With rotating celebrity ensembles reading gay-themed vignettes by acclaimed playwrights like Moisés Kaufmann, Paul Rudnick, and Doug Wright, Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays has become one of the most engaging efforts to raise funds and awareness for the marriage equality fight. After a limited run at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles earlier this year, producers Stuart Ross and Joan Stein have brought Standing on Ceremony back for a stint at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theatre, where a portion of all proceeds will support Vote for Equality, the Center’s political organization and research program. Scheduled for select Monday nights through June 27, the new incarnation opens May 9 with Peri Gilpin, Julie Hagerty, Rachael Harris, Peter Paige, John Rubinstein, and Jon Tenney. Mr. Ross, who’s currently grooming Old Jews Telling Jokes for off-Broadway, affirms his personal commitment to the matrimonial cause.
The Advocate: Standing on Ceremony was originally conceived and commissioned by Attic Theatre artistic director Brian Shnipper and presented as a one-night benefit in 2009 at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre. When did you join the project as a producer?
Stuart Ross: I saw that benefit in ’09, and afterward I told Brian and his producer, Allain Rochel, that I liked their sensibility and thought the show deserved to go to New York. They got excited, so I called up some theaters. New York Theatre Workshop agreed to produce another benefit last summer, which was great, because we were able to expand the show with more plays from some of their playwrights.
Why was it important for you to get involved?
I got married to my partner in the little window before the book snapped shut because of Prop. 8. We had been so happy, but then, of course, we got very upset. What I loved about Standing on Ceremony was that there was nothing else like it that I’d ever seen in the theater — nothing where a group of artists had come together to write plays about a political issue that actually affected me. The play did what it was supposed to do: It was like a little lightning bolt for me where I knew I had to get involved and do something. And then I thought, Wow, if it can do that for me, maybe it can do that for other people.
How has the show evolved since its premiere?
Even when I first saw it, I was already envisioning it with just music stands and six people playing all the different roles, so that it could be sustained as an ongoing thing. And now it’s a tight hour and 25 minutes with nine plays as opposed to 14. But we still have a little reception after the show, where people can eat wedding cake and talk about different organizations and different ways that they can volunteer and help put a face on the fight for marriage equality.
Considering that you’re staging gay plays at a gay venue, how can you ensure that you’re not just preaching to the choir?
We tell people to pass the word on not just to friends but people who aren’t friends. We ask people not to be afraid to tell other people to come see these plays, using it as an introduction for those who aren’t sure yet about gay marriage. I actually just met with Zach Wahls, the University of Iowa student with two moms who testified before the state house of representatives against the repeal of marriage equality, because I’m adapting his speech for the show. He’s going around trying to find ways to make sure we’re not just preaching to the converted by telling the converted that they have to go out and spread the word.
Are other new pieces making their debut with this run?
Yes, we have a new piece about a Christian evangelist and a gay hustler by the amazing Joe Keenan, who has written a few very funny gay novels and who worked on Frasier and now works on Desperate Housewives. Wendy MacLeod, who wrote The House of Yes, wrote a new piece for us, and Jenny Lyn Bader from the Women’s Project has a new piece going in as well. The Gay and Lesbian Center has also been going out canvassing, asking people how they voted on Prop. 8 and how they would vote now, so we’re adapting those interviews into a piece about the non-converted. Many of the people interviewed have either changed their minds or are willing to rethink their position when the time comes.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I love all my children! [Laughs] I love the Jeffrey Hatcher piece called White Marriage. It’s about a straight couple, but the husband has always had a gay sense of humor. Their son’s getting married, so they start questioning and analyzing what happens when you marry someone you aren’t supposed to marry because you can’t marry the person you’re meant to marry. It’s quite brilliant. But what I love about all the plays is that you could actually do most of them straight, as if they were about straight couples. That’s sort of the thrill, because they present the normality of what life will be like when gay marriage is legal everywhere. They show that gay people go through some of the same issues as everyone else.
Do your actors volunteer their talent and time?
Yes. We try to cover costs for dinner, car service, parking, and gas, but that’s it, and we want to keep it that way. We want to make sure the money we raise goes to the right place. I’ve worked on benefits for just about everything, and it always bothered me how much money you have to spend on benefits.
Have you been met with any hesitation from actors or their publicists who are afraid to be associated with a gay benefit?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of that. We only hear it from the casting director, so we never hear, “I don’t want to kiss somebody on stage,” but there have been actors who just aren’t interested. For some reason, a lot of the more famous gay actors have not responded very favorably to us — “he’s busy, she’s busy” — but we have had amazing gay actors like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, John Benjamin Hickey, and Peter Paige participate. We try to get a good mix of openly gay talent and straight allies. But gay or straight, everyone we’ve gotten to participate has been fantastic.
Not only might they need to kiss other men, male actors might also have to deliver lines like “I love cock” in Neil LaBute’s contribution, Strange Fruit.
Oh, our actors just love that line, and you should hear some of the interpretations we’ve gotten. Some guys really get into it. And the kisses have never a problem. Well, they always end up sincere in performance, but sometimes actors do get a little shy and goof on it a little in rehearsal. Actually, straight actors are sometimes bolder than gay actors.
Which actors are on your wish list to do the show?
Daniel Craig and Meryl Streep. I also love Daniel Sunjata. And Denis Leary is someone who would really make people take notice, and he would just sound amazing doing these plays, especially the Neil LaBute play. Who else? Taye Diggs. Sean Connery. Samuel L. Jackson. Vin Diesel. Honestly, the butcher, the better — and the sweeter, as I’ve found.
Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays opens May 9 at the Renberg Theatre in the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center in the Village at Ed Gould Plaza. For more info, visit standingonceremony.net.