Editor's Note: This guest post from long-time GLAAD volunteer Dan Bacalzo is part of GLAAD's effort to draw more attention to theater projects with LGBT content. To find more LGBT-inclusive plays in Los Angeles and New York, please visit theater.glaad.org.
By Dan Bacalzo
“The Fringe tries to foster work that maybe otherwise wouldn’t get seen,” says playwright Nathan Wright. The 17th Annual New York International Fringe Festival – playing various locations in downtown Manhattan from August 9 to 25 – features 185 different shows, roughly three dozen of which include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters and/or subject matter.
Wright’s play is called Peninsula and follows the journey of Tiago, who travels from the slums of Rio de Janeiro to a summer town in Northern Michigan. “It deals very overtly and sometimes very explicitly with sex between two men,” notes Wright. “And although we are not using full on nudity in the play, I found it difficult to actually get it seen in a mainstream situation.”
The play goes back and forth between Tiago’s time in Rio and his new life in the United States. “I think the play more than anything else is about shifting identities,” says Wright. “Tiago is a person who’s between sexual identities and you never really know how to pin him down. I think that can be frustrating in the duality that’s set up in Western society, where you’re either straight or you’re gay. When we start talking about things like ethnicity, class, race, and sexuality, I think it becomes imperative for us to identify those things and represent them artistically, but also then to pull back from the identity for long enough to see things as part of a larger whole.”
Issues of representation are often of great concern to LGBT artists, including playwright/performer Susan McCully. She wrote the first incarnation of her Inexcusable Fantasies as a solo show nearly 10 years ago. “It was sort of about lesbian visibility and my obsessions in my 40s with ridiculous people, like finding Martha Stewart enormously sexy,” she says.
The version being presented at the Fringe still has amusing sketches like that one, but also incorporates McCully’s artistic response to suffering from a degenerative eye disease and receiving two cornea transplants. “I started thinking more about being able to look at myself differently, and what visibility really meant,” says McCully. She and director Eve Muson have also enlisted another actress to perform in the show. “I want lesbian desire to be visible,” McCully asserts. “I want a girl up there I get to kiss!”
Performance artist Julian Goldhagen is equally emphatic about claiming his sexual identity within his work. “The queer voice is still something that is vastly underrepresented,” he states. “And while my piece isn’t about my being a young gay male, the fact that I am a young gay male is completely part of it.” His show, Talk to Me About Shame, was partly inspired by the prevalence of suicides among LGBTQ youth. “The ways we feel shame, or are made to feel shame, are implicit in the human experience,” he says. “So to bring these shames to light could be a really wonderful way to heal and to be empowered and create community, which can be lifesaving.”
The performance includes some of Goldhagen’s own stories of feeling shame, as well as narratives that he gathered from strangers during the development portion of the piece. “I would go to parks or places where people populated in public space with a sign that said ‘Talk to me about shame,’ and two chairs set up,” says Goldhagen. “I’d wait to see if anybody wanted to talk. And because it was New York City, you know, people want to do everything.”
A real-life journey from New York to the West Coast that Gregory Jacobs-Roseman took with his then-best friend provided the spark for Save the Date: A Wedding Road-Trip Musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Jacobs-Roseman. “We were 22, 23 and just young in the city; we drank our faces off the night before and missed the plane,” he says by way of explanation. He’s aged his lead characters – Emily and Alex – up to 27 for the show, as he wanted to explore the way time changes relationships. “The musical focuses on the friendship between a straight woman and a gay man, and how that progresses from college to adult life,” he states.
Noting the dynamic between his characters, the writer-composer remarks, “we’ve been called Will and Grace the Musical a lot. But where Save the Date differs from that show is that these characters are on equal footing. Alex is not just the gay BFF who does whatever the straight girl wants. He has his own journey and his own growth throughout the piece.” And while the duo head off to a heterosexual wedding, the issue of marriage equality has an impact upon Alex. “It makes Alex feel the same pressure as everyone else,” says Jacobs-Roseman. “He no longer has the excuse that marriage isn’t legal and that’s why he hasn’t settled down yet. Everyone’s approaching 30 and feeling that same anxiety about getting married and having kids.”
Playwright Matthew Greene also drew inspiration from the issues surrounding marriage equality to create his play, Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea. “I was a student at Brigham Young University when Proposition 8 was on the ballot in California,” he remarks. “And I found myself, as a member of the Mormon Church, really disheartened and disappointed by the way a lot of the people around me were handling the issue. I found it tragic that it became an excuse for people’s homophobia and ignorance to come out.”
The play revolves around two teenagers who are best friends. One is openly gay, and the other is Mormon. However, the piece is not just about characters spouting talking points. According to Greene, “It’s two people who care very deeply about each other, trying to figure things out and trying to hold on to each other while things are happening.” Greene has endeavored to strike a balanced perspective saying, “I have people in the Mormon community upset that I’m too liberal, and I was always very cautious knowing that I’m the Mormon guy writing a play about gay marriage. I know that’s a vulnerable position to be in from both sides.”
Maura Halloran expresses similar concerns regarding her Fringe show, Pussy, which centers on a lesbian couple whose relationship is endangered because their cat adores one of them and stalks the other. Halloran, who is not lesbian-identified, says, “I really wouldn’t want anyone to think this was a misappropriation of voice.” At the same time, she was interested in finding ways to represent a character that she “hadn’t seen a lot in queer literature, which is a conservative gay person who we’re not laughing at, and who is really trying to find her way and forge an identity for herself within the community.”
The solo show includes the points of view of several different characters – including the titular pussycat. “The cat has very strong opinions and its own story,” says Halloran. The writer/performer worked with a movement director to help with her transitions from human to feline, saying they found great resources to draw from in books and online. “It’s a good time to be basing things on cats in the history of world media,” she says with a laugh.
William Shuman also put in many hours of research for his solo show, En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams. Based primarily on the journals that the master playwright kept from age 25 until nearly the end of his life, the show allows a glimpse into the more private side of Tennessee Williams, including details of his relationships with family members and lovers. “As we know, Tennessee did not live the life of an ascetic,” says Shuman. “But there were only three men that played a major role in his life. Kip Kiernan, a dancer, another fellow by the name of Amado Rodriguez y Gonzalez – he called him Poncho – and of course, Frank Merlo, who was the only thing that was close to a long-term relationship that he had.”
Shuman takes on the persona of Williams within the show, although he insists that it “is not an impersonation.” However, the writer/performer does strongly identify with his subject, particularly since they share the same birthday. “There has been something about Williams’ writing that has always resonated with me,” says Shuman. “And I feel just so blessed to bring my perceptions and understanding to him.”
When it comes to inspiration, playwright Charles Gershman lays claim to multiple sources for his new play, Milk for Mrs. Stone. “I chose some topical elements that I think are important – the changing status of queer unions, the recent economic recession, illness, and anti-Muslim bias, among others,” he says. The primary conflict centers on the relationship between Daniel and his mother, a conservative matriarch from Kansas, who has had a stroke that has left her barely able to speak. The recently unemployed Daniel hopes to convince her to pay for the cancer surgery needed by his boyfriend, Addi, who happens to be Muslim.
“I’ve desperately wanted to avoid misrepresentation,” says Gershman. At the same time, he wanted to push some boundaries. “I think audiences will be interested in the play both for its story, and for the social and political currents it explores,” he says. “In the Fringe, people make the art that they believe in, without being overly concerned with some of the requirements of commercial theatre.”
The New York International Fringe Festival runs August 9-25 in multiple venues in downtown Manhattan. For more information, visit www.fringenyc.org.