Coming of age in contemporary gay theatre: an interview with Tom Wright

Congratulations on My Dad’s Gap Year and Undetectable! One of the common threads in the two plays is that they are notoriously difficult to sum up! They are about so many things, including political correctness, stereotypes, and intimacy; and the relationships that they tackle range form intergenerational to racial. How do you describe these two plays?

My Dad’s Gap Year is the story of Dave, a middle-aged, middle-Englander, who is having a mid-life crisis. He’s lost his wife and his job due to alcoholism, and so he decides to whisk away his seriously uptight gay son William for the gap year that he himself never got to have. They embark on a wild adventure in Thailand where Dave swiftly meets Mae, a trans woman who helps him battle his demons. It’s sort of a dual coming-of-age story where the roles between father and son are reversed. It also includes William’s mother Cath, who’s trying to regain her own indepen- dence, and Matias, who becomes William’s lover – each with their own reversals.

Undetectable is a much more intimate play with just two characters, Bradley and Lex, who have been dating for three months. Things are going well and there’s clearly a strong connection, but they have not yet had sex with each other. The play takes place in one bedroom over one evening and explores all the things we have to navigate in order to be ourselves and to be intimate with another person; from different senses of humor, politics, and sexual roles to body issues, HIV discordance, addiction, and past trauma. The title comes from the term used when HIV-positive people take medication to ensure their viral load is undetectable, therefore cannot be passed on (if you don’t know, get to know U = U). But it has further meaning here, signifying the different ‘diseases’ that lay undetectable in all of us.

What motivated these projects?

My Dad’s Gap Year is inspired by my dad and his struggle with alcoholism. When I was eighteen and on an enforced ‘gap year’, we spent the whole year living together quite intensely. He had just lost his job so we both had a lot of time on our hands and I was desperate to help him get his life together. I felt like I’d tried everything without results and eventually I let go in order to move closer to London and continue with my life. Meanwhile, my dad, feeling abandoned, sold everything he had and bought a flight to Thailand to live out his final few days. It’s a crazy story. I didn’t go with him, sadly, but did have my own coming-of-age in London as a gay man, realizing that my own community had its addiction issues too. The play imagines what would have happened if I’d off gone with my dad, and those two parallel stories happened at the same time in the sweaty heat of Thailand. A lot of what you see in the play is fictional, but it’s been therapeutic to really try and understand what was going through my dad’s head and why we both did certain things. It’s startling to realize how many people have also been affected by alcoholism and can relate to the play.

Undetectable came from a desire to write something that represented this very moment within the gay community in London. So much is changing, with the introduction of new drugs, legal and otherwise, with PrEP becoming more readily available (although not available enough), and with HIV medication getting better and better. I wanted to contribute to the canon of gay plays by looking at experiences that had recently surfaced for friends, my partners, and myself. Undetectable is a story of hope, to remind ourselves that, despite surviving trauma as a community and as individuals, we are worthy of love. Unless we truly embrace loving ourselves, we will continue to repeat self-destructive patterns that have been too common throughout our history. Right now, we’re seeing that played out with the chemsex epidemic and the savage impact it’s had on some gay men. It felt important to explore that subject with love and empathy.

So many works of contemporary drama are issue-driven. Why do you think that is?

I want theatre to be, in equal measure, both entertaining and thought-provoking. That’s why my work flips frequently between drama and comedy. You’re asking people to spend their time and money, so you have to offer an electric evening. But also if you are writing a new play right now, it’s probably because you have something to say. The journey in any artistic endeavor is so arduous that, if you don’t have some sort of burning passion to drive you through it, chances are you won’t make it. That’s why it can be useful to sit with an idea for a while (whilst working on others) to see if it sticks around and snowballs in your mind. I’ve found if it’s still there then it’s worthy of pursuit!

It’s a huge compliment that people feel these plays embrace lots of topical conversations. However, there’s something interesting in the idea of describing a play as ‘issue-driven’, as perhaps the term is too often placed on people writing from a minority perspective. For example, no one describes Arthur Miller’s All My Sons as an ‘issue’ play. It’s considered universal. But are those characters not going through ‘issues’? Perhaps when it’s the mainstream or majority perspective, these challenges are just considered events. Facts of life. But the same is true for the characters in my plays. They too are experiencing life and the diverse intersection of events that come along with it. But in gay plays, these are issues. Why is that?

What about the theatre do you see as being particularly hospitable to these social explorations?

