It’s often lamented that musicals get to have all the flash and romance while plays lurk in the darker corners of the mind. Three up-and-coming playwrights are determined to dismantle that line of thinking, and are having a blast while doing it as part of the development series of this year’s Pride Plays Festival.
While Pride Plays presents four “mainstage” live stream presentations on Playbill throughout the month of June, 11 more works are in development as part of the festival.
These three writers and their stories are all examine forms of love in various subsections of the LGBTQ+ community.
Preston Max Allen’s Modern Gentlemen follows a trans man and his ex-girlfriend as they figure out their relationship, especially when the ex wants to stay together and keep the label of being a lesbian. “The fact that it’s as light as it can be, with moments of reconciliation and healing, to me just feels like I'm very happy to see that in my work for myself,” says Allen.
For Leonora, or, Companions, by Hayley St. James, follows an autistic book collector, Nora, who must navigate giving up her imaginary friend after she finds a connection with another young woman similar to herself.
Familial love takes center stage in Audrey Lang’s You Have To Promise, which follows two “baby lesbians” (as Lang calls them) on their journey of self-discovery. “I feel like love stories are so often thought of as falling in or out of love, and I think [the play] is much more about learning how to love people in the way that you actually need to be loved and that that they need to be loved.”
For all three, they’re stories steeped in personal experiences without being autobiographical. “The work has changed with me as I transition,” says Allen of Modern Gentleman. “It's not a story about me, or people in my life, but it's influenced by things that have come up in my dating life.”
And, despite the obstacles many face in the community, all three make a conscious effort to steer clear of the heavy undertones that often accompany LGBTQ+ works, complicated though these love stories might be.
“Having an opportunity to write a lesbian love story that doesn't end sad, or with them never seeing each other again, it felt like taking this narrative as an LGBTQ+ person, an autistic person, and writing an ending that I wanted to see in real life,” says St. James, prompting fervent agreement from Lang. “My mentor taught me, ‘You can be gentle’ and that’s something I’ve carried with me.”
Allen’s Modern Gentleman ending reads more open-ended than the other two plays, but the playwright says that’s still a positive. “I wanted to give space to the idea that sometimes there is no clear answer in a relationship that is going through these kinds of changes and rocky moments,” he says. “Leaving that open is really exciting to me; it feels really positive either way and growth for the characters either way.”
Now, the pieces will be seen by industry experts via Pride Plays, who will provide tools and feedback to bring the works to the next level. And though the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted this year’s festival online, all three of the playwrights could not be more excited to have their pieces performed—even if that means changes to adapt to social distancing.
St. James’ work, perhaps, faces the biggest challenge of presenting online. “One of the characters is an actual puppet,” they said. “It’s hard to have someone construct a puppet for a Zoom reading because at an in-person workshop, we'd have access to someone who would build something for the purposes of rehearsal and presenting to an audience.”
For Lang, social distancing means her two leads, Maeve and Nessa, won’t kiss any time soon. On the flip side, it’s a break for Allen from the stress of trying to synchronize instruments in musical workshops so the sound works properly.
There’s a positive aspect all three writers, agree on however: Without the physicality of the play, there’s an increased focus on the text. “I keep thinking it’s done and then I was re-reading it last night and found new things that I want to work on,” says Lang.
That drive and passion to see the positive pushes these three playwrights to then push audiences and theatres to look at LGBTQ+ stories in a different way.
Plus, Allen says, having the first-ever workshop of Modern Gentleman at an LGBTQ+ festival is so much better than elsewhere. “The understanding, the feedback, the energy, and the notes are going to be so much more valuable,” compared to cis-gender heterosexual audiences, he says. “I don't need to put my work in the context of, ‘Do I have to set a limit of how much I can talk about before it becomes “too trans” for a large-scale audience?,’ which I'm very grateful to not do.”
The works will be presented this month in an industry-only presentation. Modern Gentleman is directed by Blaze Teicher; You Have To Promise is directed by Jenna Warsham; and For Leonora, or, Companions, will be helmed by a director to be announced at a later date.
To support works like these, please consider making a donation at broadwaycares.org/prideplays2020.