The changing representation of LGBTQIA+ characters on stage
For a long time, LGBTQIA+ characters in plays and musicals tended to be ancillary characters, if they existed at all.
And how often would LGBTQIA+ performers be cast in those roles?
Things are changing, theater professionals agree.
Todd Underwood, who is associate artistic director at the Ivoryton Playhouse, said he thinks there has been a concerted effort among theaters to make sure that an actor fits the character more closely than had been the case in the past.
“There’s more to do on that front, including writing for LGBTQ characters so that more people identifying as LGBTQ have a greater range of opportunities than just one maybe token role,” he said.
Underwood noted that people are being cast in roles that they might not have been before. On the current national tour of “Oklahoma,” for instance, the supporting character of Ado Annie is being played by a trans woman. And the character of Edna in “Hairspray,” which has so often been filled by a cisgendered man since Divine’s initial take on the role, is being now played by a drag queen.
Reiterating that more work needs to be done, Underwood also said it’s encouraging that theater leaders are thinking about this during the planning stages of productions.
“It’s not a second or third or fourth thought. This is a part of the initial conversation,” he said.
Derron Wood, who is founder and principal artistic director of Flock Theatre, which is based in New London, noted that there was a time when, if a playwright (even Tennessee Williams, who was gay) wrote about a homosexual character, that character would tend to end up committing suicide. As culture has evolved, the ways playwrights present characters who are gay have evolved as well, he said.
“The playwrights that I know are always looking to tap into societal worlds that have not been written about or explored frequently,” Wood said. “So within that, I think there are certainly a tremendous amount of new plays dealing with untapped voices, whether it’s different minority voices that haven’t been heard or whether it’s from the LGBTQ+ community.”
Underwood said that the Ivoryton Playhouse is always looking for pieces that “really help to showcase a diverse diaspora of America.” Ivoryton’s 2022 season doesn’t include any roles that are specifically LGBTQIA+, but Underwood notes that the theater is always open to hiring LGBTQIA+ actors, performers and musicians.
New takes on existing works
Last fall’s “A Grand Night for Singing” was a Rodgers & Hammerstein revue that, in Goodspeed’s production, featured same-sex couples performing some of the songs. That prompted both positive and negative feedback.
Goodspeed Artistic Director Donna Lynn Hilton said, “We want to be a place where everyone sees their stories reflected — where you see your stories reflected, where the gay man next door sees his story reflected, where the BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) doctor you go to sees his story reflected. To do that, we have to welcome everybody into the work we’re creating."
“I understand that change is hard, but I hope that when people look at it through that lens, they can understand why we make the choices we make. I will say we’ve had letters from people who are not happy with some of the choices we’ve made, and I understand that. They are allowed their opinion. We’ve also had letters from people who are very grateful that they’ve seen their story represented on our stage. I know for Goodspeed to be healthy, sustainable, the Goodspeed that we all know and love for future generations, we have to make space to tell everybody’s stories.”
As for casting, Hilton said, "Ultimately, I want to cast whoever the best person is for whatever that role is, but I understand from representatives of a marginalized group that are concerned that they be given the opportunity to tell their own stories."
“La Cage aux Folles,” which Goodspeed produced in 2015, features two gay men at the story’s center. Hilton doesn’t think Goodspeed leaders would have cast straight men as the leads in that piece; that option wasn't even discussed.
Bringing others along
Underwood started as a musician and moved into work as a dancer, actor, choreographer and director. Now he is associate artistic director for Ivoryton.
“I’ve been able to luckily have a career that has allowed me to be at every point in the entertainment (world) — in front on the desk, behind the desk, in casting. That’s been amazing. By being a Black gay man, to be able to take on these roles and to be able to hopefully bring others with me who are part of our community has been a special moment for me,” he said.
He said that he had worked on shows with an all-Black cast countless times, but it’s very rare to find a Black gay male director like him at the helm.
“Being able to be representational for that and for younger artists to see someone like me in these positions only provides inspiration, I guess, that they can also do that, whether they be a Black gay man or whatever,” he said.
Underwood believes that theater is all about the experiences different people bring to the table and how those experiences are the same, different, and how they influence each other.
“If the experience is monochromatic, then you’re not getting a rich — I won’t say full — but a rich and diverse experience for everyone, which only to me makes the product, whether it be film or theater or music, just more elevated,” he says.
Underwood said, “That’s what’s great about the new era of theater — having the LGBTQ (community) really being validated and loved and supported in a way that is revolutionary.”
Shakespeare and beyond
Flock Theatre tends to stage classic pieces — mostly Shakespeare, along with shows like “Cyrano de Bergerac” last year and “Peer Gynt” this year.
Wood said, “Shakespeare certainly has his gay characters or LGBTQ+ characters that are alluded to, sometimes more overtly than others. I think within our casting, but also in Shakespeare, there are numerous times where women are pretending to be men. If you go back to Shakespeare’s time, it was a boy or a young man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.”
He said that, in casting, Flock is looking at a “commitment of the self” from the performer who can play the character honestly. Wood recalled that, when he was studying under acting great Morris Karnovsky, Karnovsky — then 85, bearded and walking with a cane — would do Juliet’s potion monologue from “Romeo and Juliet,” and “you’d swear you were looking at a 13-year-old girl about to take poison. It’s that belief and commitment that makes that role believable. I think that’s really a lot of what we look at, look for within the role. ... We do all sorts of different stuff, depending upon the play.”
For instance, Flock cast Suzanne Wingrove as the male character of Falstaff in the 2018 production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and Wood said that she did a wonderful job.
While that is Flock’s approach, Wood said that he has worked with other theaters that have contacted him “because they have a very specific part or role that’s going to require a trans person or someone who is very much of a drag queen, and they want to fill that role accordingly because that specific role is driving the plot of that play, and they want to make sure the person that is cast is appropriate.”
The power of theater
This all relates, too, to something Underwood mentioned: One of the elements about theater that is so important is it allows audiences to look inside someone else’s life and “see how they live and see how they approach the world and how the world approaches them and how they move through it.”