What Does it Mean to Write a Gay Play?

A conversation with two playwrights from GayFest

Daniel Talbott and Buddy Thomas are two playwrights who are sharing works with audiences during GayFest. While Thomas’ The Crumple Zone focuses on a group of gay friends who find themselves celebrating Christmas together, Talbot’s Mike and Seth explores what happens when two guys meet the night before one of them marries. Both plays deal with the complexity of friendship – and what it means to stare down sometimes tough issues with a certain amount of hope and humor. That’s why we talked to the writers to find out what motivates them, what it means to write a “gay” play these days and what inspires the creative process.

In many ways gay theatre hit a pinnacle in the 80s and 90s when playwrights responded to the AIDS crisis. How has the state of gay theatre changed in more recent years?

Courtesy of Daniel Talbott

Talbott: I’m feeling like I maybe don’t know enough to totally answer this question completely, but I definitely know there are a ton of extraordinary, fearless, and challenging gay, lesbian, and bisexual playwrights out there right now, and I think that gay theater is majorly alive and kicking, which I love. I don’t know if it’s changed so much as evolved with our world maybe. There are a ton of brilliant writers out there writing honestly, openly, and compassionately about sexuality right now. I mean you had Doric Wilson, Lanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and you still have Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, Mark Ravenhill, Linda Chapman, Kate Moira Ryan, The Five Lesbian Brothers, Craig Lucas, Charles Busch, Jeff Weiss, and a ton of others. And now you also have Lucy Thurber, Mark Schultz, Ken Urban, Taylor Mac, Daniel Reitz, Sarah Schulman, Mariah MacCarthy, Gary Sunshine, Kathleen Warnock, J.Stephen Brantley, Jordan Seavey, Troy Deutsch, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Joshua Conkel, among many, many, many wonderful others. All completely original and powerful, distinct, unafraid voices.

Thomas: The Crumple Zone premiered off-Broadway in 2000, but it was written in the late 90s. One of the very reasons I wrote this play is because there seemed to be a point in the 90s when almost every single play that even touched on gay issues also dealt with AIDS in some major or minor way. I totally understand that playwrights were simply responding to the crisis, often in amazing theatrical works, but just because a play focuses on gay people does not mean that AIDS or mortality automatically has to feature into the plot.

What are some themes that you often find yourselves wrestling with?

Talbott: I think family, siblings, childhood, my best friends, lovers, my mom, childhood, sex, self-hatred, memory, loneliness, anger, compassion, nature, poverty, spirituality and love.

Courtesy of Buddy Thomas

Thomas: Honestly, what I wrestle with more than anything is finding a spare moment in the day to write at all. I have a pretty all-consuming day job, and in this economy, thank God for that, but the last thing I want to do after twelve hours at a computer is sit at a computer some more. That attitude caused a pretty serious dry-spell after The Crumple Zone premiered off-Broadway. It had gotten great reviews and was a pretty big hit, and everyone wanted to know what I was going to do next. I had some ideas, but just no time. Cut to ten years later, and I finally banged out a new one, the sci-fi spoof, Devil Boys From Beyond, which won Best Play at Fringe NYC and was nominated for a GLAAD Award, before transferring to a commercial off-Broadway run. It has since been performed around the country, and I understand that GayFest did a pretty fun production of it last summer.

Do you base any of the work on your own life experiences?

Talbott: I think so much of my work is like if my life and my imagination fucked and had a baby. It’s hopefully a bunch of different parts of both, all mixed up into one, and I always hope that in the end you can’t tell where the one ends and the other begins. All my plays are definitely extremely personal and about things that happened in my life and things that happened to folks I know and stuff. They’re about things and events I read about or see on the street, on the subway, etc. They’re about things in the past, and things I hope for the future. Sometimes they’re just pure imagination, but I definitely can’t write about something, imagined or otherwise, unless it’s insanely personal and important to me.  I read this thing a few days ago about plays being in your blood, and I loved that. I really try to write theater that’s part of what I love and care about deeply, things that I can’t understand and/or scare the shit out of me, and that are in my blood hopefully.

Thomas: Hmmm, well, Devil Boys From Beyond was definitely based on my own life experience, because anyone who knows me will tell you that I am from outer space.

Both plays seem to consider what it’s like to be a gay man in relation to other gay men – Mike and Seth is a more intimate look at two men while the dark comedy The Crumple Zone takes a peek at a group of friends. How do lovers and friends shape the character’s own lives?

