By Justin Ocean
Kevin Thorton has come a long way from a boyhood spent watching The Breakfast Club and Molly Ringwald marathons in small-town Evansville, Ind. Where once was a charismatic child being groomed to be a youth pastor by fundamentalist Christians now stands a tatted-up crooner from the Nashville pop band Waves on Waves, whose current one-man show Sex, Dreams & Self Control, a mish-mash of spoken word, stand-up, and song, garnered him a spread in Unzipped magazine, air time with NPR, and a write-up in the Los Angeles Times.
Looking sharp in a porkpie hat and T-shirt/vest combo -- a hip, Jeremy Piven kind of ensemble ('not too old and not too young') -- Thornton is a self-described late bloomer who, although he didn't graduate college till 28, is secure in his impending daddyhood (he turns 36 in November). 'It's a good age to be. I'm a man,' he admits. 'I wasn't a particularly good 20-something. I'm a much better 30-something.'
Those terrible 20s, as well as the nightmarish scenario of realizing his gayness in evangelical Evansville, form the basis of Sex, Dreams' First performed as a lark during open mic nights while on tour with his band, Thornton stage-tested bits and pieces of vignettes and songs and eventually fused the best into a unified act. Drawing favorable comparisons to the self-effacing, balls-out humor of David Sedaris and the musical inclinations of Sandra Bernhard, the show, much like his tattoos -- which he admits are Japanese-themed cover-ups of earlier, embarrassing tribal mistakes -- is about the universal struggle to do whatever it takes to take control of your life and be comfortable in your own skin. From Cincinnati to San Diego and Boston to Austin, audiences have responded.
As we meander through an office in Midtown Manhattan, Thornton gives us the lowdown on just how explicit his show gets, what's next, and what his embarrassing '80s headshots might look like.
Out: How is your show different than other coming-out memoirs?
Kevin Thornton: It's a one-man musical pretty much. Also, it's very empowering and funny. I went through great lengths to never fall into any sort of self-pity. I look back now and I don't feel wounded or full of pain as an adult man. I'm a happy man. I'm a proud man. I wanted something people could watch and relate to and laugh at and walk out of the theater feeling like they're better off for having seen it.
Are there any low points you'd rather not have experienced?
The funny thing is that I've had a lot of people tell me that they can't believe they were laughing at such dark material. I take my show on this really absurd bent where I have these visions of a nightmarish hell for gays for all eternity. It's super dark but I think I take it so far that you just have to laugh.
On your CD of songs from the show, you've included some bonus tracks. Why did you cut them?
There's one song in particular, 'I Will Tell You Everything,' that people are always asking, 'Why did you cut that song? It's the best song!' [Laughs.] The show used to end with this final moment of acceptance, me telling my mother that I'm gay. As the piece grew, the main song in the show is now 'Let There Be Light.' It fits the whole religious theme of the show better. It's more cohesive. When I first started out, the show was more fluid, just little vignette stories that were all about the same thing. But over time, things started to fall into place and there were a couple of songs that I wrote for the piece that seemed to slow down the dramatic movement'so as much as I love this song, it just has to go.
Were there any other stories that were too personal or embarrassing that you didn't even think of telling?
The first couple stories that I wrote, before I even realized what this would fully be, were for this stand-up comedy open mic night. They were super embarrassing adolescent sex stories. You can't get more personal than that! I went all the way with revealing too much. Later I built up the more touching, sentimental, nostalgic stuff around that. I never really had a 'should I pull back or not' moment, because those are the funniest parts of the show.
Where it gets raw, how explicit can we expect?
[Laughs.] In the first 20 minutes I go through all these little embarrassing vignettes, such as taking my dad's video camera and filming myself jacking off, and my sister finding the tape and everybody in the family freaking out about it -- T.M.I.! But waves of laughter from something so embarrassing. Everyone -- especially boys -- does something ridiculous in his sexual exploration.
Do you find your audiences are getting more mixed as you go on?
I will say I wish my audiences were more gay and lesbian. My crowds have been very mixed, especially because I've done lots of theater festivals this year -- smart, mixed, theater-going crowds. They appreciate it as a theater piece but probably don't relate too closely. So that's fine. But I've found that after the show the person who comes up to me with tears in their eyes is definitely someone who has gone through something similar. Not to make it too grandiose, but those are the moments when I feel like I've done a great deal of good in that person's life. I wish there was more of that.
Have you had any trouble with people not relating or being surprised by it?
Because I move around so much, sometimes the stars just line up right and it's the right mix of people that need to hear this story, or they're in the right mindset and the venue is just perfect and it just works. Other times, like when I did the show in a college town in Indiana -- the way it was advertised, I don't think they were incredibly explicit about it being a 'gay story' -- I had a lot of people show up that were -- not to judge -- but looking at them on their way in, I felt like they didn't know what this show is about.
Too fratty? Too many popped collars?
Yeah! [Laughs.] I don't think what I'm doing is all that shocking, but I've definitely had people walk out. I've had protestors.
What were they protesting?
I guess somebody wrote an article that it was about a boy reconciling God and his sexuality. I had a church group show up and stop people before they went into the theater, like I was fucking Planned Parenthood or something, giving them pamphlets on why it was wrong to be gay and how God can heal you. That was actually a very powerful night, because they set the stage for exactly what I went through. It'd be a brilliant piece of performance art if I could have someone do that every time.
In your bio it says your mom has become the hero of the show, but her only concern is that you don't perform naked.
[Laughs] She saw my press photo, the one with the guitar, and she knew what the show was about and read the reviews and stuff, and after all that and all the embarrassing family expos' things that I could possibly say in the show, her only concern was, 'You're not naked, are you?' Really, that's your biggest concern? Do you know the things I say in the show?!