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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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.

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Things People Said: Children! Children! Children!

…and she was one of those women well-past having children, but she couldn’t stop talking about them.  We were stuck in a conference room waiting for a meeting to start and she wouldn’t give it up.  “My children did this, how old are your children, babies are precious, well, you’ll have grandbabies soon, won’t you?  I mean, really, that’s their job, to have grandbabies!  That’s what I told mine!”  It was endless and finally she got to me and said, “Do you have children?” and I said, “No, my boyfriend and I just look pregnant.”

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.”