INTERVIEW: Ravenswood Manor’s Justin Sayre talks camp, “cancel culture," favorite queer pop culture moment, and his dream LGBTQ story to bring to television

GLAAD had the chance to catch up with Justin Sayre, writer and performer of the camp horror soap opera theater production ‘Ravenswood Manor’. Taking a page from the cult classic "Dark Shadows", Ravenswood Manor brings audiences the gothic and hilarious goings-on of a small New England town during the spring of 1976. Directed by Tom DeTrinis and Jessica Hanna, Ravenswood Manor is an episodic theatrical event with two new episodes of the ever-unfolding adventure premiering each of the six-week run. 

In the interview, Justin Sayre talks about the audience reaction to Ravenswood Manor, the camp genre, who his gay icon is, his perspective on “cancel culture”, what his dream LGBTQ story to bring to television would be, and more. Check out the full interview below. 

GLAAD: You are right in the middle of your run with RAVENSWOOD MANOR…how has the audience been reacting to it this far? 

Justin Sayre: I can say this, Audiences LOVE this show. It's silly and salty and High Camp, but they're also falling in love with the mystery. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me after the show with their own theories about who the villain is, and what will happen next week. That's magic to me! The fact that our audiences fall in love with these characters and care what happens to them, is certainly a testament to the show, but also a major accolade to our Amazing cast. I am working with one of the best companies of actors anywhere. Brilliant, thoughtful and hilarious, we're having a ball on stage, and that glee is infectious to our audience. 

G: The format is a little different than traditional theatre – what was your inspiration for this project?

JS: Well, I had been writing for television for a bit, so I started to like a longer narrative structure, but I also think we're all getting used to and falling in love with a longer structure. Everything is streaming now, the public wants to live longer with characters with whom they identify and love.  You see it even in movies and revivals. So many sequels, so many revivals of shows. Why not create theatre, where we could live with characters for a longer time? The idea of serial theatre seemed fun and entertaining, but in some ways, it's been around for a while. Shakespeare wrote in serialized formats, especially in the histories. Ravenswood takes it to a bit of an extreme, but I think it also offers something new and inventive. I love the format, and I'm already thinking up Season Two. 

G: Why has the camp genre always been appealing to you?  True that you are a fan of the old Dynasty series and others in that universe?

JS: For me, Camp sits at the center of Queer art. It's endlessly subversive and aware, reveling in the frivolous and the appearance, commenting on the truth from behind a veneer, and pointing out the rest of the falseness around us. That's still appealing, very appealing, and perhaps more important now than it ever has been. I also came out in a Downtown theatre scene, where figures like Ethyl Eichelberger and Charles Ludlam still loom large in the imaginations of many of us. That's certainly the lineage, I'm looking to in creating Ravenswood, we even have an original signed program of Ludlam's Camille hidden in our set. As for Dynasty, I came to it later, even Dark Shadows, and that was after Camp was firmly placed in my worldview. I like Soaps for their height and their ridiculousness of story, and I don't know, that just seems so appealing to me. What can you do when there are no rules? I like that freedom. 

G: Speaking of camp, horror, etc.  Why do you think the LGBTQ community feels so connected to “Halloween” in general?

JS: I think Halloween has always been a night for fantasy and wish fulfilment. You can be anything you want to be on Halloween, and for many years, it was the only night a lot of gay people got to be who they believed they truly were. It's a wonderful event for creativity, and each and every year, I'm continually floored by the things people come up with. I think Halloween still offers that canvas for queer people and the sense of Camp is on full display in the most brilliant and captivating ways. 

G: We are definitely making strides when it comes to more LGBTQ people being stand-up comics, writing comedy, etc.  What has the journey been like for you

JS: Well, it's been a trial and a joy, but throughout, I think I've stayed true to my queerness. I think of myself as a queer artist, but I don't consider that as niche. I see it as a viewpoint that's important and vital. I think there's more visibility, certainly, but there's also a lot of sparsity. There are gay narratives, but there are usually one type of gay narrative. Usually a "straight-acting," good-looking character or a flamboyant second banana. Some artists are redefining these roles, but I do think we still have strides to make. I also think it's still very hard to get LGBTQ content made. Networks are hesitant, and that inhibits creativity. I think we're making strides, but I think we have a lot more to do, and we can't get comfortable with the forward motion we've already created. I really want to see funny, complicated, silly, rude, and flawed LGBTQ characters, you know, like people. 

G: You have definitely expressed yourself with your fashions and clothing choices.  What is your reaction to seeing more men (Billy Porter, Timothee Chalamet, Harry Styles) wear more clothing that is gender neutral.

