Gender Bender: An Oral History of 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

From SqueezeBox! to Broadway, we trace the history of everyone's favorite German transgender rock goddess

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Photos12 / Polaris
John Cameron Mitchell in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'
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Two decades before Neil Patrick Harris dared to don a golden pair of go-go boots to portray the "internationally ignored song stylist" know as Hedwig Schmidt, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask were perfecting the act on the New York City drag scene. In the wake of Hedwig and the Angry Inch's latest theatrical incarnation — which just racked up eight Tony nominations — we caught up with several of the creative minds who have contributed to Hedwig's past, present, and future to create an (appropriately) oral history. 

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It all began on a flight from LAX….
Stephen Trask (Musician, Composer): John Cameron Mitchell and I met on a plane around 1989 or 1990. We were both flying back from Los Angeles and I moved my seat to sit next to him, as we were the only two people not watching the in-flight movie. There was a seat between us, so I put the Rainer Werner Fassbinder biography that I was reading down on it to see if it sparked a conversation. He and I just started talking about film and music, and then we kept running into each other over the next few years. We kept having friends in common that we didn't know about until we just started hanging out together. 

John Cameron Mitchell (Writer, Director, "Hedwig"): I went to see Stephen's band Cheater at CBGBs and they were fantastic. Then he came to see me at Lincoln Center, in a musical called Hello Again. At that point, around the beginning of 1994, I started telling Stephen stories about my life growing up in Scotland, my dad moving around the world and being the military commander of Berlin — which I knew was going to be a part of it somehow. I told him stories about Helga, my old babysitter who was, I realized later, also a prostitute on the side. As a central metaphor, I had this origin of love concept from Plato's Symposium, which I had seen a stage adaptation of and was really struck by the story. So I gave him that, and he almost immediately came up with that whole song for "The Origin of Love." 

Trask: John told me, "I want to do a musical and I want this to be the inspiration for it." He gave me Plato's Symposium and showed me that story by Aristophanes and said, "Okay, go write a song on this." So I would write little bits and sing them to him, and he would give me notes like, "Oh that's great, but can you bring in more of this kind of a thing?" He was a very good director of someone writing. So I would go home and write more and finally, it was done.

Mitchell: Suddenly, we were hanging out in a club called SqueezeBox!, where Stephen was kind of the musical director of the house band. SqueezeBox! was the kind of place we always dreamed of and it meant a lot to a lot of people. What was happening is that drag queens who had never sung before were realizing that they didn't need to sing well to be real punk-rock stars. They were finding their voices, having lip-synched for so long, and it was just amazing. It was like Stevie Wonder learning to see. I was so excited by what I was seeing on stage that I started thinking more about this Hedwig character. Stephen said, "Well I can get you an easy gig and an audience here. But you'd have to do the female character, because that is how it works at this club." So I started thinking more about the character and the transgender aspect — the sort of castration angle — and the involuntary sex change just came to me.

I was thinking about the origin of love; I was thinking about Berlin, where my parents had lived; I was looking at the performers and it was just sort of like, yes. This is the metaphor: To walk away, you've got to leave something behind.

Becoming Hedwig
Michael Schmidt (Co-Founder of SqueezeBox!): John approached me about an idea he had for a character he was developing named Hedwig Schmidt, and asked if she could perform at the club. At first, I was skeptical. John was not an experienced drag performer and I wasn't keen on the idea of my stage being used to workshop an untested act. I was concerned the other drag and transgender entertainers wouldn't tolerate an actor who wasn't really interested in being one of them. I explained that these other performers' drag personae were an extension of their lives, that they make their livelihoods from entertaining in drag, and that they take their craft extremely seriously. I told him essentially that this couldn't be a lark for him. He couldn't play Hedwig; he had to be Hedwig.

Mitchell: I wrote about 30 minutes of cover songs where I would rewrite the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie and Yoko Ono. Her song, "Death of Samantha," told the story of the operation. So our first gig was a mini-version of the show: The drag got ripped off at the end and there was a celebration, but we only had one original song — "The Origin of Love" — and it was a hit!

Schmidt: I think John was a bit nervous at first, stepping onto a stage amongst seasoned drag entertainers. Who wouldn't be? But once Hedwig hit the stage and began relating her story, she had the audience in her pocket. She was immediately adopted into the family.

