Tales of a Recovering Goody Two-Shoes // by Kevin Isola
Actor Kevin Isola finds the downside of a squeaky-clean image and transformative power of a little mischief.
I was a good kid. Impossibly good. By age six, my wee knuckles were bright white from the constant death grip I had on my halo. Friends’ parents would comment on my impeccable manners while staring daggers at their own little monsters. Teachers would write report card treatises on what a lodestar I was for the rest of the third graders, nay, society as a whole. Later, coaches would lament the fact that they didn’t have more Kevins to fill out the team and execute every play in their books to a “t.”
This all to say, by the time I got to high school, I was fucked. I was bound by a notion of what I ought to be and tethered to the fear of giving it up. Eventually, adults close to me began to offer fair warning.
High school batik teacher (you read that correctly): “Dude. DUDE. You need to take it down a thousand or yer’ gonna blow. Seriously. Here, smoke this.”
College acting teacher: “Jesus, Isola, if we could manage to cram a hunk of coal up your ass, we’d have a diamond in twenty minutes.”
By my second year of grad school, it had gotten so bad that I was put on probation for being such a good soldier. For caring too deeply about how I was received and perceived. In my third year, I was so tightly wound that I developed a heart arrhythmia two weeks prior to showcase and landed in the hospital. The freaking hospital. I was a mess. A busted mix of Captain America and Piglet.
Thankfully, something was about to give. In school, I had just co-created a clown show with my closest friends (red noses but tonally think Keaton/Chaplin as opposed to Ringling Bros.). After we graduated, we managed to get some backing and ran it Off-Broadway for a good while at The Cherry Lane. However, there was no middle ground response from the houses. To them each night, we were either The Beatles or something that smells like a duck egg lost deep inside of a human.
In anticipation of such wild swings in response, we would resort to a practice which I recommend. At five minutes, we would come to the upstage side of the lowered curtain and, unseen, unload a cavalcade of obscene gestures at those sitting on the other side. Legal counsel has advised me not to relay the vast majority of them here but suffice it to say that whatever first popped into your head when I brought it up—multiply it by seven and that’s the kind of stupid stuff we did. I can tell you, however, that I would end most every session by firing nipple lasers into their eyes, an act which I found deeply satisfying. The whole endeavor was utterly asinine and wildly helpful.
My halo began to tarnish.
It doesn’t take much to figure out what was behind this idiocy. If we allowed ourselves to care an iota about how some slacker vaudeville piece conceived by four jackasses downtown was going to be received, our joy would immediately become forfeit. But if we could remind ourselves that having the house on their feet at curtain call was in no way better or worse than their wanting to flay us, then we got to keep our fun. We could not only demystify failure but befriend it. As long as we were telling the story in the manner agreed upon, the audience response was none of our damn business. So, firing nipple lasers at the house actually freed everyone in the building from any obligation. To be clear, this behavior was not motivated by anything approaching aggression. It was an invitation sparked by, of all things, love. And when it was accepted, both sides invariably fell head over heels for each other.
Jump ahead a decade or so and I’m in a revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band at Transport Group, directed by its Artistic Director, Jack Cummings III. This was a site-specific production performed in an empty loft in Chelsea. Does that last part make it sound like something you’d go see as a favor to your niece’s boyfriend? Well, it could have been. In uncertain hands, it easily could have been. If there had been a whiff of concern on Jack’s part about how his vision would be received, about whether or not Brantley would be comfortable with us basically in his lap and snotting all over him, we’d have been sunk before curtain. But there wasn’t. Jack’s spirit is a wildly generous one but, in his work, he makes no room for apology. Period. We, the cast, followed his lead which fostered a reflexive trust in what we were doing. This allowed a thread of joy to permeate a play about some people who are hurting deeply. This joy then opened the gates for us to risk deeply. To risk leaving nothing on the table, to risk shining a klieg light on the vast, hopeful, shattered aspects of the guys we were playing. It allowed us to risk going down in a ball of burning wreckage if it came to it, then crawling from the debris, taking a step down center and stating as generously as possible to the people in the seats, “You’re welcome. Drive safe.”
It felt like firing nipple lasers again. And it beat my halo to absolute shit.
Since that show, I’ve done another with Jack and seen so many more at Transport Group. Nothing has changed. The company invariably swings for the fences knowing full well that the boldness of their vision could result in rubble and smoking debris just as easily as packed houses. But they do it anyway. They lash themselves to the integrity of their vision, they release any obligation toward getting something right, and then generously step forward and utter, “You’re welcome. Drive safe.”
They’re a nipple laser firing squad and I’m happy to stand against the wall.