PGN: Where are you from?
JS: I grew up in upper Bucks County but I left home when I was about 13 and traveled all over the country. I stopped here for what I thought was going to be three months and I’ve been here for 15 years. So I’d consider myself a Philadelphian.
PGN: Tell me a little about growing up.
JS: Bucks County was very, very rural. My dad fixed and raced motorcycles. I grew up with the smell of grease and oil and dirt underneath the fingernails and scabs on your legs. My mom was a bartender. She’s a pretty hot lady. I have a younger brother who’s an amazingly wonderful human being. [Laughs.] I got all the bravado, he got all the goodness, so we make a good team.
PGN: A fun childhood memory?
JS: My dad used to do wheelies with me on the back of his bike. He’d be almost vertical for several blocks with me holding on for dear life. My mother was obsessed with Halloween. She was an artist: She loved to dress mannequins up and put them out front.
PGN: Favorite toy?
JS: Good question: Those kind of things help mold you into the adult you are. I liked books with stories about children on their own that had to brave something. So “Jabberwocky” was one of my favorite stories and the tales about Belinda and her dragon from Ogden Nash. Stories where there was an individual alone and no one to protect it.
PGN: What prompted you to run away?
JS: I’d been the best I could possibly be and the rewards weren’t there, so I became the worst I could possibly be. And I still wasn’t satisfied with the way I was, so I figured the world had something more that I had to find and I went out to seek it. I didn’t have a horrible home life: There was divorce, which was hard, but it wasn’t an issue of problems at home. There was just nobody like me that I could relate to or communicate with. So I left.
PGN: The best and scariest moments from being on your own?
JS: I think being a baby and seeing the Redwoods, seeing a world I had never even known existed. Scary was everything. Scary was leaving. I was a 13-year-old runaway, but once you realized that scary was everything you had to dismiss it. It was a matter of how to perceive things.
PGN: Like most of us, I’m sure you had many odd jobs.
JS: Oh my God, do you really want to hear about them? Do I want to tell you about them? Hmm. I worked at ... actually I really didn’t have many jobs: I was pretty much a criminal for much of my childhood. I did get fired from a carwash. I was a drier and a guy on incredible amounts of coke fired me, screaming with his finger pointing in my face. I was trying to tell him I had really bad asthma but it didn’t matter. As a runaway, I almost died a couple of times because I didn’t have the proper medication with me. I was also a really bad waitress and got fired ... I’m just not cut out. But then again I have been a reinsurance broker for the last 10 years in corporate America.
PGN: And what brought you to Philly?
JS: My first film. I was living out of my van in Texas and it needed repairs. I’d been driving it up and down a mountain to go snowboarding. I’d picked up a hitchhiker and he’d drive up with me, I’d snowboard down the hill and he’d drive down to pick me up. I was driving back to the East Coast and stopped to get a new vehicle and a friend asked if I wanted to make a movie. This was the time that independent filmmaking was really starting to pop in the mainstream. I said sure and we went ahead and after that I never, ever, ever wanted to do it again! I didn’t for a long time.
PGN: Were you a writer?
JS: Not as a profession, but I always wrote and had the skill sets for it. Since then I’ve branched out and gone into art and sculpture and filmmaking.
PGN: Your film, “Sugar Cookie,” is in QFest.
JS: Yeah, it’s a dark comedy. I’d shot a music video for Julie Othmer and one of the guys who worked on it, Kevin Martin, was with Philly Features and they needed a director. I read their script and said OK but the original script didn’t have the unknown factor, the twist that I like. So I rewrote it and made it a little more sinister and darker and confusing, ’cause that’s what I’m good at. My company, Sweetbread Studios, ended up producing it. It’s about what happens when a couple has been together for a long time and they love each other but it’s just not exciting. How do you bring back the fire that you had in the beginning?
PGN: What are the companies you’re affiliated with?
JS: OK, Uncut Productions is a nonprofit started by Mark Dahl, Benjamin Kanes and me and it’s probably why I’m still here. It was the seed company that pretty much built me. My relationship with Mark has had a profound effect on everything I’ve done since then. He’s amazing; I think he won best gay actor last year. Uncut was mostly theater-based. So I did my first theater piece ...
PGN: As an actor?
JS: Noooo, I’m never in front of the camera or onstage. As a writer and director, but a lot of the theater pieces were adapted for film and I very quickly fell into making films. As a result, I built Sweetbread Studios.
PGN: I read that you’re a workaholic and had a bit of a meltdown but were kept afloat by Latke and Pam. I know Latke is your dog; who’s Pam?
JS: Yes, I finally had a meltdown! I was working full-time in insurance and then did short film, short film, music video, theater piece, etc., and it was too much. I had to get out so I went to Costa Rica. I met a guy through auditions who had moved there so I went to visit. I didn’t even know him well, but I went. He had just gotten a new dog because he thought, My dog is getting older and if I lose her I’m not going to be OK. And I thought, Oh my God, if I lose Latke, I don’t know what I’d do. So I came back and me, my editor and my production manager — we’re all really close — went out and got Pam. We’re all raising her together and it’s cool, she has all three of our personalities. Latke had a hand in raising Miss Pam too. She died a few years ago and it’s good to have Miss Pam around to lighten things.