Mitchell: I had never done drag, I had never sung with a rock band. It was like I was baptized. I was so terrified before; afterwards, I was completely different. Everything I did was completely in support of Hedwig. I'd go off and do a sitcom and use the money to buy wigs and make my own costumes. Mike Potter, who does hair and makeup for the Broadway show now, was doing our wigs and makeup back then in 1994. 

Mike Potter (Hairstylist, Makeup Artist): I was working at Kim's Video and John would come in there a lot. Then we saw each other at SqueezeBox! a lot. I told him a little bit about my story and how I had been doing hair and makeup since I was young — never professionally, just for fun. He obviously had a lot of people that he could have asked to do Hedwig, but he asked me. I had literally never worked even one day professionally as a hair and makeup person. I knew the story, that she was white trash and came from a trailer. I'm not German, but I grew up in a trailer. I'm not saying I'm white trash, but my dad fixes cars and collects guns, so I'm familiar with the aesthetic. 

I didn't know what I was doing the first time I did his wig. I wrapped hair around paper towel rolls and hot glued and stapled it. It fell apart on stage and it was a fucking disaster. But when it was a tragic failure, John always seemed to love it more. He'd tell me how he was dancing on stage and the wig fell apart — how there were paper towel rolls hanging at the ends of his hair—and he loved it.  

A bigger stage
Mitchell: It was all in service of getting it on stage as a real musical, which took four years to get Off-Broadway. And by then it was marinated and well-cooked. In those four years, we would do gigs at SqueezeBox! and elsewhere, and Stephen and I would write new material. He'd write new songs, I'd write new monologues and eventually we got it to Fez, which was kind of the Joe's Pub of its day. We did it sort of as a cabaret piece; it was loose, because it still didn't have a timeline, but it was coming together. Then David Binder, who was working on The Secret Garden back then but is our Broadway producer now, just said, "Let's do it at the Westbeth Theatre."

David Binder (Producer): I first met John in 1991 on a Broadway musical called The Secret Garden. I was the production assistant, he was one of the stars, and it was kind of a terrible experience. I believe I got fired. But what was great about it was that I became friends with John; I was a musical theater-loving kid from L.A., and John quickly showed me what musical theater could be. Years later, in the mid-1990s, he invited me to come to SqueezeBox! to see what he was working on. He would do 30 minutes, then 45 minutes — and at some point he and Stephen were ready to go. The original production was at the Westbeth Theatre. It was a first production, so a lot of the elements were different. For example, Stephen hadn't written the end of the show yet. The show used to end with "You Light Up My Life," sung in German. The set was TGI Fridays, so the walls were bric-a-brac and there were red and white tablecloths on tables that the audiences could sit at.

Michael Mayer (Director, Hedwig on Broadway): John and I had done a play together at the Atlantic Theater Company, and shortly thereafter he came to visit me when I was directing a show at Julliard and asked me if he could read me some stuff. He was reading monologues that ultimately became Hedwig, and I was intrigued… John and Stephen had been putting together bits and pieces of it, and ultimately there was a first version of the whole thing and a band. John asked me if I would help them put it together and show it to theaters, to try and get a production. So we invited a bunch of artistic directors from different theaters to come, and nobody wanted it. I think at that point it was too rock and roll for the gay people and too gay for the rock and roll people…too music-y for the theater people and too theater-y for the music people. It was just in-between everything, in the same way that Hedwig is in-between genders.

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Mitchell: Then we brought in the real guns — Peter Askin — an experienced director who had done John Leguizamo's shows. Peter said, "To make it a play you've got to have Tommy's concert happening. Then it's actually something in the present as opposed to just the past. Because if it's in the past, then it's just Hedwig telling her story; but if it's in the present, now she can keep checking in on that while she's talking about it and then it becomes a play as opposed to just a monologue. 

Peter Askin (Producer): I think one of the reasons they may have approached me is that I have a writer's background and I'd been working on almost exclusively new material. So part of what I think I brought to it — aside from an outsider's clarity  — was that dramaturgical sense that it needed, as all new work needs. I used to think of it as a really fascinating mess. John had a lot of good ideas and some ideas that he ultimately decided were not as good. It was always kind of about keeping the A material and getting rid of the rest. That was rewarding for me, too, because I like helping to shape material. 

