You’ve seen Titanic, but never like this.
Now at The Brick (579 Metropolitan Avenue) through October 10, performance artist Michael Kinnan will be retelling James Cameron’s classic story, performing every role in Never Let Go. This hour-long tour de force is the fourth mounting of the show in New York City after three sold-out short engagements at the Drama Bookshop and Vital Joint, meaning it is not to be missed. Here, Kinnan reflects on the enduring impact of the seminal form, what it means to present it from a queer point of view, and the joy of sharing a show with a live audience again.
Greenpointers: When did you first see Titanic, and did you know then and there of the influence it’d have on your life?
Michael Kinnan: I don’t think I comprehended the influence, but I felt it. I was eight years old — an age when big events seem really REALLY big. Attending my first PG-13 movie with mom was a very big deal. And as a particularly fearful child, I felt like I was truly going to drown. That’s the magic of James Cameron: he makes movies that hit you at every stage of life and are endlessly entertaining at the same time. So was I aware that I had experienced something massive, yes. Was I aware that the film itself would influence me so greatly? Not until later in high school where I bonded over the film (and Kate Winslet specifically) with a person who would have a huge hand in my decision to move to New York City.
You’ve had multiple iterations of this piece. What excites you about this new one at The Brick?
For one, being blessed that we are able to do this in a semi-vaccinated pandemic world. I have to pinch myself when I realize the world has even allowed live theater again. On top of that, working with people who have seen this piece (many times) and have still made it such a top priority makes this experience supremely rewarding. Gosh there are so many things: collaborating with sound designer Kegan Zema who has been such a supporter through the previous productions at Vital Joint and has brought such passion and dedication to this project; the opportunity to bring more people than ever together in awe of a piece of cinema that I love so much; and having the chance to infuse more nuance as the core themes ring truer every year: sexism, classism, climate change, male hubris, immigration. It touches on everything and I will always argue that this film was the biggest of all time for more than just its romance and tragic historical narrative.
In retelling this iconic story from your personal point of view, what do you hope audiences will walk away with?
I hope people feel inspired to see more theater. I hope the audience comes away with a greater appreciation for a universal cultural moment that isn’t only this damn pandemic. I hope people are also able to focus on the very real risk Rose takes by rejecting the status quo. We have seen that story a million times, but we are seeing so much from Titanic in a cycle, across the world. The event took place over 100 years ago, the film was made almost 25 years ago, and yet here in 2021, the echoes are shockingly loud.
I’m curious about the queerness you bring to the piece: Titanic is inherently a very heteronormative story, and yet there is queerness to find and dissect. Much has been written about how queer folks, because of a lack of representation, will often project themselves into narratives that do not include them. What effect does your queering have here?
Conceptually, I knew I had to play everyone. I also never really drew a distinction in my affection for any one character over the other, regardless of gender. They’re all so juicy. Launching the show in the first year of Trump’s term in office made the politics of the production crystal clear for me. I never sought to mock the material — only highlight the struggles of survival. Each character in this film is trying to survive even before they know it’s a literal life or death situation. They each have seemingly lived in me for some time, so releasing them as a queer person is both intentional and happenstance. The major theme of choosing what you want and need over what the world expects of you happens to be framed by this hetero love story, but to me that love couldn’t exist without the deep vulnerability that is experienced by queers more often than anyone. I love the moment in the film you can just watch Jack and Rose’s hands intertwine, It’s pure joy. It’s universal. The rest of the world disappears when they’re together — for them, and for most audiences. We should settle for nothing less in love, be it queer, straight or otherwise, don ‘t you think?
Anything else you’d like to add?
I really appreciate your questions! The greatest challenge of my artistic life has been serving the positions of performer and creator simultaneously. I value the simplicity in collaboration but at the same time, it’s a very complicated balance. Having Theresa [Buchheister] by my side — a person who respects artists so much — has been vital (pun intended) to allowing me to grow in both roles.
Tickets are now on sale here.