Time Out Chicago interviewed me recently; below, my responses to the questions.
1. The discussion around bullying and gay teen suicides often happen in the context of media reports and how parents and educators might better serve this population. In Teddy Ferrara we get the point of the view of queer students. Talk about the decision to explore these issues largely from their viewpoint.
I’m not so far away from my late adolescence yet, and I remember pretty vividly what it feels like to be 20 or 21. And at the time I wrote the play, I was going through some personal difficulties that were stimulating lots of memories from that period of my life. So it just seemed natural to explore these issues, which had occupied me for a long time, from the perspective of college students. That many of them are queer probably has most to do with my being gay!
2. Piggybacking on question #1, often when a gay teen commits suicide there’s a question of where to place the blame. In Teddy Ferrara the emphasis is on how the youth themselves are in need of inner work and self-reflection. Discuss why that’s an important conversation to have.
I think once you realize that some people who suffer tremendous trauma and abuse don’t kill themselves, and some people who seem to suffer much less trauma and abuse do, you start to think about the incredible complexity of the psyche. You ask basic questions like, why do people act the way they do? Why does one person respond to an experience of oppression one way, another person a different way? I think once you take the psyche as a starting point, naturally you begin to focus on internal dynamics as much external factors in determining behavior.
3. There’s also a lot of internalized homophobia happening in the play. In Teddy Ferrara, is that a critique of a society that is failing its queer youth or an inevitability all queer people have to work through?
The ways we internalize oppression are fascinating to me and something I still find very confusing. It’s so hard to untangle what is a genuine unconscious repetition of an experience of oppression we’ve suffered, and how much we use that oppression as an excuse to act in similarly abusive or destructive ways. I remember my college boyfriend telling me about how awful his parents were to him — emotional abuse of a harrowing nature. But at the same time, when his behavior towards me became cruel, I went back and forth between thinking he was merely repeating what was done to him, and thinking he was using what was done to him as an excuse to be similarly powerful and controlling. To this day I don’t really have a definitive answer about this, so it’s something I continue to explore in my work, especially in this play. Obviously society is still very homophobic, but our knowledge that homophobia — like parental abuse — is a bad thing means that we are more prone, even if unconsciously, to use that knowledge as an excuse for our own aggressive behavior.
4. There’s a debate in the play over whether or not Teddy Ferrara is a victim of homophobia and/or bullying or whether it’s something else entirely. How much of that discussion is your own response to the Tyler Clementi incident and are you specifically critiquing an impulse from different communities to seek out a scapegoat in instances like these?
Well certainly the Tyler Clementi story stimulated profound feelings in me. I remember feeling suicidal at his age, and afterwards, and I tried very hard to imagine what his inner experience was based on the information I was able to find about his life. When I saw that the initial impulse from many people seemed to be to sentimentalize him — flatten his psyche and turn him into a pure victim of a cruel roommate — I became very suspicious. I think the impulse towards scapegoating allows us to flee self-scrutiny. Even if the scapegoat is guilty of doing something wrong, if we focus too much on the evil person, we lose an opportunity to think more deeply about who we are and what we don’t want to think about in ourselves. The more I learned about Tyler Clementi, the more complex he seemed as a person, and I felt like the urge to scapegoat totally obfuscated this.
5. It also feels like the play reveals competing agendas within the LGBT community. Is that something you are specifically trying to address—a community that is more fractured than it often cares to admit?
I didn’t consciously try to dramatize the way the gay community is fractured, I think it just reflects my experience of how chaotic things can be when people ostensibly linked by a common experience of oppression but who are in other ways very different come together as a group. It’s usually quite a scene!
6. One of the most illuminating aspects of the play its expression of queer sexuality and the way it plays out as both raw desire and the result of underlying motivation. Is that something our society at large is still failing to address when discussing issues effecting queer youth?
Society doesn’t seem very comfortable with authentic sexuality in general, let alone with queer youth. One reason I wanted to write a play on these themes for so long was my being frustrated when I saw The Laramie Project and realized that not only did it not represent the victim onstage, it barely touched on sexuality at all. It was a really asexual play. Sex is such a big part of life and especially when writing about queer youth, one has to deal with it directly and honestly.
7. Talk about what it was like for you as a playwright to write from the point-of-view of Millennials. I’m an educator myself (I teach at Columbia College) and am always thinking about how to best communicate with this population. What were your goals? What were the challenges?
I was teaching undergraduates at the time and I was very attentive to how they were similar to me and how they were different from me. I’ve also had friends in their early and mid 20s for a while now and the experiential overlap and lack of it were things I had come to know pretty intimately. But on the deepest level I just assumed that very little has changed in the psyche in fifteen or twenty years (I’m 37) and that if I wrote honestly from deep in my soul, I’d get most of the details right. I hope I have! At the deepest level, of course, humans remain somewhat of a mystery, and I hope the play respects the complexity of the human psyche in that way as well.
8. The casting reveals a multi-racial student cast. Are we meant to consider the ways in which race impacts the issues addressed in the play or is the casting simply meant to reflect the diversity of today’s student population?
When I was younger, I always specified what race a character was when I wrote a play. But over time, in my teaching, I noticed how rare it was for a student of color to write about his or her experience in racial terms, and I was fascinated by how easily students from different racial backgrounds related to one another. So I was open to all races for these characters. Obviously I expect an actor of color to bring his or her unique experience to the character and make sense of the lines I’ve written, but when writing younger characters I no longer think about their racial backgrounds. I wonder if one day the same will be true of characters’ sexualities!