Trask: For the most part, the show happened piece meal for about two to three years, and then we found Peter Askin. We had a nightclub act that ended with a sex change operation, and was half cover songs and half original songs. Peter said, "I think the sex change operation needs to come at the end of the first act. At the end of the show, I know that Tommy Gnosis needs to appear. And he's going to say something in a song that's going to be really important for Hedwig to hear. I don't know what that is, but that's how I see it happening." It was very baffling, because it was our first meeting with him! He somehow took what we had and just structured it in such a way that we were then able to just go and finish our writing. I think we were sort of stuck until we found him, because structurally there was no room for any more monologue and there was no room for more songs. And he just fixed it in a way that all the holes in the story and all the places where the songs needed to be became extremely clear. 

Askin: The way it evolved — because I worked on it a lot for different productions — is that I broke it down into three parts, really: one part is that wonderful story, the irony of it and the poignancy of it; one is Stephen's songs; and then one is what I sort of think of as a stand-up comedy element. The trick was always to keep those things in balance, and particularly in not letting the comedy to run wild and take over the story or the music. To me it just goes back to what grabbed me initially and what grabbed audiences before: It's a love story. 

Every Hedwig needs a Yitzhak
Mitchell: Stephen thought we really needed a female voice, so he suggested, "Why don't we have a woman playing a man." And then we met Miriam Shor. There was no question that Miriam was head and shoulders above the rest in the auditions. She had this perfect balance of believable butchness and an incredible voice. She had never sung rock and roll before, as I hadn't. She always liked it but, like me, she became what she was supposed to be. Because the character sang well, she sang well. It's the weird thing that actors do: You jumped across that building because the scene required it. She discovered stuff about herself, too, because it was required. She was just genius. 

Miriam Shor ("Yitzhak"): Hedwig was the first audition my agent ever sent me on. I still have the slip of paper where I wrote down the appointment. I wrote down, "Headwitch and the Angry Itch. Yitzhak. Croatian ex-drag queen billed as the last Jewess of the Balkans Krystal Nacht." I wrote all that down, then hung up the phone and was like, what the fuck? What is happening? You know that I can play women, right? But I went to the audition, and that's the first time I met John. The character that I was playing was really that they just needed someone to move the microphone stand and maybe sing a little backup here and there. And then John, who wanted to do a show dealing with gender, thought, "Well why don't I be even more subversive and cast a female actress to play this man."

I had actually grown up for part of my life in Italy, so I think I had somewhat of an understanding of this duality. Certainly my parents were very political, so the whole Berlin Wall thing — and being a kid of the '80s — that's just something that's in your experience. I auditioned and figured I'd be playing a guy, so I wore a "Fonzie for President" T-shirt and a do-rag and big shit-kicker boots. I sang "You Light Up My Life," which is the song John used to end with. Then they asked, "Can you sing 'I Will Always Love You' by Whitney Houston?" I thought, why not? Then I realized that I only knew the part that goes "I Will Always Love You," so I sang that 4,000 times in a row. And they hired me for the workshop at Westbeth.

Mitchell: The Westbeth was a small production. No one really came. People would sort of flirt with us; The Public did a reading but then sort of blew us off for a year. Other theaters where we were dying to do it were just not interested. We were just too weird and downtown and drag and rock and roll. So Peter Askin said, "Because no one wants us we're going to create a new theater." Eventually we found a space — the Jane Street Theatre, which is now the Jane Hotel. It was actually Camryn Manheim who told us about the space, which had been around for 100 years. It was a ballroom, it was a sailor's hotel, it's where the Titanic survivors stayed, it was a sex club in the 1970s, it was a punk rock club called The Punk Rock Hotel in the 1980s. There was one person who had had their prom there. So it was this great space. 

 

Moving on up to The Jane Street Theatre
Askin: Stephen was continuing to write music when we went into the workshop at Westbeth. The only song that wasn't original was the German version of Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life." At the Westbeth it didn't matter because it was a workshop, but when we moved it to the Jane Street for a commercial run we had to negotiate for the rights to that song — and at the 12th hour, we still didn't have them. So, at that point in the conversation, Stephen finally said, "I'm going to go home and write something." This was literally just days before the show opened at the Jane Street. And he came back with this song, "Midnight Radio," which is certainly an anthem to late-night rockers all over the world. There were lots of kismet moments like that.  

