LGBT Students Experiences in “Gay Plays”
Over the past fifteen years, “gay plays”—plays that include and focus on LGBT characters, communities, and issues—such as The Laramie Project (1998) by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project and 8 (2011) by Dustin Lance Black, as well as Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens (1989) by Bill Russell and Janet Hood, have been presented on college and university campuses throughout the United States. These productions or staged readings have provided additional opportunities for student actors, designers, and directors to practice and train in their art: theatre. As an ex high school teacher, graduate student, and graduate teaching assistant, I am continually interested in investigating how theatre students interact with their work.
The students who participate in productions of gay plays are given the chance to grow and learn as artists, as students, and perhaps, as LGBT individuals just as those participating in straight plays, musicals, etc. In this article I analyze the impact and learning environment for LGBT students who have performed in gay plays in the past few years focusing specifically on productions of The Laramie Project, 8, and Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens at the University of Kansas to highlight their unique experience.
The Laramie Project is about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man at the University of Wyoming. Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project developed the play via interviews that Kaufman and his team held with community members in Laramie, Wyoming, and their reactions and responses to Shepard’s death. 8 portrays the federal trial of Perry v. Schwarzenegger that led to the overturn of Proposition in 8 in California including personal narratives of the families directly involved in the case as well as the lawyers, judge, and witnesses in the trial. Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens is best described as a song cycle as it features songs and monologues inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The monologues are representations of people who died from AIDS, including several gay characters. The songs are from the perspective of the living highlighting friends and family of those who have died from AIDS. These three plays have many qualities in common, from topic to theme to inspiration.
Having directed both, The Laramie Project in 2006 and 8 in 2013, and assistant directed Elegies in 2013, under director and writer Bill Russell, I have seen firsthand how gay plays are often used as a tool to start a conversation on campus and in the community. But I am not convinced that “conversation” is enough, and I still find myself asking several questions: Are the type of students who are involved with these productions being exposed to something new? Are they being challenged, or are we “preaching to the choir”? For LGBT students and communities, is it just more of the same? Are we utilizing these plays for the characters’ voices or for the voices of our students? How can we utilize gay plays in a way that will serve our students and our audiences? In an attempt to answer to these questions, I spoke with six students and actors at the University of Kansas (KU) who identify as part of the LGBT community—as gay, bisexual, and/or pansexual—who were involved with one or more of these productions. Below is a little bit of information about the six students I worked with.
Student 1 (S1) – 19, sophomore, theatre performance major
Student 2 (S2) – 20, junior, political science and theatre major
Student 3 (S3) – 22, senior, theatre performance and linguistics major
Student 4 (S4) – 19, freshman, theatre performance major
Student 5 (S5) – 22, senior, theatre performance and French major
Student 6 (S6) – 18, freshman, theatre performance and creative writing major
I asked these students about their background, their involvement with LGBT organizations at KU and/or in Lawrence, Kansas, their experiences, and their perception of the portrayal of LGBT individuals on stage, TV, film, and so on. I had a long list of questions for them including,
“Did you audition for plays (such as The Laramie Project, 8, Elegies, etc.) because of your sexual orientation or because of your desire to act or both?”
“Do you think your experience as an actor in ‘gay plays’ is different or unique in comparison to ‘straight’ actors in gay plays?”
“Can you tell me about something you learned while rehearsing and performing a ‘gay play’?”
“How do (or how would) students (LGBT and otherwise) benefit from learning/reading ‘gay plays’?”
These questions were just the beginning of our conversations.
In case you are not familiar with Kansas, Lawrence is a small college town that centers on the University of Kansas. In general, Lawrence is a liberal town (and is the only county in Kansas that votes Democrat in state and national elections) and is often described as a “hippie/art town.” KU brings a diverse group of students to campus because it is the largest university in Kansas, because of its status as a research institute, and of course, because of Jayhawk basketball. Five of the six students I spoke with were born and raised in Kansas, mostly in small rural communities. Almost all of them are open and out about their sexuality at KU, among friends, family, and in their hometowns. This information was a happy surprise for me to discover as, I believe, it indicates that acceptance of LGBT individuals is slowly, but surely, moving in the right direction.
We, not only as humans, but as theatre artists, must have a voice, must utilize that voice, and must continue to use our voices, and our art, as a means of starting, continuing, and changing the conversation about the LGBT experience and community.
The students each shared their experience of “coming out.” While most of them came out willingly in junior high or high school, one student, S1, was “outted” on Facebook by a classmate and friend. Each student expressed varying degrees of acceptance by their friends and family members. Another student experienced an extremely harsh coming out; S2’s mother’s said that S2 would “get AIDS and die.” This is the reality of many of our LGBT students. We, not only as humans, but as theatre artists, must have a voice, must utilize that voice, and must continue to use our voices, and our art, as a means of starting, continuing, and changing the conversation about the LGBT experience and community.
