How Straight Changes the Dialogue About Sexuality

How Straight Changes the Dialogue About Sexuality Director Andy Sandberg talks his latest play, Straight, and how we define sexuality in 2016.
Thomas Sullivan,  Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan
Thomas Sullivan, Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan Monica Simoes

Director Andy Sandberg’s Straight, is a new provocative play dealing with themes of sexuality and labels. Currently at Theatre Row through May 8, Sandberg sat down on Off Script to discuss the work. Off Script is a personalized, theatre interview programoriginally broadcast on WHDD Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation—that goes “off script” with playwrights, directors and actors to find out what makes a play work (or not).

Sandberg, like all good directors, knows his characters, and I related to them in Straight because I came out in the late ’70s. Like other gay “elders,” I had specific personal and historical perspective on Straight’s story. Sandberg has recently directed and co-authored the world premiere of Application Pending. Before that, he directed Off-Broadway plays, including Operation Episilon, Craving for Travel (also co-author), Shida, and Zelda at the Oasis. Sandberg has also produced for Broadway, with credits including revivals of The Best Man and the Tony-winning Hair.

The main character in Straight is Ben, an Ivy grad, whose girlfriend, Emily, is his college sweetheart, and who also has a younger boyfriend, Chris, who’s a college student. Ben’s maybe homosexual, maybe bisexual, or maybe heterosexual. Does that describe Ben accurately?
AS: Those are all good descriptions for Ben. (laughs) What I love about this play are all the discussions that it provokes and the questions that it leaves deliberately unanswered. We’ve had some say Ben is definitely bisexual, others say that he’s gay and closeted and “needs to come out already,” and others say, “He’s heterosexual and just exploring.” The play’s very much about how society uses labels, and how, as a result, we define ourselves. Straight is not your typical coming-out or afraid-of-coming-out play, although I admire the plays in those categories that made their mark. Straight is different. It looks at sexuality through labels.

So Straight’s about labels? Or, is it about being afraid to come out because of labels? I’m getting confused.
AS: The play’s not about the fear of judgment. It’s about the fear of labels. It’s about the fear of being defined by your sexuality.

Allow me to be a little argumentative. As a gay guy who’s been through this, who came out 35 years ago, what if I say the play’s about fear of self?
AS: I don’t think that’s inaccurate. Ben is struggling with how he wants to make peace with this: Does he want to go down that path? Ben loves Emily, and has a lifetime of expectations with her, and he wonders if he’s being asked to throw that all away. He’s not entirely wrong in thinking that way, and he’s not necessarily resentful of his sexual inclinations toward Chris. One of his greatest fears is the fidelity with Emily that he is violating by having another relationship, too, and this one happens to be with Chris. This is so much of what torments Ben, not simply his sexual attraction toward a younger man.

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Jake Epstein, Jenna Gavigan and Thomas Sullivan Monica Simoes

OK, let me be put the concern I have about the play right out there. I came out in the late ’70s, and to me and other guys like me of “a certain age,” Straight comes across as so Seventies. Straight doesn’t exactly bury its head in the sand about all the progress in gay rights since then, but does it fully acknowledge how societal change affects individuals?
AS: There is an older generation who did Stonewall, who fought the good fight, and in STRAIGHT the characters acknowledge that we’re beyond that. It’s deliberately set in a present day, liberal college town—Boston—so everyone is aware of the LBGT community, and the play does acknowledge the strides we’ve made as a society and the political progress in the equality movement, but these characters aren’t focused on that fight. They’re not activists—nor are they antagonists. They are living their own lives, and don’t want to define themselves by that fight.
What resonates about this play is that there’s a whole other generation now that is still struggling, but who feel they are being judged for struggling. The playwrights—Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola—are trying to let everybody have permission to struggle in their own way. Some people can fly out of the closet when they’re sixteen and celebrate themselves and their sexuality, and that’s great, but others don’t want to be automatically defined by gay culture. We still live in an age where no matter how accepting, we think in terms of labels. When I think of my closest gay friends, and of all the adjectives I can use to describe them, I sometimes can’t help but think of them in terms of their sexuality, even if they wouldn’t want to be defined that way.

