig)

In January 2015 Joshua Torres asked me to shoot photos of his most recent musical, Revenge of the Inner City Catholic Schoolgirls. In my first semester at Williams I had already learned that whatever space Josh works in is bound to have an atmosphere entirely his own, where camp and punk mingle–a space reminiscent of both Warhol’s Factory and a CBGB concert–and Christmas lights are almost certainly involved. Revenge was not an exception.

“Everyone in here!” Josh was calling to his cast when I arrived, as the actors grouped onto what served as center stage—an area created by crudely taping strands of Christmas lights to the Director’s Studio floor in the approximate shape of a stage. To the side, a prop table supported bottles of booze, Christ icons, a skull, and a loaf of wonder bread.

This was the fourth production Josh put on at Williams and the second he wrote himself, after Don’t Tell Tommy, a story of a group of school friends trapped by repression and drug abuse. Don’t Tell Tommy, which Josh produced in January of his junior year, was based on some of his own experiences and done in the signature manic style he had developed for his first production, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Halloween before. Rocky Horror and The Nightmare before Christmas, Josh’s other Halloween production, were opportunities for him to put on the kinds of warped and inebriated shows he delights in, equally proportioned as theater, concerts, and dizzying dance parties. Rehearsals were optional.

But it’s the shows Josh writes himself that have attracted the most attention. As Josh describes it, Revenge is the story of a group of would-be radicals who “are all killed by the combined forces of White Supremacy, the Patriarchy, Capitalism, the Prison-Industrial Complex, and Satan.” The show is more overtly political than Don’t Tell Tommy, and speaks to Josh’s increasing role at the center of some of Williams’ most heated debates. This isn’t a position he claims so much as seems to fill naturally by virtue of his energy and outspokenness. And it means that whatever Josh does, I want to see it.

That’s how I found myself huddled with the cast of Revenge of the Inner City Catholic Schoolgirls in January waiting for an anxious crowd to walk into the Director’s Studio to see inside Josh’s mind.

“Now, I know everyone is scared and anxious and… scared,” Josh was saying. “We lost an actor. And we don’t know what we’re doing!”

The tension in the cast was palpable. Someone interjected, “Josh, the audience can probably hear you out there.”

Josh looked at his cast mate, and then grabbed the microphone without hesitation and held it to his mouth. “We don’t know what we’re doing!” he shouted into it, for all the waiting spectators to hear.

I sat down with Josh on a Sunday evening in March to learn more about him and his work. This interview was edited for clarity.

-Brianna Rettig, March 2015

The first production you wrote at Williams was Don’t Tell Tommy your junior year. Can you tell me how that came about?

It’s called Don’t Tell Tommy because I desperately wanted to tell Tommy all this stuff, but I just couldn’t. I was going through the worst depression and insomnia ever during sophomore year. So, I would write these songs about what was causing me complete panic attacks in the middle of Paresky, and I would post them online and tell all of my friends to watch them, and I would hope this person would change his behavior. It did not happen, but by the end of that, I had all these songs chronicling how happy I was at the beginning of the year, to my attempted suicide, to Oh, I’m not dead, now what? I brought some scenes I wrote to my psychiatrist before I stopped going. I started writing the show because I needed some kind of perspective about it.

How did you feel once you were done writing it?

I thought, Oh, this is such a bad idea. I can’t perform this. He’s going to come back, and then he’s going to know.

But, you know what, I was done. I am done waiting for people to invite me to do these things. I’m done waiting for people to care about my experience beyond finding me hot or finding me quirky. It’s over. I’m not performing for that anymore.

I put it on and people liked it! I really didn’t even think my songs were good enough. No one ever taught me how to play the guitar. I taught myself, so all I can really play are barre chords. And they loved it! Ate it up. There were people crying.

Why do you think it resonated so much?

A lot of those people knew me, and there were things in that play that happened, that some people had seen happening and didn’t know what they were a part of.

There was this one time I was in theater class, and there was a final and I hadn’t slept that entire week. This was after I had already tried to kill myself. So I hadn’t slept but I just got up and went to class. Part of that was in there. It was part of this speech. I shortened the timeline, but it was something like, “I tried to kill myself last night, and now I’m at my theater final by 8:00 in the morning and nobody noticed.”

