Things I Learned in the Theatre #8349

So I finished the play I was in, it went well, reviews and audiences were kind. The play is called Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike, it was written by Christopher Durang originally for Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde-Pierce. I played DHP’s role, which is a fifty-ish somewhat closeted gay man. At the end of the show, this character has a ten minute monologue. It was a great challenge and one reason I wanted the role…to see if I could do it. I also really only play gay roles at this point in life, because — well, because.

Theatre isn’t like tv, where you get the same episode in reruns. Every performance is its own thing, and it’s supposed to be because there’s a live audience there. The script and direction is the same, but it’s the earliest form of interactive art and it changes and surprises you and the script keeps giving you more and more and more. Even when you think you keep it the same, it evolves on you and it’s frightening and wonderful.

So this great Durang monologue gets triggered by some inappropriate tweeting, and my character (Vanya) explodes and laments Facebook and Twitter and 785 channels and you can pick the channel that matches what you already think. So it robs people of life experience. As the monologue progresses, what really started to come through as time progressed was that, as a gay man, Vanya had lost his life experience because he couldn’t be himself. He had a crush on Ol’ Yeller’s Tommy Kirk, who was fired by Walt Disney for being gay. Meanwhile, Tab Hunter was gay but just went on pretend dates with starlets. So there’s lots there about Tommy Kirk not playing the straight game, and Tab Hunter being a step-n-fetchit and Vanya lost is the middle, and as a result, still lonely, and still living in his childhood home.

Here’s the disturbing part. American Theatre magazine convenes three critics to do a podcast, and one of the critics they pick is from my city. They discuss the play, and then the big monologue, and they roll their eyes about the Twitter and Facebook rant, but basically allow it to exist. Not once do they mention the gay content of the monologue. A gay playwright writes a monologue with gay content and gives it to the only gay character in the play to say to the straight people and — this never comes up in their discussion. Oddly, had it been a black playwright writing this for the only black character in the play to say to the white cast members, they might have figured out the monologue wasn’t about Twitter.

Decades ago, I wrote a gay play called Earl, Ollie, Austin, & Ralph and I noticed back then straight audiences laughed at one set of jokes, and gay audiences at another. Give the critic’s reaction to Vanya’s monologue, it seems sad that things haven’t actually changed.

But it is an interesting thing to note.

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Aside

Confession: I Reverse-Bullied Guys in High School and College. It Wasn’t Pretty.

Okay, I’m not going to claim what I did was nice.  But I was a redneck queer in South Carolina in the seventies and you do what you gotta do to survive.  Which is not to say it’s not personally dangerous.  And yes, I am ashamed.  But also a tad — amazed that it worked.

So there’s that guy in high school, and he has his posse behind him, and he seems to have your number.  Okay.  There are a couple of ways to handle him.  One is direct.  He lets go with the gay innuendo.  And you say “Hey, I don’t think about your crotch.”  He’ll respond, and you say, “I’m just saying, you can’t go twenty-four hours without talking about it.”  And he’ll respond, and if it’s non-physical, say “We’ll see,” and walk away.  If it’s physical, you say “So now you want to touch me?  If you thought I was gay, seems like you wouldn’t want to touch me.”  And he’ll respond, and you say, “Well, you kinda always want to engage, it’s a little weird.  I don’t think about you that way.”  Usually, that’s it, he’ll have tough talk, but you’ll both walk away.

If he’s too unpredictable, go around him instead.  Wait ’til only his posse is around, and you give a version of the speech to them:  “Man, your buddy, he can’t go twenty-four hours without mentioning gay.  It’s like he’s thinking about — you know.  It’s kinda creepy.  He can’t go twenty-four hours without gay something.  It’s like it’s on his mind.  I mean, I know he’s kidding, but — it’s all the time.”  Doesn’t matter when he mentions it again, they’re all going to think, “yeah, he does talk about it a lot.”

Next, mention it to the gossipy faculty member.  In the middle of another conversation, you see him across the way and say, “Man, he won’t leave me alone.  Gay, gay, gay is all he talks about.”  If you can say it to his minister or his parent’s best friends, even better.  He’ll get so much “special counseling.”

It’s about making it seem like they’re thinking about it, not you.  Bullies pick on you, but they’re revealing their biggest fear about themselves.  Use that knowledge, and turn it back on them.  “I’m not the one thinking about it, you are.”  Bigotry is a double-edged sword.  You might as well use the other side of the blade.

