A young man is beaten, tortured, left tied to a fence to freeze to death. A man weeps at the loss of his love during the worst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. A young man takes his life after abuse from a church. How can such gut-wrenching stories become entertainment that people will reach into their pockets and pay hard earned cash for?
Matthew Shepard’s story is immortalised in The Laramie Project . Just a month after his death, members of the Tectonic Theater Project interveiwed locals in the town of Laramie, Wyoming about their reaction towards this now world famous hate crime. As Shepherd’s death was moving the world, a small theatre company saw a different story to tell – one on the stage.
The play has not only toured the world and been turned into a film, and spawned an epilogue to mark 10 years on, it has also helped make Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mum, a household name who still fights to educate and to change laws.
The multiple Tony Award-winning The Normal Heart was written in the chaos of the AIDS pandemic, when no-one knew what was killing gay men, when governments were ignoring the issue. If people wanted to get involved they had to out themselves, in a time when many men were firmly in the closet. Despite its grim premise, the play has been hugely successful, and still touches the hearts of those who see it.
Last week, little known Australian playwright Damien Overton had a short season with his play “The Bully”, which deals with the aftermath of a suicide, a grubby religion with ex-gay therapies, and how the family and boyfriend are coping 12 months on. At times the audience was openly wailing, at other times laughing, as the dark story unfolded.
Overton tells The Stirrer: “It took a lot of work to find the balance between humour and drama. It was a very deliberate choice to find the right balance. I don’t think I set out initially to have the topic of bullying as entertaining, I set out to tell the story I wanted to tell.”
However, the commercial reality is the more people like it, the more bums on seats, and the more the story is told.
Whether Glenn Close opens your play in New York’s Lincoln Centre (as happened with The Laramie Project Epilogue) or whether it’s a cast of unknowns in a small arts centre, all contribute to the creation of a new “normal”, as the stories are no longer brushed under the carpet.
In the audience our guard is down. We may get a point that the fearful or intellectual side of our minds tries to shut out in everyday life. Stories embodied and brought to life by performers can start conversations about what is really going on and reach a broader audience than those already in the know. The performing arts create opportunities for closed minds to be opened.
We all know people who were once dogmatic opponents of equality changing their minds once they come to know real gay people. Watching realistic scenes of how their intolerance impacts the lives of others is the next best thing: they may be enticed to take one step away from their dogma. We may bring a friend, a parent or work mate to a show. Each may tell a friend, a parent or work mate. Suddenly, people are talking, laughing and crying (and learning) about how real life pain affects real life people. And if the Tony Awards are anything to go by, your attendance is also helping the gays earn a living!
Stories are seldom one dimensional – if there is loss, nearly always there is love as well. If there is fear or bullying there may also be one who breaks the pattern and helps someone through. Or someone whose life changes forever, helping countless people in memory of a loved son lost, as Judy Shepard does.
So what moving theatre do you recommend? Let us know in the comments