When we left off yesterday, we were segueing from the couple-creators portion of this interview to talking with Ben Abbott about the new one-man show he has written and is starring in this weekend (with, of course, some additional insights from his wife Barbara). If you will be in the Bay Area, click on the poster to buy tickets. Hurry — the show is expected to sell out.
Th: The reason I’m finally getting around to making this interview happen now is Ben’s show this weekend. Tell us about it.
Ben: This is my senior thesis at UC Berkeley. It’s a one-man show about gay members of the church. When Proposition 8 happened I was the only active Mormon studying at PCPA (which is in California), where the majority of my friends were gay. I felt strangely caught between two worlds, with my family and faith on one side, and my friends and work on the other. I thought, you know, do I have to reject one or the other of these to some degree to truly embrace the other? Out of those ponderings came the question, well what about gay members of the church themselves? Talk about conflict. How do they reconcile the contradiction? Or do they? I spent a few months interviewing people, and from those transcripts I pulled segments and pieced them together into a one-man show. I think it offers a wider look at the issue than most of what I’ve seen that’s out there right now. This is not a monolithic group, and there is a huge variety of reactions to finding oneself at the crossroads of gay and Mormon, and I try to present enough of them to challenge just about anyone’s assumptions, no matter which “side” they’re on.
Th: Was this project an easy sell to Cal’s theater department?
Ben: Well, I was one of a bunch of proposals, out of which they chose two. Cal’s theater department is actually a theater and performance studies department, and if you know anything about performance studies, this project really hits a lot of its main focuses: intersectionality, ethnography, performance of self, dialectic performance. But also I think they were intrigued by the fact that I was taking this project on as a straight, faithful Mormon. One professor said you would expect a gay Mormon to write this kind of project proposal, so it’s almost surprising coming from me. I think they were intrigued by the fact that I was coming at the issue truly curious, without my mind made up about anything or an agenda to push, just wanting to learn more and understand this quagmire a little better. Plus of course in the wake of Prop 8 in California, it’s very topical. Besides, the core issue of being in conflict between one’s sexuality and one’s religious faith is not just a Mormon issue. I got the sense from some of the faculty that they were genuinely interested in what I found.
Th: What kind of support did you require to bring the project to fruition?
Ben: It’s funny you ask that. In tech rehearsal last night there were dozens of people working on lights, sound, costumes etc. The lighting design teacher came up to me and said “remember a year and a half ago when you were first thinking up this project, and now look at this room full of people working away on it.” A play, even a one-man show is not something that someone does alone. But back to the beginning, first I had to find people to interview, and you actually helped me out quite a bit with that. You put me in touch with a couple of your friends and they referred me to others and so on. I went from hoping I could find enough people to interview to not even being able to interview half the people I was in touch with. The process of turning hundreds of pages of interviews into a 55 minute one-man show involved a faculty advisor, a very helpful stage manager and a director. Both of them are Cal undergrads who don’t know anything about the Church, but a lot about theater. They were able to help tell me what was working and what wasn’t and my director was fantastic at crafting the movement of the show so it’s not just me standing there talking for an hour. The great thing about this opportunity for me is that it’s a department show, so I was assigned lighting and costume designers and so forth. After months of feeling like I was working all by myself, the last couple of months have been amazing as I got to see this whole army of people mobilize to make it a reality.
Th: Tell us a bit about the people who you talked with. How do they breakdown demographically? And how did they feel about your proposal?
Ben: I thought that by narrowing it down to gay Mormons I would get a narrower view, and in fact the opposite happened. They range in age from their mid-twenties to their seventies. I interviewed four women and eight men. While many of them had a lot in common, I think I found a wider range of experiences and opinions on the subject of homosexuality and the Church than I could find anywhere. Some have left the Church way behind, some are still active and zealously so, some have come back after years of being gone. Three of the people I interviewed are in mixed-orientation marriages (meaning they’re gay, but married to a straight spouse of the opposite sex) and even among those three there’s a wide range of activity and belief in the Church. The most interesting thing about the interviews is that I genuinely liked every person I interviewed. Even though they were so vastly different from each other, and this person’s statements would likely make that person cringe and vice versa, I was just there to learn and I really did like every single person I interviewed and learned a lot from each of them. One thing they all had in common as well was that they were glad I was doing this project. Whether they loved the Church or hated it, were closeted or in a same sex marriage, each of them knew I was also interviewing people who felt the exact opposite as they do, and almost all expressed some interest or gratitude for what I was doing. To me that seems to indicate that not enough of this kind of work is being done.
Babs: It’s surprised us, actually, at how overwhelmingly positive everyone responded to this project. Everyone we told about it just loved the idea. I mean, this kind of thing just hasn’t quite been done before that we’ve seen, and as a result, people thirst for it. Frankly, it was intimidating because people have had such high hopes and expectations for the show, Ben was nervous he wouldn’t live up to them. Personally, I think he’s done the work justice.
Th: How has working on this project changed you?