In the hall shower in college, there was one guy who always ragged me about — something about my naked body.  He always said I was peeing in the shower, or kinda hairy, or was I getting hard? — something.  It got uncomfortable.  So finally, one day we’re all towelling off, and he walks around the corner to the sinks and I said (pretend softly, but I knew he could hear) “Man, I know he’s just yanking my chain, but it’s always ‘your dick this’ or something, and I just wanna say, ‘Is it okay if my shower’s about me?'”  Around the corner, I heard a soft “motherf***” and a door slam.  The guy was never in the shower the same time as me ever again.

There was also this one weird thing I noticed about bigots, and it’s that they fall hook, line, and sinker for stereotypes.  Sit legs wide open.  Burp.  Fart.  Scratch your dick in front of them and say “you looked.”  The weirdest was one huge redneck boy who was going to be trouble.  I noticed he and his buddies, the roughest roughnecks in school, all wore polka-dotted/diamond/weird amoeba things patterned boxer shorts.  So I bought some and started wearing them, stripping down where they could see in the locker room.  That exact day, they backed off completely.  It was like magic.  A gay guy couldn’t possibly wear polka-dotted boxers in their mind, so case closed.  After that, one of the guys was actually kinda nice to me, like we were in a club or something.

I needed to do these things for that time in my life when I wasn’t in a safe place, wasn’t an adult, and couldn’t respond to “c*cksucker” with a cheery “why, thank you!”  I had to survive, graduate, and get to another place.  Do what you have to do if you’re attacked.  Sad but true.  And yes, the guy who can’t go twenty-four hours without saying “gay” probably is, so you’re up against a brother.  But he’s an unenlightened brother, and at that point in his life, he can cause major damage to your life.  Never do it first, never do it second, but the three strikes rule always applies.  Maybe you can kiss and make up at the class reunion.  More or less.

Postscript:  Over the years, the number of guys I dated who said something to the effect that I was the first guy they’d ever dated who wore boxers was beyond statistically significant.  But the weirdest thing was a guy I dated, and we both stripped down to polka-dotted boxers.  I couldn’t resist.  I said, “I know why I wear these.  Tell me why you wear them.”  He was short and gay, he’d always felt threatened in high school, and he realized the answer to his problem might be solved by — wearing redneck boxers just like the rednecks.  It worked for him, too.

We live in a very weird world.  Oh, and bonus points if you can get the ones with snaps.

Little Story: South Carolina’s Secret Fabulous Big Gay Party I Wasn’t Invited To

South Carolina 198?:  So by this time, the newspaper article was out and so was I.  Social engagements were few and far between.  So were dates.  Being seen with me meant you were out too.  But one guy was changing jobs, he was going to be a lawyer, so he was throwing caution to the wind and came by my office late one night where he managed to push me against the wall and undo all of my clothing except for my tie, which I was grateful for because I’m terrible at tying ties.

So we had some dates and he was letting his freak flag fly as people between jobs are wont to do.  And one night we’re out and about and he said something about Thursday and I said no, it was Friday.  And he said “oh my God, when you don’t work, you lose track, the party is tonight.”  I said “what party?” and he gave me that poor dear look.  “It’s THE party, you must go.  Everyone will be there.”  And he turned the car around and off we went.  “I feel like I’m bringing a celebrity,” he teased.

I’m not sure where we went.  It was dark, it was way out in the country, which is saying something in South Carolina.   So we end up down a dirt road at an 1800s two-story house in the middle of a huge field surrounded by cars, and cars, and cars, and woods.  I wondered if we were dressed for this, and he said, “it’s all jeans, it’s the country, only the hosts do the big dress-up, and they love to be the only ones.  You’ll see.” Well, that sounded like a recipe for sitcom disaster, but he was right.  The two old guys were in tuxes, and everybody else was in jeans and polos or oxford shirts.  They held court at the bottom of a large staircase, surrounded by admirers, in a house decorated in late fifties country club.  It was someone’s very old family home, they didn’t use it often, but just for get-togethers.  The two men were — famous — in Columbia for their well-known businesses.  They were married to women and had children that often appeared in their ads.  But they absconded to the country and parts unknown together often, and in this case to throw the biggest all-male gay party the area could muster on an annual basis.  I’ll leave it to you to connect those dots as you see fit.

My friend said he’d catch up, and told me to go on as he went to greet the hosts.  It was odd, because I thought I should greet them, but I turned and there was a large room full of gay men holding cocktails and chatting.   And the men is tuxes hadn’t deigned to notice anyway. The way the house was set up, the entrance hall was raised, so you descended into the rooms on either side.  So I’m at the top of three small steps and — the room got much, much quieter.  There were glances.  I seemed to be a focal point, and not in a nice way.  Something must’ve happened behind me.  Or not.

