Live theater within live theater
A conversation with playwright Dustin Lance Black and actor Reed Cowan
On July 24, 2011, my partner of 15½ years became my husband. As the first gay couple from Utah married in New York, we were completely unprepared for how different we would feel. We were even more unprepared for how it would feel when our marriage couldn’t travel home with us.
Fast forward to the fall of 2011. I heard about a play called 8 that Dustin Lance Black was developing about the 2010 trial that overturned Prop. 8. So I barraged him and the folks at Broadway Impact (who were licensing the play) and the American Foundation for Equal Rights (who were using the play to raise funds to fight for marriage equality on the federal level) with emails until they agreed to let me read the script.
Fast forward to Pride weekend last month. I chatted with Dustin Lance Black about creating the play 8 and with Reed Cowan about returning to the stage, in 8, after 20 years.
What is your theater background? I was incredibly shy in kindergarten and first grade. I wouldn’t talk and I wouldn’t wear any clothes with colors on them. My mom decided to tackle my shyness problem by putting me in theater. And I fell in love with it. I had this great turn of luck when my mom’s remarriage took us to the Bay Area and I got to work in great theaters. They’d ask me, “What do you want to do in the theater?” and I’d say, “Anything!” One director said to me, “One day you might be a director so you need to know every department.” So one summer I did props, the next summer I ran the light board and then I got cast in a production of Peter Pan. I found my family in the theater.
How did your play 8 come to be? While living in New York, I was introduced to Rory O’Malley [The Book of Mormon] and Broadway Impact. Rory had also been at the trial in San Francisco, so we agreed that we should bring to life and light the story that’s been withheld from public view. 8 places center stage the courtroom proceeds [of the trial that overturned Prop. 8 on Aug. 4, 2010]. We knew we could have it onstage in about a year and it would take 2 or 3 years to get a film made.
Why use the theater as a vehicle for 8? It’s exciting to return to live theater. Mostly it scares the crap out of me because you don’t have Take 2 … I’ve gotten really use to Take 2! But it’s the right fit for the urgency of this moment, the urgency of this movement. People need to understand what was being argued in that courtroom.
Tell us about the development of the play. I spent weekends between the trial and September 2011 writing the script. The Broadway reading [Sept. 19, 2011] was the first time I heard it in front of an audience. That was really frightening! I made some changes, which Gavin Creel [co-founder of Broadway Impact] tested at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. I continued to make changes — all of the readings up until the L.A. reading [March 3, 2012] I considered workshops.
Is the play “finished?” What happened, happened when it happened, so that’s not going to change. What does change is the Epilogue. Between New York and L.A. we had to change it because of the Ninth Circuit decision [declaring Prop. 8 unconstitutional on Feb. 7, 2012]. I hope we have to continue to change it!
Creating documentary theater seems like a natural fit for you. This had to be different, by design, than say, Milk or J. Edgar. With those I felt I had far more freedom to combine characters, telescope timeline and change words around. But here, the concept was “We’re going to show the country what they missed inside the courtroom,” not “We’re going to show the country what I imagine they kind of missed.”
What do you want people in Salt Lake City to take with them from 8? It would be great to get some of the people that donated to Prop. 8, who supported it, to come and see what it is we’re fighting for. And maybe through that would create understanding and, eventually, reconciliation.
Tell us about your path from theater to broadcast journalism. In high school I competed around the country in Dramatic Interpretation and Readers Theatre. I was then accepted into the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah. Sadly, my parents pulled funding and, while broke at 19, I ended up living at home until I relented and went on a Mormon mission. I haven’t been onstage since.
During my mission, Utah State University contacted me and said, “We have a full-ride theater scholarship for you when you return.” By then, I was fully brainwashed that a return to theater would mean a return to being gay. When I returned from my mission, I turned down the scholarship and wrote to an LDS General Authority about Schindler’s List. I wanted to know what the LDS Church felt about the film, and what it felt about priesthood holders as actors. I was encouraged to pursue broadcasting instead. Obediently, I did. I was introduced to Bruce Lindsay of KSL and began my Journalism major sans scholarship.
How did Lance come to narrate your film 8: The Mormon Proposition? On the night he accepted his Oscar I said two things: “That dude is Mormon!” and “He’s got to narrate our film.” Our first conversation was related to my invitation to him to contact a Florida girl who had written her book report on Harvey Milk, only to have it rejected (based on topic) by her school for a public reading. I had reached out to him on Facebook: “I’m with the Fox affiliate in Miami … there’s this girl who would flip her lid if she could hear from you and get your encouragement … would you do it?” He responded within minutes. He then called her personally — she indeed flipped! From there, I submitted a rough script and an even rougher cut to him to see if he would narrate it. He narrated the film after hours while on the set for Virginia. We wouldn’t have had a release and we wouldn’t have had been in the Sundance Film Festival without him.
Why do you think live theater is the best vehicle for people to experience 8? Exactly because it was live theater. The trial played out on the court-“stage.” Lawyers had lines. The players had stories. There is no other venue but the theater for such a work.
Plan-B Theatre Company’s staged reading of 8 on Aug. 4–5, in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center includes a post-show discussion with Black and Congressman Barney Frank, moderated by Equality Utah’s Brandie Balken. The cast includes Bill Allred, Tobin Atkinson, Kirt Bateman, Matthew Ivan Bennett, Kim Blackett, Daisy Blake, Anita Booher, Jason Bowcutt, Reed Cowan, Joe Debevc, April Fossen, Mark Fossen, Jonathan Scott McBride, Jay Perry, Topher Rasmussen, Teresa Sanderson, Aaron Swenson, Logan Tarantino, Jason Tatom and Sarah Young. The reading is a fundraiser for Plan-B, with 25 percent of the proceeds going to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization fighting for marriage equality on the federal level. There will be a cash bar. Tickets are $25 at planbtheatre.org or 801-355-ARTS.