The actors in my play “Leave” are game for anything.
(I orignally wrote “my actors.” It’s weird how proprietary you get. I wonder if they think of me as “our playwright.”)
Game for Anything – Exhibit #1 – The kissing.
Because they’re not all gay in this cast. In fact, it’s actually half and half. OK, that makes it sound like they’re all bisexual. What I mean is, two are openly straight and two are openly gay. Actually, both the major couples are split right down the middle. But you wouldn’t know it. These guys are so committed to the realism of these characters, it sort of breaks my heart.
Right up front the director told them he wasn’t worried about the intimacy. He wasn’t going to push it. It happens when it happens. We were all for it just evolving naturally. Now, if we got to tech week or something and they still hadn’t touched each other, then he’d have to force the issue, but other than that he was leaving it up to them.
First rehearsal on our feet, a straight actor approaches his gay counterpart at the end of a break and just says the best thing to do is to dive right in. We’re only going to get used to it if we do it and it’s no big deal. The other straight actor just let it be known, “I have very few boundaries, so don’t be afraid to approach me.” (Which is useful, because that guy is tall, and can be more than a little intimidating til you get to know him.) Conveniently, the two gay actors took turns being sick and shaking off colds the first week, so everybody had some time to get to know each other, and wait til they were germ-free.
The touching started right away. Awkward, at first, like the first time you start touching anybody. Hand on the shoulder, the small of the back. A hug here. Hand-holding that has actually never lost its sweetness. You know things have progressed to the next comfort level when they start placing a hand on the back of one another’s necks, or touch someone’s face, or run a hand through their hair. They’re ridiculously comfortable with one another now. Right before or after a scene, it’s like sports teams, bucking each other up – “Here we go” or “OK, buddy. No worries, we’ll get it next time” or “Great job! That was amazing.” And its almost never verbal, it’s how they physically interact.
You can write about writing the script, or you can actually write the script. In this process, the latter was more important. Hence the blogging silence these last several weeks. But I’ve been taking notes like crazy at every rehearsal, learning from what the actors do with the script, learning from what the director says about the script, learning from how they pick it all apart and put it back together. It’s like a master class, and even though it’s my script that’s the subject matter, they help me see it with fresh eyes. They all make me a better storyteller.
And tucked away in my notes somewhere is the phrase
“the first kiss”
All downhill from there.
It’s the tenderness and playfulness they have with each other, the bedrock of the relationship always showing through, that regularly takes my breath away. Watching them sometimes, you’d think they’d known each other forever, and not just a couple of weeks.
There’s a big homecoming scene, the Marines coming back on leave. The one Marine Seth and his civilian husband Nicholas haven’t seen each other in months. Communication has been coded and strained. When they finally see each other, well… The one actor told the other actor before they arrived at rehearsing that scene, “Just take me however you need to.”
Of course, there’s the tension release of humor right in the middle of it. While Seth and Nicholas start making up for lost time, their two friends Tyson and Jonas are stuck looking on, not having been introduced to each other. After it looks like Seth and Nicholas aren’t coming up for air any time soon, Tyson decides he should probably introduce himself to Jonas. Apparently our Tyson is a bit mischievous. He decided he’d let the kissing go on for a while and see how long they could get away with it. His fellow actors, very committed to the scene. (Basically, we’re not stopping til we get our cue, and that’s in your hands, buddy.) Knowing that, he will be milking that comedic pause for all its worth with the audience.
You know how when you’re really going at it kissing someone and you take a break for a second, you can see it on your face and the other person’s face? The area around your mouth gets all red? That’s what’s going on in that moment. First time I saw that in rehearsal I thought to myself, “Damn. That’s acting.”
The actors playing Tyson and Jonas were debating the merits of tongue recently. I don’t know where they came down on that issue, because honestly every time I’m close enough to look, I’m a little embarrassed. I mean, they’re my characters, I wrote the thing, but there are moments that are so personal, I don’t feel like I should be watching.
“Well, c’mon. The audience is really close. And you know if we were sitting that close to the action, we’d be looking for tongue. Be honest.”
And you’d think you’d know which actor would be on which side of that discussion, but you’d be wrong.
One of the straight actors has a girlfriend, the other is engaged to be married. “It’s a good thing I’m comfortable in my sexuality, or I’d be coming offstage sort of bewildered. ‘Wow, kissing this guy is actually kind of fun. What does that mean?!'”
How does girlfriend/fiancee feel about this?
“If it ever gets weird, just remind her that the other guy is only renting out your lips for a limited time and express purpose, she on the other hand has ownership rights.”
It’s not all about the kissing, it’s really not. But it’s a part of the whole picture. I make it a point to try and thank all the actors every rehearsal, even if only in passing. It’s hard to adequately convey in words what it means to be able to see this, actual relationships between gay men on stage. Not wise-cracking sidekicks or people dying of AIDS but just gay men living their lives. Struggling, yes, but the way everyone else does, not just because they’re gay.
The director was talking about the big fight scene between Nicholas and Seth, and the power of watching it. Just two guys, an unpainted platform and a bunch of words. No lights or costumes or props yet. No audience but us. “Even though there’s a brick wall between you two (metaphorically speaking), you can still sense the love the two of you have for each other. It’s like it’s coming off of you in waves.”
Gay men don’t get to see that very often in popular culture. Certainly more now that we used to by a mile, but it’s still a 90 percent vs. 10 percent kind of thing. The world is largely straight. Entertainment is largely straight. Doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate it. But when you see yourself reflecting back to you from the stage or a TV or movie screen, it means something. Maybe you only know that if you don’t have it on a regular basis. It’s easy to take for granted if it’s always there. It wasn’t always there for me. It still isn’t. It’s why I write the stories I write.
But writing them doesn’t get them in front of people. Producers and directors and actors do. I’m just drawing the blueprint. They’re building the house and inviting people in.
Sometimes there are things actors aren’t willing to do. And you have to respect that. Hopefully, if it’s an issue, you don’t have to cast them. Hopefully, if they know up front, they save themselves and everyone else the time and just don’t audition. Not every role is right for every actor, and vice versa. You do the things you’re comfortable with, you do the things you feel you need to, and the rest, you take a pass.
We were lucky in auditions and callbacks. We had a bunch of great people show up, and they were all aware of what they were signing up for. Sign up they did.
But I am amazed, and grateful, on a daily basis, that these guys are as committed to this story and these characters as they are.
They’re building a hell of a house. You should come visit.
The world premiere of this newly expanded and updated version of “Leave,” from Urbran Samurai Productions and yours truly, opens this Friday at the Sabes Jewish Community Center. You can find all the pertinent information you might need at urbansamurai.org