Trask: They just looked at me like, "You've got to pull this one out." I had to do it. Literally, everyone was stumped. What I got from John was that the thing that he loved about doing "You Light Up My Life" was that he could just do sort of soaring vocals. I knew it needed to be poetic, so I came up with that opening melody and I went to a bookstore and just read poetry, because I knew I was putting together more of a poem than lyrics. And I listened to songs like "Instant Karma," in which singers were unabashedly singing these really big concepts in a rock song… I latched onto the idea of using the words "rock and rollers" and "rockers." Then I just holed myself up and wrote the song really fast.

The first time I sang it for everyone, I sang it wordlessly. I had written words, but I didn't know them… When we finally put the song in, it worked right away. But I remember it was the one time that Peter and I had a disagreement. He still wasn't sure it was going to work and asked, "Just in case we get the 'You Light Up My Life' thing back, because we're still trying for it, can we just list the last song as 'Finale?'" And I said: "No. It's going to be 'Midnight Radio.' It was the one thing I held onto, and I'm very glad I did.

Askin: The Jane Street Theatre was a unique space. We knew we needed a space that would really become the set for the show. It had a public restroom down stage right. There was a bar at the back of the Jane Street, and people were allowed to drink, so there was always somebody who didn't want to wait and needed to use the bathroom. And one day this poor guy got up. He thought he was out of the light, and he mostly was, but he got up at the same moment where John was in the audience doing a lap dance during "Sugar Daddy." So he was out in the house and this guy used that as an opportunity to go to the bathroom. Well, John spotted him and followed him into the bathroom — while still singing the song. Then he comes out and starts fluffing up his wig. And I swear to god, that poor guy must have waited another 20 minutes to come out of the bathroom. He missed a really good part of the show. You can't plan that sort of thing. And from that point on, all the other Hedwigs tried to find those moments. It sounds like that's what Neil Patrick Harris is doing, too — that he never breaks character. 

Shor: The Jane Street Theatre was this bizarre place on the West Side Highway in the Meatpacking District. So it was basically tranny hookers and meat — and us. This really happened — I want to say it was during the first preview, but it could be my brain just wanting it to be the first preview. As all of the people were outside waiting to get into the show, someone in the hotel had OD'd and died. So they were wheeling the body — in a body bag — past the audience. And the house manager asked, "Could you maybe not wheel the dead body past the people going into our show? Just let them go in and then wheel the dead body?"  The people were like, "No ma'am. This is a dead body." So it was sort of like, okay: Welcome to Hedwig! Ignore the dead body! It was an interesting start!

Mitchell: It was everything we wanted. It was never a big hit, it was always just a cult thing, just like the movie was never a hit. But the people who cared about it and found it later loved it more than anything. Then the press picked it up as a "cool" thing and suddenly celebrities started flocking. Hollywood people, rock and roll people; Barry Manilow, Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Marilyn Manson, David Bowie…. It was just everyone we loved who would never be seen together anywhere else. We were just thrilled. When Lou Reed came, that was it for us; I could have died and gone to heaven. He came to up to the dressing room and said we were beautiful and it was just amazing. And Bowie eventually helped to produce us in L.A. Even though we were freakish and the theater world didn't know what to do with us, the young people who didn't go to the theater were rushing. We were creating an audience that hadn't existed before. There were New Jersey moms coming 500 times, but also Mike Nichols and people that we loved from the Seventies. Robert Altman told me, "You've got a weird mind and there's not many of us left!" These were the people that we loved, and they got it. It really is a born of the 1970s kind of thing — Nashville and All that Jazz and Bob Fosse. It's a different aesthetic from the '80s and '90s. 

Lena Hall ("Yitzhak"): I'll never forget [the first time I saw Hedwig]. My sister and I randomly got tickets to go see the show one night. We knew nothing about it. By the end of the show, we were so involved in the story that we were sobbing and curled up on those big Jane Street Theatre car seats (or whatever they were) with our arms in the air completely touched and changed by the experience.

