"Action Equals Equality": Rory O'Malley, Gavin Creel and Jenny Kanelos On the Groundbreaking History of Broadway Impact

As part of Playbill.com's 30 Days of Pride, we sit down with Rory O'Malley, Gavin Creel and Jenny Kanelos, the trio who co-founded the grassroots organization Broadway Impact and recount the groundbreaking success they've had in banding together the theatre community in support of marriage equality.

Rory O'Malley
Rory O'Malley

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As Proposition 8 was being passed in California in 2008, Rory O'Malley, Gavin Creel and Jenny Kanelos were meeting at the Westway Diner on Ninth Avenue, where Broadway Impact, the first and only grassroots organization to mobilize the nationwide theatre community in support of marriage equality, was born.

"We started meeting at Westway Diner, where we just had breakfast again this morning," explained O'Malley, with a laugh. "Two things started at Westway Diner: Broadway Impact and 'Seinfeld' the sitcom… We just started to say, 'What could we do?' We had no idea what to do. We didn't know how to make a difference or what we were capable of, so we went to different organizations — LGBT organizations, such as HRC [Human Rights Campaign] and Marriage Equality New York and Empire State Pride Agenda — and we said, 'Where do the theatre people go? What should we do?' And they said, 'Do what everybody else does — write your letters…' There was nothing specific for the theatre community and how they should get involved, and we were like, 'We think that we're capable of a lot more than just showing up like everybody else. The theatre community is so powerful.'"

The trio, according to Creel, started "dreaming way past what we thought we could [do], thinking so far out that it would never happen, and then things started falling into place."

Around that time, Creel was cast in the 2009 Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, for which he later received a Tony nod for his performance as Claude, and the group of trailblazers thought that they could band the Broadway hippies together to forge a strong start to Impact. The group's "coming out" party was Defying Inequality: The Broadway Concert — A Celebrity Benefit for Equal Rights, which featured a star-studded lineup of Broadway's best (including the cast of Hair) at the Gershwin Theatre, home of Broadway's Wicked. The February 2009 event led to a game-changing equality rally in Times Square.

O'Malley explained, "We knew there was a rally against marriage equality happening in May of 2009 — five years ago — and we said, 'Well, we have to do something in response,' so we walked into [Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS executive director] Tom Viola's office, and we told him this: 'We have to do something.' He said, 'Okay, well, we'll need a stage. We'll need this, this, this…' We [thought], 'Oh, God.'"

Gavin Creel
Photo by Robert Mannis

"Our original idea," Kanelos interjected, from Impact's home within the BC/EFA building, "was: 'Gavin, can we get the cast of Hair to stand on the TKTS steps and sing, and we'll create a diversion from the anti-equality rally that was going on in front of the governor's office?' Tom [said], 'We'll get a stage,' and he ended up doing it full out to a huge, shut-down, Sixth Avenue rally." O'Malley continued, "He called Audra McDonald. She was the first person who said, 'Yes,' she'd be a part of it. The cast of Hair, Cheyenne [Jackson]… Cynthia Nixon announced that she was engaged at it, and a few thousand people showed up."

It was, Creel explained, "one of those things, again, where we were dreaming way bigger than we thought… I told Jenny — and none of us drink — 'I'm going to force you to drink a glass of champagne if the governor ever says the words Broadway Impact,' and at that rally, the governor showed up and Mayor Bloomberg, and we were standing there, and Rory opened the rally to 5,000 people, gave this amazing speech and introduced the mayor, and the mayor walked on, and I [thought], 'What happened?'"

The three, who were introduced through friends and quickly bonded through their passion for activism, described the 2008-09 events as the "perfect storm." A trailblazing leader, Barack Obama, had been elected as President of the United States, yet at the same time, Prop 8 had passed in California — and the trio felt it was the right time to make a difference. They decided to keep a "safe focus" in mobilizing for marriage.

The group educated the Broadway community as well as themselves on the issue at hand. ("One of [Jenny and Rory's] tasks to me was to learn how the state legislature works," confessed Creel. "If a letter is written to a state representative, they have to log it.") They hand-delivered letters to the senate, and they even gathered an organized group (with the help of Broadway luminaries, including Sutton Foster, who rented a bus) to attend the National Equality March in October 2009 in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, Dustin Lance Black won a 2009 Academy Award for his film "Milk," based on the openly gay elected official Harvey Milk, and the group turned to him to help with the play 8. "We met with the America Foundation for Equal Rights, who funds and runs the [Proposition 8] case," said O'Malley. "They were very interested in [us adapting it into a play] and very supportive of having it reach to theatres all across the country. Dustin Lance Black is on their board, and he asked to have coffee with me, and he said, 'Actually, I'd like to be the one to write it.' After I got off the floor from falling out of my chair when he said that, I [said], 'That's great. I think that would be very helpful to our mission.'"

