Secrets, solidarity, The Sun and Stephen Fry…

After their West End success with The Act earlier this year, co-writers Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin have reunited for Outings, the world premiere coming-out show. In the course of researching and writing the play, the former schoolfriends, who themselves came out as young men, gathered more than 70 real-life stories from other gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, ranging from 16 to 60+ years of age and from the UK and around the globe.

The cast of Outings - Rob Deering, Andrew Doyle, Zoe Lyons, Camille Ucan - who will be joined by a guest star each day.

The cast of Outings – Rob Deering, Andrew Doyle, Zoe Lyons, Camille Ucan – who will be joined by a guest star each day.

How did you get involved in the project?

Tom Hescott: The producers, James and Oli from Seabright Productions, saw our play The Act at Trafalgar Studios earlier this year. The Act was about the lead-up to the decriminalization of male homosexuality in 1967. So there were similarities in the subject matter and in the style as well. Although that had a single narrative, we’d taken a lot of people’s personal stories and verbatim House of Commons speeches.

Matt Baldwin: And James and Oli liked our mix of laughs and serious. Tom and I very much feel that any story has comedy in it and tragedy in it. We try and capture both and they responded to that.

TH: We thought the idea of collecting coming out stories was brilliant. For us the challenge – and this is what excited us initially – was how to encapsulate all these personal stories from around the world, from Kathmandu to London, while also kind of encapsulating history. We think of coming out now in the sort of Tom Daley format – and Daley’s coming out is the starting point for the play. These are very personal, family-oriented stories. But you only need to go back to the 70s and 80s to see that, back then, coming out was a political act as much as anything else; gay campaigners would publicly ‘out’ people who were gay. So there’s been a real shift, from coming out being something that was very political, grass roots activism to something that is a more of a personal statement. Now we’re to the point that people think, well, do I even need to come out?

Do people still need to come out? Why?

TH: People are starting to say that it’s so accepted there’s no need to make a statement anymore. But if we look at Russia and other countries around the world, you know that’s not the case. In very cosmopolitan places like London, you may not feel the need to be out or be seen as out, it’s not something that we need to define. But by not coming out, you’re in danger of putting yourself back in the closet unintentionally for teenagers who are living in different parts of the country or the world, in communities where it isn’t like Old Compton Street. So on the one hand, we have so much more freedom today and so many more rights, we’re so close to equality, and certainly legislatively that’s the case, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a gay teen in certain countries or family circumstances.

MB: This is no criticism of Tom Daley, who we think is brilliant, but if you’re handsome and really rich and a successful sportsman and you’ve got a million Twitter followers… well, it’s different. For every one kid like that, you’ve got a million kids who are fat, poor, ugly, confused. Tom Daley’s experience isn’t the norm for all young people. Just after he came out in the 80s, Ian McKellen said, you’ve got to come out because that makes it easier for other people to come out. That’s true, and it’s still the same argument: solidarity. And that’s why this play is important.

TH: Outings could only really happen now. If someone had written this play in the 70s or 80s or possibly even the 90s, it would have been seen as overtly political propaganda, a piece of agitprop. We’re now able to write a play with many different points of views and grey areas, including the wife whose husband came out. The gay man in that story does not come across well. The play is not saying that all gay people are tortured saints abused by society, which, possibly in the 80s, would be the play you might have written.

How have you structured the play?

TH: We wanted to take the traditional five-act structure, that pretty much any story is written in, and achieve that with emotion rather than narrative. So we set up a ‘Call to Arms’ in Act 1 then ‘Things Start to Go Wrong’ goes to ‘Coming to Crisis’ to ‘Absolute Crisis Point’ and finally to ‘Resolution’ and some hope. Most coming out stories start, ‘well, I was 18 and this happened and this happened and now it’s better’. Our fear was that the stories may start to feel too repetitive and the audience wouldn’t get any sense of where the play is going. When you’re watching The Comedy of Errors, for instance, you can feel when it’s about to wrap up. That’s very satisfying for an audience. Although there’s no single narrative arc in Outings, there’s an overriding emotional arc. You can really feel the difficult crisis point in the middle and you can feel when the resolution’s coming.

How did you collect the personal stories?

TH: A lot of the first stories were from people we knew. Then the producers set up a website where members of the public could submit their stories and, at the same time, we were hitting the phones and talking to youth groups and other international groups. Stories really started to flood in after people like Stephen Fry and Mark Gatiss tweeted about it. Some of the submissions have been almost cut-and-paste jobs because they’ve been so beautifully written. Ones where the voice is clear you just lift with a little bit of an edit or restructure. Others, you see the seed of something interesting but you need to meet the person. Something written on a web page has a formality of structure that isn’t like dialogue.

So is this verbatim drama?

TH: No. Verbatim drama is about using the exact words, phrases and syntaxes. You’re not imposing anything onto it or retelling the story in any way. It’s a very rigid structure. I think the only person really doing that is Alecky Blythe. Others who do something similar tend to take a lot of creative license. While Outings is a play that is based on people’s real-life experiences, we are editing, rewriting and telling some of the stories in our own words. Everyone who’s contributed should still be able to recognise their story, there’s nothing fictionalized. There are moments of verbatim, of course: the well-written submissions and the “Outwatch” sections. At one point, the Outwatches were just little facts thrown in, two or three sentences punched out quickly and then you went back to a story. But after the workshop, we decided to incorporate pieces based on newspaper articles instead.

