Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Reading

Out and About: The Miami Herald reports that gay political clout is growing in South Florida.

From mounting a major offensive against Fort Lauderdale’s mayor to winning county protections for transgender residents, South Florida’s gay community wants politicians to know: We’re here. Get used to it.

Buoyed by rising numbers, gay and bisexual activists have racked up a few recent political victories and now some political candidates hoping for a November win are actively courting them.

A few openly gay candidates are vying for several local, county and state seats, including one who could become the state’s first openly gay state legislator.

”We’ve gone from being a marginalized minority to being a group that is definitely given more attention,” said Justin Flippen, president of Dolphin Democrats, a gay and lesbian political group.

”Not only are our votes just as valuable as others, but we are also able to organize.”

But the group still has plenty of upcoming political battles that will challenge its newfound clout. There’s a proposed constitutional amendment in November to restrict the definition of marriage, and a Miami-Dade County Commission votes later this spring on whether to give spousal benefits to domestic partners.

And although the group has secured a strong place in South Florida’s wing of the Democratic Party, rural Democrats are less inclined to embrace gay-rights issues.

There are also the political realities created by a GOP-dominated state Legislature that’s hesitant to approve legal protections for gay and transgender residents or lift the state’s ban on same-sex adoption.

”The House is so conservative,” state Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Greenacres Democrat, told gay activists at a West Palm Beach conference last week. ”That is what’s standing between Florida and the rest of the country.”

In the state Capitol, two proposed bills to provide statewide legal protections for gay and transgender residents are unlikely to move far, even in the more moderate Senate.

And earlier this year in Democrat-heavy Gainesville, a similar city law spawned hours of angry debate, barely passing.

On a national level, a Quinnipiac University Poll released last year also found that 28 percent of Florida voters would be less likely to back a presidential candidate that had support from gay-rights groups.

In just the past five years, the political atmosphere over gay issues and candidates has changed significantly, said former Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis, the city’s first openly gay commissioner.

When he first ran in 2003, Trantalis said, open talk about his sexual orientation contributed to a tight vote.

”I think there was a large measure of homophobia that played itself out in my election,” he said.

Since then, the number of openly gay Florida residents has grown, and many politicians have started to focus on gay and lesbian voters as a key voting group, said Fred Fejes, a communications professor at Florida Atlantic University.

”Over the years, the lesbian and gay community has been a lot more visible and a lot more organized,” said Fejes, whose book Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America’s Debate on Homosexuality is set to be released later this year. ”They sort of emerged as one of the significant communities and interest groups.”

Waiting to Enter: The unseen character is often as big a role in a play as the ones on stage.

And now, presenting this year’s nominees for the Donald Muller Award for Most Riveting Character You’ve Never Seen, the man you’ve been waiting for — Godot.

Actually, he’s not here yet. In the meantime, here’s some background: This imaginary award is named for the boy who may or may not have been molested by a priest in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-winning “Doubt: A Parable.” Donald is an almost archetypal example of a theatrical character whose presence is felt by his absence.

This season has a host of such invisible co-stars, which is “part of the magic of theater,” said Beth Henley, whose “Crimes of the Heart” has crucial offstage characters. “Everything is not just given to you. It engages the audience’s imagination.”

In “Crimes,” State Senator Zackery Botrelle lies near death after having been shot by his wife, Babe. In “Speech & Debate,” Mr. Healy is a high school drama teacher with a secret penchant for young boys. And in “Pumpgirl,” Shawshank is an ex-con who charms people into overlooking his cruel and selfish core.

Ms. Henley said she left out characters for a pragmatic reason: “I knew my play would have a better chance of being produced with a smaller cast.” But for Adam Bock, whose “Drunken City” (in previews for a March 26 opening at Playwrights Horizons) has an offstage “cast” as big as the onstage one, the choice was artistic. “I’m interested in negative space, in creating someone who is not there and seeing the other characters’ reaction,” he said. “I wanted to show who was in my characters’ world rather than just who was onstage.”

In plays like “Doubt” and the recently closed “Pumpgirl” and “Speech & Debate,” the missing person serves as the play’s catalyst. Even the long dead — the mothers in “Crimes” and Harold Pinter’s “Homecoming” or the late Skipper, loved by both Maggie and Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” all still running — propel the action, albeit indirectly.

“In ‘Doubt,’ if you could see the boy, the play would be viewed completely differently,” said Brian F. O’Byrne, who played the priest suspected of the inappropriate relationship. “It would become all about the kid, and you would have a definite image. The play has to be about the doubt.”

“Speech & Debate” flipped the equation: its writer, Stephen Karam, focused on the perspective of the abused student. “The only way to create something fresh was to remove the adult completely,” he said.

For actors, an absentee character is a challenge. During “Pumpgirl” rehearsals, the playwright Abbie Spallen brought in Irish newspapers so the cast could look for potential Shawshanks, said Geraldine Hughes, one of the actors. The process reached a point where the costume designer thought about making Shawshank’s clothes. “We were trying to force it a little,” Ms. Hughes said. “Ultimately, we each found our own concept.”

Gideon Glick and Jason Fuchs, who played classmates in “Speech & Debate,” visualized Mr. Healy differently: Mr. Glick saw a “mediocre-looking” man with a receding hairline, while Mr. Fuchs pictured a handsome charmer. They agreed that varied interpretations are fine. Lily Rabe, who plays Babe in “Crimes of the Heart,” said “the audience is doing the exact same thing,” bringing personal experience to visualize the unseen character.