Rory O'Malley and Jenny Kanelos
Photo by Monica Simoes

With the entire Broadway community willing to help out, including Jujamcyn Theaters and Jordan Roth, 8 was staged in 2011 at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill under the direction of Tony winner Joe Mantello. The cast included Bob Balaban, Ellen Barkin, Matt Bomer, Campbell Brown, Anthony Edwards, Morgan Freeman, K. Todd Freeman, Jayne Houdyshell, Cheyenne Jackson, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Larry Kramer, Christine Lahti, Ken Leung, John Lithgow, O'Malley, Rob Reiner, Ben Rosenfield, Kate Shindle, Yeardley Smith, Stephen Spinella and Bradley Whitford.

The work was so well received that it was subsequently staged in Los Angeles with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch. The production was livestreamed and lives (in its entirety) on YouTube, where it currently has approximately 790,000 views.

"It was a defining moment in my life," admitted Kanelos, who was steadfast and committed to getting the reading on its feet. "I believed in this project so much and through years of trying to get it to that moment — we had ups and downs, definitely — but it was one of those moments where I was like, 'I know in my gut that this is going to happen, and I can see it, and I can see the curtain opening, and it being on the stage.' I'm so glad that I went with my feeling and gut and stuck by it because it was great."

"After the flashy opening or party, everybody goes home. The real work is done now, here, by her," said Creel, referencing his co-founder and the office the trio were currently sitting in.

Kanelos said, "But that's what I was excited to do. When I saw [ 8] happening, I [thought], 'This is going to be great because it's going to let me do this,' which is what I'm really excited about — when we go to these places and we hear these kids talking about it." Kanelos refers to the hundreds of productions of 8 that have been put up around the world. She keeps track with a map of the United States in the Broadway Impact office. Blue flags mark completed productions in that region, and red flags represent upcoming productions. The map is filled with about 450 flags.

After the two-act 8 is performed, Creel said that there is also an Act Three.

"We call it our Act Three: the talkback," he said. "The third act is actually the responsible part, I think — to say you have to have a talkback. You have to engage the audience and say, 'What do you think? Talk to us.' Jenny does surveys after to see what people's responses are and compiles their comments."

"And, I hook them up with local organizations," she added, "like marriage equality organizations in the state, especially if it's a state that doesn't have [legalized same-sex] marriage or is working on marriage. We connect to people there and make sure that people know what to do, know who to call, and if it's already legal, post it on their Facebook, talk about it."

The trio explained that they provide resources and all of the tools needed to perform 8 and educate the audience.

As for the future of Broadway Impact, "I'm excited to come home," said Creel, who is performing in the West End in The Book of Mormon, but was recently in town to reunite with his Impact co-founders. "The honest answer for me, anyway, is re-implementing back to that beginning stage. Obviously, 8 is going to continue to go on. Jenny is going to continue to do the amazing work she is doing. But I'm excited to get the three of us back in a room. We had this thing when we were first starting this. We called it Phase 1 and Phase 2, and we were more interested in Phase 2. Phase 1 was getting the celebrities to come and give it a little initial push in New York and L.A., but Phase 2 is what we as an organization and people have always been more excited about — getting it to real people, real people saying it, real people hearing it, so I'm excited to get to Phase 3 for us."

What's up for Phase 3? "We have so many ideas," said Kanelos. "This is something I've been working on right now… We're working right now, big time, in places like Indiana and Ohio because they're kind of on the fence of what they're going to put on the ballot." However, Creel said, their work is never done. "It's a volatile issue that's not going to go away even if there's a federal law that says, 'Okay, it's the law of the land.' The day after hopefully the President says, 'I'm signing a bill. There's going to be marriage equality across the land — federal and state' is going to be a volatile day. We're going to be around for a long time because it's not just, 'Oh, we won. Great, let's go to Boca. Let's go to the beach. Let's chill.' There's going to be a lot of pissed off people who aren't getting their way, and it's going to be further education and inspiration to try and tell them why this is the just, right thing to be behind — why this is the part of history you want to be a part of."

Creel, whose motto is "I don't care where he's been, but I care where he's going," added, "We have the ability to change people's minds and hearts — that's what we want to do with theatre. That's what theatre does…period."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael).

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