Ben: These are not easy questions. I’ve thought this before, but it’s just been magnified a hundred times that empathy and understanding are so much more important than being right and having the answers. Also, I think my testimony in the Church is so much more flexible, like a skyscraper that’s able to wobble in an earthquake, but not topple. I don’t have to know all the answers to everything or be right about everything for my testimony to be intact and strong. I’m more comfortable than I used to be with difficult questions, and being able to say, I just don’t have an answer to this or that, but that doesn’t bother me.
Babs: In many interviews the subject of personal revelation is brought up by the interviewee and each of them received answers unique to their situation, even if it was to leave the Church, or to stay with their same-sex partner. There just isn’t a cookie cutter shape for what a Mormon or any other Christian should look like or do; therefore — and I know this is such a cliche statement — we can’t judge others based on our shape and our actions. I’ve developed a stronger sense that Heavenly Father really loves and interacts with us on an individual level, and my testimony of personal revelation has been greatly strengthened.
Th: After the show closes on Saturday, what’s next for Questions of the Heart?
Ben: Well like I said, the more people I interviewed the more people I wanted to interview. This show really is only a very small sampling. What I really want to do is continue the research. I would love to find a theater company interested in producing Questions of the Heart, but I would also love to spend another year or so interviewing and learning more. I have so many questions now that I didn’t have before I started. It’s a one-act show now, but perhaps it can be developed into a full length. I’m talking in circles, but basically, what I have now is a vehicle I can continue working on, and there’s so much work to do, I’d love to find a way of researching full time and getting this issue into our dialog as a community. I would love to perform this in both Utah and the Castro district in San Francisco and see what I learn. The difficulty now is that I’m graduating and thus leaving this wonderful support system, so I’ve got to figure out either how to plug into a new one or how I can proceed just on my own. If there’s anyone out there interested in financing this kind of work, let me know.
[Theditorial note: Anyone wishing to contact the Abbotts may do so through me at theric*motleyvision*com.]
Th: This is a bit of a redundant question as you have already essentially answered it, but talk about the mountains of interview you collected (and the further mountains you were unable to collect given your brief timeframe). What are you going to do with all that extra stuff?
Ben: I only interviewed a dozen people, and the hardest part of this process was not being able to use even a fraction of the remarkable material. I feel like with just a couple follow-ups I could literally do a one-man show based on each interview. You and I were talking the other day about this and I said sort of off the cuff that I already had enough material to compile a book. I’d forgotten I was talking to someone for whom that kind of thing isn’t just idle talk. In thinking about it since then I think that may be the most logical direction for this go. It’s just so difficult to cram enough of what I think is remarkable material from these interviews into a single performance. I don’t think I’ll abandon the play though because there’s something so amazing about getting people into a room together to experience something together. I don’t know, perhaps a book and a play aren’t mutually exclusive.
Th: What sort of buzz are you hearing in the communities you’re addressing — theater, LGBTQ, LDS? And how do you expect (slash-hope) they will respond?
Ben: Mostly people seem excited about it. I can’t really speak for them, but from the feedback I’ve received, the LGBTQ community seems glad that I’m raising these questions, and interested in what my take is on this as an outsider; the LDS community I think is hungry for someone to really look at this issue in a way that doesn’t wreak of anti-Mormonism (I’m thinking specifically of 8: The Mormon Proposition [link to AMV review]) because that’s an immediate turn off; and the theater community is interested to learn more about something they don’t know much about and are hoping that it’s a good show.
Th: I’ve bought tickets for Thursday’s show, but for people who are squirmy or never seen a one-man show or who otherwise still need convincing, give them your best shot. (This is probably a good spot to mention the nudity thing.)
Ben: OK, so since you mentioned the partial nudity, the first thing I need to say is that it’s not me!! I stay fully clothed the whole time thank you very much. My show runs with another one act senior thesis project called Time and Materials which is a stage adaptation of some of former Poet Laureate Robert Hass’ poetry, and in that show there is a brief moment of a topless woman. My show is going first so that anyone who objects to brief partial nudity can politely excuse themselves at intermission. But if you do come I would really encourage you to stay for both shows. Time and Materials is worth seeing and we don’t want there to me a mass exodus at intermission as that wouldn’t be fair to them.
Why come to the show? When was the last time you went to a show that actually surprised you, and both affirmed and challenged you in intriguing ways? No matter who you are, you will hear things in my show that you strongly agree with, things that you strongly disagree with, and things that you hadn’t ever considered. The neat part of theater is that you’ll be in an audience where everyone has a different opinion, and you’ll all be experiencing and reacting to the show differently, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that. These are wonderful characters, and I was both enlightened and challenged by each of them. I also want to point out that I have no interest in doing or seeing a show where I just get talked at the whole time, or lectured, or just constantly challenged. That’s not my kind of show. I still think that on top of everything we should be able to go to the theater and be entertained, and because of that, this show is fun and moving. And hey, if all else fails, there is the partial nudity in the show after mine.
Babs: And Ben is too modest to say this but he really is a very talented actor. Not to mention the script is great. There’s a balance between the serious and funny, heartwarming moments. It’s just a good and honest show.
Th: Thanks, you two. And although I haven’t seen the script or ever seen Ben perform-perform (those who’ve met actors, know what I mean), I have tremendous faith in this show. I can’t wait to see it. Is it still tradition to encourage you to break an appendage?