In my research, it was important to try to tease out what these particular students “learned”—performance skills or otherwise—while participating in The Laramie Project, 8, and Elegies. When I ask the students what they were able to take away from their performances, the responses varied. S1 was shocked by the violence and behavior of the some of townspeople in Laramie and emphasized that it is time to end the “douchebaggery.” S3 learned about the “diversity of the gay culture.” S3 also said, “Hearing those stories [in Elegies] every night, I felt that I was becoming more and more a member of this gay community. Taking part in Elegies, I found myself connecting more deeply with the characters and the Lawrence gay community.” S4 and S2 stated that they became more comfortable in their own skin and were hopeful since so many people were willing to attend these productions. For most of the students, participating in The Laramie Project, 8, and Elegies was the first opportunity they had to perform in a gay play.
Almost all of the students agreed that, as an actor, it was easier to connect to the gay character and to the gay play than to other roles and plays they have worked on. S5 noted a stronger “connection to the material” when working on 8. S6, another student cast in 8, noted the relationships in the production. S6 observed that the relationship between the gay male couple seemed more authentic than the relationship between the lesbian couple. The gay male couple happened to be performed by two gay men, while two straight women played the lesbian couple, although S6 was unaware of that at the time. The students emphasized that they believe straight actors often jump to stereotypical “gay” qualities such as a lisp or limp wrist, while gay actors just play the role. S5 believes that, "’playing gay’ is the problem.” And I agree. As directors and acting instructors, we would never give the note to “play straight,” so we must also discourage “playing gay.” While some stereotypical characteristics may be truthful portrayals of some LGBT individuals, those elements should not be utilized just for the sake of communicating “gay” to the audience.
As theatre artists, we have the responsibility to encourage actors and playwrights to communicate multiple representations of LGBT individuals.
When I spoke to the students about types of LGBT characters that they are familiar with, many of them found that the characters fall within a limited range. S5 said, “Trans and bisexuals are the psycho killers or the sluts. Lesbians and gays are also promiscuous, the difference is that gay men are portrayed as funny and lesbians are not.” As theatre artists, we have the responsibility to encourage actors and playwrights to communicate multiple representations of LGBT individuals. Elegies is a wonderful example of a play that has done just that. The characters in Elegies include a lesbian, a straight hooker, a flamboyant gay man, an athletic gay man, a drag queen, and many many more. S5 explained LGBT characters “can be flawed, interesting,” just as straight characters, and recognized that sexual orientation is typically a prominent characteristic of LGBT characters, whereas straight characters have many other qualities that are brought out and examined. S5 commented, “A character is rarely a lesbian just for the sake of being a lesbian; generally it's a show that treats the issue of LGBT acceptance.” S5 desires to see more “gay roles where sexual orientation is not the central feature of the character; the character never has to go through any sort of painful coming out, or have their orientation thrust into the spotlight; the fact that they are gay, lesbian, etc. is presented without comment,” just as it is with straight characters. Together, we found differences not only between gay and straight characters, but gay characters in theatre and on TV and in film.
Several students pointed out that while LBGT individuals are often caricatured on TV and in film that theatre seems to do a better job of portraying the reality of LGBT people and communities, if and when there is an LGBT character in a play. S3 explained, “Typically, theatre approaches homosexuality in a much different way. In theatre, we are often concerned with telling the truth, which shows itself in rather truthful representations of gay on stage.” But as S5 was commenting, S4 said, “It saddens me that there aren’t more fully realized gay characters.” Just as we have strong female or black or child characters in thousands of plays, these students desire to work on complex and interesting gay characters. Perhaps there are not enough quality LGBT characters written into plays, perhaps there are not enough quality LGBT plays, or perhaps our students are not being exposed to those plays already out there.
Many of the students called for more readings of gay plays in their curriculum. One student said, “Theatre is about telling stories in order to view different perspectives. I want a diverse group of plays to see and perform in to be able to share as many perspectives as possible.” S3 went on to say, “To be fair, I believe this about other sub-groups in theatre as well (female playwrights, theatre involving more than white characters, etc.),” which is a valid point. S6 believes that if we teach gay plays, “LGBT students will feel more a part of the classroom and feel more support. They’ll know that the issues they face every day are being shown on stage to people all over the country and that someone is speaking for them and defending them at any moment.”
The six students I spoke with are a sample of the of the LGBT community within the Department of Theatre and at KU, but having worked with students at several universities these six could be from anywhere. It was my goal to investigate the impact and learning environment for LGBT students performing in gay plays and therefore discover the wants and needs of our students. What I found was that our students, specifically LGBT students, desire and deserve the same opportunities that we provide for all students: to connect with material and characters that have meaning for them.