Aaron Swenson has performed in Plan-B’s SLAM, AND THE BANNED PLAYED ON, the Script-In-Hand Series reading of 8 and, most notably, as the Hedwig in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH in 2003, 2005 and 2012. He shares his thoughts on spending a decade as Hedwig as part of Give OUT Day.
I was born on the other side
of a town ripped in two
And no matter how hard I’ve tried
I end up black and blue
I rose from off of the doctor’s slab
I lost a piece of my heart
Now everyone gets to take a stab
They cut me up into parts
In 1984 I was a precocious half-Asian midget growing up in Anchorage, Alaska. I knew I was smart and special because everyone kept telling me that I was smart and special. I had these wonderful toys—my mind, my singing voice, all the books I could read—and all I wanted was to sing and perform and tell everyone about the incredible things that I was learning and learning to be. I was loud and I was proud. Due to a quirk of the accelerated learning program I was funneled into, I was also one of the only boys in my elementary school class from first to sixth grade. This was a shame, because I liked boys almost as much as I liked books.
I didn’t attach any particular significance to this until the day that all the girls in my first grade class decided to spend an entire recess period chasing Josh (last name redacted in this age of Facebook and the interwebs) around the playground, trying to kiss him. Josh was tall and sporty, a grade older than us, and decreed by most of my female colleagues to be the absolute top-shelf cutest of all the boys in the land of Huffman Elementary School. I didn’t entirely share this opinion — it was a big school, plenty of fish, etc. — but I was more than happy to join them. We culled him from his herd of friends like a pack of wolves isolating a juvenile deer, then outflanked and surrounded him again and again, using our sheer numbers to overcome his superior foot speed. Josh, panting and bewildered, was not particularly thrilled at this use of his precious recreation time. When the bell finally rang and we made our way inside, he shot me a look of confusion that didn’t register as important until my beloved teacher took me aside. She gently informed me, with no sense of chiding or shame, that Josh just wasn’t used to boys trying to kiss him. “Jeez,” I thought to myself, “he had better get used to it. It’s not just me, right?”
I came to find out that it was, in fact, “just me.” It would continue to be “just me,” with few exceptions (Boy Scout camp, anyone?) until after I left high school. Although my first grade teacher went to great lengths to avoid shaming me for my proto-homo behavior, shame eventually arrived all the same. Some choice experiences with classmates and family members taught me that an energetic second grader with a lisp and diarrhea of the mouth who would, without provocation, burst into a full-throated rendition of “La Marseillaise” or that Tom Lehrer song that lists all the elements in the periodic table was not anyone’s ideal travel companion.
I remember my parents’ dismay and frustration when, rather than pretending to be Batman, I preferred to imitate Wonder Woman. I would spin in place like Lynda Carter as imaginary invulnerable bracelets materialized on my arms; I would run from place to place with my hands fixed in Barbie-esque aerodynamic blade shapes, ready to karate-chop furniture and stuffed animals and siblings. I knew that I didn’t want to be a girl, exactly, but I didn’t not want to be a girl. I wanted to find a kind of strength and confidence in myself and in my appearance that I saw no way to emulate except by imitating the behaviors of my predominantly female peers and heroes. I was a short, unathletic bookworm with eczema and a bowl haircut. Wonder Woman was an ass-kicking speed demon with great hair and an invisible plane, and the Batman I saw on TV was a chunky, lumbering schmuck with a gormless sidekick who might have been cute except for all the goddamn puns.
My parents were, much like Josh after his playground ordeal, exhausted and bewildered by my behavior. I knew that there was something about the way I was that made my parents uncomfortable, confused, and occasionally sad. I stopped playing Wonder Woman, but I still dreamed of being a superhero. At that point, all I wanted was two things: to be able to fly and to be invisible. I wanted to escape and I wanted to disappear.
Then I found theatre. And that’s what I was looking for all along. In theatre everyone’s motivations were clear. Everything had a beginning, a middle, and — most importantly — an end. I could get endless recognition from the only people who mattered to me at that point—grown-ups. Later, in my thirties, I discovered that there are no such things as “grown-ups;” the closest approximation is someone with both the legal right to buy liquor and the maturity to postpone drinking all of it on the day of purchase.
At the time, it was as though I had discovered a miraculous machine. All I had to do was drop in a coin (a song, a monologue, etc.) and I would get a treat (attention of a positive, predictable nature). The biggest revelation to me was that there were people who did this for a living. There were grownups who spent their lives telling stories in safe dark places where they would be heard and, sometimes, understood. I also learned the lesson that colored much of my young adult life: If you’re going to be a fag, you’d better at least have the decency to be entertaining.