So a lot of people felt that.

You don’t just straight-up talk about what that show is about. There’s hidden homosexual urges, there’s alcoholism, there’s rampant drug use, amphetamine use, anxieties about becoming part of the capitalist industrial system!

These were all real things for you.

Most people know me as very fun. At that point, I was known as crazy, fun, hedonist Joshua because I was performing as that. I put on this show and no one knows what it’s about and they come and see it and it’s got nothing to do really with any of those topics. It’s super sad. People responded to that. And that was that.

Josh proposed moving the interview to the Director’s Studio in the ’62 Center so he could show me the space he works in.

Here we are! They’ve had to kick me out on multiple occasions.

So, which production did you first put on in here?

Basically, my friend and I wanted to do the Rocky Horror show, so I just went around to my friends and asked, “Hey, do you want to be in this?”

I had no idea what I was doing. Putting on a show is so difficult. At first, no one was showing up for rehearsals, no one was doing anything, and then I kicked our pianist out of the show for personal reasons. So we were missing like half the show. We finally had a rehearsal where most of the people were there and it sucked. It was horrible. I ended up slapping someone in the face by mistake. It was awkward. I wanted to cry, but I was holding it together because people are going to come see this tomorrow. If I cancel this, I’m fucked. No one will ever do one of my shows again. So somebody found a karaoke disc and we were saved.

Five minutes before the start, there was nobody there. So I thought, Well, it’s going to be a wild time for those two people. I go take a smoke and I come back and they’re getting more chairs! We need more chairs! Where did these people come from? It just kept growing and growing and we had this giant audience and people stayed for the whole show and they danced afterwards.

Then I did Don’t Tell Tommy. We did it right over here. I took my room and I put it here.

You just recreated your room in the Director’s Studio?

Yeah. If you watch the recording you’ll see it. I had my bed here! I was sleeping here too.

You were actually sleeping here?

I was actually sleeping here. I didn’t have a job. I took the month off, so I would just get up, rehearse, and go back to sleep. Get back up, rehearse, sleep. The cast didn’t know until after. That’s when things started getting very strangely meta.

What does that mean?

That’s when the real Tommy actually showed up. He was supposed to be in another country. And he’s like, “I want to see your show.” I asked the cast, would it be helpful to see him, and they said yeah, it’d be helpful. So he comes and he’s literally holding the lights on my friend playing herself rejecting him—a scene from last year. Everyone was looking at him like, Does he know?

Then I did Nightmare before Christmas. That was everything! I’d been planning on doing that since I got here freshman year.

I remember walking into that and wondering why the Christmas lights were taped to the ground. When everyone got up and started dancing, they all got crushed. There was glass everywhere.

Everywhere! Apparently, I didn’t clean up enough because I got all these angry emails. I had to deal with that.

Then I convinced them to let me do it again. If they truly hated me, if they wanted me gone like they’ve told me, well, you keep giving it to me. So either it’s mine or you’re lying to me!

So, yes, this is the Director’s Studio. This is where I did all the general recordings for my first show. That piano covering—I slept in. There was a hole in it and I would put my face through it. I’d put it on my bed and my bed was hidden behind the couch. It was pretty sweet.

There were a couple of close calls with the janitors, who have declared all-out war on me.

Oh look! Memories.

Josh showed me a mask of Jesus from Revenge of the Inner City Catholic Schoolgirls.

You know, I think Jesus and I would get along. We’re both countercultural. People at this school would have called him a horrible activist.  “You’re not being inclusive enough! You remember that one time Jesus flipped over tables? That completely invalidates all of his points.”

20Scene from Revenge of the Inner City Catholic School Girls.

What was it like working on Revenge of the Inner City Catholic Schoolgirls? That play deals with so much.

I was never interested in making art that was entertaining. That was not the point. I did Don’t Tell Tommy because I desperately wanted to not have that conversation. I did Revenge of the Inner City Catholic School Girls because I didn’t know any other way to contribute meaningfully to the part of this campus that is trying to wake people the fuck up to what is happening.

Do you think it was successful?

