Columnists

"8"--A Staged Reading for One Night Only

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday May 10, 2012
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On the evening of Monday, April 30, 21 Boston area actors, many of them acclaimed fixtures of the city’s theater scene, took the stage at the American Repertory Theatre’s second venue, Club Oberon, for a reading of Dustin Lance Black’s "8."

Black, who is openly gay, took the Oscar a few years ago for his screenplay of "Milk," the Sean Penn-starring biopic of civil rights martyr Harvey Milk. Black has taken almost 4,000 pages of court transcripts from the trial of Proposition 8 and turned them into a play, running an hour and a half. The federal court case put California’s notorious anti-gay ballot initiative on trial as being unconstitutional. Historically, the court agreed with the plaintiffs; a recent appellate court upheld the verdict.

The trial was of huge interest for any number of reasons. In addition to questioning the constitutionality of putting the existing rights of a minority up to a popular vote, the trial touched upon issues of education and censorship when Chief District Court Judge Vaughn Walker agreed to allow the trial to be broadcast via YouTube and closed-circuit television to court houses around the country. The defendants in the case, evidently panicked at the idea of having their arguments (or lack thereof) presented to what would probably have been an extensive audience, sought and won intervention from the Supreme Court. (In a glaring double standard, Vaughn was later lambasted by the anti-gay crowd as an "activist judge" for his verdict.)

A number of efforts have been made to bring the trial to the public, including online re-enactments of the trial’s day-by-day progress and a court case (and subsequent appeal) to try to force Walker to surrender videotapes of the trial. Black’s play represents the most dramatic, so to speak, effort so far, in that staged readings (some of them stuffed with globally famous celebrities) have taken place around the country.

Another historic element of the century’s juiciest, most twisted real-life legal drama was the team that took Prop 8 to court. The plaintiffs were represented by liberal David Boies and celebrated conservative lawyer Ted Olson--the same attorneys who faced off against one another in 2000 before the Supreme Court over the issue of hanging chads, in the case "Bush v. Gore." At stake was the office of the presidency and the nation’s future; the Court stopped recount efforts, and effectively appointed George W. Bush to the presidency.

Then there’s the nature of the ballot initiative itself, and the hugely divisive and ugly campaign that attended its passage, in 2008, by a razor-thin majority of California voters. Prop 8 stripped California’s gay and lesbian families of the right to marry, a right that they possessed (and exercised, to the tune of 18,000 families) at the time.

It was the first time that voters had gone to the ballot box and yanked an existing right out of the hands of a minority, and though a series of missteps from the pro-marriage crowd primed the pump, so to speak, and anti-gay organizations such as the Mormon Church and the inaptly-named National Organization for Marriage funneled tens of millions of dollars into the state from every corner of the nation, what really turned the tide against gay families was the spurious accusation that marriage for gays and lesbians would somehow turn school children queer.

That strategy led to the creation of a notorious TV ad that showed a little girl coming home and announcing to her mother that she had read a book about a same-sex marriage between two princes. "And when I grow up," the little girl adds, as her mother looks increasingly alarmed, "I can marry a princess."

Though there is no evidence at all the children can be "turned gay," and mounting scientific data suggesting that gays are, as the Lady Gaga song has it, "Born This Way," that ad almost single-handedly pushed the anti-gay proposition to success. That was the assessment of Neil Vyas, a California native and current Boston resident that was in the audience on April 30. "I was there," Vyas recalled of the effort to stop Prop 8. "I was phone banking my ass off. When they started running that ad, even people who supported us before deserted us. I’d call people who had been our supporters and they would say, ’I’m voting for Prop 8, because gay stuff is going to be taught in the schools!’ "

The nominal argument there was that because California schools are required to teach about family life, the issue of two men or two women marrying would become mandatory classroom material. Marriage equality opponents, having identified a staggeringly effective tactic, proceeded to use it in subsequent anti-gay campaigns.

The use of inflammatory, highly emotionally charged insinuation ("Marriage equality will turn your kids gay!") has been met from the pro-equality side with the relatively mannerly, reasoned message that marriage for all is a matter of civil rights and, fundamentally, an issue concerning fairness. Unfortunately, the argument that marriage equality is a matter of fairness has done little good thus far, though an anti-gay ballot initiative in Washington failed to rescind extensive civil partnership rights. Following that rare win at the polls, lawmakers in that state approved a bill extending marriage equality to gay and lesbian families. Anti-gay forces promptly went to work to put the question right back on the ballot, and voters will likely weigh in on the civil and family rights of gay Washingtonians once more this fall.

The Cambridge reading of "8" was directed by Thomas Derrah, who, one week earlier, had been named the winner in two categories by the Independent Reviewers of New England at the group’s annual awards ceremony. (Derrah’s husband, John Kuntz, was also part of the reading; Kuntz, too, had received an IRNE the week before.) In addition to directing, Derrah appeared in the reading, taking the part of expert witness David Blankenhorn, one of only two witnesses who, after being deposed by Boies and Olson, went forward with their court appearances. Blankenhorn essentially ended up testifying for rather than against marriage equality, noting that it would be better for society and for families if same-sex couples were allowed to marry. It would, Blankenhorn said, make us "more American" to grant full marriage rights to all the nation’s families.

Grant MacDermott played the role of witness Ryan Kendall, a young man who had undergone so-called "conversion therapy" to "cure" him of being gay. (It didn’t work.) MacDermott is familiar to Boston audiences for his roles in plays like "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" and set to appear in the upcoming premiere of a musical titled "Cupcake," about Provincetown’s police force stopping the sale of cupcakes by a street vendor, told EDGE that the play was mounted for only a single night "because they are doing this nationally in multiple cities so it is like it is touring in a way. One night per city. But each city has its own cast.

"I think a staged reading is perfect for this play," MacDermott added. "Even if it were ’fully staged,’ I think it would look similar. It is about the words [spoken at the trial]. There isn’t much physical action. It is a play you listen to more than watch."

David Costa, who recently starred in an area staging of "The Full Monty," starred as Dr. Gregory Herek, an expert witness for the pro-marriage equality side. Costa noted of the reading that, "...because it is a benefit for the movement, it actually cost ART to produce it. ART covered the costs so that any money gained from ticket sales, etc., could go to the non-profit.

"All of the actors donated their time as well," Costa added. "We had rehearsal on Sunday night and Monday during the day. [ART Artistic Director] Diane Paulus, Diane Borger, [ART Special Events Coordinator] Ari Barbanell, Tommy Derrah and the staff of ART gave of their time and money to make this reading possible. It’s pretty incredible. They believe in the cause and wanted to get the word out."

But the nature of the reading did not mean that the those involved skimped on their preparation, or simply picked up the script and read from it cold.

"Preparation, for me, is always the same," MacDermott said. "In a staged reading, you just don’t do the ’final steps.’ So I ask myself who this character is. What does he want? What are his obstacles? Where has he just been? What are his relationships to others on stage? For me, a character has to be real no matter what whether in a staged reading or full-fledged production."

Tickets to the show sold for $50, and the house was packed. Twenty-one of Boston’s most beloved and acclaimed actors and actresses took the stage, scripts in hand, to deliver the play’s dense, weighty lines, dialogue taken straight from legal history in the making, along with a few smatterings of other sources such as media appearances by the likes of NOM leader Maggie Gallagher. No one was in costume; indeed, what was striking was to see just how little the actors resembled the people they were playing. (A svelte, beautiful actress, Marianna Bassheim, portrayed Gallagher; a spiky-haired Gavin Creel, wearing large horn-rimmed eyeglasses of the style that has lately become chic, played Ted Olson.) It mattered little that the actors did not necessarily match their real-life counterparts in terms of dress or age; interpretation took precedence here over authenticity of detail.

"Dr. Herek is older than I," Costa told EDGE. "He received his doctorate in 1983.

