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The Working Actor

Gay for a Play

Gay for a Play
Dear Michael:

Recently I auditioned for and booked a play in a short-play festival. I'm 100 percent straight, with no intention of ever changing, and it's a gay-and-lesbian-themed play festival. I knew this from the start, and it personally doesn't bother me at all—it's a terrific play, and it's a great networking opportunity as well. I'm one of only two straight actors involved, but we're all respectful and getting along wonderfully.

However, I'm extremely concerned (almost terrified) about how my "traditional" family, friends, and potential bosses or directors would react if they were to Google my name and find it associated with a gay-and-lesbian event. I am neither an advocate nor a condemner of homosexuality, and I have unwavering respect for anyone of either orientation, but is there any way to gracefully talk to my director or producer about not including me in photos or press releases come promo time?

—Mama's Str8boy

Gainesville, Fla.

Dear Str8boy:

Patrick Stewart, when asked about his role as an openly gay man in the 1995 film "Jeffrey," marveled at the number of interviewers questioning whether he thought the role might hurt his career. He observed that while he'd played murderers, tyrants, bullies, and thieves, no one had ever asked him whether he thought those parts might cause him to be mistaken for any of those things. It was only the character in "Jeffrey" that worried journalists. Odd, isn't it?

I understand your situation, and don't worry, I'm not going to give you a lecture about acceptance or tolerance. Clearly you're not the one with the problem. I know that you have no judgment about homosexuality and are entirely comfortable in the role and with your castmates. I also understand your concerns and would never dismiss them. But I would make a case for letting go of your near terror and processing this puzzle by assessing two things: likelihoods and worst-case scenarios.

Let's put a few things in perspective. First, it's unlikely that people are spending their spare time Googling you. Sorry, but it's true. If they do, and if they know you're an actor, it's unlikely this one role would shock them. I'm sure they'll come across other instances when you've played someone different from yourself. In the unlikely event that a potential boss happens upon this and really has a thing about it, I suppose he or she might hire someone else. But really, how likely is that? Worst-case scenario: You're not hired. You'll live.

As for directors who might be considering you for roles and discover that you've played gay, please let me assure you how unlikely that is to be a problem. Even if they were so dim as to assume that the characters you play reveal who you are, I can't imagine that any self-respecting theater professional would care whether you're gay or straight. It's theater, for Pete's sake! Without our gay colleagues, theater as we know it wouldn't exist. If anything, it's sometimes a plus if people assume you're gay. So your feared scenario is neither likely nor problematic.

As for friends and family, I'm sure they know you well enough to know your sexual orientation, since that's such a basic part of who you are. If you think they'll be weird about you playing a gay character, then by all means don't tell them. But if they happen to find out, I want you to consider letting their discomfort be their problem. If they give you a hard time, throw it back at them with: "So you think the parts I play are me? Interesting." Or "Wow, this is really an issue for you, isn't it?" If you just stand firm in your pride about your work, then it falls to them to get over it. Whatever you do, don't take the bait by defending your self-identity. I've spent way too many minutes of my life debating with those who, having just met me, decided their assessment of my sexuality was more accurate than my own. That's a crazy conversation to take on. In the end, it's always just that people are uncomfortable because you don't fit their stereotypes—in your case, the stereotype that heterosexuals would be inept and uncomfortable playing homosexuals. You're confusing them.

Personally, I love confusing people. It makes them think, and sometimes it demonstrates what we do. One of the best stage experiences I've ever had (and one of the most challenging) was playing a past-his-prime former drag queen from Cuba in a heartbreaking drama called "The Boys of Mariel." I imagine that strangers who saw it probably thought I was not only gay but Cuban as well—at least, that's my hope. And I found I enjoyed the fact that people made those assumptions. It meant I was doing my job. And I felt sort of brave. I never went out of my way to correct the erroneous assumptions. When the playwrights found out I was neither gay nor Cuban, one of them said, "Well, you sure could have fooled us." "That's sort of the whole idea," I reminded them.

When I was on tour with "Les Misérables," I often spoke to school groups around the country. The little kids were the best! The question most often asked by little boys was, "What if you had to act like a girl?" To them, this was the most horrible imaginable fate an actor could suffer. I just smiled and said, "I've done it! It was fun," then waited for the inevitable comical chorus of "eeew"s. Still, by demonstrating how proud I was to be an actor, playing all kinds of crazy parts, my point was made. You know how good you feel about this project. Let people deal with their own crap. It can be kind of fun watching them process.

I don't mean to suggest that your concerns are unfounded. I just think your situation is far less risky than you've imagined.

So, no, you shouldn't ask the producers to leave you out of photos and press releases. It's really not fair to them to make that request. They have to be able to promote the piece in whatever way best serves that goal. "If you were this concerned about it," they may say, "you shouldn't have taken the job." Frankly, they'd be right. Besides, I don't think you'd feel good about yourself if you hid your participation. It's not like you're doing porn. It's a theater piece, and you're an actor. Be proud, be brave, do your thing, and if anyone is shocked or confused, enjoy it!

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