I don’t know how successful it was for all people. I don’t know. The theater community did not know what they were getting into. Last year, the theater people were the ones who laughed the most at my show. They enjoyed it the most. This year, I don’t think they did. They were more like, What is this? I got mail that said, “Don’t Tell Tommy was nice! This is terrible!” I’ve always wanted hate mail.

Which do you think was harder to share? Revenge or Don’t Tell Tommy?

I was more scared… I don’t know. I remember with Don’t Tell Tommy I was horrified—horrified people wouldn’t like it. People are going to come and just hate it, hate me, please don’t hate me.

Revenge of the Inner City Catholic School Girls I knew was going to be more controversial. With Don’t Tell Tommy, who’s not going to be empathetic towards suicide? Revenge dealt with a lot more radical shit. Well, actually, I don’t think I put in that much radical stuff! Some people were disappointed, like, “Why didn’t you talk about the black panthers? Where were the black panthers?” I know, I know. I’m sorry.

I wasn’t there when you reportedly went on a Satanist rant when the Pro-Life group tabled in Paresky. What happened there?

I was trying to get them to tell me who they were with and they wouldn’t tell me they were with Williams Pro-Life. Clearly they were with Williams Pro-Life, but there was no sign. They were presenting themselves as this non-biased group. They’re not advocating for the kind of social infrastructure we would need to support the soon-to-be-born children. It’s just, “Women should not be having abortions!” Great. Now what? Now what do we do with all these ruined lives?

Is that what you asked them?

I was too angry. I did not have a debate with these people. That was not my intention. My intention was never to engage with them. Meaningful discussion was for other people to do. That’s not what I’m here for. Never been what I’m into. Discussion leads to nothing. That’s how I feel.

So I went upstairs and got these papers and wrote “humans” and x-ed it out. Then I came down, preaching that all humans need to be killed. We need to annihilate them. Which isn’t what Satanism is about, which shows a little bit more of the ignorance of this crowd.

People were asking if you were making a joke, if you were protesting. What were your intentions?

They seem to not understand how they sound when they say, “Oh, this is shitty activism.” So, you are blaming me for not making this accessible to you? That’s not what I’m here for. That’s what they don’t get. That’s part of the problem. They think they own people. They think they own people’s actions.

You’re supposed to react to something that I’m doing. I don’t need to make it polite for you. What type of bullshit is that? They don’t realize that even by saying that they are demonstrating their privilege. And I hope they can’t sleep tonight because they’re so angry about the shit that I do.

You don’t think people who say it’s shitty activism say it for other reasons?

I think people like to be at the center of the universe. I know I do. If it’s not in a discussion, they’re not going to feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

Talking in terms of the culture on this campus, it is geared so that white upper-class men and women will hold the upper hand in conversations. What is respected here is that culture. So, in those sorts of conversations, they’re always going to undermine your anger. They’re going to talk around your points. They’re going to blame you for being dissatisfied in a way that’s public, for not suffering silently, and if you are anything like how I used to be, you will blame yourself.

What role do you see yourself playing in the Williams community?

It’s really, really sad at times. I came here to escape feeling like I was not valued and not able to be sure when the next long landslide was going to happen. None of the students here can kick me out, but a large portion of the student body would rather I not be here.

I’m sure there are people here who genuinely dislike you. But back in Paresky, at least six people came up to you and gave you hugs and said thank you for this, thank you for that, let’s catch up. Do you really think that many people here dislike you?

I was raised in Catholic tradition, I was raised in really abusive situations, and I came here and I’m constantly being told in so many different ways that I’m not good enough. I’m not doing enough. And you know, I’m not going to lie, a large part of that has ended up inside me. That’s just how I think of myself. It’s a big part of me.

For me, if you want to know what I actually think about things, you have to look at my art. It’s as truthful as I’m going to get. Within my art, if you listen to my songs, those are the most honest I am. It’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t an artist until I got my heart broken, tried to kill myself, and needed the guitar to talk about it. Before, it was just a hobby.

I’ve been performing since I popped out my mother’s womb. She wanted us to perform. She made it her life’s mission to make sure nobody would really know what exactly was going on in our heads. She didn’t want us to be predictable. She didn’t want us to be easy. She wanted us to be these islands.