Gay Creative Team Tackles Body Image

A benefit at the Painted Bride for the In My Body Project

Biello and Martin (photo by Melissa Hays)

Dan Martin and Michael Biello – both Philly natives – have been living and working together for 35 years. On Jan. 22 and 23, the hometown artists will be showcasing their collaboration during the In My Body, a benefit performance for the In My Body Project at the Painted Bride (7 and 3 p.m., respectively).

Described as a multi-arts collaborative theater project written and co-directed by Biello and scored by Martin, the two men consider women and body image – a topic that is inspired, in part, by popular culture and the women they know.

“Lis Kalogris from The Katherine Alexandra Foundation heard our song ‘In My Body’ years ago when she saw a production of our musical Breathe,” explains Martin. “She fell in love with the song and when the foundation decided to create a project to address body image and body esteem issues, they asked if ‘In My Body’ could be their anthem. They also commissioned us to create additional music and lyrics for the project.”

Martin admits that as a gay couple who matured in a pre-Stonewall world, for years hiding their sexuality from family and friends, the idea of self was also often fractured. “When we came out in the 70s, we were swept into liberation and sexual exploration,” he says. “Later, we saw many of our friends and colleagues fall ill and die. The journey from being closeted to coming out to finding one’s power to dealing with loss has an impact on our bodies, as well as our minds and emotions. As artists, we always look for ways to process and communicate our experiences and hopefully to elevate them and gain insight.”

Biello, who co-directs the project with Melanie Stewart, says that he’s never fallen into the gym obsession that has swept up many men in the LGBT community. “I searched for alternative ways to teach me how to be at home in my body,” explains Biello. “My searching led me to some remarkable circles of men and women who explored the physical body and beyond the physical body. I was happy that Dan shared the same desire to explore the realm of the body.”

These experiences have inspired the creative couple’s life and art together – a partnership that’s 35 years old and going strong; the creative partners are currently working on a new musical in New York – where they now make their home – called Marry Harry. But both men admit that being openly gay still has its consequences – even in the arts.

“As far as we’ve come as a queer community, there’s still a closet,” says Biello. “It may have been a harder push to open the door pre-Stonewall, but the door is not off the hinge and the closet still stores a lot of baggage. And part of that baggage is body image and low self esteem. Gay men seem to focus on the physical body as a big part of their beauty, power and strength, which is evident in the ‘perfect’ gym body obsession and the ‘straight-acting’ label. If you are not this ‘cut,’ there is a good chance you will be mocked and bullied by both the gay and straight communities.”

Biello says he and Martin would like to provide a voice to the queer community, emphasizing that people should first try to love themselves as they are, and not as a cookie cutter that is all too often perpetuated in the pages of fashion magazines and on TV, music and movies. And even though In My Body is focused more on women, the men say everyone can take something away from the work.

“We’ve gathered stories from many women to do this work – some of whom we are meeting for the first time,” says Martin. “We have also spent a lot of time reflecting on important women in our lives – my mom with whom I was very close …Michael’s aunt who lived with us for the last two years of her life and who trusted us to take her to hospice and be with her at the end, and Michael’s niece who continues to involve us deeply in her life.”

This isn’t the first time the duo have been working with the Painted Bride. “When we were young artists, the Painted Bride – then on South Street – was one of our creative homes,” says Martin. “Later, when we were living in New York and creating more controversial work, the funding culture had become more conservative and the Bride was no longer willing to present us. We’re pleased to return via this project.”

Martin, born in Mt. Airy, and Biello, who grew up in Southwest Philly, have lived in New York City for 15 years, but still call Philadelphia home. They’ve also managed to balance the personal with professional pretty well over the years.

“We live and love and work together everyday – often working on the same projects,” says Martin. “We consciously try to give each other time to be alone – and to listen with fresh ears when we talk.  Work is often intense – so humor and profound silliness help a lot.”

In My Body Project, Jan. 22 and 23, Painted Bride, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914.