MB: We’ve spent a lot of time researching and choosing the Outwatch excerpts. That’s where the script has changed the most.

TH: Outwatch is also where we’re trying to get that historic timeline. We’re beholden to there being a good article written about the certain person’s coming out. We spent a lot of time at the Lesbian and Gay News Archive in Bishopsgate trying to find those articles. We’ve tried to be really strict that these are specifically about coming out rather than about homophobia or what it’s like to be gay. The Justin Fashanu [one of the first openly gay footballers, who committed suicide after coming out] story from The Sun is awful. An important reason to include that is because it shows the change, even in the language used. With its report on Fashanu, The Sun used words like ‘confessed’ and ‘romped’, they took a real sex scandal angle. That’s very different to how someone like Ellen Page’s coming out is covered today, where it isn’t about sex particularly, it’s about identity. The newspaper articles clearly demonstrate that journey with vocabulary.

MB: And from the actors’ point of view, a tabloid article is a nice thing to perform!

What age do most people come out?

MB: That’s hard to determine from our stories, and no one’s gone around taking those statistics that we’ve found.

TH: It would also be difficult to say because it’s one of those grey areas. Coming out is not usually a single act that you do once, it’s something you do many times. You find yourself coming out on many different occasions in different ways to different people. Many gays don’t think they’ve come out, even though everyone knows they’re gay, because they still haven’t told their parents. So have they come out or haven’t they?

MB: I was 19 and I came out to everyone.

TH: No, you were out at school.

MB: Yes, but then I went back in the closet and dated a girl. That didn’t work very well.

TH: Once you’ve come out, it’s hard to go back in!

MB: Right. I first came out when I was about 15 at school, that’s when my brother knew. Then later when I went to university, I told my parents. So I guess my coming out was from 15 to 19.

TH: That proves my point, doesn’t it? I was completely in the closet, not that anyone believed me, until I was 21.

Why is coming out life-changing?

TH: People’s sexuality is a core of human existence. It’s about being honest, being the most true to yourself that you can be. If you’re denying your sexuality in some way, then you’re killing off a part of who you are.

MB: I like what Stephen Fry said about this: Everyone has a right to their sexual and romantic destiny as they see it. If you don’t come out, you can’t do that in the context of your own family. I couldn’t be an uncle, as I am, who helps my sister with my niece and also be an adult with a partner. It all just goes wrong if you’re hiding. Coming out is also a way of saying, I’m a grown-up now, I’m not frightened anymore of being who I am.

What have you found most surprising while researching and writing the play?

TH: When we were going through the news archives, reading the Fashanu stuff, it felt like that must have happened years and years ago. It was really surprising to me to realize suddenly, that was only five years before I left school and came out. Matt and I are the generation that’s on the cusp; everything has kind of fallen into place for us just before we need it to. With the exception of section 28, legislation and real world attitudes have happened in time for us. Generations above us had to fight for everything, and generations below us take it all very much for granted because they don’t know what’s come before. We always seem to be the ones who are able to first benefit from change.

MB: I’ve been surprised by all kinds of things actually. I was surprised by the girl who found the strength to come out through religion rather than fighting against it. She said God, and her experience of God, helped her to come out. That is diametrically opposite to most of the tales that you hear.

TH: But the way she tells it, it sounds logical. If you believe that God made you who you are and part of your whole being is that you’re gay, then why would you deny God’s creation?

What’s the next big equality fight?

TH: Trans issues and rights are so far behind everything else, to the point that Stonewall don’t even recognize transgender issues as something that they deal with. They’re battling in the way that Harvey Milk and Peter Tatchell were battling in the 70s.

MB: We touch on a couple of transgender stories in the piece. There was the girl who was born a woman, thought she was a lesbian, came out, then had gender reassignment, then found out she was a gay man.

TH: It’s about whether or not you identify with your birth gender.

How is the play relevant to straight people?

TH: We want Outings to be mainstream. There’s no point in creating a gay play that only plays 11 o’clock at night in Edinburgh to 50 people who are already gay and comfortable with that and we all go home again. There’s a real statement of intent to ensure this reaches as wide a group of people as possible rather than just preaching to the converted. Our director David Grindley is married with kids. His way in was ‘everyone’s got a secret and everyone knows how hard it is to have that secret’.

MB: And we all know how difficult it is to be a teenager, we all know about families, that’s a very rich vein. Everyone can share the mortifying horror that your parents would even think of you as having a sex life. Also, I think the general population knows enough about gay people now to find the stories entertaining, in the same way that you don’t need to know all about Renaissance art history to enjoy The Da Vinci Code…. In fact, you need to know nothing about Renaissance art history to enjoy The Da Vinci Code! I see Outings very much as entertainment in the best sense, because I would want anything that is good to be entertaining. And you don’t have to have direct experience of something to find it funny. When I was 14, why did I – a white, middle-class boy from the east Midlands of England – laugh so hard at Richard Pryor telling jokes about being in a bustling black family in Detroit?

TH: Humour and comedy is a way into something bigger. Like with Richard Pryor, you laugh and you feel closer to a world that you’re probably never going to visit. But this is a play first and foremost; whoever you are, it engages you on an emotional level before anything else. It’s relevant because we all know what it’s like to be a teenager, we all know what it’s like to have a secret.

This entry was posted in Outings. Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.