I’ve been thinking since seeing the play, “The more things change, the more things remain the same.” So, could we agree that one of the things Straight is getting at is, that despite how much the world has changed, that the personal, emotional, internal phenomena, the individual struggle for self, doesn’t?
AS: Absolutely. Some of my friends who are out, oddly, had the hardest time coming out to their parents, not because they weren’t going to be accepted or because their parents weren’t open-minded, but because they didn’t want their parents to see them in sexual terms, which for whatever reason wasn’t happening for them when they were living a ‘straight’ life. Jake Epstein who plays Ben…

…who was in Beautiful and before that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and is just as good in drama as he is in musicals…
AS: Yes, he’s a wonderful actor, as are his co-stars Tom Sullivan and Jenna Gavigan. Jake put it best when he said that straight men don’t have to “come out” as straight, so why in this accepting modern age do gay men still feel a pressure to “come out” as gay?

There’s one scene where Emily is introduced to Ben’s boyfriend, Chris, and without giving too much away, the circumstances are such that many girlfriends might have said, “I’m outta here.” How difficult was that scene to direct in order to maintain the credibility of the story and characters?
AS: That’s another one of the questions in the play we wanted to leave open. How much does Emily know, how much doesn’t she know? She cares deeply about Ben, she’s his best friend, and she is prepared to invest a lifetime with him. She walks a fine line as to how much of that she wants to preserve or shatter, how much is conscious or subconscious. We leave that to audiences to interpret. Is she oblivious? Or, is saying I don’t want to go there? Or, is something else going on? The scene you refer to is a very challenging moment in her character and the story, so, yes, it was a challenging scene to direct. There’s a lot of comedy in that scene, but underneath the comedy, there’s so much for the characters to process. It’s a tough scene, but it’s very well-written. Scott and Drew really thought the whole thing through in detail.

Jenna Gavigan, Jake Epstein and Thomas Sullivan <br/>
Jenna Gavigan, Jake Epstein and Thomas Sullivan
Monica Simoes

The play runs around 85 minutes, one act, no intermission, which seems to be almost the norm these days, so this economy seems to dictate really smooth transitions between scenes. You make skillful use in making these transitions through music and lighting in STRAIGHT.
AS: Thank you. From a directors’ point of view, smooth transitions are integral to any piece, no matter the length of the play. There’s nothing I hate more than going to blackout or seeing a curtain come down between scenes for no reason. The story needs to flow throughout. This play, although it takes place all in Ben’s apartment, occurs over several months, so we needed to show the passage of time, but we tried to do it more subtly—enough to tell the story without a literal projection of a clock—with original music by Will Van Dyke (sound designed by Alex Hawthorn) and lighting by Grant Yeager, who helped us navigate these transitions. We also wanted to show how Ben finds himself often in one situation but trying to to escape to another, and how he transitions between his two complicated relationships. At its core, Straight is all about text and three characters, so the seed ideas for these transitions all came from the story itself.

When did you start working on Straight?
AS: I started working on this in the fall 2010 when the authors brought it to me. We worked on it together—just the three of us—for a while, then did a public reading, which thankfully had a strong reaction. We subsequently did a ton of closed door readings while developing the play over the years. We were always encouraged, particularly in seeing the positive response to the comedy, which is more circumstantial than joke-based. The comedy really did land, which was exciting since the laughs come from truth and not a traditional set-up-and-joke structure. There aren’t many traditional ‘punchlines’ in this play, although we still have a few fun one-liners.

Right…what’s the one about glitter?
AS: “Not every gay guy, like, burps glitter.” We actually sell tank tops with that quote which seem to fly off the shelves - ha! But even with that line, it’s coming from a very real, honest moment. Straight is definitely introspective at times and lets you find ways to identify with all three of these characters, whether you love or hate their choices and how they handle situations. I think that’s why it generates so many different reactions in different people, which as a director I love to see happen.