Return Engagements: Spoken-Word Performer Joe Gulla Inches His Way Back to the Spotlight
(Article #2 in a limited series on “Return Engagements.”)
“You do all this stuff to build momentum,” says monologist and playwright Joe Gulla, “and when you get some, you kind of want to ride it for a little bit.”
Indeed, Gulla’s career seemed to be on a roll during the earliest weeks of 2020. For starters, he was looking toward an encore presentation of his 54 Below debut, which had occurred a few months earlier. The show he’d performed there was The Bronx Queen, a comic/dramatic monologue about growing up gay in a rough-and-tumble Bronx neighborhood in the 1970s. (When I reviewed the piece for this site in 2016, after a performance at Joe’s Pub, I’d called Gulla “a warm and wise storyteller, brimming with good will and honest reflection.”)
Also on Gulla’s itinerary in early 2020 was the reading of a new play of his, Reel Wood, scheduled at Manhattan’s (literally) monumental Stonewall Inn. The show had earlier been part of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. The Stonewall reading was set for March 13, just as New York City and the rest of the world were about to shutter. Reel Wood didn’t make it under the wire.
Despite his disappointment, Gulla felt relatively lucky as sheltering-in-place began. He figured that, unlike his friends who were strictly performing artists, he would flourish during the downtime. He’d be able to spend his time in isolation writing new scripts. But he soon discovered that this wasn’t quite so simple. The pandemic, he says, “didn’t feel like a writers retreat.”
Even though there are serious themes in Gulla’s work, it tends to have a comedic thrust. And with New York City battened down, comedic energy was in short supply. He’d thought of writing something light-weight and escapist, but he couldn’t quite get in the mood. And then he would feel guilty about not writing.
Eventually, he finished a short play called Members Only, which was soon chosen for a virtual reading by a company in Santa Fe, NM. The play focused in a serious way on his feelings about COVID.
“What I was finding—which I have to think a lot of gay men of a certain age were [finding]—was that I was having post-traumatic stress. So much of [the pandemic] reminded me of the AIDS crisis.” In particular, the public’s response to COVID brought back to him the “unfairness” that AIDS patients and members of the gay community had experienced decades earlier:
“It’s not usually my thing to have a chip on my shoulder—to speak that way. But I’m really glad I allowed myself the opportunity to…express some of that.”
The Zoom reading of Members Only went well, and he was grateful for it, even though he missed having a live, in-person audience: “I’m a performer. I want to hear the response. I want a report card!”
Eventually, he also a wrote a new monologue in the Bronx Queen series. (The original script already had two sequels: Faggy at Fifty and Daddy.) “I’m very pleased with it,” he says of the new installment. “It came very organically.”
A Moment of Promise
Gulla’s thirst for live performance was finally slaked in March of this year, when he read portions of The Bronx Queen in an outdoor show presented by the Dramatists Guild (in association with the Times Square Alliance). The program was called It Starts with a Word: Dramatists in Times Square. The word-focused theme of the presentation appealed to him.
“I thought, wow, this is a perfect sentiment for right now. Because you can’t do much with bells and whistles. And, since we can’t, let’s use this opportunity to remind ourselves that it all starts there. Even with this gigantic force keeping us ‘down,’ we can still do something. We can be creative, and we can use our best weapon, which—for writers—is words.”
The Dramatists Guild event gave Gulla renewed hope:
“There I was in Times Square with a mask on my face. People desperate for any sort of theatre gathered around. And I was performing some of my work! I mean, that was healing beyond belief. And it was really the first thing that made me say, ‘Things are gonna get better…. We’re gonna start where we are, and we are going to be able to slowly crawl back to where we want to be.’”
Though he is an inveterate theatre and cabaret guy, Gulla also worked on some film and cable projects during the COVID pause. He played “very small roles” in Disney’s musical film version of Tim Federie’s novel Better Nate Than Ever and in The White House Plumbers, a limited series for HBO starring Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux.
His awakened interest in things cinematic led Gulla to adapt one of his plays, Sleeping with Fish, into the screenplay for a short film. The project—about two mafia heavies who happen to be gay—is scheduled to shoot in September. Tony nominee Lou Liberatore will play one of the main characters. Gulla would have liked to have taken one of the leading roles himself, but part of the premise of the piece is that these characters seem to be heterosexual to the core.
“I read gay, very far across the room,” he quips.
Many Happy Returns of the Day
All through the pandemic, Gulla stayed in touch with the management team at 54 Below about the rescheduling of the postponed Bronx Queen performance.
“They were so wonderful,” he tells me. “I felt their hopefulness the whole time. I felt their desire to get things back. I felt how much they cared about the artist…. Every month or two, they’d say, ‘All right, we’re not gonna be open then, but let’s give you a new date.’… As time went on, suddenly the date I had was in the window of the reopening.”
Coincidentally, that day—July 23—happened to be Gulla’s birthday, and a number of other events mentioned in the monologue center around that date. Additionally, some of the Bronx Queen story unfolds at Studio 54 in the 1970s—right upstairs from 54 Below. This added yet another touch of serendipity to the occasion.
Still ahead for Gulla is an October target date for a New York “production of some sort” of Reel Wood. Among its cast members are Susan Campanero, who was part of an opening act for Gulla’s July 23 show at 54 Below.
And then there’s his new solo show in the Bronx Queen series. The date and place for that has yet to be determined. With upticks in COVID cases and the rise of new variants causing renewed consternation throughout the country, Gulla feels a bit “gun shy” about moving too soon.
He says he is using the same measured approach to things now that he’s taken since March of last year.
“I didn’t push it,” he says. “I didn’t try to do anything that wasn’t realistically ‘within the moment.’”
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.