An Interview with Ben Rimalower

Ben Rimalower wrote and stars in  Patti Issues  at The Duplex in New York City.

Ben Rimalower wrote and stars in Patti Issues at The Duplex in New York City.

In 2010, theater director Ben Rimalower penned an autobiographical monologue about a childhood shaped in equal parts by his father's tumultuous coming out and his discovery of Broadway legend Patti LuPone. After workshopping the piece for nearly two years, Rimalower's aptly-named Patti Issues opened at The Duplex in New York City last summer in a performance The New York Times called "a tight hour-long monologue that pairs a well-honed script with an engagingly spontaneous delivery and a nose for sharp, observational comedy." After a West Coast tour that included stops in Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, Patti Issues is back in New York City with performances planned in Fire Island Pines and Provincetown this summer.

Having caught a showing of Patti Issues during its West Coast swing back in March, I was awed by Rimalower's engaging story about coming to terms with his own sexuality in the shadow of a father struggling to do the same.

Moved by his very personal tale of self-discovery, I reached out to Rimalower earlier this week to discuss the future of Patti Issues, the Broadway shows that inspired him and his hope for the LGBTQ community.

CL: What are you up to these days? 

BR: Right now I'm performing Patti Issues in New York City, but I'm gearing up to bring it to Fire Island Pines and Provincetown this summer, which I'm pretty excited about.

CL: Can you give a quick synopsis of the show?

BR: Patti Issues is an hour-long monologue about how my obsession and eventual relationship with Broadway legend Patti LuPone helped me navigate a difficult relationship with my troubled father, who is also gay. I had originally intended to create a show all about Patti, but what came out when I began writing was much more about me. It basically had two threads, one about me and Patti and one about me and my father, and I kept writing until I saw how they were linked.

CL: How do you think the message in Patti Issues impacts the LGBTQ community? 

BR: I think the show really digs into how each of us needs to find acceptance within ourselves, not from our parents and not from our heroes, whether they be Patti LuPone or Lady Gaga or Jason Collins.

CL: What LGBTQ issue are you most passionate about? 

BR: I'm most passionate about the issue of visibility. I still think as a community our greatest enemy is the closet, self-imposed or otherwise. People can just write-off our humanity if we're some faraway media concoction, so it's important that they see gay men and women in their communities and in positions of respect in the world. We've come so far, but there's still a long way to go.

CL: What areas of our culture do you think still lag behind in terms of fostering that visibility? 

BR: Ironically, I think the entertainment industry, despite its leadership in this area, still lags behind because it has so much visibility and so many gay members. I only believe in outing closeted hate-mongering politicians, so if there's someone in Hollywood who is genuinely struggling with their sexuality, I don't begrudge them their privacy. I do, however, judge all of the actors and directors and producers and writers and athletes and musicians who are in the public eye who lead out gay lives in private but stay closeted in the media to protect their image and maintain their career. So many brave individuals have said the vital words "I'm gay" and fought for our rights while all of the closeted stars just sit back and enjoy the fruits of this liberation without holding up their end of the bargain.

CL: Can you name the one person whose contribution to the LGBTQ community has inspired you most? 

BR: I could answer this question by naming so many of the people working in theater in New York City in the early 1990s when there was still so little LGBTQ representation in mainstream culture. It really started to show on stage just as I was coming of age, so the artists involved in shows like Angels in AmericaFalsettosJeffreyKiss of the Spider Woman and Love! Valour! Compassion! were inspiring to me. I was very lucky to get to experience those plays at such a crucial point in my development.

CL: Is there a specific actor or character from one of those shows that had a particularly big impact on you?

BR: Playwright Paul Rudnick was a big inspiration to me. He wrote Jeffrey, which I was lucky enough to see in its original Off-Broadway run in 1993. He was becoming very prolific at the time and his sense of humor spoke to me very personally. He had had several big screenwriting jobs, including The Addams Family and In & Out, he was writing a hilarious column as Libby Gelman-Waxner in Premiere Magazine and he had already released a screamingly funny book called I'll Take It, so you'd see him on talk shows and read his comments in magazines and he just struck me as this successful, creative, talented, funny gay man living his life loud and proud in the full light of day. I think so much of my own shame from growing up gay was thinking that that wasn't possible, so seeing Paul do it was a real inspiration to me.

CL: If you had to recommend one book, movie or song with an LGBTQ bent, what would your recommendation be? 

BR: I love the 1995 movie Stonewall. It contains some cheesy dialogue and overwrought scenarios, but it's a wonderfully theatrical dramatization of the events around the Stonewall riots and it's worth a lot to be able to connect to individual characters at that turning point in our history. It also touches on another component of visibility which is that, unlike Jewish or black children, LGBTQ youth aren't raised with any immersion in the history of their people.

CL: Because your show focuses so much on Patti LuPone's music, in addition to the movie Stonewall, can you name one musical theater song that speaks to you from an LGBTQ standpoint?

BR: It's not hard to see why it affected me because it's so applicable to my own life situation, but I am extremely partial to "My Father's A Homo" from Falsettos. The lyrics are so conversational to the point and the tune is just pure vaudeville. It's so great.

CL: What do you hope for the LGBTQ community?

BR: I hope that we find the balance between gaining ground and winning power within the system while also remembering where we came from and embracing the diversity that made us who we are. The greatest gift gay people have to share with the world is how we've had to let go of so much bullshit to accept ourselves for who we are and that's what modern life is about and we are among the pioneers of it. I hope we don't lose sight of that.

To connect with Ben Rimalower, follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

Previous interviewees in this series have included LGBTQ athletes, authors, businesspeople, entertainers and politicians. For a complete list, click here.