Flamboyant and thoughtful, La JohnJoseph was born plain old John Joseph on a Liverpool council estate in 1982.
Now living in Hackney, by way of New York and Berlin, the 34-year-old has developed into an theatrical artist who identifies as neither he or she and wants to challenge notions of gender and sexuality.
La JJ has been performing for the last five years as Alexander Geist and has now decided to give his alter ego a biography of his own.
GEIST mixes live performance with film and heavy dose of film noir to tell the life story of the young musician. It comes to the Arcola Theatre on Saturday, July 2-3.
What is the show about?
The play centres on Alexander Geist, a charismatic musician who died young, played by myself, and the other characters are those who are satellite around him like his tell-all biographer and the executor of his will. They are represented on screen in a documentary film style, showing conflicting views of who this star was.
Where did the idea come from?
I have been inhabiting this character Alexander Geist for about five years, performing under that pseudonym everywhere from Rio to Tokyo. I decided to give him his own back story and then bring it to life, weaving together things like film noir and rock documentary and dealing with issues like gender identity.
How did the character begin?
I have a background in performance art and this persona is a way to explore masculinity. I originally took it to galleries as a kind of fine art performance but it took on another life and people started asking me to perform at parties and festivals and it kept growing.
What was it like growing up on a council estate in Liverpool?
It was a childhood of mixed blessings. I’m part of a big family with whom I’m very close but we were very poor and Liverpool wasn’t always a pleasant place to be at the end of the Thatcher era having had the race riots and Hillsborough disaster and Bulger murder. It felt mythologised but not in a pleasant way. We felt victimised as Scousers. But you really learn to handle things growing up in Liverpool.
Was being creative encouraged at school?
No. I went to Catholic school and we were encouraged to learn Latin and study to go to Oxbridge. I was there on a scholarship and was such a little kiss-ass. I was a devout Catholic and had a thirst for classics and history and a lot of my work references back to this mix. I realised when I was 15 that being creative was what I wanted so I did a MA in Performance Design and Practice at Central St Martins in London. I had the opportunity to transfer to Berkeley in California thanks to my grades and sob story about being one of eight children with a disabled mother and poor. Then I went to New York for two years on a whim and had my artistic education there.
Do you like the term drag?
This piece isn’t drag. I have really only played female parts, not drag parts. We are having this discussion now about gender in theatre the same way we had it about race 10 years ago when they said you couldn’t have a black King Lear. But obviously you can. I just think of parts as theatrical versions of gender.
Why do you prefer not to be termed he or she?
In Catholic theology there is the trinity where God is father, son and holy spirit. I always felt I was also multiple things. In my late teens I considered transitioning to being a woman but realised that wasn’t right so happily reconciled myself to being something that is everything. In Roman and Greek times they had intersex and transgender priests and priestesses and it’s only since about Victorian times they have had these horrible categorisations.
Do you prefer not to define your sexual preference either?
They are separate but interlinking things. If I defined myself as a man with an attraction to men I would be gay but I can’t do that. My primary attraction is to men so I prefer to say I have a queer sexuality because that is much more encompassing and takes in the fact I am attracted to trans men or male bodied people who don’t identify as men. Geist is a male character but one who wears nail polish and green eyeshadow.
Do your performances raise questions from the audience?
Yes and I’m not afraid or sensitive about answering them. In Milan a girl asked me “Do you like girls too?” That dialogue between performers and audiences is healthy.
What about your family?
They are very open-minded and creative and theatrical and live colourful lives. In the first draft of Geist I had my mother playing a part. Coming out was still a milestone though. I was very off the cuff and my mother cried for two weeks but she has a very Vivien Leigh quality to her and loves to cry into her hanky and look out of the window. My elder sister just gave me a hug.
Have you had any negative attention?
Of course. Some people in the gay community think I’m off my rocker and a liberal loony because I’m not part of the mainstream gay community. People try and give me hassle in the street but I’m used to it and am big enough to take care of myself. People react because they see I am living my life in a truthful and powerful way and they don’t have that luxury so they are frustrated. Most of the time I ignore it but I do have a pretty terrible temper and have had altercations in the street. I’m lucky because my boyfriend is very outspoken and my friends have always got my back.
Are people in Hackney more open-minded?
The community is wonderful and diverse. But every place is a mixture. You can get as much hassle in New York as Blackpool, even in Berlin, seen as a Mecca for misfits there are lots of Conservative, right-wing people. Nowhere is paradise.
Do you still believe in God?
Yes I have my own version of Catholicism. For me the real thrust of Christianity is compassion and empathy. And I believe all paths lead to God. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam all have a message of unity. I believe religion is a way of understanding the universe and God is a spirit that connects everything.
GEIST, Arcola Theatre ,24 Ashwin St, E8 3DL , Saturday, July 2-3