I descended quickly to get out of the way, and went to the bar.  A very handsome but serious bartender handed me a drink.  I hadn’t actually ordered one, or even said anything, he just handed me one, looked at me briefly, and turned to do busy work. I recognized more than a few faces, but they weren’t too interested in recognizing me.

“Well, hello!” a voice said behind me, and I turned to find an older man, pleasant, smiling.  “My partner and I have really wanted to meet you!  You see, we’re cousins!  I guess it does run in families.”  He chatted away and I was grateful and said all of the usual things when one meets second or possibly third cousins, and we spend some time in the comfortable Southern tradition of tracing lineage. But he wouldn’t let me leave.  He seemed a little furtive, a bit tired of duty.  It’s a moment any Southerner understands, the well-meaning family member who is deliberately holding you in place for your own good.  Manners are a code that once understood reveals a system best described as an iron fist in a velvet glove.  There’s nothing friendly about it, it’s all about holding your place and keeping others at a cordial arm’s length.  It’s a machine.  And the machine was hard at work. His partner never wanted to meet me, apparently.  My cousin kept looking over my shoulder, back toward the tuxedo men.  I finally followed his gaze. My friend had just stepped out from the group of the tuxedo admirers.  He was pale, pale white.  His forehead glistened.  He saw me, I saw him, and once again manners asserted themselves.  I graciously extricated myself from my cousin, and went to my friend.

“Perhaps we’d better go,” he said.  It was clear.  He had been invited to disinvite me.  I was — known — and that just wasn’t — appropriate.  He had been given a talking-to.

“Yes, I have a little headache, actually.” And we walked out into the night, through the field, to the car.

It was a quiet trip, I gamely recounted meeting my cousin and how nice it all was. He didn’t come in, he let me out at the sidewalk.  We were kind and gracious.  He drove away and I wasn’t sure if he was going back to the party or not.  But I was sure, and I was right, that we were not friends anymore.

Little Story: That Time I Was the Only Openly Gay Person in South Carolina. Okay, Not Really. Well, Maybe.

South Carolina – 1983.  Robin Williams was big, everybody wanted to be a stand-up comedian.  Comedy clubs were big, small towns had them, open mike nights were big.  So I thought, “I can do this.”  So I went and watched and there were funny women, and funny rednecks, and cool black guys, and hipster political types and I thought – “No gays.  I’ll be a gay stand-up comedian.  I’ll be funny, it’ll be fine.  It’s 1983 in South Carolina, what could possibly go wrong?”

Surprisingly, the act went pretty well, and think it’s because people thought I was kidding about being gay.  (That still happens.  I don’t know.)  There were a few hecklers, and some older comics taught me to prepare ready-made put downs.  My favorite was to point to the heckler, give him a big smile, and says “Oh, sorry!  I didn’t recognize you — from the front.”  I never got red-lighted, I got laughs, I got asked back.  A group of us went to Atlanta for a big break in a big comedy club and we all got bumped by a surprise unbilled set from Richard Pryor, but if you’re gonna get bumped . . .

So the local paper wanted to do an article on the four of us who were coming back week after week and seemed to have some potential.  This nice reporter came and interviewed us and sat with us between sets and had us come to her offices for photos.  There’s a horrific photo of me trying to be funny with comedy props, because we all make mistakes.

So about a month later, the reporter calls and she says there’s a little – delay – with the article, which is going into their Sunday magazine.  That’s huge exposure back in the day when the Sunday paper was something every human read.  Apparently, I’m the delay because – this statewide paper has never actually ever identified any local person as gay.  So after many meetings with higher-ups, she’s calling because they’ll print the story but maybe I need to sign a legal document saying that if anything were to – happen – to me as a result of the article, they would not to be liable.

And I said “sure” because I’m basically likeable and I’m sure once people got to know me they’d probably like me because I’m twenty-three and an idiot.

Somehow, I never sign anything, but the article comes out anyway.  A color picture of me gets nearly a whole page.  With bad gay jokes.  Because my good stuff was too dirty to print.

And the next day at work, I walk down the halls and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea.  People are leaping out of my way, into offices of people they hate, into broom closets, and onto fire escapes.  People who were, I thought, my friends…and already knew.  The young closeted gay guys were the worst.  There were also old closeted guys that repeatedly managed to save me, but I don’t know who they were or how.  But they did.

My home phone rang exactly twice the Sunday the article came out, once from a married bisexual who wanted to have sex, and once from a very scared young kid who wanted to know “how do you know if you’re gay?” I tried to talk to him, but had no clue what to say.  I remember breaking into a cold sweat, and there was the sound of a door opening over the line and he hung up quickly.