Theatre is unique in that it brings people together in one space at a certain point in time in order to experience a story live together. That togetherness gives theatre a power to create change that other art forms or storytelling methods don’t have in quite the same way. It’s an empathy machine and, in my opinion, one of the closest thing we can get to experiencing something outside of our own direct experience. It can go even deeper than real life, with its use of metaphor, symbolism, or imagination. Even a traditional ‘well-made’ play is much neater and clearer in form than our own lives. It allows audiences to grapple with an idea in a distinctive way and hopefully encourage us to apply that learning to our own lives.

Both plays involve, and work particularly well, with small casts. Partly because of that, much of the onus falls on the actors. In what ways did the plays evolve as they are realized on the stage?

I’m incredibly lucky to collaborate regularly with the remarkable Rikki Beadle-Blair, who directed both productions. Rikki is gifted at working with actors and bringing out the best in all of his collaborators. To begin, Rikki’s process includes a lot of discussion around the text. This not only allows the actors to fully understand the world of the play, its themes and ideas, but also to directly affect its shape with their own insights and experience. This felt important with characters like Mae, a southeast-Asian trans woman. We worked closely with trans actor Victoria Gigante throughout the development period and by the time we reached production she totally owned the character journey, performing the role exquisitely. As a result of this process, we were rewriting the script right through rehearsals, technical rehearsals, and previews. In the case of Undetectable, we edited 20 pages the morning before press night.

The rhythm of your prose is rather wonderful. How do you keep it going?

Aha! Rhythm is very important and when I write I can hear the beats and tempo in my head. I think this is often true of writers who began as actors. I also sing and dance, so Rikki’s theory is that I write text a little like music. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I can certainly feel when an actor is approaching the rhythm in sync with my intention or not. We try and ask the actors to follow all elements of the music (punctuation, line length, emphasis etc.) at first. Then, like the best jazz musicians, they can riff within that and stretch time or play with melody as they embody the music and make it their own.

What are some of the things we won’t notice from reading the scripts?

Well, in performance, the text is just one part of a much larger puzzle, and we were lucky to work with some fantastic collaborators on both pieces. Each of whom added their own art and their own lens on top of ours. One main note is that we staged both pieces entirely in the round, with audiences on all sides looking in at each other. This meant that the audience could observe each other’s reactions, noting which bits they laughed at and which bits they were shocked at, and sharing looks of recognition, empathy, or judgment. There’s a whole other narrative going on in the audience as they analyze each other. It’s really fascinating. It also led us to avoid naturalistic physical designs that could have proven difficult for sight lines. For both plays, we had a more representative visual interpretation. My Dad’s Gap Year was designed by Sarah Beaton and lit by Derek Anderson. Rikki designed Undetectable as well as directing the piece, and Richard Lambert created the lighting.

Let’s talk more about My Dad’s Gap Year: at first, William seems to defy all stereotypes. He is not, as his father Dave observes, ‘swimming against the tide’. In fact, he is far more ‘adult’ than Dave. But this neat contrast between the characters quickly collapses. When do you think that begins to happen?

William wants to get a serious job, to settle down, and to conform to heteronormative standards. Having already tried that, Dave wants to live for the moment and try everything once – a reversal set-up which kicks off the comedy. Both of their outlooks come from an attempt to manage their personal demons. Dave knows his drinking is going to kill him and his fear forces him into this recklessness. Living with an addict can be a whirlwind and William is desperately trying to regain control of his life. He’s also battling some internal homophobia and the expectations placed upon him as a gay man. Throughout the play, both William and Dave move closer towards each other’s attitudes, realizing there are positives to both stances on life. However, their real journey is towards acceptance, of both themselves and each other.

Why is it so difficult for William, who is outwardly so progressive, to accept Mae? What is your commentary about liberalism here?

The trouble is William isn’t at all progressive to begin with. William’s reaction to Mae is a continuation of his internal homophobia and a reminder that, even within a liberal sub- section, people can still be intolerant towards others. But there’s also a more universal aspect of William disliking the ‘wicked stepmother’. He starts to cling onto Mae’s trans- ness as something to attack but it becomes more and more ridiculous as his views change and those around him refuse to support his behavior. His transphobia does become quite relentless, which troubled me to write, but it’s also sadly true to life and how far we still have to go at this point. It felt important, though, that Mae got to give voice to her own experience and have the final word. The obvious trajectory for William would be that he becomes ‘woke’ and fully accepting of Mae, which we nod at, but none of the character arcs in my plays are that clear cut because I haven’t found life to be like that. Especially when we are talking about the messiness of addiction. I hope we’ve given just enough that audiences feel satisfied but challenged.

How important do you see this gap year as being for Dave and for William?

The gap year provides a useful catalyst for Dave and William to try out new versions of themselves and encounter new experiences and people. All of the characters in this play are trying to be something more than they are, but struggling with the expectations that are placed upon them by others and by themselves.