PGN: And did you say your mom passed as well?
JS: No, she’s alive and well in the ’burbs. I love my given family, and I feel that blood bond, but I strongly feel that you are just as close and bound to those you have chosen to be in your life — the family you create as opposed to the ones you happen to have from birth.
PGN: What’s another fun project you worked on?
JS: I don’t know why it popped in my head first, but “Disaster: The Musical.” In 2006, we wanted to put on a Fringe show. We only had a month to pull together a full-stage production. We did it in the empty lot across from the Kimmel. There was a hurricane and it almost toppled the stage. I never even got to really direct it properly because we were mainly trying just to keep our actors alive! But we pulled it off and it was pretty awesome.
PGN: And you’re a Temple grad?
JS: Yes, I actually got a BS in economics there. I was very practical and thought that was what would work for me. Got me here though.
PGN: Are you a member of the LGBT community?
JS: Inadvertently. I’m not an active member of any community, unfortunately, but that’s kind of how I manage myself. I’ve never liked or used labels. But my entire life is woven into the Philadelphia LGBT community. My family of friends, coworkers, etc., so I guess maybe I am more active than I thought. When I was with Uncut it was a nonprofit, so we had tables at all the LGBT events and things.
PGN: How did you meet your current partner?
JS: At a bar. Mark Dahl and I had a film challenge to do a mock documentary. He came up with the idea of a drunken spelling bee and to promote the film “The Bee.” We actually ran drunken spelling bees and people loved it! I made up ridiculous rules that landed in the London Guardian sports section! We got best bar event at Bob and Barbara’s.
PGN: How did you make sure the contestants were drunk?
JS: [Laughs.] In the beginning we brought in a breathalyzer but it kept falling apart. So then, as the contestants whittled down, I would bring them shots. It was a good time.
PGN: What did you get into the most trouble for when you were young?
JS: Oh boy, everything, I was a horrible child, horrible! I got arrested with the town murderer. I believe that every town most likely has a murderer. I was very young and didn’t know he was going to be it. I got arrested for breaking and entering with him. I was 11 or 12. He wasn’t my friend: He was a friend’s older brother’s friend. So yep, that would probably be it. I was also arrested as a runaway in California. A cop didn’t believe that I was 18, and I wasn’t — I was 15 — so they arrested me and then let me out of jail in the middle of the night in downtown Santa Ana. Not very smart, but I survived. I’m here in one piece.
PGN: So I won’t ask the best thing about coming out.
JS: I can answer that partially. I’ve had relationships with women for years, but I just don’t like labeling it. I’m with a man, have been with women. The best thing about it, first of all, was the sex and second was ... it’s hard to explain. I was very afraid of lesbians growing up. I was such a convoluted kid, so changing my view of the world and learning what I could be and what other people could be and how to connect to someone else ... I’d spent a body of time running away and creating this huge intense bubble around myself. You couldn’t get close to me. Which is what I needed to survive, so it worked, right? But I never actually connected to another person until I was with a woman. I pulled my life together and got off drugs when I was about 17 and have never done them again. I met her when I was 19 and it was the first time I actually “met” another person. I’d never met anyone before that, couldn’t see anyone, not really see them. Then I met her and it was the first time I realized what a human could be and what I could be.
PGN: What makes someone a success?
JS: I used to write quotes on my wall when I first got clean and Nietzsche had a quote with something about the greatest success being able to be comfortable in front of one’s self. I feel very successful sometimes and I’m not well known, I don’t reap big financial gain from directing and maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t, but it doesn’t matter. Other days, I don’t feel so successful, so I think ultimately, it’s the way you view yourself in the mirror and the mark you leave on those who you’ve met and touched.
PGN: What are some other projects you’re working on?
JS: I’m writing and illustrating several children’s books. I also sculpt and I have a piece at Dirty Frank’s in the Off the Wall gallery. I also write editorials and a blog for Out of Print magazine and I just started doing a recipe blog, which is fun since I just learned how to cook and I’m ridiculously experimental. And obviously I’m a filmmaker.
PGN: What’s a subject matter that you’ve worked on that was really rewarding?
JS: Incest. I did a feature film on the topic. I did a lot of research on it and I’m currently turning it into a theater piece. It’s a lesbian-themed piece but deals a lot with incest in a rich family. It spans three generations and how it affects a very young person, especially as they get older. I’m really proud of this piece. When I write, I let the characters talk to me. I hate taking baths, so for this I would lay in the bath for hours and listen to them. When I was asked to make it into a stage play, I wasn’t sure how to do it until one of the characters, Victor, the big queer uncle, spoke to me while I was on my bike and said, “It’s the stage. Wake up girl, I’m going to narrate it of course.” I’m excited to get it on stage.
PGN: What is the Tina Yothers army?
JS: Mark has an obsession with Tina Yothers. The Tina Yothers Army is what we call our crew at Uncut Productions. We are like an army: Whenever something has to be done, we come together and made it happen.
To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to email@example.com.