After that, I could’ve disconnected the phone for a few years and saved a lot of money.

I was out to my parents, but I got a letter from my mother who lived at the edges of the state.  It was truly a statewide paper and she had the clipping.  I’ve never read the letter a second time, but I still have it in the house.  We’re fine now.

Another shock were all the gay people who would have nothing to do with me in any public setting, and only vaguely acknowledged me at what were becoming fewer and fewer private gatherings.  It was guilt by association.  Exactly one gay guy stood by me.  The rest stood – slightly apart.  I remember every one of them to this day.  I don’t really blame them, I guess.  I just remember them.  For reference.

That left a few straight people who thought it was cool and who would introduce me as their “gay friend” like it was my first name.

Not that I wasn’t known.  One woman I didn’t know called to ask me to speak at a gay man’s funeral and went on at such a pace it took me a horrific number of minutes to break in and explain, basically, that all gay men didn’t know one another.

I became the “homosexual” speaker for the University of South Carolina’s Abnormal Psychology class, where something was better than nothing, and I gamely answered questions like “Well, who’s the man and who’s the woman?” and “Do you believe in God’s Word?” and “Were you raped as a child?”

Years later, an old gay guy at a country club asked me about “that time” and when I told him how gay people reacted, he purred like any good movie homosexual and said “Of COURSE, dear!” and in my mind he suddenly dropped dead and the waiters just stepped over his body to serve us the meal he had paid for and nobody missed him.

The next time you gaze upon a gay pride parade, remember that there was a time when, in every community, it was a parade of one.  And one.  And one.  And one.  “That guy.”  “The confirmed bachelor.”  “The old maid.”  The “Bless Her Heart.”  Nobody ever said “thank you.” I never said “thank you” to the ones before me.  So.  With all my heart and soul.  Thank You.

Aside

Take the Effing Compliment

Whenever I hear some straight guy going on about how some gay guy better not make a pass I think, bless your heart.  When an ugly woman makes a pass at these men, they don’t go screaming into the night “An ugly girl made a pass at me!  She must think I’m an ugly girl!  Now everyone will think I’m an ugly girl!  I’ll kill her!”

Even the worst straight men are usually human enough to make an excuse about dating someone else to a woman.  Why not extend that to the rest of the human race?  When I hear these straight men complain, I think “Take the compliment.  The day will come when nobody thinks you’re cute, so save it for a rainy day.  If both men and women think you’re cute, consider yourself lucky.”

Say “thank you,” and then make the civilized excuse.

Many of us gay men have said it to women who’ve mistaken us for straight.  I say “thank you,” once I said, “Thank you, I’m gay, but that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all week.”  And I didn’t go screaming into the night, “She thinks I’m straight!  Did my deodorant fail?  Am I stupid?  Have I got back hair?  Is something hanging out of my nose?  I’ll kill her!”

Someone mistaking you for attractive is not an insult.  Say “thank you.”

Little Story: Dinner Party

South Carolina, 1985.  It had been a tough tech rehearsal, I was technical director for a local theater production, and so our producer brought us back to her house for a late, late, late supper.  Her daughters were there, one with her new military boyfriend in tow, and we gathered and broke bread and went over all that we needed to fix on the show.  We were tired.  I was tired.  And at some point the new boyfriend jumped into the conversation with a f* joke.  As if from a distance, I heard myself say, “If there were a black person here, would you tell a black joke?”  And the dessert forks went down around the table.  He stumbled out a “no,” and I heard myself say, “Then why did you tell that joke with me sitting here?”  And he said, “I didn’t know.”  And I said “You never do.”  Then, because I’m Southern and there are manners somewhere deep inside, I told a joke, something innocuous that got people pretending it was all back on track.

Later, I felt bad about it.  I’d ruined the dinner, you have this big stand you take in your mind and when you do it in real life it’s not so great after all.  So I went in the kitchen and apologized to our producer and said I shouldn’t have said anything.  And there was a pause, and she said: “I would’ve been ashamed of you if you hadn’t.”

I maybe said “thank you” or offered to help with the dishes, but in any case I said my good-byes and left.  And I’m driving home and I can’t see, and I realize I’m crying, I’m sobbing, and I have to pull the car over.  And I’m not sure what’s happening, is it that big speeches aren’t so great in real life, or I could’ve made the point nicer, and it was all likely true but what it really was, was that I was 26 and it was the first time a straight person had ever expected me to stand up for myself.