AGMC AND THE GENRE OF CHORAL THEATRE
In Marietta, GA, there stands a yellow wood-frame country church, complete with a gravel driveway flanked by an old cemetery. Though the current building dates back to the turn of the last century, it is believed that a church of some kind has existed on this property since the Civil War. One thing is known for sure: it used to belong to the Methodists. On the evening of April 18, 2009, members of what is now known as Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation began to collect for a performance that was part of its small but thriving concert series. On that night, there would be 46 performers on a very small stage and about 75 people in the audience. For this space, that was maximum capacity for both. And it was about to be an historic evening for these centuries-old grounds. That night, the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus gave a preview performance of a new, original work that could only be described as “choral theatre.” Shaken, Not Heard: Stories of Gay Men, Faith and Reconciliation was seen and heard for the first time.
The space was so small that many of us found ourselves standing outside the building as audience members arrived. In this venue, I saw no need for “keeping it all behind the curtain” as we normally would. This was a very welcoming group and though our presentation would be anything but casual, the atmosphere definitely was. This was safe. As I watched people enter the building, however, a horrible thought occurred to me: This is not our audience. There doesn’t seem to be any gay people here. This is an open and affirming church, complete with a rainbow flag, but where are we? They’re not going to get this. After all, we were about to stand in their sacred space and tell stories about the complex relationship between gay men and organized religion. This will be our version of a show that dies in Boston, I thought. Then, Relax. Yes, this is a very small church in the woods, but you’ve been invited here. These are open-minded individuals who no longer follow the teachings of traditional Protestants. They will get this.
Really? Well, it was too late to do anything but suck it up and literally pray for the best.
But, Shaken, Not Heard was exactly the universal story of struggle, triumph, and self-love that we had hoped it would be. The evening was replete with cheers, laughter, celebration and gospel clapping. It was also met with three standing ovations from the audience. It wasn’t the Cathedral, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, or the Alliance Theatre, but it was an unforgettable night of music and story-telling. Only one audience member, it turned out, was part of the LGBT community. During our panel discussion after the show, she identified herself as lesbian and told us how much healing she found in what we had created. Then someone pointed out it was her 18th birthday. I’ve never cried during “Happy Birthday To You”, but that night a number of us did.
The next weekend, Shaken, Not Heard made its formal debut at Oakhurst Baptist Church, a similar congregation with its own history of struggle with organized religion, in the form of three concerts that were part of AGMC’s 28th season. That weekend came with its own round of standing ovations; some people were even standing in the pews. We were present in the audience, but so were lots of our LGBT allies. Between the preview and the performances of that show, we were reminded of something: our stories are universal. Everyone struggles. Everyone has something that doesn’t jive with what society deems acceptable. Everyone has something to come out about, whether they recognize it or not. But to paraphrase the late Nelson Mandella, when we share our personal struggles, we give others permission to do the same.
On the heels of our first foray into choral theatre, we asked ourselves what other relationship we might explore in a similar way. The relationship that gay men have with organized religion was a complex one, and while it wasn’t all smiles, that show proved to be a stirring experience that proved to bring people to their feet. Well, we thought, we certainly have interesting relationships with our fathers. So for a brief period, we put out feelers for chorus members to submit stories about their fathers, but it didn’t fly. In hindsight, I think we were pretty wiped at that time, and the catharsis of Shaken, Not Heard was lingering for many of us. We weren’t ready to go there again–at least not to create something so personal again at that point. Performing it again, turned out to be very rewarding. In 2010, the show went on the road in a truncated version that was even more powerful than the original. By that point, my co-author Doug Gathers (who christened the show with its brilliant title) and I were tasked with getting the show down to under an hour. We learned a lot about the power of editing during that period. In subsequent works of choral theatre (such as Red, White and YOU and Singing Out Proud) Doug, AGMC’s creative team and myself have also addressed historical issues that remain topical and relevant in today’s political scene, and we’ve learned a great deal about telling stories. While other shows have welled up lots of emotion for us, they have not been as deeply personal as our original effort.
WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE
But here we are, exactly five years later, following through on our idea of exploring the complex relationships with our fathers. The script is complete, the music arranged, and as of last week, we completed casting on what we believe is yet another opportunity for our membership and audience to share common experiences: the good, the bad, and the hilarious. We received so many great submissions from our members, and as with Shaken, Not Heard, some universal themes appeared pretty quickly. There were stories that were, apart from the details, nearly identical–the relationships were the same. And there were seven stories in particular that stood out as outstanding and diverse examples of our experiences: Baseball, Christmas, Children, Expectation, Absence, Loss, and Music. Each weaves the story of a different chorus member into music that doesn’t just comment on its content, but propels us through a the ongoing journey of the parent/child relationship. As with Shaken, Not Heard, this new work, When I Was Your Age, is also setting the stage for universal impact. Everyone has struggled with their parents, and many have struggled with children of their own, including our members–one of whom will tell the story of what it means to be a straight man in a gay men’s chorus and why that’s an important model to set for his own children.
