I'm proud to be a gay playwright

My name is Tom Wright and I am a gay playwright. I feel incredibly fortunate and proud to have broken through this year with two debut plays in back-to-back productions; My Dad’s Gap Year at the Park Theatre and Undetectable about to open at the King’s Head Theatre. It's been a fascinating process discussing these plays with producers and programmers, whilst wrestling with my own complex feelings around the term ‘gay play’. What does this label mean for both my work and me?

Labels help us understand, identify and communicate what things are. They help to build communities and subcultures. They connect individuals with communalities, shared issues and interests. In theatre, they can help reach audiences who identify with certain perspectives and enthusiasms. But what seems like a short cut may also be a short road, limiting potential and leaving out room for complexity.

There are so many people that tell you being a gay playwright is limiting. That it will limit your audience and limit the scope of your career. But there’s extraordinary diversity in gayness and there are so many gay stories that haven’t been told yet. In an industry where audiences are crying out for new stories this can only be a good thing.

The familiar canon of ‘gay plays’ is seen as predominantly white, elitist and often somewhat self-deprecating. Over time, this can contaminate not only how we see ourselves, but also how straight audiences frame our experience. It’s concerning, that this body of work could also tell emerging gay writers how they should write and whom they should centre in their stories.

Is the label ‘queer plays’ a more apt rebrand? Currently, the queer label tends to be applied to work that is queer in form rather than content; queer theatre-makers, drag kings and drag queens, rather than the traditional writer-led theatre. Queer artists of all kinds are seeking and instigating new ways of being proudly different and subversive.

This is why we gave a platform to a diverse range of new queer plays during our run at the Park, presenting readings by emerging writers such as Temi Wilkey, Kamal Kaan and Benjamin Salmon. Each wrote proudly under both the queer and gay play banner, providing unique, ground breaking approaches to the genre and in turn, developing it to be more inclusive. Each play was met with enthusiastic praise, because what audiences are hungry for is flavour.

I’m keen to own all my flavours proudly and that’s why I’m proud to be called a gay playwright, just like I’m proud to be a young playwright or a working-class playwright or a playwright from the Midlands. I see endless possibilities in all of those labels and would encourage all artists to seek out ignored subsets of their own fascinating identities and have the bravery to acknowledge and represent them. By doing so, we can help each and every individual realise they can be proud of who they are, too.

First published by BroadwayWorld

Love, shame and the chemsex epidemic

In the summer of 2016, I sat amongst a crowd of gay men, most of them friends, in a sweaty black-box theatre in Islington. House music pumped through the sound system. Onstage, five guys, semi-naked, partied before us. The audience exhaled nervous giggles and gossipy whispers as the lights shifted. The piece was 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney, and as each character spoke verbatim, recounting their relationship to drugs, sex and the powerful combination of the two. The tension was palpable.

The King’s Head Theatre has been committed to championing LGBTQI+ voices for many years, but I respect them most for being amongst the first to stage plays about the Chemsex crisis in London. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t news to my friends and I. But there’s something crucial in the act of being represented through stories that has such a powerful effect. In that intimate venue there was no avoiding the stark reality of the scene.

Skip forward a year and the King’s Head Theatre delivered again by housing Patrick Cash’s eloquent The Chemsex Monologues, which weaved four fictional narratives, caught up in the party. Carefully handled, the piece guided us through intrigue, laughter, joy, then fear, heartbreak and loss. Discussions were stilted in the bar after the show. A friend of mine got on his phone, sent a few texts and quickly perked up. ‘Who wants to come to a party?’ He said. And we were off.

This swift segue provoked, compelled and inspired me to broach this subject in my own work. I asked myself  - what’s the next part of this conversation? How do we continue to explore this behaviour without feeding the same shame that drives so many gay men, from Oscar Wilde through Joe Orton to myself, to act self-destructively? And as importantly, what about those of us who have managed to survive? I wanted to offer hope. So I set out to write a story of recovery.

With the introduction of new drugs, both legal and otherwise, the entire landscape of sexual interaction has shifted in the LGBTQI+ community. Working with director, Rikki Beadle-Blair, we found a dramatic moment where all of these issues collide. The moment we have sex with someone for the first time.

This exciting premise became both satisfyingly simple and thrillingly complex. Two guys, one bed, real time over one evening. They’ve been dating for a while, having made a pact to do things the old fashion way; no sex for the first three months. And tonight is the night. But first they need to navigate the labyrinth of issues that obstruct us from being ourselves and trusting someone else; personal values, political differences, past traumas, drug reliance or HIV discordance. All the things that lurk undetectable within us.

I don’t know the solution to the chemsex epidemic. But I do know what drives many gay men into darkness. We all recognised that shame sitting in the King’s Head Theatre back in 2016. The conclusion we’ve reached is that the first step we must take back towards ourselves is love. We must truly accept who we are, everything we have experienced and love ourselves not in spite, but because of it. That’s the message of Undetectable – our roller-coaster ride towards love. Now we’re excited to see how it’s received both by our community and beyond, and for this vital conversation to continue.

First published by Stage Door

For now, I applaud straight actors making space for LGBTQ+ talent

Actor Darren Criss, who this month won a Golden Globe for his role as a gay character in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, has vowed no longer to accept LGBTQ+ scripts. The reason: He doesn’t want to deprive gay actors of roles.

So is this the right thing to do? He has won multiple awards and gained huge acclaim from playing two gay characters, and that now means he has the luxury of choosing the roles he accepts next. 

Yet, I feel the criticism he has received from some quarters is misplaced; he is trying to make a change for the better. Another case was the backlash Disney faced after announcing its first openly gay character (hooray) but then cast the straight comic Jack Whitehall in the role. 

For years, straight people have received acclaim for playing gay characters, but the reverse has hardly ever happened. It’s frustrating for any actor to be pigeonholed - now imagine not even being allowed to play yourself. LGBTQ+ artists are not getting the same opportunities and aren’t celebrated in the same way. Representation matters and casting is the most visible opportunity for change. 

At drama school, I was told to remove my earring and act ‘straight’ to get work. I went the other way writing queer plays, directing and producing queer work. The things I’d been told to lose – my sexuality, working class background, regional accent – were what made my plays come alive. 

The question of whether gay roles should be played by gay actors is just as relevant in theatre currently. Matthew Lopez, writer of the acclaimed gay themed show The Inheritance, revealed the three lead gay characters were played by heterosexual actors. 

This is nuanced by the fact the play’s writer, director, Stephen Daldry and producer David Lan are all gay or bisexual. Still, there are consequences to the piece being delivered through the lens of straight men. 

Lopez says they were the best actors for the job. But why are the best people almost always straight? No one wants to land a role through tokenism, but I believe LGBTQ+ actors can bring more to the table. 

Queer people are used to playing it straight to fit in, while straight people have not necessarily encountered the queer experience. LGBTQ+ artists can offer an authentic, nuanced understanding of the themes, as well as novel insights into human experience. 

I have two plays opening and they involve emerging gay, bi and trans actors, enriching the work as a result. But can we advertise for LGBTQ+ actors? Is it ethical to discuss an actor’s sexual and gender identity? Can bisexuals play gay? Can non-binary play trans? Can someone identify as queer and not actually have had a gay experience?

The truth is: we need all of it. We need all things explored from all perspectives. Until we achieve that, Criss playing it gay feels like a loss. 

I do not think Criss stepping aside is the ideal, long-term solution. But for now, his words might just create space for LGBTQ+ talent, whilst bringing the conversation back into the forefront. Now it’s up to us to take control of the narrative.

First published by The Stage