The air is almost unbreathable in the Turkish Room of the Russian Turkish Bathhouse on 10th Street. The scorching temperatures and insane humidity burn any chapped lips in their proximity and add weight to the lungs of anyone who dares open their mouth to speak. Kenyon Phillips doesn’t care. “You only get one body, and this life may be it,” he says. “It’s hard to talk here, but it’s easy to feel.”
For Phillips, this struggle is nothing. The Wesleyan graduate started as a pudgy California teen before growing into a sex addict suffering from anorexia, then bulimia. Tonight the East Villager is clearing his mind in the furnace of the bathhouse before preparing to star in his own rock opera that hits Webster Hall on August 19.
“It’s hard enough to breathe in these saunas, so you can’t stress out and you have to relax,” Phillips says. “It takes you out of New York. It’s otherworldly; it feels like you’re in another country and another time, like you’re kind of dying and then reviving yourself. I think there’s something about the hot-cold combo that’s really good for you.”
The imagery of death and rebirth are something he toils with in the opera, The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips. More of a tongue-in-cheek examination of his own life than a biography, the play focuses on the truth of his humble beginnings before escaping into his own narcissism and issues through fan dancers, trapeze acts, jugglers, an all-female live orchestral rock band, and nearly every virtue of burlesque entertainment imaginable, referencing the production of the show with a wink and a nudge the whole while.
The plot isn’t the point, partially evidenced by how each version of the show has had a different ending. Phillips’s goal is to help people accept themselves. “The show is about me telling my version of my story, but I’m really trying to expose myself, my flaws, and my humanity,” he says. “A lot of the bad stuff in the play did happen to me, but my thought was to showcase these mostly traumatic, identity-forming events. What happens if you turn them into entertainment? What happens if you turn them into a circus?”
The show’s story line has evolved as the venues have changed, something unplanned but beneficial to its production. After doing rock shows at Joe’s Pub, Phillips was asked by producers to try something with a narrative; the result sold out and led to more performances at a bigger venue, the Box. It again sold out and warranted a new goal: find a way to break even financially. At first the thought was a weekly run for two months in a theater, but the possibilities were limited.
“That’s when I realized the show is fucking hard to produce because there’s so much going on,” Phillips says. “You’ll have venues that do circus acts but can’t have live bands, and vice versa. Theaters were saying, ‘We can give you a week-long run, but you can’t have tightrope walkers.’ It was frustrating. I thought this was New York City! We can do anything!”
Eventually, the searches led to the people at Webster Hall. Phillips was thinking the Studio would work best, but promoters examined it and thought they had nothing to lose by going bigger. “We did a walk-through there,” Phillips says. “The Webster guys said, ‘This show sounds exciting, we haven’t done anything like this here. We have this date. Why don’t you do it in the Grand Ballroom?’ I was blown away; I hadn’t even dreamed of that. It’s only one night, so there’s a little less risk if it doesn’t go well. It’s kind of all-or-nothing with this.”
That risk is exactly what Phillips lives for. His family is plagued by generations of addiction, but he’s never had a drink or a puff in his life. When he was twelve, his older brother had an intervention for his drug addiction; on the car ride home, the younger Phillips vowed never to touch the stuff. He’s never budged from that; instead, he’s the best kind of thrill-seeker, hyping up his return to skydiving with the eagerness and smile of a kid on Christmas morning.
“I came from a cultural ghetto, a plain white universe,” he says. “I dreamed of places like this growing up. I wanted frenetic activity. The thing that comforts me about New York is you’ll never do it all.”
It may not be possible to do it all, but Phillips has done more than most. At 39, he’s already composed music for Amy Poehler for a Nickelodeon show, opened for Lou Reed, and had a number of bizarre escapades, like when he managed a manufacturer’s sweatshop in midtown for two and a half days, or when he was paid $200 to help a Mafia member get off in a tandem masturbation session.
“I finished, but it wasn’t happening for him,” he recounts. “He told me to turn around and spread my ass. I remember…hearing this guy grunting and panting, and I’m wondering if I wiped well enough, and the thought comes: ‘I really need to get a new job.’ ”
Phillips leaves the hellfire of the sauna and dips himself into an ice-cold bath, regaining his breath but never losing his composure. Despite being covered in tattoos and being muscular with a shaved head, his words are always gentle. He makes an effort to keep his heart and mind open — though it wasn’t always that way. “After my sex addiction, I got to a point where I didn’t think I could be with anyone or in love,” he says. “I thought I was too messed up. And then Eryn [Lefkowitz], who is producing the show and is there every step of the way — for the first time in my life, I let somebody in. I realized I wasn’t letting people in as a weird safety mechanism.”
If he’s worried about how people receive this show, he’s not revealing it. “Even if this is a total failure, I still got here,” Phillips says. “I must not totally suck. At least I’m doing something different. I’ve had so many things blow up in my face that I’ve gotten used to it, and for better or worse, I haven’t given up on this dream.”
He wonders about what success would mean for this production, and the financial objectives that brought him here fade to the background. “I don’t know what success even means, really,” Phillips says. “But it’s nice to do a show and have people come out, see it, and say, ‘Hey, I got something out of this.’ ”
Phillips tries to dry off the sweat that drips from his head, but can’t; his words remain calm and crisp. “If I can minimize people’s shame about their own shit — we all have it — and inspire people to accept what they’ve gone through and move on, and not kill themselves, that would be great,” he says. “If one person sees me putting my darkness out there and finds it easier to accept themselves, I think that’s success.”
The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips takes place on August 17 at Webster Hall.