The cast of The Crumple Zone (photo by John Donges)

Talbott: I feel like lovers, friends and family are three of the biggest and most important and influential factors in all of our lives, and Mike and Seth deals with two best friends, one gay and one straight, who are the ultimate rocks for each other. Both of the characters have known each other for most of their lives, have been best friends and are like brothers, and are now in their the mid- to late-twenties, feeling like they’re being pushed over a massive and terrifying cliff in life. And thank God they’re there to jump together, ’cause I don’t know if they would make it without each other. Both are dealing with how to try to learn to love selflessly and be loved, and to be able to trust both themselves and somebody else. They feel that so much of nature and humanity is being conquered by technology right now. I wrote the play with two of my best friends in the world in my heart and head, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them – they’re like family to me, and more than anything else they inspired this play. The deep love they have for each other, and my deep love for them, is definitely the heart of it for me, and I wanted to write about that and hopefully celebrate what gets me through in life.

Thomas: The Crumple Zone looks the breakup of a long-term relationship over one wild holiday weekend. There’s love and lust, cheating boyfriends, surprise visitors and one-night stands. And of course it’s not a party until someone knocks over the Christmas tree.

What do the plays say about gay life today?

Talbott: I think gay life is so wonderfully diverse and complicated and all over the map and always has been, so I just really hope the characters are honest to themselves and that they’re unique to each other. I definitely would never feel equipped to speak for anyone else, but I really hope the play rings true and hits something personal somehow in the folks who are watching it and who come out and support us and the wonderful ,wonderful actors who are playing Mike and Seth. I love getting to be a part of this festival and think it’s an amazing thing that Rich is doing – he’s busting his booty and is creating something so special and wonderful for so many folks – it’s really cool and it means the world to me that he asked me to be a part of it.

What are the biggest issues your characters face and why?

Talbott: Oh, man, that’s such a huge question, and I think the core of what’s happening in their lives is that they’re feeling alone and cut off from others, their families, lovers, and life and from themselves, and they feel like they can’t break free from it. Like they’re on a conveyer belt in their lives and they’re having a really tough time stepping off it and getting their feet under them again, and maybe even changing directions. That they feel like they don’t have the ability to shift, change direction, respond, and bend, and that as they’re getting older and with more of the choices that they’re making, it’s getting worse. They want to feel things and experience them physically and deeply, with others and within themselves; they want to experience and live life, and for many reasons they feel they can’t. I think of lot of people are feeling cut off and stranded right now, from themselves and other people.

The guys in Mike and Seth (photo by John Donges)

Thomas: The biggest issues the characters in The Crumple Zone face is taking responsibility for their own actions. Everyone in the play has made or is making ridiculously horrible choices, and the arc of the play’s action covers the consequences of these choices.

Do you anticipate a point in which gay plays will simply be classified as “plays” – or is that already happening?

I fucking hope so, ’cause that’d mean something’s really changed. I think it’s definitely happening more than it used to, but we have a long, long way to go.  I think when that happens then artists will have a choice about how to classify their work in the way that makes sense to them, instead of having to fight so hard for one or the other. They’ll be able to allow their work to stand on its own just as a ‘play’ if they want to, or they’ll be able to say this is absolutely a ‘gay play’ if they want, or both at the same time  They’ll be able to do anything they want cause our society won’t feel the need to tag everything for its own sense of safety anymore. What an amazing day it’ll be when you won’t have to have a play described to you as a black gay play, or a latino transgender play, or white trash bisexual sex farce. It’ll just be a play, along with Long Day’s Journey, or You Never Can Tell, or Pygmalion. We’ll talk about the story and events before the characters’ sexuality.

What’s the biggest misconception about your work?

Talbott: I’m not sure. I try as much as possible not to think about that stuff cause so many people have so many different experiences of the same production and play, and in the end all you can do is work as hard as you can on something and do the best you can with what you’ve got, so I try to respect and understand people’s opinions and conceptions of me and my work, but in the end I just have to be as honest, compassionate and active as I can, even if someone’s not acting that way towards me. There’s this great saying in tennis that I love and think is so true, it’s “take care of your side of the net.” And what that means to me is all I can worry about and focus on is how hard I work and how I treat others, and who I hope to be as a theater artist, friend, husband, and dad. “Love the art in yourself. Not yourself in the art.”

Thomas: I think the biggest misconception about any writer’s work is that they can only write in one certain style. After The Crumple Zone, everyone wanted me to write another relationship comedy, but my next play was an over-the-top drag spoof about a 1950s space invasion. I think it’s fun to play around with different forms. That said, we had so much fun doing Devil Boys that my new one is another insane camp-fest.

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