Who: Austin P. McKenzie and Gideon Glick
Outside: The Laura Pels Theatre
In 2007, nearly a decade before he would win a Tony Award for his acclaimed play The Humans, Stephen Karam made his first big splash with a high school-set comedy titled Speech & Debate. The Roundabout Theatre production launched Karam as a voice to follow in the theatre, along with the show’s three stars: Gideon Glick, Sarah Steele, and Jason Fuchs. Speech & Debate follows three misfit teenagers who form a speech and debate team—which is really just a drama club in disguise. Among many things, the story is a testament to theatre’s power to bring people together. Karam recently adapted his acclaimed play into a film, helmed by Dan Harris and hitting theatres nationwide April 7. Playbill caught up with Glick, who originated the role of Howie in Speech & Debate Off-Broadway, and Austin P. McKenzie, who plays the same role in the movie, outside the Laura Pels Theatre where it all began. Turns out, the two have more in common than Karam’s teenage character.
Gideon, does Speech & Debate hold a special place for you?
Gidion Glick: It does. It was the first big play I did in New York City. I left Spring Awakening on Broadway to do it, and I got to perform with Sarah Steele, one of my best friends since I was 11. I also got to meet Stephen Karam, who has become a collaborator and dear friend. It was a pretty momentous time for me.
Austin, the film is quite different from the play, isn’t it?
Austin P. McKenzie: It is. They made a lot of changes. They wanted to make the movie more accessible to teenagers and the general public. I think they definitely got it [right].
Why is it just as important for audiences in 2017 to see a character like Howie represented onstage or screen: a gay teen who isn’t afraid to be out?
Glick: I think what was exciting about it—then and now—is that Howie is a young character who’s liberated. His sexuality is not what he’s dealing with, that’s an ancillary thing to the drama of the show. And I think that—ten years ago and now—is very important. It’s not about his sexuality; he’s comfortable.
McKenzie: He’s a teenager who just happens to be gay. I think it’s important for teenagers to see this story and see that there’s a normalcy to it, and that you can deal with other problems.
What role did theatre play for you both in high school?
Glick: I got to meet Sarah Steele through an inner city youth hip-hop group in Philadelphia. So, first of all, I met my best friend in the entire world. I got to meet a lot of really amazing, talented people and like-minded people. I think there’s a solace there; it’s safe.
McKenzie: I had a rough time with high school theatre because there was so much pressure and a lot of judgment. I’d like to say that a lot of it came from my teacher, but I suppose a lot of it came from myself. In my senior year I decided I absolutely didn’t want to do this for a living. I didn’t want to surround myself with all that judgment. [Looking back] I think it was a very naïve way to look at it, and thank God Spring Awakening came up and swept me back into theatre. There is a way to do it, be happy, and to be critical but not judge yourself.
Austin, are you happy that you stuck it out with theatre, now?
McKenzie: I am. Speech & Debate was my first film, and it was difficult to be a lead in your first film. But, I got through it and I’m happy I did it. It was definitely the right choice. There was no other choice.
You’ve both been in Spring Awakening as well as Speech & Debate. Are you conscious of how your careers have intertwined?
Glick: We met for the first time at the Speech & Debate film premiere in New York, but we’d been corresponding by social media [before meeting in person]. Austin invited me to opening night of Spring Awakening on Broadway in 2015, which I was very touched by. It’s funny that he occupies this nostalgic time of my life with both of these shows. Now he represents this thing for me—my life ten years ago!
McKenzie: I’m just here to remind you how old you are.
Glick: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Speech & Debate is available on iTunes now and will be released in theatres April 7.