The cult infiltrates the mainstream
Mitchell: Suddenly, Atlantic Records wanted to do a big giant deal and get us on the radio. They must have spent a half-million dollars trying to get us some traction. But it wasn't the 1970s; it wasn't the time where "Bohemian Rhapsody" could've been a hit. They put us on MTV and all over the place, but I couldn't really tour. I would have loved it, but part of me was relieved, because I've always liked being the underdog. I like walking down the street. I also like making a living, but I think too much of anything ruins the party. 

Shor: It's always been a dark horse, but I feel like that's how it has to be. Because they chose to deal with a million subjects that people don't always want to deal with, like gender identity, and because they chose to make it uncomfortable in a great way and prickly — no pun intended — that if it had been a hit, then they'd be doing it wrong. Because to make a hit, everybody has to agree, "I'm right onboard with this from the get-go," and then it's not challenging enough.

Mitchell: Along the way, you sort of fantasize about what the movie could be. I remember playing to silent audiences Off-Broadway and thinking, "Well this might be what the film is like." Pretty soon, people were making noises about the film. It was a time where there was money around. So we had a bit of a bidding war. We were close to working with Danny DeVito's company [Jersey Films] and that fell out. But I was able to think about it and New Line Cinema felt like a home base, because I had been directed by Bob Shaye, who ran it. He came to the show and was really touched. We knew Michael De Luca, who was head of production. Stephen's uncle worked there, and Stephen's manager, so it just seemed like the place. 

They were on the ropes a bit with The Lord of the Rings, but they were so supportive and they gave us a budget that was more than anyone else would have. They said, "You have to play Hedwig. And we support you directing if that's what you want," which wasn't always the plan until it came time to direct it. I was interested in the other elements: How do you tell a story in a different way? I wasn't precious about the lines; we cut a lot of stuff and replaced it with visuals and that was the fun. I wanted to think about angles, I wanted to think about how the directors I loved — Fosse, Altman, Hal Ashby — would do it. I had an amazing cinematographer who was like a co-director, Frankie DeMarco. So when I was off acting he would make sure that the camera was pointed in the right direction. 

Shor: When people like Bowie and Joey Ramone go to your show, other people kind of want to see what it's about, too. And then Hollywood is just such a slut that she's like, "Well let me get in on this, too." So that started happening pretty early on; there was interest before the show closed. It was like: Well these people who are famous like it. So what should we do? Then some very smart people like Killer Films came along, and that was while we were still running. We opened the show in 1998 and didn't shoot the movie until 2000.

Then the movie came out and it flopped! Because there was nothing similar to it. The people who loved it were rabid. 9/11 happened soon after it came out, and I remember a lot of people said they saw it first on that day after 9/11, on September 12th, when all the movie theaters were free. A lot of people said it was a very emotional, very comforting experience to go in and see the show at that time.

 

Broadway, Baby
Mayer: One summer on Fire Island, I had brunch with David Binder and we were walking on the beach. He said, "I really want to try and do Hedwig on Broadway with John starring in it. Would you be interested in directing it?" I said that it would be amazing and I would love to. Then nothing happened. Because at that point John's directing career had really taken off after Hedwig the movie, and he was concentrating on other stuff. 

Binder: John, Stephen and I started talking about a Broadway show about five or six years ago. There was a point where maybe John was going to do the show, and then he decided that that was not something he wanted to do. 

Mitchell: Stephen, the producers and I had been concocting this plan for years. The producer came up and said it might be about time. Then it was more about who would play Hedwig. He wanted someone who could bring in people who wouldn't know about it, which is understandable as you've got to sell 7,000 to 8,000 seats a week. I had pretty much quit acting after the last run because it's so taxing — and rewarding. But I felt like nothing else really came close to the excitement of it, so I started focusing more on writing and directing. I haven't really acted since then, except for a few episodes of Girls. Now I'm retired again. 

Mayer: I never heard another word about it until about two years ago when I got another call from David and he said, "Look, we really want to do Hedwig on Broadway." And I said, 'Oh my god, John wants to do it?' and he said no, that it wouldn't be John. And I said, 'Oh, wow. Yes, I'm interested. And it's going to be Neil Patrick Harris, right?' That was my first thought. Immediately. And he said, "Well he's not available," so they had already been talking to another actor. I got on the phone with everyone and it didn't take me long to convince them. Neil was genuinely interested, but just not available because of his TV show. I said: 'Well, let's wait for him. That's really the thing to do.'

