Doug Greene is a Philadelphia-based installation artist, designer, actor and my new bud. We met last week at an Our Night Out event and I was drawn to his quiet energy and warmth. Greene has done work with Philadelphia faves such as The Bearded Ladies, Quintessence, Brat Productions, Renegade Theatre Company and many others. We met for a chat at another Philly favorite, Writer’s Block Rehab.
PGN: You work in several different media — talk more about what you do.
DG: I’m a performer and a member of Curio Theater Company in West Philadelphia, but I perform all over the city — whoever will hire me. I’m a set designer, and designed sets for groups like the Bearded Ladies, Tribe of Fools and a lot more. I’m also a puppeteer. I wear a lot of hats.
PGN: You work with some heavy hitters.
DG: Yeah, I try to keep busy. I also make a lot of objects, props — things like that. I recently made several puppets from garbage because one of the themes in the Bearded Ladies show is about the trash we throw in the ocean.
PGN: Do you perform or just design the puppets?
DG: I toured with a children’s show for years and worked all sorts of puppets from sock puppets to a giant monster held above my head. I find joy in bringing something inanimate to life.
PGN: Do you have any siblings?
DG: I have two brothers who were killed when I was younger. I now have four stepbrothers and four stepsisters, so lots of nephews and nieces.
PGN: Oh my. Did you lose both brothers at the same time?
DG: Yes, they were killed in a car accident. They were in a small car and got hit by a tractor-trailer.
PGN: How did you find out?
DG: They were on vacation going to the Grand Canyon. My dad was riding his motorcycle while they were driving. So he saw it, basically — not the initial impact, but the immediate aftermath. I found out when my grandmother called me. At the time, I was in a production of “As You Like It” at college. My mom was visiting me to see the show, so I was the one who had to tell her. My 17-year-old brother was driving and my other brother was only 14. Life-changing.
PGN: Where’d you grow up?
DG: I grew up in Stroudsburg, up in the Poconos. But I’ve been in Philly for 15 years.
PGN: Describe your day today.
DG: I have a green house-cleaning business, so this morning I cleaned a few houses, then I fixed a couple of trash puppets at the Wilma Theater for the Bearded Ladies and then I was working on a proposal for a design I’ll be doing later, then therapy and then I met with you.
PGN: Did you go to school for theater?
DG: I did, I went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The school existed before the state, so it’s very confusing. It was founded in the early 1800s as a women’s teaching college. It’s in the state school system, and the year I graduated high school, the school started an honors scholarship. I got a really great package, and studied theater and minored in women’s studies.
PGN: When did you come out?
DG: When I was 16. It was not a very liberal area to come out in, but luckily I had a small group of artsy friends. We were all weird, or “alternative” — with dyed hair and weird clothes from the Salvation Army. Before that, it was pretty rough. I had an eating disorder, which is pretty classic for a guy dealing with sexuality. When I was really depressed, my doctor asked if I’d had any suicidal ideation and I said yes, so I was sent to a teen-inpatient place for a little while. I got out but I still felt that if people knew, they’d hate me, so I tried to kill myself and OD’d on pills. I was in a coma for a while and then went back to the inpatient thing. This time I realized that this was something I couldn’t kill and decided to embrace it. I’d been bullied quite a lot before that, but when I went back to school, I was surprised at how many people were happy to have me back. I became less apologetic about every part of my life. And my parents were just happy to have me alive.
PGN: Thank goodness. What are some of the things you have coming up?
DG: Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary with the Bearded Ladies. If you’ve never seen it, this is the very last year that they’re doing it. We’ll have Marie Antoinette at the top of the wall saying, “Let them eat Tastykakes” as she hurls them from the wall. John Jarboe plays Edith Piaf, who is your spirit guide for the day. I’ve designed for the event for the past four years and I’ll be playing a role as well. There’s a guillotine and a lot of watermelons lose their heads that day. There will be singing and dancing as well. It’s the most fun I have all year.
PGN: Craziest mishap on stage?
DG: One time we were at the Wilma doing a show and this kid wandered in with a video camera and came right up to the actors. In character, I tried to escort him out of the theater and he punched me in the face! The audience thought it was part of the show at first until the other cast members came running over. But we kept going with the show.
PGN: Best $100 you ever spent?
DG: My first tattoo was $100: “Non, je ne regrette rien.” It’s from the Edith Piaf song and means, “No, I have no regrets.” I also have a crown from the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; it was a recurring image in his paintings. The history of art is that only people like Rockefeller and the pope got their portraits painted in regal fashion, so he’d do Jackie Robinson or MLK with a crown to elevate them because they deserved to be revered. For me, it reminds me that I’m a prince and that I deserve a crown and I deserve to be in the art canon. I also have tattoos based on a fabric design of Ray Eames. Most people gave credit for the famous Eames chairs to her husband Charles, though she was equally responsible for the designs. I have one of the patterns she did get credit for tatted on my forearm. It’s a reminder not to live under anyone’s shadow.
PGN: Any famous relatives or ancestors?
DG: My great-great-grandfather was the Strawberry King of Syracuse, N.Y.
PGN: I see you got that crown legitimately. Meat-eater or vegetarian?
DG: I’ve been vegan for 15 years and vegetarian for 25.
PGN: A pivotal moment for you?
DG: On Labor Day last year, I met someone and we were seeing each other for about three weeks before he beat me up, really badly. So I’ve spent the last year dealing with the police and the court system and, just a few weeks ago, I was granted an order of protection against him.
PGN: It happened Labor Day and you just got the order?
DG: Yes; Because of it, I’ve come to see how broken the system is. The police have one set of paperwork, one computer system and a different type of language than the courts do. You start out with a temporary order of protection, and they tell you it’s your responsibility to have it served to your abuser. You can have a friend do it or you can go to the police. The police will then tell you it’s not their job, but you have to insist.
PGN: It must be terrifying, especially in your situation. Normally someone could try to keep a low profile after something like that, but as an actor that’s the opposite of what you do. What you’re doing is posted everywhere.
DG: Yes, and I had to drop out of a few projects because of broken bones and the time needed to heal. In the time since, I’ve designed four shows and been in three and, yes, it’s a worry that the person could show up at any time. On the other hand, theater is what’s kept me going, and given me something to do.
PGN: What was the most trying part of the situation?
DG: I had a lawyer through legal aid and right before my court date they said, “OK, when you go in there … ” and I said, “Wait, when I go in. Won’t you be there?” They said, “No, you had to specifically ask for a lawyer in the courtroom if you wanted that.” So I had to be my own lawyer and cross-examine him about the attack. I would throw up after every interaction I had with him. It was awful. I was hyperventilating and shaking. And with the broken system, you’re called to court at 9 a.m. but there are a hundred other cases scheduled for the same time so I was there from 8 a.m.to 5:30 p.m. and I had to sit in the same waiting room as my abuser. Instead of just having separate rooms, they have police posted because of the violence that can flare up. This year has seen a lot of being put in impossible situations and learning how the system works. I’ve decided I need to share this story as the first step to helping people learn to navigate.
PGN: Well, thank you for sharing it.