Gay for Pay, or Sexuality on Stage

Shea King

How do you audition someone’s sexuality? That comes up for me more times than I am comfortable with. I am a director who, when given the choice, works on plays and musicals that are queer themed stories with non straight characters. As a gay man myself it is also very important to me that I get to work with other queer identifying artists both on and off stage. But, how do I go about getting that information in the auditions process? 

This first came into my thinking a few years back when I directed a production of The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez. The story follows a young Elvis Impersonator who is down on his luck and is taken in by the drag queens who are hired to replace him. Casey, the main man, is straight, but the drag queens that mentor him are both gay. All the actors in the company, identified as straight. 

I did not cast the play, the producers did, but I know I would have asked them to join the process no matter the options because they are each giving, authentic, and generative collaborators. The design team was a more diverse and eclectic group. Drag queens, trans artists, bi sexual individuals, poly non conforming folks. It was a dream team. Even the theatre I was at was ran by gay and lesbian bad asses who created this space from nothing in the early 90’s. 

But, that brought up some passionate discussion about the straight men playing the gay drag queens. I had one opinion that, they were creating truthful moments on stage that made for a dynamic night of theatre. They did their research, found things in their own lives that connected them to the given circumstances, and went above and beyond during our drag queen boot camps to get them “Yas bitch,” ready for the long run. But, they are straight. 

I was perfectly fine with it. Some of the team members to this day were not happy with the choice to have straight men play the parts, as remarkable as they were in the show. So again, how do I know when given the chance to cast a non-straight person for a non-straight role that the actor is in fact, not straight? 

I have a clear opinion when it comes to trans roles. Scarlett Johansson cannot and should not play a trans person. Nor should any cis person play a trans role. We are beyond the days of Transparent being led by a cis man and it is about time. It has been a long time coming. Yet, I find myself on the fence when it comes to my own stories being told by people outside of the queer spectrum. My favorite films are Call Me by Your Name , and Moonlight which feature straight cis actors playing gay male characters. Am I wrong for feeling validated by these films? Does it make me less of an advocate if I trust certain allies to carry a play or a film in the name of art and representative storytelling? If given the chance, I would always want to have a gay man play a gay character. Of course I do. But how do I make those choices based on skill and that weird sixth sense that often comes into play during a casting session, while also not giving people roles just based on their sexuality? 

I am so lost and so desperate for a black and white answer. It is becoming more clear to me though that it is a great big grey area. Theatre's like About Face Theatre in Chicago, and Diversionary in Southern California,  seem to have a solid platform. Queer spaces for queer artists. How do I as a director give agency to my queer brothers and sisters when I am working at other institutions and do not want to rely solely on my assuming of someone else's’ truth? This is hard! 

I have gotten heat from friends who identify as gay on other projects as well for casting straight actors in gay and lesbian roles. Am I wrong for doing this? Do I hold out for a gay-identifying actor?

I hear so often and read even more from queer media about how sexuality is fluid. How sexuality is a spectrum and should be embraced by all so we can all live in a more loving and sexually free world beyond labels and hang-ups surrounding sex. To be honest I have had sex with men who identify as straight. I know lots of people who have experimented just to try it. Is that not a welcome venture for our straight friends? Is me playing a straight man or a straight woman playing a gay woman, not another layer of sexual experimentation? My hope for the theatre is to create vulnerable moments of connection and empathetic experiences that demand my presence. Gay or straight, that is what I want from an actor. 

The queer experience has been whitewashed, as we saw recently in the Stonewall film,  and straight-washed, most major films, tv shows, and commercial plays, for a very long time. And, the lack of representation in most mediums is underwhelming to begin with. I myself am not interested in most non-gay roles, nor am I particularly interested in directing straight romances. There is space for us in our work, we just need to make that space, first, for one another. But how do we do that in a way that is not invasive to the performers? How do we also make this work with and for each other without continuing the narrative that non-hetero, non-binary love is somehow different than that of our straight counterparts? When will being gay stop being an act of political rebellion and start being a part of everyday life and art?

I am an optimist, and idealist really, when it comes to the future of queer storytelling. I do not think I am alone, nor do I think that we will have to wait too much longer for total immersion into the mainstream. Yet we as a community who are still marginalized and discriminated against, we do not have a monopoly on inclusion. Maybe it will be okay to share our queer roles with straight people when “playing gay” stops being an act of “bravery.” 

This is really complicated and, like my writing here, it is full of contradictions. 

I ache for more LGBTQI stories and a surplus of storytellers from my own community. Is there a place for straight people in our work, or do we need to start asking for a sexuality statement in auditions? I do not have an answer, nor do I think there is one right now. This is food for thought as I go into auditions in the future and as I begin to see more work all around the country. My hope is that we find space for more queer visibility no matter the venue and no matter the platform. Diversity breeds innovation. More women, more POC, more queer people in the creative hives around the world. We need more of this eclecticism in our team building to discover and share the most intimate parts of our own humanity. Now more than ever in the US especially, we need some human kindness and connection.

So, once we can get beyond the labels of who has sex with who, embrace the multiplicity in us all, and make room for diversity, then maybe we can grow beyond the scarcity for space in our stories.