Binder: We always wanted Neil — always. It was an ongoing discussion with him for years. But Neil was on a TV show that he had committed to, and then three years ago he had the twins. It took us a long, long time. He wanted to do it, but he just had obligations — personal ones and professional ones. I mean, he has twins! It really became a waiting game. 

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Mitchell: There were other actors who we knew would be great but they had a really strong instinct about Neil. I had known him socially enough to say hello to over the years; he came to Hedwig and it was intense for him. It was the antithesis of L.A. in some ways — it was dirty and ugly and messy, and I could see his eyes glowing. But that was 15 years ago. So when they suggested him, I thought that was a fascinating idea. We were basically on a death watch for How I Met Your Mother, because there was no way he could do it with the show. 

Mayer: He's got all of these amazing skills that work so brilliantly for this: the acting, the singing, the dancing. He's an incredible host, and Hedwig is sort of the host for the evening. Neil's great at improvising — we've seen him do that at the Tony Awards — so he's got that great rapport with the audience. I just loved Neil's integrity as an artist, and his bravery as a gay artist. I had an instinct that this would give him an opportunity to just dig into parts of himself that he's never needed to access before for his work. 

Mitchell: There were other wonderful people we talked to, but when he became available, the producers were like, 'This is the guy.' And they were right — he was the guy. But he didn't even know that. He said, "I've never done rock, I'm not very girly.' I'm like, look, this is a role. You're a great actor and an incredible performer in many ways. This is going to scare the shit out of you. And it's exactly what you need to do after nine years of playing the same guy. This is perfect. This will clear the slate and burn up your insides. In my view, it has reinvented him as an actor who can do anything.

Mayer: I have a ton of respect for what Peter Askin did in the original, so it was really important to me that I not duplicate any of his work to the best of my ability. If you're doing a revival of something that's been done a million times — like if you're doing Hamlet yet again — you can do sort of anything you want. But this is a beloved show and has a real following with a lot of people devoted to it. I knew they would all be coming to see it, so it was important to me that I approach this like a new place, not as a revival.

Mitchell: The schedule was dicey — he had to rehearse in bits and pieces. We only had three weeks from when his show was over until the first performance, which has never been done on Broadway. But he's such a quick study that he made it happen. Michael Mayer, who I had had a long association with, just pulled everyone together beautifully. I was in charge of little things, like the animation, but I kept in the background to let Neil and him really find the character. I didn't want to upset his process as the old guy breathing down his neck. But it was in great shape as soon as I saw it, so I was thrilled. It's a totally different experience, but you leave with the same feeling.

Mayer: We didn't make any changes to the show to make it more mainstream. We changed the production values so that people who were going to be paying the big, Broadway dollars to come see the show wouldn't be disappointed in the physical production. John came up with a really great concept with this failed musical of The Hurt Locker — and a certain amount of oral "inspiration" from Hedwig performed onto a key member of the Schubert organization so that she could get one night only. All of that I think was really, really smart. It allowed us to have a real Broadway set, to do some fun stuff; we could fly Hedwig in, we could have lifts, we could have some major lighting and visuals that would enhance the whole evening and make it feel like a Broadway show without violating the truth that was Hedwig's story. 

Binder: We've always wanted to lots of incredible looks for Hedwig and really embrace the drag, and now because we have a bigger budget, we can do that. So I think the show has become more rock and roll. It's become more of what it is: rougher, wilder, embracing what it is even more.

Hedwig's next chapter
Mitchell:
There are other stories to be told through Hedwig's voice. If I wanted to make a lot of money with Hedwig, I could have spent all my time on it. But that's boring. Some people end up becoming just a conservator of the one thing they did and making sure they get their merch out and all that. What's interesting is that some of the things I'm interested in talking about is a story which has to do with the second half of your life, which can be told through Hedwig's voice because she's older. If the timeline is consistent, she's as old as me. So we've been working on a sequel. I think it's going to take multiple forms — though in what order, I'm not sure. My goal is to do a trilogy and when I'm 70 to do the final chapter.