John Michael doesn’t consider himself an actor.
“I usually call myself a performance artist, not an actor,” Michael says. “I try not to outright say that I’m not because it can piss some of my actor friends off, but I guess the reason why that’s helpful for people to understand about my work is my shows are about how I’m really trying to create reality in a sense of fantastical circumstances.”
Michael — who turned 30 in April 2019 — started to take this approach to his performing after Matthew Tomlanovich, a college professor and mentor to Michael in his hometown of Dallas, “had the courage” to tell him that he wasn’t an actor.
“He tells me this but he also says ‘you still have something when you’re on stage,’” Michael recalls. “So we started to work together and develop this unique performance style. When I started performing with him we just leaned into this idea of not acting.”
A major component that manifested in his shows — or as Michael calls them “interactive comedies” —was his connection with the audience.
“It came about because I didn’t want to keep doing the voices of my other characters so I had the audience just do it instead,” he says. “It’s been so fun and lovely to stumble upon this whole entirely different medium of performing and really lean into it before we really realized what we had.”
Michael developed five original interactive comedies with his mentor before Tomlanovich passed away in 2014. One of those was a Harry Potter parody called “John Michael and the Order of the Penix” in 2013.
“This show was in response to my first STI,” Michael says. “I was a young gay man of 22 and I ignored symptoms that I knew were pointing towards a sexually-transmitted infection. I ignored symptoms because I was terrified and then things started to get to a point that I just had to get tested.”
At the time, Michael was also rereading the Harry Potter book series and started to draw similarities between what he was going through in his life and with the boy wizard who lived through an attack from He Who Must Not Be Named.
“The more I thought about it I realized I wasn’t naming what was on my penis and I thought how amazing it felt to be able to laugh about it,” Michael says. “At the time I was volunteering with the resource center in Dallas and when I heard stories from my older friends about what happened with the AIDS crisis in the 80s and early 90s, it felt like they were talking about Lord Voldemort to young Harry Potter. The fear, the denial, the terror.”
Seven years after first performing “Order of the Penix,” Michael is revisiting and rewriting the interactive comedy with director Sammy Zeisel to perform in Orlando. The LGBT+ Center will present the show at The Abbey on Jan. 13 at 7 p.m.
“We’re really digging in and using the Harry Potter canon as our mythology for the updated show to make something that’s tough to digest and tough to talk about more palatable,” Michael says. “Since I’m not the same performer and writer I was back then I needed to find a different way to enter the story.”
Michael says while the original show dealt primarily with his fear of going to get tested, this show is about how we hurt our community when we’re too afraid to acknowledge our own fears and our own problems.
“It’s a bigger umbrella,” he says. “The message as a whole I think has less judgment to it than a 24-year-old me might carry. It has a warmer heart. There are moments of the new material where I, as a 30-year-old man, am reacting to this person who’s ignoring a cut on his penis. It’s not just about getting tested, if you don’t name it out, not only will you not be able to take the first step of acknowledging what’s against you, but also other people can’t help you.”
While extensive knowledge of all things Harry Potter isn’t required, the more of a fan you are of the original source material, the metaphors will have more of an impact for you.
“I think the entire point of doing this show is to use the obsession of my generation and Gen Z – because younger people are still obsessed with Harry Potter – to use that mythology to tackle something that we’re terrified about, to use something we already know to explain this thing so many people are afraid to talk about. It’s so beautiful to just think about how the spells to fight dementors and boggarts are all about imagining happy, funny memories. That laughter is magic. Jokes are spells that we can cast and spread lightness, hopefully.”
Before taking the stage with his magic wand and book of spells, Michael will be performing another one of his shows at the Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest.
“Meatball Séance,” which Michael premiered at last year’s Orlando Fringe Festival, will play at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center’s Purple Venue Jan. 10-11.
“’Meatball Séance’ is a show in which the audience helps me cook my mother’s famous meatballs onstage to bring her back from the dead,” Michael says. “The story came about because I wanted to find a better way of grieving. I was upset about her not being a part of my life anymore and the show is a great example of why I continue to do my art. Satirizing my traumas gives me clarity.”
The process of bringing people on stage to make his mother’s meatballs helped Michael to deal with the awkwardness he felt whenever someone would say “sorry” when they found out his mother had passed away.
“I decided to just stop talking about her because I didn’t want to handle people being awkward about it and it was really a big bummer because she was so fun. When I bring people onstage, I very much want them to have the same experience people had at my mother’s parties, which was the time of their lives.”
After its Orlando Fringe premiere, Michael performed “Meatball Séance” more than 50 times throughout 2019. He is working with Zeisel on the return of the show to Central Florida for Winter Mini-Fest.
“Developing work with Sammy is like I’m going into a secret government building and I have someone in a van who can tell me where the security guards are at,” Michael says. “It’s like an extra pair of eyes. Our chemistry is better than I’ve ever had with any lover.”
With the help of Zeisel, Michael says “Meatball Séance” has been taken to the next level.
“The audience is going to see someone who’s found even more possibilities when it comes to audience participation and they’re going to see someone who’s even more off the rails and even more excited,” Michael says. “I love where this show has gone and I will probably be performing it for the rest of my life.”