Inside I’m hollowed out
Outside’s a paper shroud
And all the rest’s illusion—
That there’s a will and soul
That we can wrest control
From chaos and confusion
Here’s what I’ve gotten out of the last 10 years of being Hedwig for Plan-B Theatre. It’s nice to be known for something, even if it’s just for having nice legs in heels. I’ve gotten better at taking compliments, which I used to cringe away from and deflect as if they were streams of acid. I’ve gotten better at remembering that William Blake quote that says something about how we are here on earth to learn to endure the beams of love — to learn to welcome the kindnesses of others as gifts instead of reflexively pushing them away. I’m getting over my stage fright by recognizing it as nothing more than fear of scrutiny, an anxiety that if I don’t obscure my true nature with a great performance people will see through to the core of me and turn away, disgusted or disappointed, or simply realize that I am a fraud and that I have no idea what I’m doing. Isn’t it nice, the way we treat ourselves? I am working on it. Drinking helps.
I have also discovered the dismaying truth that once you arrive at something critical or essential to your identity, there’s only a momentary sense of relief. You’ve just set down your bags and put your feet up when you realize that you are surrounded by an entirely new set of problems. Here’s the thing, though: as you get closer to the center of your self, any new problems that arise may be more numerous, but they’re less life-threatening.
My relationship with my family has deepened. True, there were rocky periods during my coming-out process and my separation from BYU – and, eventually, the LDS Church – but we have always managed to stay close and caring, prioritizing the quality time we spend together over any issues we have with one another. They are all extraordinary people, and I would rather spend time with them than with anyone else in the world. My family has been incredibly supportive of my work on this show, particularly my mother: she has seen every incarnation of Hedwig from the very beginning and led many a standing ovation while remaining a devout member of the LDS Church. When my laptop was stolen in 2004 I was less concerned about the hardware than about the loss of a priceless photo of my mom helping me back into my bustier before an evening show. In the picture she is deep in concentration, zipping me carefully into tight black vinyl while I face the camera with an expression of surprise and bemusement. I will never forget that moment.
Although I am not a man of faith, I have also learned something essential about surrender and the illusion of control. My life only gets busier, and the role never gets easier, and there always comes a point in the process where I am certain that my personal and professional lives are on the verge of collapse. I am saved from destruction, time and again, by luck or sheer stubbornness, and I am reminded of one of the most profoundly affecting ideas I’ve ever heard in my life, courtesy of Anne Lamott: that, when everything in your life seems to be going wrong at once, the universe is attempting to distract you, keeping your clumsy hands off the steering wheel, so that something big and lovely can be born.
And when everything starts breaking down
You take the pieces off the ground
And show this wicked town something beautiful and new
As I write this, Neil Patrick Harris is playing Hedwig on Broadway. I have gone out of my way to avoid having an opinion on the matter. Here is what I have to say: DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG is one of my favorite things that has ever happened in the world. I think NPH is extraordinarily talented. And I don’t envy him for one second. Because the thought of playing this role on Broadway sounds flat-out fucking terrifying. Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful and terrifying to play this role in Utah. It would be scary and thrilling to play this role anywhere. There are the obvious reasons — it’s physically and vocally demanding, it’s a big ol’ acting challenge, blah blah blah — but the best and scariest part of the process is how much I learn every time I pull the wig down from the shelf. Each time I come back to the role, years have passed. Joints have stiffened. Perspective has deepened. Standards have risen. I have watched the videos and listened to the recordings and read my process journals, and mistakes? I’ve made a few. But then again, et cetera, et cetera.
And that’s just how it works. But the most remarkable part of my experience playing this role has been the opportunity to check in with myself every few years and realize how much my preparations for this role have taught me about forgiveness and love, about trust and surrender, about how the missing pieces of your true self are often already inside you, and about the messy business of simply being a person in the world. My Hedwig is not Neil Patrick Harris’s Hedwig, or John Cameron Mitchell’s, or even Ally Sheedy’s. My Hedwig is an “exquisite corpse.” She is a work begun by a version of me who was too young to know what I was getting into, then handed off to successive versions of myself, each a little older and a little more experienced — if not necessarily wiser. And as I mine my past for the raw material that informs my work I have learned to look back on my embarrassing younger selves with affection rather than contempt.
I still cringe and chide myself when I recall terrible decisions, instances of foot-in-mouth disease, or missed opportunities. But after performing this role again and again (and again), I know that there is a better way, a kinder way to treat myself. We are all everyone we have ever been; like Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes. And all of the people I ever was — or am now, or ever will be — deserve to be loved, to be treated with the tenderness and understanding that I would extend to any confused, lisping, awkward, hopeful kid who had the good sense — and the bad luck — to be born as someone other than me.
Know in your soul
Like your blood knows the way
From your heart to your brain
Know that you’re whole