JS: I LOVE it! (When it's Good) I think it's great, but I think it's still growing. I admire much of what I'm seeing, but I want it all to feel organic for folks. I dress for myself. I think having great style is something to aim for and to cultivate. I think there are a lot of people breaking fashion norms with great style, Billy Porter, Chalamet and Styles, certainly, though it's hard to look at either of them without undying lust. But I also love people that turn out a look for the everyday. I look at people like Nathan Lee Graham or Dusty Childers or Machine Dazzle or Jonathan Van Ness. I love a queen turning a look, ask any Uber driver. Yes, I'm that girl who sees a gay person working it on the street and makes the driver pull over to tell them how proud I am of them. It seems like such a small thing, but I know from my own life, being yourself allows others the same luxury. It's a gift. 

G: Who is your Gay Icon?

JS: That's a very long list. I have a long association with Judy Garland, through my event, Night of a Thousand Judys, and I adore her. But I also love so many other Gay Icons. I'm obsessed with Diana Ross and the Italian singer, Mina. I love so many Queer art makers like Jackie Curtis, Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger, Holly Woodlawn, The Cockettes, John Kelly, Justin Vivian Bond and so so many more. But perhaps, and just taking cues from my Apartment, I would have to say Divine, I adore her on high, and Edie Beale. Images of both these icons are all over my place. I love them both. 

G: Favorite moment in Queer Pop Culture?

JS: It may sound trite, but I'm still a huge devotee of Rupaul's Drag Race. I don't do all the Reddit and the gossip, I just enjoy the show. I love watching the creativity of queer people, but I also just like seeing a bunch of queer effeminate people on television, telling their stories and taking themselves seriously. That's really the part I love most. 

G: What is your take on “cancel culture?”

JS: I am always open to critique and agree that as an artist you open yourself up to criticism, but I don't know about cancelling people. I think art is often the best thing a person does with his or her or their lives, and I think from that art we can all learn something. I think you can participate with someone's art and not like the person who made it. I think you can make mistakes at a certain point in your career and move on. I think cancelling anyone stops a conversation about growth and comes out of our disconnection from each other. We live in a world right now where you can endlessly curate the media you come in contact with, but I wonder what we could all learn from going outside what we like or know to find out about something new or different. I'm an artist, and to me, that means someone who is endlessly curious. When someone gets cancelled, what do we expect to happen to them? Is there any road to redemption? I think each and every person should be able to decide who and what they like and also what they are willing to participate with. But I find it hard in many cases to write off a person's entire creative life and I wonder what it actually accomplishes when we silence people. Some would argue that it makes room for other voices, but I think that operates on scarcity model that sees the spots for talented and brilliant people as limited. I don't. I think there's room for lots of conflicting voices. I think there are more think pieces on this stuff, than people actually thinking about what cancelling means. I have boundaries, and lines I won't cross, but those are mine, and I can't really make the decision for anyone else.  

G: You have written several books for kids- what was your experience like growing up…how did you grow into your identity as someone in the queer community?

JS: Well, I grew up being introduced to adult things. I watched cartoons and had toys, but I also had old movies and books. I feel very lucky that as a child, I was let to have almost free reign to watch and read and listen to anything I wanted to. Luckily, I was able to stray into so many worlds and spheres. I got to read authors of color and watch Esther Williams movies and listen to Judy Garland. Art was a great escape for me and remains one to this very day. I was instantly drawn toward invention. I think I've lived my life on Auntie Mame trajectory, always learning, always leaning towards the fabulous, and ever expansive. I think I got that from my childhood, or maybe I turned myself into that. I'm a big believer in self-invention and I think that's something that I grew up wanting to do. 

G: You are known for your NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS’s benefit event…so curious if you’ve seen Renee Zellweger in JUDY and what you thought?

JS: I did see it, and I think Miss Zellweger was excellent. But she was playing a version of Judy and I think people need to keep that in mind. Not just about this performance but about anyone playing a real-life person. Judy, the Judy I know and love is something different and something at times more complex. My Judy is not a sad sack, she's a fighter, endlessly funny and fun, she's complicated and difficult and hilarious and unbelievably gifted. I think Miss Zellweger did an amazing job, playing a version of Judy. Judy means something very different to me. And I don't know that I could ever expect any anyone to play that. 

G: You have written for TV (“2 Broke Girls” and FOX’s “The Cool Kids”) – what would be your dream LGBTQ story to bring to television?

JS: Well, I've been trying to find a home for a show about a Camp for LGBTQ kids for over a year, and still haven't found the right fit. I think telling the stories of young LGBTQ people is vitally important and I hope we can find a network to take that very soon. I'm also very interested in telling the story of my living in Queer commune in Brooklyn because I think it's so important to show what Queer families really look like. And what about Ravenswood Manor? Don't you think TV needs a Camp-Horror-Soap-Opera? Well don't you?