Jennifer Dundas, who plays Babe’s sister Lenny, likened the unseen characters to those in a novel. You see the characters “in your mind’s eye without thinking about them photographically,” she said. “You spend the whole book with this character, but if someone said, ‘What exactly does this person look like?’ you would not quite be able to describe him or her.”

Actors sometimes conjure details to bring an offstage character alive. Zackery, Ms. Rabe said, “tucks his shirts in and wears different versions of the exact same thing every day.” Sarah Paulson, who plays Babe’s sister Meg, said she sees “an oily-haired guy with hair on his knuckles — not to knock the hairy-knuckled people of the world.” Each uses sense memories to conjure the mother; Ms. Rabe thinks of lilac and lavender, Ms. Paulson baby powder, lemon and honeysuckle.

Playwrights often don’t want to give actors every detail. “If the actresses ask questions, I won’t give exact answers,” Mr. Bock said. “I’ll try sparking their imagination.” Debbie Allen, the director of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” also left such details to her actors. “Everyone doesn’t have to agree as long as they have their own truth,” she said. She had Terrence Howard (Brick) and Anika Noni Rose (Maggie) improvise their ideas about Skipper.

Sometimes actors may view offstage characters in ways different from the playwrights. Ms. Paulson said she believes the long-gone father of “Crimes” molested her character but hasn’t asked Ms. Henley because “if you start to put everything up for grabs in discussion, you sully it.” Ms. Henley said she did not intend that background, but “as long as it rings emotionally true,” she respects an actor’s process.

Still, Ms. Henley confessed a pleasure in writing the screenplay for “Crimes of the Heart.” That 1986 film added flesh-and-blood versions of Zackery, the sisters’ uncle and their grandfather. “It’s good to have some mysteries in theater,” Ms. Henley said, “but writing the movie, I was secretly so happy because I wanted to see these characters.”

Footnote: Adam Bock will be attending the 27th annual William Inge Festival next month as the winner of the Otis Guernsey New Voices in Playwriting award winner.

Left Behind:

In this weekend’s cover story, the Washington Post Magazine pays tribute to the objects, habits and attitudes that are sliding into obsolescence. Among the most notable, according to writer Anna Jane Grossman:

1. Truly ‘Blind’ Dates: “Now, if a friend sets you up with someone, and you don’t automatically Google that person, check his or her “relationship” status on Facebook and do a quick vetting via (the modern answer to stocks and pillories), one might question if you are really fit to date at all. “

2. Mix Tapes: “These plastic gems once acted like aural diaries … But mix-tape making, like the audiocassette itself (which is now more than 40 years old), has become a relic. It’s been replaced by the burning of CD compilations and the trading of MP3 playlists — neither of which involves the creative cookery of manually assembling a tape track by track or, ahem, the artistic aplomb that went into the homemade packaging. “

3. Land Lines: “Sure, the device had its flaws (long distance charges, busy signals, necks strained from cradling receivers), but it was an instrument that lent itself to a slew of rituals that today seem quaint, from the college student pulling the receiver into the hallway for privacy to the frantic lover searching for pay-phone change a la Dustin Hoffman in ‘The Graduate.'”

4. Short Basketball Shorts: “Since Michael Jordan first showed up in the NBA with an extra couple of inches on his shorts, basketball bottoms have been steadily creeping lower — and the look quickly was adopted by players nationwide. The last holdout was Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, who remained loyal to the short-short look. When he retired in 2003, so did the era of visible knees.”

5. Doing Nothing at the Office: “Idle time’s death knell was the Internet, which created a way to fill every moment while giving the appearance of productivity. The joys of making wastebasket two-pointers and using Scotch tape to extract nasal blackheads pale when compared with the minute-hand-massaging possibilities of Craigslist and YouTube.”

6. Cigarettes: “The cigarette’s history is so intertwined with sex and reckless youth that it’s hard to imagine a world that’s completely “no smoking.” And yet, so many tobacco-related cultural markers have become distant memories: the monogrammed cigarette case, the Holly Golightly-esque holder, the kindergarten class charged with making ashtrays out of clay.”

7. Phone Sex: “Thanks to instant- and text-messaging, phone sex is going the way of the VHS.”

8. Getting Lost: “In an era where “MapQuest” is a verb, having no sense of direction or ability to read a map have become excusable flaws. You can almost count on having a GPS nearby.”

9. Cash: “Take a good whiff of a greenback — if you actually have one in your wallet, that is. The aroma might just take you back to a time of savings passbooks (in lieu of online banking), rolling quarters (instead of hitting the Coinstar machine) and trips to Europe when you could actually afford a madeleine.”

10. Body Hair: “Getting ready for a date once involved little more than a blow dryer, a razor and a handful of products that could be found at the drugstore (or the grocery store, if you were one of those mayonnaise people). In the past decade, however, that primping might mean spending several hours and more than a few dollars on professional services: eyebrow threading, lip bleaching, armpit-hair waxing, bikini-line laser removal . . . even those little fluffy fellas near the hairline are likely to get pulled. “

11. Having the Blues: “Today, with anti-depressants even more refined, marketed and available, crying into your pillow while blaring Leonard Cohen and reading Anna Karenina has become a kind of crime.”

Doonesbury: Reunion band.

Opus: Sincerely yours.