But When I Was Your Age is unique. It marks the culmination of five years of developing this craft, and while each show has been unique in structure, this work of choral theatre–the first in which we include advanced multi-media projection–demonstrates not only what we’ve learned about creating this genre, but also what we’ve learned about focus and flow. It is not as complex as musical theatre, but we’ve learned a great deal about what works and what doesnt. It’s a 70-minute work in one act, and for this show, in the very intimate venue of Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory, we’ll the stories of our relationships with our fathers–and we’re doing it without kid gloves. While we will sing and speak about being children, it remains a show for adults. (Think of it as AGMC on cable with a rating of TV-MA-LS.)
COLLECTION AND SELECTION: THE PROCESS
Long-time chorus member Christopher Repotski, who has also been a key collaborator on previous productions (No Rest for the Wicked in particular) took the lead on the script and created a brilliant framework for When I Was Your Age. How a show begins and ends is crucial, and Christopher, drawing from his own study and experience with musical theatre, brilliantly devised the bookends that are bringing the experience full-circle. Together, we’ve been able to brainstorm within this framework and have created some moments that I am very proud of. But as with Shaken, Not Heard, we had great material to work with. Our members brought it when it came to sharing their stories. Unlike Shaken, in which we combined many stories into the experience of a single character at different stages of life, we’ve left the stories intact for this production and created different characters. While we’ve done our share of editing, paraphrasing, and a small amount of embellishing, the emotion and telling of each story was solid from the beginning. Take the story of how a father once surprised his son by taking him to a Braves game and how it became his fondest memory; or the story of how a son had to take on the role of a parent by dealing with an irresponsible dad on Christmas Eve; and the story of a son losing his father to cancer. These are just a few of the universal themes with which people identify. But two stories stand out in When I Was Your Age: the above-mentioned story of the straight dad who sings with a gay men’s chorus, and the heart-warming story of acceptance when a member had to come out to his father a second time–as someone who didn’t feel comfortable always wearing clothes that were part of mainstream menswear by society. And one member, who had been abandoned by his father at age seven, thought he had little to contribute and might even sit this concert out. I encouraged him that there would be others who would relate to his story. He submitted his story and it turns out it provided fodder for what turns out to be the funniest moments in the show. It’s what we do best: channel our pain into music and laughter.
When I Was Your Age brings with it music that is familiar to everyone, music that is brand new, and music that may not be known by everyone but will feel familiar (sometimes those are the best pieces; the new songs you hear that you simply have to find recordings of the next day). Assembling the score for this work has been an amazing process, and one of our greatest challenges has been to find music and stories that flow from one to the next. Our creative team, as always, brought great suggestions to the table. Just as the stories are balanced, so is the music. Only twelve tunes in this short one-act.
At our first rehearsal, we did a non-stop read/sing-thru of the entire show, and even non-singing members who were visiting, listening without benefit of a script or score in hand, were very moved by the work. They’re friends of the chorus, of course, and may not be the most objective, but that night we also opened ourselves up for a Q&A with the harshest and most important critics: our singing members. We were pleased to hear more comments than questions. The story-telling seemed clear and the flow was something that our members were immediately drawn to. At some point in early March, we will be doing another reading with the full cast and some trial projections as we make the final tweaks–perhaps in the theatre itself. Who knows? We may invite guests. During performance week, audience members will have six opportunities to share this experience with us. We are thrilled that we get the opportunity to perform a concert event twice as many times as we normally do. The work is hard, the time investment is immense, and a payoff like this will mean the world to all who’ve given to much to bring the new work to life.
In closing, I’ll say what you already know: going back to our childhood isn’t always easy. When we began this work, we were afraid that we’d get nothing but horror stories and feared that we’d struggle to find a balance. I am happy to say that was not the case. There was balance from the beginning and that was important. We did not want to put our fathers or ourselves on the cross. There is something for everyone in When I Was Your Age: women, men, father’s, mothers–everyone who is a son or daughter. And that pretty much sums it up. As I continue to say to those who ask about the show, what could have been “Dead Poets Society” turned out to be more like “Steel Magnolias.”
We can sell t-shirts that say, “I slapped Ouiser Boudreaux!” Hit her!
I look forward to sharing updates on the production and to seeing you in March for one of our most exciting productions to date: When I Was Your Age.
Artistic Director, Voices of Note
Conductor, Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus