Saeed Jones: Could you talk a bit about the process that led from Tyler Clementi’s story to the debut of “Teddy Ferrara” onstage at Chicago’s Goodman Theater this week?
Christopher Shinn: Tyler Clementi’s suicide came during a time when there seemed to be increased media focus on bullying and suicide among LGBTQ youth and I started thinking about beginning a play about this subject then. Suicide had always been a topic that fascinated me because of my own suicidal feelings as an adolescent and young adult, and ever since the murder of Matthew Shepherd I had wanted to write about a young gay man in today’s world with both its great civil rights strides and its continuing intolerance, oppression, and violence.
I had long wanted to respond to The Laramie Project in play form, because I found it odd that a play about a victim of homophobia left out the victim and left out sexuality and desire as areas of focus. It seemed to me that our culture, broadly speaking, had trouble thinking about sexuality and desire as being linked to violence; during the Tyler Clementi tragedy, it seemed to me that we also had trouble thinking about sexuality and desire’s links to self-hatred and self-destructiveness. Homophobia was easy to talk and think about; desire and destructiveness less so.
When Dan Savage tried to reduce all these complex factors to a catchphrase, “It Gets Better,” and when this catchphrase swept the nation, I became determined to write a play that dramatized these issues with characters who could be explored in all their deep human complexity. It angered me that denial and sentimentalization were replacing the serious thinking our culture needed to be doing.
SJ: Was it difficult navigating the line between the fact of Clementi’s story and the fictional aspects of your play?
CS: When I began writing the play in November 2010, very little about Tyler Clementi’s life had been published in the mainstream press, and as far as I knew it was going to stay that way, so I felt very free to take what I had learned about him and let my mind wander… I knew that during that creative process things would change and become fictionalized, which is exactly what happened.
The long New Yorker profile about Tyler Clementi which ran earlier this year brought a lot of the facts that I had been inspired by in my creative wanderings to the attention of more people, but even today many people know very little about Tyler Clementi’s life. I think an informed person would see some overlap between the Tyler Clementi tragedy and the story told in my play, but I think anyone who sees the play will immediately be struck by how wide the play’s scope is, and how little interest it has in dramatizing a real world event. Hopefully, whether an audience member knows a lot or a little about Tyler Clementi, the resonance with that tragedy will help them place my story in a time, place, and culture, and allow them to contextualize the drama that unfolds.
SJ: One thing I’ve found interesting about the play’s reception is that several reviews comment on the show’s sexual content, but there isn’t actually any sex or nudity in the show. Have you been surprised by these comments? And what would you say in response?
CS: About a decade ago I wrote a play called Where Do We Live which had a few explicit sex scenes, and while they were discreet in their own way, in other ways they were quite graphic: we watched people have sex, to orgasm, onstage. I felt that the scenes were dramatically effective, but I began to hear that people were calling the theatre box office and requesting seats that offered them the best angles from which to watch the most extended sex scene. (Surely one reason for this was that the scene was between the actors Luke Macfarlane and Aaron Yoo, both absolutely gorgeous men.) One night someone even brought binoculars, and the theatre was small! After that I was determined never to put nudity or sex onstage again. I thought, let me convey the conflict and trauma I am aiming for before or after the sexual act.
So imagine my surprise when critics of Teddy Ferrara referred to “no shortage of graphic undergraduate sex,” “explicit gay sex on stage,” and “sexually frank talk and situations [that leave] little to the imagination.” The closest the play comes to sex is two guys briefly kissing in their underwear, and some fumbling in the dark at the end of the play (to give away more would be a spoiler).
But there is absolutely no sex and no nudity in this play! One thing the play is about is how desire can drive us mad — can make us distort reality, frighten us, anger us, lead us to lash out, run away, go into denial… When Hamlet says that “the play’s the thing” in which he’ll catch the conscience of the king, Shakespeare isn’t just talking about guilt. Plays can “catch” us in any number of ways. I wonder if the play was working on these critics’ psyches in such a way that their defenses were temporarily dissolved and the fantasies and fears of their unconscious minds began to emerge — but instead of staying open to this process they shut it down, and in so doing misremembered what they had seen.
SJ: In some ways, a lot of changed since Tyler Clementi’s passing. In part due to the activism inspired by his story as well as countless others. Do you think we are doing enough to address bullying, suicide and depression in regards to queer kids?
CS: I think it will be fascinating to see how the increased acceptance of queerness changes and doesn’t change the experience of coming of age for queer kids. Society still privileges heterosexuality and traditional gender roles and these are messages that are received from the very beginning of life. While queer kids receive many messages today that they are valued and valuable, they still have to contend with society’s more primitive insistence that heterosexuality is the ideal.
In some ways it gets better but in other ways it stays the same, and sometimes I wonder if the increased acceptance of queer sexuality will cause a backlash that occasionally makes things worse. Sexuality is too complex, too linked to social and economic structures, too enmeshed in our personal pains and traumas, to ever be a conflict-free area of human experience. All the resources and support for queer kids in the world will never change that fact.