I have an idea. That’s all it is right now, an idea. But I feel as though it is the most important idea that I will ever have. The idea first came to me when I took my first playwriting class in college. I had always enjoyed writing, but had never really understood how to craft a story structurally. In many ways, I still don’t, although I have gotten a lot better. Still, I had never assumed that writing would actually be something that I would seriously consider as a career until I actually sat down and wrote my first play.
The first play I wrote was based on a writing prompt I received the first week of class. The prompt was to write a play based on a “disrupted ritual”. To me, ritual was Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve was my favorite day of the year, spent trying to recapture the feeling of excitement and joy from when I was younger. Naturally, this meant forcing my family to go to the Christmas Eve bell service, even though they insisted it was “just for kids”. Each year I would try and recreate the Christmas Eve’s of my childhood, only to fail and realize that, try as I might, I could not stop time from passing, stop myself from growing older, and return to a time of youthful naiveté.
The play I wrote was a short play about a father and daughter celebrating Christmas Eve a year after the passing of the mother, Eve, in a car accident. Ingenious naming. The dinner is interrupted by their grief over the mother’s death- more specifically, the daughter’s guilt over the last things she said to her mother before she died. I was inspired by the scene from Lost where the character Claire speaks to her mother, who is left in a coma after a car accident in which Claire was driving. She apologizes for the things she said, an apology which I may or may not have included almost verbatim in my play during the daughter’s recounting of the accident. I’m not exactly sure how I was not aware that this was blatant plagiarism, although at the time I thought it was genius.
I believe I also named the daughter Claire.
I presented the play in class, and was shocked when I did not receive solely praise and commendation. People were critiquing my characters, giving notes on improvements to the dialogue and form of the story. Naturally, I was appalled. I was sure that, after reading my play, the classroom would burst into tears with one person leading the rest out in a slow clap before carrying me out of the room on their shoulders. Imagine my surprise to learn that I was not, in fact, all that.
The next play I wrote was based on a prompt about 2 characters whose conflict is created by their environment. I wrote a short play about a man and a woman in an underground bunker after a nuclear attack. I was inspired by a scene from an episode of 24 where a man convinces Jack Bauer’s daughter that a nuclear bomb has gone off outside, and that they must wait it out in the bunker. She later learns this is not true, and must escape from the bunker. Again, not sure how writing a play about something that has already been written about in pretty much this exact way is not plagiarism. At least I didn’t name the woman “Jack Bauer’s daughter” this time. I was shocked years later when I saw the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane, which appeared to have the exact same plot as my play. How could they have copied my idea? The nerve.
This brings me to the next play I wrote, which began the formation of my idea. The prompt was to write a play based on a newspaper article. I was browsing Queerty, the gay news website, when I came across an article titled, “Catholic run sports camp seeks to convert gay teens through athletics”. I instantly knew I had found my play. What better to write a play about than that? It was rife with comedic potential, and something that I cared deeply about. I went to the camp’s website and read all about it. It was run by Father Paul Check, and it had testimonials from boys with names such as “Louis. Jim. Steve. Eric.” They said things like, “Sports camp is way cool!” and, my favorite, “There was one guy who intimidated me, but after I made a touchdown, he gave me a sweaty, shirtless hug. I really felt like one of the guys.”
I immediately set to work on a 7 page play about an Evangelical sports camp. I changed it from Catholic because I knew a lot more about Evangelicalism than Catholicism and figured the less specific the denomination the better. The camp in my play was ran by Pastor Paul and followed the story of Louis, Jim, Steve, and Eric. All 7 pages were innuendo and there was little to no plot. It was basically 7 pages of gay jokes, with the title, “Play the Gay Away!”. The class enjoyed it, although criticized the lack of plot. I put the play away and quickly forgot about it.
The next year, I decided to continue playwriting and I took Advanced Playwriting. Each week we would bring in 10-15 pages of whatever we were writing and the class would read it. I decided I wanted to take “Play the Gay Away!” and make something more with it. I began to rewrite it with realistic characters this time, modeled on the types of people I had met in the Queer Student Union at the University of Virginia. I had heard many stories of kids who had been forced by their parents to go through conversion therapy, designed to make them straight. The thing that surprised me the most was how ignorant most people were about the topic. Most people didn’t know that conversion therapy was a thing, or that it was perfectly legal in almost every state for parents to force their children to attend ex-gay therapy against their will.
