Entertainment » Theatre

Michael Phillis explores gay life through "Dolls"

by Robert Taylor
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 20, 2009

When Michael Phillis premiered his one-man show, "D*Face" at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre three years ago, one of the scenes recalled his life at age 6, playing with action figures.

His boyhood games are one of the inspirations for his fictional new play, "Dolls," which previews this Thursday through Saturday and with a formal opening Sunday. It's another one-man, multiple-character show for him, again directed by Andrew Nance.

"I was big action-figure player," Phillis said. "I had all the he-men characters: Batman, Spiderman, the X-Men. Back then, of course, I never would call them dolls." But now, three years after the coming-out drama "D*Face," he's willing to call them what they are.

"While the play does have some autobiographical elements to it, it is a fictional story with a fictional character," Phillis said as he relaxed after a recent rehearsal. "The character is Frank, and we see him at 7 and 13, and we see him today. He never speaks in the show, but we hear about his life through the dolls he has collected."

Phillis plays Frank at each stage of his life, and he represents the dolls, though he doesn't switch into costumes. "Each doll is represented with a different vocal quality," Phillis said. One is an unstable porcelain Southern Belle, one an openly gay action figure, one an embittered Barbie knockoff, and one a reclusive wedding-cake figurine.

"Every doll in the collection is at least a little bit gay," Phillis said, because they reflect the man who owns them.

"The whole concept is that the dolls come alive only when Frank is not around," Phillis explained. "I remember when I was playing with dolls, that little thing in the back of my head: 'What if? What if they were alive?'"

But it's not anything like the "Raggedy Ann and Andy" series of children's books, or even the movie "Toy Story."

Everybody has the potential for hardship in the story of growing up gay.

"I thought, what would it be like if something like 'Toy Story' was not a kid's story? I remember taking a dance appreciation class in college and seeing a film of 'Petrushka,'" he said, referring to the 1911 ballet set to Igor Stravinsky's music. "The concept of a sad living doll, a doll that could have real human emotions, really stuck with me."

In the mainstream, establishment theater, audiences and critics might wonder what a 26-year-old writer and actor can find in his own life to inspire a play. But Phillis has a rich history. He drew on his years growing up in Woodland, a historic farming town in California's Yolo County, for "D*Face." (He didn't mention Woodland specifically, because he wanted the story to seem universal.)

Does every gay person have a story to tell, a play to write?

"Everybody has the potential for hardship in the story of growing up gay," Phillis said. "Also, there is the potential for acceptance and joy. Writing 'D*Face' gave me the voice I didn't have before."

Phillis noted that "D*Face" began as a classroom project at UC Santa Barbara," where he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in theater. Then, the title was the bolder "Dickface." "I think I was a little angrier then," he said.

As an actor, he has also appeared in other writers' plays. Among them, "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" at the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda and Craig Lucas' "The Dying Gaul" at the New Conservatory Theatre.

He recently completed a run, playing four characters, in "Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party" at the San Francisco Playhouse. "If there were more projects like that, then I feel being an actor would be a delight," Phillis said. "But there is so much uncertainty. The great thing about writing and acting is that you can go out and create your own work."

Phillis said he is overjoyed to be working on "Dolls" with director Nance, especially since he is both the writer and the sole actor. "That outside eye is so necessary. He'll make a suggestion and I'll say, 'Why didn't I think of that?' Andrew sees the whole story-he has created the world in which the story takes place."

"Dolls," written and performed by Michael Phillis and directed by Andrew Nance, runs at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave.. with previews this week, oficial opening Sunday, and final show Feb. 22. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$25. (415) 861-8972. www.nctcsf.org. Information abvout the about the actor and playwright is on his web site, www.michaelphillis.com.

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