The Gay Third Rail

Last Thursday, I received an email from a high school teacher in Texas. She was considering producing a one-act play of mine called Small Actors but, she explained, her community was conservative. She wanted permission to cut some lines.

I get this request—for the same section of this play—a dozen or so times a year, clustered in September and January, the months when school one acts are chosen.  Normally, I’m easy about change requests. I almost never say no. I allow people to cut for length, or to alter lines to accommodate casting requirements. Recently—this is true—I allowed a Catholic school in Newfoundland to change the word “sex” to the word “bacon.”

But I always say no to this: the most-requested change (by far) to any of my plays. The cut has to do with what this teacher called “the gay digression.”  She attached a PDF of page 23 of the script with the offending lines blacked out with a magic marker, making it look vaguely Soviet.

In Small Actors, the protagonist, Emily, desperately wants to play Juliet in her school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Instead, she gets a four-line role. When she learns that her parents will be on vacation on the night of the performance, she lies and tells them that she’s playing Juliet. Alas, they cancel their vacation. As Emily is being driven by her still-unsuspecting parents to the performance, she’s attempted to will herself into confessing by telling her mother that she’d been sad two months ago. Here are the controversial lines:

Laura (the mother): Well, honey, that’s going to drive me crazy. I don’t like to think of you as sad. So sad and I didn’t even know about it. Two months ago. What was two months ago? Was it a boy?

Emily: No.

Laura: Of course it was. It must have been.  What happened?

Emily: Mom, it wasn’t a boy.

Laura: You’re sure?

Emily: I’m sure.

Laura: Oh. Was it a girl?

That’s it. That’s the entire gay digression. Note that these lines don’t mention a kiss. They don’t suggest that Emily pines for another girl. They just acknowledge that same-sex attraction exists.

When I write to the teachers, I explain that it would send a terrible message to her gay students—to all her students—if the words “Was it a girl?” were removed from a 20-year-old play. I generally refrain from pointing out that the family in Small Actors is on their way to see a play about two Italian 14-year olds who meet at a party and have sex on their second date.

******

When it comes to gay characters, high school theatre has a problem. There are no widely produced plays that depict gay or lesbian characters, and that matters. Love scenes are the heart, so to speak, of high school theatre. They’re at the core of and Romeo and Juliet and Our Town. They comprise the entirety of the two plays that have dominated the EdTA most-produced list over the last decade—John Cariani’s Almost, Maine and Jonathan Rand’s Check, Please.

Love scenes are perfect teaching scenes: high stakes and a clear objective—an objective that allows the actor to flirt and dissemble, to charm and use their awkwardness in strategic ways.

Young gay actors start at an emotional remove, playing characters who attempt to woo those who they wouldn’t woo in real life. Of course, that barely counts as a problem; they’re also regularly asked to play vampires or middle-aged doctors. But, the absence tells closeted students that their choice to hide in plain sight is proper, that homosexuality will be noted and erased.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve. Adult theatre pushes the boundaries of societal norms but school theatre far trails them. High school theatre is risk averse. Teachers fear upsetting their principals. Principals fear upsetting the audience. In the world beyond school,  theatre is opt-in. We pay to see the plays that we want to see, and we leave if we’re offended or bored. But school theatre is all but mandatory. You’re required to see your kid’s play, and you’re not allowed to leave. As a result, the taste of the most conservative audience member wins.

Likewise, playwrights who write for schools are hamstrung, subject to the least progressive denominator. Writing scripts for high schools is a volume business. A one-act that gets fewer than 20 productions a year doesn’t generate meaningful income; a play that includes gay characters might, optimistically, get five.

Of course, as anyone familiar with school theatre knows, there’s one big exception to the no-gay themes policy. Almost, Maine contains a scene in which two men fall, literally fall, for each other. Part of the genius of the scene is that a six-year-old finds it hilarious without quite understanding it. Still, even though the relationship is presented metaphorically, high school productions of the play have been challenged. To his credit, Cariani has refused to allow productions that don’t include the scene. And he’s done more than that. Recently he gave permission to stage an all-female Almost, Maine.

That he did so might point the way to a stop-gap measure to allow LBGTQ representation.

Most teachers are scrupulous about not making changes not approved by the playwright. So let’s give them permission up front. We’re entering a kind of golden age of high school playwriting. The last dozen years have seen an explosion of dramatic (and, more often, comedic) writing for high schools stages.

Here’s my thought for my fellow high school playwrights. Yes, I’m addressing you, Lindsay Price and Jonathan Rand and Don Zolidis and Jonathan Dorf. I’m addressing the hundreds of other playwrights out there who are out there writing terrific school plays. If your play contains a heterosexual relationship, consider adding an Author’s Note.  My own reads: “You’re free to change the genders and/or preferences of the characters. Change the names as necessary. Make small changes as appropriate.”

That way, teachers can buy scripts designed for straight couples but choose to cast two boys if they desire. There won’t be a torrent of Adam and Steve productions, but there’ll be some: some schools that will do it, some students who’d volunteer for it. Those productions will travel to festivals, allow other students to see that there are places where two girls might fall in love in full view of the public.

The note itself might be more important than the productions it allows. Students in conservative schools will see an acknowledgement, in print, that same gender relationships are possible, if not at their own school, then elsewhere.

Think of your scripts as little gay Trojan horses. Until we have have school theatre that acknowledges all preferences, LBGTQ actors will continue to play straight characters, which is, of course, the role that many of them play every day.

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