Maybe It’s Cold Outside (1991)

Story, choreography and direction: John Kelly
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Vincenzo Bellini, Edward Elgar, Arvo Part, Igor Stravinsky
Set Design: Huck Snyder
Film Sequences: Anthony Chase
Lighting Design: Stan Pressner
Costume Design: Katherine Maurer
Wigs: Danilo
Costume Mistress: Hebe Joy
Piano: Vivian Trimble
Produced by Liz Dunn for John Kelly & Company
Premiere: The Kitchen, New York, February 14, 1991

WITH: Kyle de Camp (Rage); John Kelly (Forge); Marleen Menard (Sympathy); Byron Suber (Tally); and Vivian Trimble (Tea).  Cast Shadows: Scott Pask and Scott Sensenig


I didn’t want to do another meditation on death. I wanted to ponder life and survival in its wake. I wanted to talk about compassion, which seemed the only clue, the only solution, because in 1991, none of the drugs being prescribed seemed to be working. The winter of 1991 was not a happy time. A lottery. The protease inhibitors wouldn’t appear for another four years. Stay alive. I was doing holistic therapies, dutifully going to the doctor every six weeks to monitor my blood. I found myself in a constant state of emptiness and watchfulness.

The characters in Maybe It’s Cold Outside are the same as in Down in the Mouth, but John Beal, who had played the scientist, died at home in Atlanta during our rehearsal process, which then became really hard. He’d been a core member of my company since 1988, and his absence became an important presence in the work.  Maybe It’s Cold Outside became an elegy, tracing the lives of five characters from childhood through school into adulthood, focusing on their rivalries and loyalties, their hopes and fears.

For the scenic design I told Huck that I wanted a visual manifestation of Time to parallel the dramatic progression of the characters’ lives. I asked for certain elements: a leitmotif of clocks, school benches, six dormitory beds with scrim-like curtains, a “science” table and, strung from the ceiling, sandbags that would plummet to the ground at seemingly random intervals, the fickle visitations of catastrophe. Within these confines, Huck went visually crazy, creating a playful and sinister arena in which to tell a story of innocence and tragedy and hope.

In one scene, while the characters sleep in their dormitory beds (one bed empty, which was John’s), their dreams are black and white films projected on the scrim-like curtain in front of them, revealing their aspirations, their nightmares or their future. In my character’s dream, I’m in a clinic and a doctor comes in and takes blood from my finger. He puts the blood under a microscope as I sit in the waiting room, a close-up of my fingers beating on the chair, waiting, waiting. The doctor hands me a piece of paper. There’s a close up of my face, which blurs into a double exposure of my head shaking no, no. A plus sign appears in front of my head. A positive sign. Finally my head is still, staring straight ahead. Then the head becomes first spotted and then completely red before it slowly fades out.

Strangely enough, some people thought the plus sign was the Swiss flag. Some people thought it was the Red Cross sign. And a lot of people got it. Their reactions were indicative of where their heads were at. It was interesting because this work was deliberately less cryptic than others I’d made. In my previous works, the dilemma could just as easily have been interpreted as cancer or any other life-threatening illness or social stigma, and this was intentional. But here, I felt I was spelling it out. I was saying  that this character named Forge––me––is HIV positive.

When one is forced to deal with potential catastrophe, if one is lucky, one can use it as a chance to grow. That was really the most important part of this experience for me. It was liberating, fuck, yeah. I needed to process this stuff somehow, and I was able to do this in my work. In Maybe It’s Cold Outside, at first some of the other characters either don’t care or just remain oblivious. But when the face of one of the female characters also turns red, she, too, is now perceived as infected. Desperate and mindful, these old friends then come together and hold on to each other and sway, their voices lifted in a discordant chant, a not-so-silent but supported and controlled scream as the lights fade to black.

When I make a work, usually I ask myself at regular intervals: Where am I in relation to this piece? This time, I really didn’t know. I was in the center, unable to assume an objective stance. My eyes were blurred. The night we opened, the show sold out. I was so tired and so proud of everyone. The thermometer plummeted. It had become incredibly cold outside.

© John Kelly 2019

  • Photo by Paula Court

Mel Gussow, Sleepwalking Through A Too Brief Childhood, The New York Times, February 19, 1991

With its gigantic watch faces and other oversized objects, Huck Snyder’s evocative scenery for Maybe It’s Cold Outside looks like a companion landscape to that in Maurice Sendak’s storybook In the Night Kitchen. The stage setting for this show (written, directed and choreographed by John Kelly, in collaboration with his company) soon becomes a field for the play of Mr. Kelly’s imagination, as the audience is transported into a world of shadowy mood and memory. At the heart of the talismanic performance piece (at the Kitchen) are Mr. Kelly’s reflections about growing up, about the pleasures and problems — and the brevity — of childhood.

The scene opens in an elementary schoolroom where the actors, dressed in uniforms, squirm in their seats. With a clownish agility, they compete for attention and positions of priority. They also pursue their feelings of sexuality. Then the students hopscotch to a higher grade to study French. What follows is a mischievous dance for dunces, a fantasia in which the director demonstrates his quirky sense of comedy.

In the middle of the show, the performers (a harmonious cast of five headed by Mr. Kelly himself) are glimpsed in outline behind individual screens preparing themselves for a night’s slumber. Soon they are swept into a dream within the dream play, culminated by Mr. Kelly’s emergence to sing an aria from La Sonnambula by Bellini. His rapturous falsetto lifts the music into the already etherized atmosphere.

Sleepwalking is endemic to Mr. Kelly’s directorial vision. One of his earlier pieces was Diary of a Somnambulist. There is something trancelike — and entrancing — about Mr. Kelly’s theater, in which he asks the audience to embark with him on an elliptical journey to an unsettling destination. As is his style, he melds various performance arts into a media melange. In this case, there is a short film by Anthony Chase as well as an accompanying chamber concert of music played on the cello by Tomas Ulrich.

Maybe It’s Cold Outside is an open-ended anthology, in contrast to other fully structured Kelly pieces, like Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte (his musings on the life of Egon Schiele) and Find My Way Home (in which he used novel forms to retell the Orpheus myth). The new show’s episodic, improvisatory nature will allow the director to expand or to distill it further.

Beneath the offbeat comedy there is an underlying seriousness, formally asserted toward the close of the show. Hooded stagehands who have been silently moving the scenery are suddenly caught up in the action. They fall to the ground like projectiles. At the same time on the screen are seen iconographic indications of numerous fatalities. Death has entered Mr. Kelly’s dominion, as the beguiling innocence of youth is replaced by an adult melancholy. At its end, the play begins to explore the coldness beyond the door of the play room.