I think what drew me to the topic the most was the absurdity of it all. The idea that there was something that existed that was so absurd, so ridiculous, and so deplorable, and yet thousands of people actually believed that it had value and was an effective treatment for homosexuality. I didn’t have to write the comedy- the comedy wrote itself. All I had to do was listen. I listened to the experiences of my friends who had gone through ex-gay therapy, and read online about people’s experiences and thoughts on the subject. I wanted to understand what would drive someone to willingly enter such a program, what would make a parent believe that is best for their child, what would lead a person to think that this is God’s will. Of course I had had personal experience with the topic during my brief “undercover” infiltration of an ex-gay student group. But I had barely scratched the surface. I wanted to know these people intimately, I wanted to show every side of this topic.
This play became my baby. I would think about it all the time- before I fell asleep at night, in the shower, on the way to class. I would mull these characters over in my mind. Who was Louis? What drove him? Was he a version of myself? Was that arrogant, to write myself as the main character? Of course. But that didn’t stop Ben Affleck from casting himself as the Mexican-American lead in the movie Argo. I wanted these characters to represent the kinds of gay people I had met, to show the vast difference of experience. There was Jim, who was angry at God, at religion. He hated everything he had been told about who he was, and ran as far away from God as he possibly could. Then there was Steve, who was in all respects the opposite. He was weak, terrified of his sexuality and certain that if only his faith was strong enough would God remove this temptation from him. Naturally, Jim and Steve were hooking up. Then there was Erica. I decided to include one girl, because in everything I had read about ex-gay therapy, it was all directed towards men. All the resources were for men, most of the participants were men, the programs were all for men. After all, sexism is the root of all homophobia. So who was Erica? The girl who everyone ignored, whose opinion never mattered. What did she think? Why was she here? And what about Louis? I wanted to show the relationship between Louis and his parents first and foremost. What kind of parents would put their child in such a camp? Were they bad parents? Or did they truly believe this was what was best for their son?
I mulled this play around in my head for months, writing it out bit by bit. Finally I had finished the play. It was good. Not great. I reread it. It was awful. Cliche, no form or substance, everything was surface. I put it away. But still I thought about it. Because it was important to me. I wanted to make it good. No, I wanted to make it great. I wanted it to be the best thing I had ever written. I wanted it to be my Magnum Opus.
Eventually I moved out to Los Angeles, to act and to write. I realized, as time went on, that my voice had always been first and foremost in my writing. Anytime I had the opportunity to write, I was always much more excited than when I was acting. Acting was my face, my body, but someone else’s voice. Someone else’s story. Writing, however, was me. It was my story, my words, my experience. Writing was how I found my voice.
And still I had this idea. About this camp, about these kids. But I didn’t know what to do with it. I knew it wasn’t meant to be a play- my writing has always leaned towards shorter scenes, moving from place to place quickly. I had always loved television- the serial format, returning week after week to the same set of characters, developing them and their stories over hours and hours, becoming so well acquainted with them that the end of the show felt like a death. I knew that “Play the Gay Away!” had always meant to be a tv show. But how could I write it? I didn’t have a writing job. I wasn’t a Showrunner. I wasn’t Ryan Murphy, nobody was going to give me money and airspace to create a tv show with me as the head writer and guiding the creative vision. So I put it on the back burner. It was almost torturous, to have these thoughts in my head that I couldn’t act on. Why was I having these ideas now, and not 10 years from now when I could actually do something about it?
Art to me has always been about telling a story, whether it’s theatre, television, painting, whatever. What has always drawn me to art is the idea that through it I can experience something I would never otherwise in my life experience. That through art, I can send a message to people and have them hear me. That I have a voice that needs to be heard. This is the message that I want to send to the world. This is the most important thing that I want to say. The idea that you can be gay and you can have a relationship with God, and you don’t have to change anything about yourself to do so. That whether or not you consider yourself a believer, there’s someone out there who made you, who cares about you very much. And yes, I did steal that last line verbatim from the tv show Kyle XY. But just because I plagiarized it doesn’t make it any less true.