Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Gaily Forward: on the Theatre of Writing

So, do we write best with what we know, or what we discover while performing as if we know?

Gay author Garth Greenwell discusses the roots behind his breakaway hit, What Belongs to You, in a Gawker feature, "This is Just a Great Sermon on the Desperate Urgency of Public Gay Identity."
He discussed the urgency of drawing on out gay lives to be honest, and a lot more.

Here's just one great quote:
I would also say that stigma about gay novels, which I do think is often expressed by gay writers who say, “I’m not a gay writer,” or, “This isn’t a gay novel—this might be a novel with gay characters,” or, “I’m a writer who happens to be gay, but that’s not the identity.” I would never want to put any pressure on anyone to identify in any way in any aspect of their lives, but to me it feels kind of desperately urgent to identify as a queer writer, and to say that this is a queer novel. And I think part of that is because of the political moment we’re in.

I just returned from a lovely evening at the Curran Theatre where Joel Grey discussed his life and career with Editor Kevin Sessums. He signed copies of his new memoir, Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir. It wasn't essential that he come out officially, which he did, but his family and show business life are fascinating, because it's his story. But also, truthfully, most don't know much more beyond the iconic MC from Cabaret.

The many layers of queerness in the stage and film production that won Grey both a Tony and an Oscar have been discussed elsewhere, with the source of course being gay author Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. 

But here's the short list; theatre, impending holocaust, Weimar, bisex action, and Liza. Cabaret was credited in The Celluloid Closet as being the first Hollywood movie to openly celebrate the gay lifestyle.
Cabaret was credited in The Celluloid Closet as being the first Hollywood movie to openly celebrate the gay lifestyle. - See more at:
Cabaret was credited in The Celluloid Closet as being the first Hollywood movie to openly celebrate the gay lifestyle. - See more at:"

After the talk, people shared when or where they'd seen Grey perform onstage. I could only recall the giant AIDS benefit at Madison Square Garden. I'd missed his live shows completely. But I also recall a college friend Ron Haefka, who played the MC in Cabaret, and died of AIDS. He took me to my first gay bar, in Akron.

Performing and tech-ing in musicals informed me with more than songs and lyrics. Did my theater apprenticeships help me come out? Sure, why not. And while such a story may be common, bringing personal experience into even a fictional story has truth to it.

Which is why, as Greenwell eloquently states, we still have to have out lives that say no to idiocy.  And that includes sex. 
This was a problem with my last two books, where some of my new expanded (and , uh, not gay) readership seemed irked by the abrupt and intimate sex scenes I'd written in the first chapter of both Every Time I Think of You and its sequel Message of Love. 

Unlike other contemporary M/M romances, I didn't wait until page 90, where, after a series of coy cafe flirtations, they finally get to Second Base. They had sex first. That's sometimes how it happens. And it's great. And writing about it fulfills the need for Public Gay Identity.
Greenwell says, "That’s a question I get sometimes. “Why does there have to be sex in the novel? Why do you have to rub our faces in all the sex? Why so much bad taste?” And the answer is when you write something, you make a claim about it, and especially when you write something, to the greatest extent possible, with sort of these extraordinary resources of the literary tradition, and especially the poetic tradition, and of the lyric tradition, you’re making a claim about it. And you’re making a claim that it has value."

We also tell these stories to counter what is said against us.

Take for example, dirtbag religulous nut Tony Perkins, who claims that musical theatre makes kids gay, I wonder how many musical theatre people spoke out against it before it became a laughable scrolled-by meme. All I can offer is, "Excuse me. I represent that remark."

Seriously though, we have to continue fighting such idiocy, and the violence,which continues in Dallas, in New Orleans, everywhere, despite marriage being legal. An active litigious religulous horde is chomping at the bit for a key to the gates of power this election, and Number One on their list is Us.

The language of change
A friend was asking me where to get a copy of PINS, my first novel. Well, I replied, there are dozens for cheap online, but I'll give you a copy. But he wanted to buy the book, print edition, and I appreciated his sincerity.

What piqued his interest was remembering aspects of my wrestling novel, which includes hazing and violence, like the recent school assault. In a way, I guess, it proved the relevance of my book's timelessness, the urgency to get the story out, in the hopes of preventing its return. 

But it doesn't often work out that way. There were half a dozen cases like that gang assault in the 1990s that inspired my book. It's still going on, no matter how many stories we tell.

But still, we tell our stories. Because books and performances do change lives. In his interview at The Curran, Sessums recalled a life-changing moment when he saw Grey's directed one-night production of The Normal Heart.

Joel Grey and Larry Kramer
Sessums then read a gracious note from playwright Larry Kramer, thanking Grey for his production, which led to its revival on Broadway, and more Tonys all around.

My own small participation in a benefit performance of The Normal Heart at The Public Theatre, directed by Michael Engler, that starred Brad Davis and Colleen Dewhurst, also changed my life. I've written about that before.

It didn't, as Perkins claims, make me gay, since I already was. 

Asked to create posters to be made of AIDS statistics to hang above the stage, I spent days at the ACT UP workspace copying and enlarging AIDS death statistics and pasting them onto foam core boards, and when I brought them in to a rehearsal, Brad Davis joked, "What are those, cue cards?"
(photo) At a staged reading of The Normal Heart at the Public Theatre in NYC, a fundraiser for ACT UP. photo by Bill Bytsura of Jim Provenzano, Gerri Wells, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, and David Falcone. Nov. 13, 1989. 

Brad Davis
Aside from the amazing performances, aside from the many friends in the audience, what thrilled me most may have been having a decade-long idol-crush, from Midnight Express to Querelle to Sybil, crack a joke with me.  

Like Grey, Davis was gay/not gay, but, to me, gay enough in his performances to make me appreciate him, and blush.

Perhaps that night crystallized many other great moments doing a show from year before, the joy of creating a work of art people could laugh and cry with and enjoy. It made me proud to be gay. Gayer.

We come out again and again. Sometimes, we come out later. 

So if, like the story of Joel Grey coming out late in his life, we can also hope for a gay superhero like Luke Skywalker, being gay, as Mark Hamill surmised in Vanity Fair, then our stories will be much more interesting, and truthful, be they 'theatrical' or even a space opera.

But if one applies Perkins' whackadoo theory, Hamill just made two generations of nerds gay, retroactively.

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