New Play Shines a Light on the Secret Spaces of Gay Men

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Photo: Jennifer E. Koltun

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a straight man creating a play that portrays a whole range of gay men-some of whom identify as straight, some that are immersed in their ideas of what it means to be gay, and still others at many points in between. This is REDlight, the creation of New York-based documentary filmmaker and playwright Ryan Kipp.

In the play, which opens tomorrow at the FringeNYC Festival, we meet-or rather, meet a number of people who know and describe-“Gavin,” a straight stripper at a gay strip club.

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I happen to know the playwright, and saw a shortened version of REDlight that he was workshopping in the spring. He and his creative team invited to me see a pre-Fringe rehearsal of this longer version of the piece.

Now, before you assume that this is preachy, politically correct fare, or something prurient and lurid, or, on the other extreme, some sanitized wash over hard-to-discuss issues framed by madcap, quippy gay men galavanting around à la Jack from Will and Grace: leave those preconceptions at the door with your dollar bills. This is a complicated piece that somehow incorporates, in equal measure, tragedy, humor (both high- and lowbrow), frankness, and questions many of us ask only in our minds, not out in the world, where we might be judged for even articulating them.

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I’ve always personally believed that the logical end point of the gay civil rights movement, its holy grail, is a time when it’s simply not an issue any more. We are still at a stage where we’re figuring out what a “gay identity” truly is, and how it’s perceived, accepted, and rejected by society at large. Yet inevitably some of this identity is formed by the very fact that gay people are, in most places, a marginalized community. The great struggles of any minority build to a point when it achieves visibility, then acceptance, and finally doesn’t any longer feel outcast, and there is no discussion of its members having any status other than what anyone in the larger society would.

But the gay community, itself a nebulous concept fraught with division, isn’t always a unity of people of common purpose, and has not seen a neat, steady progression towards inclusion. There are times in the world’s history when what we think of as “gay” has had more acceptance than it does in our society today, and times when it has faced brutal rejection, persecution, and suppression. And like any community formed out of people who have been in some way or another repressed, the gay community has its very dark, hidden, complicated sides.

Photo: Jennifer E. Koltun

REDlight goes into these darker places, and uses them to show what I think is the play’s central theme: that the whole thing is a good deal more complicated than an easily definable gay identity. Aspects of that identity are, after all, set up in opposition to a perceived majority of “others,” which is in itself a fallacy. What if the world we live in, the play asks, is a very wide spectrum of wants, needs, desires, behaviors-nature and nurture (or lack thereof, in both cases) blending so you can’t see the edges of either? The world shown in REDlight is a continuum formed of mutable ideas, experiences, both revealed and hidden, of acts and memories accepted or denied and rejected.

The series of characters Kipp portrays in his one-man show-everyone from bar queens to brutal predators to closeted soldiers, and Kipp himself, struggling to absorb and process this overwhelming knot of contradictions-are composites of people he encountered when, trying to raise money for a cross-country trip in 2001, he went to work as a cocktail waiter in a gay strip club. No big deal, he thought: as a straight man, he’d always been fine with gay people, in fact, he related to them. Then he had a shot at being one of the dancers, one of the boys that strip for the men who come to the club.

In doing so, he entered a demimonde in which, it can be argued, he was both a victim, his body objectified for the club’s patrons, and an exploiter: a straight interloper making money off gay men in a shadow land within the gay world that is kept carefully hidden, cloaked in secrecy and, indeed, in shame. The experience connected him, as he puts it, to something more universal-within himself, humanity, and the many ways in which we can be cruel or kind to each other.

Photo: Jennifer E. Koltun

An interesting dimension of this undertaking, for me, is that Kipp is approaching this as an exploration of a different culture. Kipp grew up in Africa, so he’s experienced big shifts of context and the demands of adapting to new environments. I can certainly relate to feeling that the discovery of one’s own culture, heritage, or identity can sometimes feel like an anthropological exercise-and not an easy one, at that.

Broadly, though, to me, REDlight is an interesting exercise in visual storytelling and deconstructed narrative. It experiments not just in its subject matter, but with structure, characters, and nonlinearity. There is a carefully spare and reductive quality to the production-Kipp is the only person ever on stage, and the design of the set is comprised mainly of a projected image that generates the atmosphere of the darkened club and other environments the audience is brought through-yet it covers an enormous range of human experience.

REDlight has shows at FringeNYC on Aug. 10, 15, 16, 18, 25, and 26 (see a full schedule).

So, this is some pretty challenging material.

