It's not easy being a single gay man with cerebral palsy, as Ryan J. Haddad recounts in his new play, Hi, Are You Single?
During his first visit to a gay bar, "the first thing I encountered was a staircase," Haddad shared at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C., which partnered with Los Angeles's IAMA Theater Company for a virtual streaming of the play through February 28.
For Haddad, staircases are both physical and metaphorical. Haddad has a strong sex drive — the show opens with a cybersex exchange and doesn't lose steam from there. But in addition to stairs, he encounters stigmatizing "stares" in supposed queer safe spaces that close off romantic prospects.
In Hi, Are You Single?, Haddad takes aim at the bigotry of others. But he also bravely sets his sights inward to tackle hitherto undiscovered hypocrisy in his own views of others.
Below, the 29-year-old writer and actor, previously known for roles in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Politician, discusses the creative process of sharing his story on stage. He also shares his intended takeaways for an audience that, in a post-pandemic world, is also yearning for intimacy.
What inspired you to write (and star in!) Hi, Are You Single?
Well, I have cerebral palsy and walk with a walker, and I had seen so few depictions of disabled sex and romance on stage and screen, in literature and art. In my first string of gay bar experiences, men would stare, gawk, cry, or aggressively ignore me. The energy coming toward me was pointed and hurtful. Simultaneously, my mentor in solo performance, the fabulous Tim Miller, was coaxing me to develop a full-length show before I graduated college, and I knew if I was going to take his advice, these were the issues I needed to explore.
In the play, you recount various experiences of awkwardness and rejection you experienced as a queer man with a disability. Which was the hardest to revisit?
They’ve gotten easier over time. As an actor recounting these personal experiences, I know how to communicate emotion to the audience without actually causing myself pain. The more distance I have from when the stories took place in real life, the stronger my performance becomes. I start to be able to approach each scene or chunk of monologue as a piece of text rather than a potent memory.
If I had to pick one that can be hard to revisit at times, it would be when I take on the character of a man who, in no uncertain terms, tells me all the reasons why he avoids dating disabled guys, even ones he finds attractive. There is great value in this man’s candor and honesty, but it still troubles me because he is vocalizing so many inaccurate assumptions about disability — or life with a disabled person — that other people believe but are too afraid to say.
How has the pandemic further complicated your love life?
Oh, my goodness. Like, when am I ever going to be able to kiss someone? That is a real question that I have. If you didn’t have a lover or a partner before the pandemic, how and when is it safe to go about finding one again? Is Dr. Fauci going to tell us? Single people want to know. Is there a set of guidelines or best practices? Where is the pamphlet?
In all your travels, which gay bar made you feel the most included and why?
Phoenix in the East Village and Industry in Hell’s Kitchen are two that come to mind. I name them both in the play, though admittedly not for inclusive reasons. Phoenix became my friendly neighborhood gay bar when I first moved to the city, and I discovered that Industry actually has a ramp curtained off at its entrance as well as an ADA bathroom, both structural indicators that say, “You are welcome here.”
And another that’s not a place but, rather, an event. One of my theater fairy godparents, Jesse Cameron Alick, took me to a party called Holy Mountain. It was much more of a queer space than a gay male space, and I just found strangers to be much more receptive to my presence. Dancing, kissing, connection. A straight guy — and I really do think he was straight — unbuttoned every button of my shirt and took it off me while we danced, and he wasn’t afraid of being a straight guy dancing with me in a club-like environment. It was unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, and it made me feel powerful.
The most excluded?
Therapy, in Hell’s Kitchen, which I know contradicts the play. Therapy is, indeed, the setting of the most joyful gay bar scene in my script, but it’s also true that it had a giant staircase at the entrance. I don’t name it explicitly, but I do say, “The first time I walked into a gay bar, the first thing I encountered was a staircase.” And it wasn’t just the fact that there were stairs, but it was the stares on the stairs. The way men looked at me as I climbed the steps holding someone’s hand.
Almost four years later, I went back for fun one night with my best friend, Kristen. I was a lot more confident and secure and felt ready to have a good time. She held my hand and we walked up the steps. The stares were just as sharp and piercing. No smiles or “Hi, hello,” just confusion, concern, maybe even repulsion. We got to the top of the stairs and I immediately said, “Let’s go. Let’s go somewhere else.”
You mentioned Ryan O’Connell’s Special and its gay sex scene as a breakthrough in representation. What was your reaction when you first saw that scene?
I mean, I was so moved by it. It was not meant to make me cry, I know that. Ryan crafted it as a really hot, playful, funny scene. But when you’ve never, ever seen an instance where someone like you is having a hot, playful, funny moment, it’s profound and powerful and leaves you aching for more.
As you discuss in the play, several encounters made you aware of your own unexamined biases in dating. What was it like to confront these biases in real life and onstage, and how has that confrontation changed the way you see the world?
It’s never easy to confront your flaws, and there are growing pains when you realize the things you think you know about the world might not be true. But that leads to rigorous and necessary learning. In the moments when my biases became clear, I knew immediately that I was being a hypocrite — rejecting men for shallow reasons beyond their control, just as others had done to me. There was no way to tell this story with full honesty and leave that ugly part out. I needed to face the same criticism I was dishing out; otherwise, I’d have no grounds to earn your time or your trust. I see the world in a more intentional way, and I need to be more thoughtful and careful with my actions and words.
There are several moments of audience interaction in the play, including a dance. Why was it important for you to break the fourth wall and bring in audience members?
Not only is the show about getting people comfortable with disabled sex, but it’s also about making them more comfortable with their own sexuality too. Passion and desire should not be taboo, so I ask questions to loosen people up. It also helps them build a rapport with me early so that I can lead them through the twists and bumps later on in the ride. The dance demonstrates a moment of physical contact and trust. This has always been important to the play, but it’s especially poignant now while we’re all so desperate for human touch.
What do you hope is the biggest takeaway for the audience?
I want audience members to recalibrate their definitions of sexiness to included disability. Disabled people are sexy. Give yourself permission to find us attractive, and be open to the possibility of a romantic connection if the opportunity presents itself.
What do gay men in particular need to hear regarding inclusivity?
There is a person on the receiving end of each rejection. Of course, we’re not all going to be attracted to everyone, but there are ways to communicate with more softness and kindness. We hide behind our own fears and insecurities in a way that excludes people who are different from us. It’s best not to hide. Lead with truth and graciousness.
What did you learn about yourself in creating this play?
I don’t enjoy margaritas as much as I did in college.
So, are you single?
Hi, Are You Single? runs through February 28. Watch it virtually at WoollyMammoth.net and catch the trailer below.