My husband and I spent Sunday at the Austin Film Society with John Cameron Mitchell listening to every episode of the first season of his podcast, Anthem: Homunculus. My husband and I agreed, when we bought the tickets, we’d just stay for the first few episodes and leave during an intermission. We couldn’t imagine listening to a podcast for 7 hours! Once we were there, however, neither of us wanted to leave. We happily stayed through all 10 episodes. It was riveting! (Almost everyone in the audience stayed the entire 7 hours, too.)
Mitchell first wrote the Anthem as a sequel to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, but said it was too complicated (like trying to put a wig on a wig) so he changed the approach to thinking about what life might have been like had he never left Junction City, Kansas, the town where he grew up. (Mitchell was a military gypsy so it is only one of the small towns where he grew up, but it is where his family remained the longest.)
He and Bryan Weller wrote the first several episodes in the home of William Burroughs (they were invited by Burroughs partner, James Grauerholz), intending the story to be for television. Not surprisingly, it fell too far outside of the typical television genres to be picked up by anyone, so they decided to try a podcast.
Mitchell says that a lot of artists are using the podcast format to tell their stories because it doesn’t have the genre constraints of television. It is apparently a good format for creative works that are ahead of their time, even though it is reminiscent of old-time radio shows. The difference, I suppose, is that you can listen on any device, anywhere and whenever you want, including large movie theaters with lots of fellow listeners.
The story is about Ceann (played by Mitchell) who has a brain tumor. He can’t afford the medical costs to have it removed, so Ceann creates a podcast where he relays the complicated details of his upbringing and relationships while asking for donations. His friends and family are played by a large, impressive cast: Glenn Close, Marion Cotillard, Laurie Anderson, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo among others… The story is accompanied by 31 songs written by Mitchell and Bryan Weller.
At the “Listening Party” on Sunday, I thought Mitchell would introduce the podcast, give a short performance with Weller and they’d be on their merry way, but I was wrong. Besides the introduction and beautiful performance, Mitchell sat through all 10 episodes with the audience. He introduced each episode before it started and provided concluding remarks at the end of each about how the fictional details coincided with his actual life. He was so gracious and so excited about his podcast that it felt like being with a personal friend who couldn’t wait to share his new creation. It is one of the most unusual (and unexpectedly enjoyable) events I have ever attended.
Mitchell and I are 4 months apart in age. Despite being a suburban housewife which is as far as you can get from the life Mitchell has lived, his stories of loss feel incredibly familiar. I could have sworn the characterization of his mother with Alzheimers was based on my mother! Also familiar: the loss of God after being zealously religious in my younger years, the loss of friends and lovers, and knowing the end of my own life isn’t terribly far off. There is such a strong experience of loss and decline as you get older, but there is also a greater capacity for acceptance and forgiveness which is oddly rejuvenating.
I highly recommend Anthem: Homunculus. It is available through Luminary Podcasts. The first two episodes are free and if you are hookeed, which you probably will be, the rest require a Premium Plan. There is a 7 day free trial and then the cost is $4.99 per month or $34.99 for the year. I know subscriptions are frustrating, but that’s a very reasonable price for originality, quality, excellent performances, and a wonderful, moving experience.
And proof that John Cameron Mitchell is perfectly capable of wearing wigs on wigs, here is Hedwig in her trailer home in Junction City, Kansas…