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I have always been averse to preconceived notions. We all have a way of moving through this life, regardless of how open we think we are, guided by a considerable amount of fear and judgement. I wanted to prove to myself and anyone who may be paying attention that not everything is as it seems; that books cannot always be judged by their covers-that in order to experience and know something, you HAVE to put yourself in it.

I grew up in Africa. When I came back to the United States as a kid I had a very different view of the world and of people than the kids I wound up in school with here. I was a bit shell-shocked when I was confronted with American kids who were much crueler than any I had ever encountered overseas. I wasn’t used to quantifying a person’s worth based on how different they were from you. When I lived in Africa, everyone was of a different faith, color or nationality. It took me years to realize that the American kids were probably acting off the fear their parents had of anything or anyone that was different from them.

You’re a straight man, playing a series of gay and straight characters (and others somewhere in between, in terms of their own identification), composites and interpretations of people you met in a gay environment. You’ve revealed that these are products of your own experience. Tell me about how you built these characters.

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It’s very important for me to make very clear that in no way am I claiming to know what it’s like to be gay. These characters are all based on living, breathing people I encountered at the club, and are written and portrayed through the lens of my own experience.

I realize that to some I may seem to be crossing a line, but I wanted to really try to understand sexuality in a way that lots of straight men would consider unacceptable based on fear and insecurity. I’ve seen people I love be severely guarded because straight men have always given them cause to cover -I wanted to show that not all straight men are just interested in proving how straight they are. The definition of what it is to be a man is far more complex than the ones we’ve been fed from the men that raised us.

I know that you’ve faced some pushback from your closest friends, many of whom are gay. What were their issues with what you’re doing, and how did you respond?

I could NEVER understand the intricacies of the role sexuality has played in a gay person’s life. Never.

How did these discussions shape your sense of what you were doing? Did you feel at any point that you didn’t have the right to tell this story, as a straight man?

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If someone has a strong criticism of any work that I do, I want to always be able to hear them and where they’re coming from. I’ve never felt that I don’t have the right to tell this story, because it’s essentially my story. At the same time I realize that some people might have strong reactions against me telling this story, and I wouldn’t ever want to invalidate that.

Tell me more about your concept of “allies.”

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We are all drawn to things in life that give us meaning. These things are all dependent on what we’ve experienced and how those experiences allow us to connect to others’ experiences.

Being a straight ally is one aspect of my life that does give me tremendous meaning. One of my dearest friends has struggled on and off his entire life with his sexuality, and he is one of the most outgoing, effective, prosperous and open people I’ve ever met. He is a large part of that personal connection I have to this subject matter.

The civil rights issue of my generation is raging before us. Admittedly, there are differences from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but just as allies lent a hand in that struggle, I believe we as straight allies can and should provide that same support now.

REDlight looks at a whole range of gay experiences and identities, at times rather starkly. I think one of the really remarkable things about what you’ve done is that the lens is objective, yet compassionate. I felt I was seeing things in your production that aren’t often talked about or acknowledged.

One of the goals I have (albeit quite a lofty one), with work that I have the privilege of creating, is to attempt to “level the sexuality playing field.” We waste so much time worrying about how others live and how their difference will inevitably ruin our precious ways of life – blah, blah, blah! Ideally, I’d like to see us all stop wasting valuable time by worrying about who our neighbors are sleeping with and focus more on WHO our neighbors are.

You’ve got a whole creative team working with you on this project, including your wife, Jen. Tell me a little bit more about them, and how they have helped you bring REDlight to this point.

The REDlight team has been incredible. I really can’t say enough about them. Especially my directors Jennifer Tuttle and Marc Santa Maria and Ben Lambert who was somewhat of a script consultant throughout the process.

Ben was instrumental in helping me find the play’s structure and voice. So I gradually put together 50 pages of notes and sketches that reflect the experience I had as a stripper in a gay club. Then I sat down and organized the piece and showed it to them. From there, Marc and Jen set about building these characters from the inside out.

Marc has been extremely instrumental in helping me to truly understand what these characters want and who they are and even to some extent, why I wrote them. Jen has transformed my skills as an actor through a healthy dose of Michael Chekhov work. This work has not only given me practical physical tools that will serve me always but has given each of these characters his own physical dimension. Together they have both worked in tandem to really fill the world of the play and help me make these characters as rich and as truthful as they deserve to be.

Any other thoughts, as you prepare for your first Fringe performance this Friday?

I feel so incredibly honored and a bit humbled to have this opportunity to perform this piece in front of the Fringe audience. I primarily wrote this piece as a way to get at a different type of conversation about sexuality. Maybe that will happen, maybe it won’t-but whatever happens, I am ecstatic that the potential for that conversation is there.