William gradually seems to need reining in. Is this trip to Thailand good for him, or is too much happening too quickly?

The trip is good for William, long-term, but sometimes the lessons we need to learn aren’t easy! Dave’s looming diagnosis provides a ticking clock for all of the characters to learn quicker than they might like . . . .

Are you hopeful for Dave and Mae? William and Matias?

There’s a lot of importance placed upon successful relationships being long-term. But short-term relationships can also be successful, important, and rewarding, and that’s probably what we have here. Dave hasn’t got long to live but, if Mae wants to accept his flaws, they could enjoy valuable time together. Yet she certainly doesn’t owe him anything. William and Matias are young and have long distance to navigate. Still, their views on open relationships may mean that it’s easier for them to continue to play a role in each other’s lives, however that takes shape. Either way, they’ve clearly learnt more about themselves and the world by meeting each other and that’s a great outcome for any relationship.

Undetectable is quite different from My Dad’s Gap Year, a play that is even more intimate. Is there something particularly vulnerable to performing such intimacy in a public space?

We had incredibly brave actors, Lewis Brown and Freddie Hogan, who weren’t phased by being both physically and emotionally vulnerable with our audiences. In return, audiences were incredibly engaged and really leaned in to their honesty. I was endlessly moved by the connection that was created between everyone in the space.

And yet this vulnerability is very much in keeping with the play’s theme. What kind of directions did you give the actors?

An important realization was to encourage both actors to continuously play the affection between Lex and Bradley. Even when the words on the surface say the opposite, underneath both characters desperately want to connect; and the text works much better when they bring out the flirtation, kindness, and comedy. Lex has to suppress his anger and frustration; or Bradley would just leave. Similarly, Bradley has to keep Lex laughing or sensually engaged; or he’ll feel the barbs of his comments and his pulling away.

As a mixed-race couple, Bradley and Lex are very self-conscious about political correct- ness. Do you see this as being a barrier to their relationship?

It sometimes feels like we are living in a very black-and-white, call-out-culture, where you are either good or bad. Woke or not woke. But rather than a sudden moment of acquiring higher power, woke-ness is a process of learning and growing and being aware. We are all ignorant until we aren’t. Both characters are embracing that journey throughout the play but have their own sensitivities and areas of unfamiliarity to navigate. It’s such a fun time to explore identity and we found it really satisfying to explore some of the complications and double standards within liberalism that really seamed to resonate with audiences.

Lex hopes that race and privilege would not impact a relationship: is he too idealistic? Or is Bradley too pessimistic?

It’s ignorant not to acknowledge that these things impact our lives and the systems we live within, for sure. But how much impact should, or do they have on individual romantic relationships? This young couple is trying to navigate all that.

As the play unfolds, the two characters turn to role-playing and, in so doing, work out some of their issues. How do you transition between the vignettes in performance?

The use of role-play was one of the last ideas to fall into place during the writing of the play. We had these large monologues where the characters revealed their past, but we wanted to try and keep the action in the moment and rooted in their pursuit of each other. We already had Lex and Bradley engaging in sexual role-play earlier on in the play, which inspired us to continue the game further in the piece to bring their histories alive and into the room.

The performance of these sections differed throughout the play, building from naturalism to fully embracing theatrically. The team did a great job: we had lights, smoke, music, and vivid, detailed performances that really transported the audience. We were delighted to really connect with a gay male audience with both plays and many of them have had experiences within the chemsex scene themselves, so that sequence was particularly intense but hopefully offered some catharsis.

How important do you see performance to the characters’ self- and mutual- understandings?

Through role-play, Lex and Bradley create a little theatre of their own. They are able to help each other to understand their individual past traumas. Performing the root of their pain and having it validated by another also help them accept it for themselves. They realize that they aren’t the solution to each other’s issues, but they can play a part in their independent recoveries. Telling stories is therapeutic. That’s why we have theatre, right?

What is next for you?

I’ve recently finished writing the third in this coming-of-age trilogy of plays. It’s called Very Special Guest Star, and Rikki and I will be doing a reading of the play at the Soho Theatre next month. It’s the story of two professional thirty-somethings, Michael and Phil, who, in an attempt to bring some spark back to their comfortable dad-life, switch a sherry on the couch for a night on the town. Their goal: to join the millennials by trying to bed one. But ‘just one night’ brings shocking revelations when the pair realize they know more than they thought about the 20-year-old boy in their bed, and their suburban lives are changed forever. It’s wild and we can’t wait for audiences to see it. Watch this space!

First published in the Journal of Gender Studies

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