"The best you can do as an actor, especially if you don’t exactly match the ’type’ of the person, is to know what they are about and then just have that forefront in your mind when you are saying their actual words," Costa added. "A funny side note: One of the people on the panel are currently working with Herek. They called him after the reading and said he had just been playing by a young, hot guy!"

Assembling the cast was simply a matter of putting out the word. The actors flocked to bring the play out of the pages of history and into theatrical life.

"I think they just picked up the phone and began dialing," MacDermott said. "Tommy Derrah knows all of us in one capacity or another, as artists, and I think he thought our talents would lend us well to each role.

"I totally jumped at the chance," MacDermott added. "I even made a show I was in reschedule rehearsal because I felt it was so important to do. I am completely in favor of marriage equality, and I think this piece helps people see it for what it is: A legal issue. It is social for the people, but legal for the courts. And this will be decided in a court whether it goes to the Supreme Court, whether there is a federal amendment, or in my opinion what will happen, is if it goes back to the states and they each decide.

"I think the logic of the arguments, or lack thereof on the state of [pro-Prop 8] side, really show that we can win this quietly with rhetoric, wit, thought, logic, and will," the young actor continued. "We can’t simply shout and be upset. We have to be constructive with our anger. and I think this play does that, as a piece of theater, history, and as a social movement.

"No matter how mad you feel, you calm down and watch, or calm down and say the lines. Then you realize how we will win this: With a quiet dignity."

The audience who attended the April 30 reading were invited to linger afterwards for a post-performance panel discussion. There were three panelists in attendance: Carly Burton, the Deputy Director of civil rights group MassEquality, which had been instrumental in securing marriage rights in Massachusetts eight years ago; Gar Buseck, Legal Director for Bosto-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD); and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Timothy Patrick McCarthy. Almost everyone in the audience stayed for the discussion.

The post-performance discussion was moderated by Creel, who posed the panel questions ("What do we do about the false claims our opponents make, like when they say that marriage equality endangers kids?") and opened took questions from the floor.

The panelists noted that later this year, voters in Maine will have a chance to put some of their energy into supporting, rather than punishing, gay and lesbian families at the polls. Maine is slated to put the question before voters of whether to grant same-sex couples shall have the right to marry. A win would restore the civil and legal protections that were snatched away by plebiscite in 2009 and constitute turning a devastating anti-gay weapon into a potential force for equality. That depends, however, on the mood and good will of the voters--and on who, exactly, turns out to vote.

Ballot initiatives have not brought much good news to the GLBT community. Text from the play itself notes that there have been over 200 anti-gay ballot initiatives put before voters in the 50 states, and sexual minorities lose those contests 70% of the time. Just over a week after the ART’s staged reading, voters in North Carolina approved a particularly vicious amendment to the state’s constitution, banning not only marriage equality but also civil unions for same-sex families.

It’s true that the tide is turning, but is it turning quickly or decisively enough? The day after the North Carolina result, President Obama declared that he was in favor of full marriage rights for gays and lesbians--a position that might not help him much as he heads into what is sure to be a tough race against Mitt "Etch-A-Sketch" Romney, whose chewy center and lack of firm principles are more likely to win Obama a second term than the president’s own first-term accomplishments are, given the harsh and dissatisfied mood of the country.

A Romney win could very well derail progress for gay and lesbian individuals and families for a generation; the next president will likely appoint between one and three Supreme Court justices, and with the question of Prop 8’s constitutionality almost certainly headed for the Supreme Court, same-sex families might have everything riding on the November elections. Moreover, Romney has declared that he would support an anti-gay amendment to the United States Constitution banning marriage equality. Such an amendment would forcibly dissolve the legal unions of married couples numbering in the hundreds of thousands across the nation.

Given the stakes, will quiet dignity be enough--especially in the short term? Quiet dignity seems liable to be shouted down and drowned out over the next few years if not longer. In the long haul, staged readings and calm insistence on the simple fundamental rights our families and we deserve just might make the difference. Meantime, however, as long as our rights can be put up to a popular vote, we will remain second-class citizens because, win or lose, our rights will remain provisional.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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