Standing On Ceremony

11.4.2011

By Jordan Shavarebi

Playwright and director Moises Kaufman talks about the 'Standing on Ceremony' plays, and just how political the stage can be.

Playwright and director Moises Kaufman has long used theater as a conduit to give a voice to real people. In turn, his work spotlights contemporary social issues in an organic, personal way. He drew national attention when he explored the murder of Matthew Shepherd through the eyes of the citizens of Laramie, Wyoming, in his play The Laramie Project in 2000. Then came his work chronicling the trials of Oscar Wilde, his directorial debut for I Am My Own Wife, which earned him a Tony, and -- most recently -- the Broadway hit, 33 Variations. As the creative director of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Company, Kaufman's current undertaking is a global effort to continue the national dialogue about marriage equality, resulting in Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays which starts its off-Broadway run on Monday with a nationwide event of multiple, simultaneous stagings across the country. We chatted with Kaufman about this work, and its implications.

What is Standing on Ceremony?
It's a collection of short plays on the subject of gay marriage. What is exciting about it is that it's an amazing group of writers thinking about this one issue. It’s difficult to write about issues of the day without making agitprop pieces, but in this case, because of the caliber of the writing and the writers, it really is an exciting piece from the point of view of playwrights.

Why do you think marriage is the issue that our community seems to be most vocally behind at the moment?
There seems to be a progression. During this administration there have been great strides made in the right direction, continuing in several different avenues. It's not just about getting married… it's about a change of dialogue and a change of discourse coming through to the top. As soon as we get married, there’s a slew of things that occur—not only regarding the political or economical or the rights that we get—but there’s a change in the nature of the conversation.

Because this is such a fresh movement, we have the opportunity to shape and construct it to our liking. Do you think we’re making the right moves? Taking the right action?
The best civil rights movements and actions are occurring simultaneously on different levels so that it's not that you just fight for one thing at a time, but it's kind of a wave of several different things occuring simultaneously.

Why is theater such a good platform for the political and social?
The possibility of a playwright to respond very quickly to something that’s happening in the world is one of the reasons that theater is very effective. The theater is the most human way of conveying narratives. It is about the performance of one human being in front of another human being and it is something that can still connect us and remind us of our humanity.

I think your piece in Standing On Ceremony, London Mosquitoes, reminds us that this is an intergenerational issue, even though the media has portrayed much of this movement as a youth-driven one. Do you think your play gives a much-needed voice to an older generation?
Before gay marriage was a possibility, we were in the position where we had to design our own relationships and we had to invent the parameters by which we lived. The paradigms by which we lived. That allowed us to create relationships that were tailor-made for our needs. We didn’t need to buy into a preexisting construct of what a relationship between two people is. But, with all great social movement, every time you gain something, you lose something. By becoming part of the mainstream, and by having access to marriage, we have partially lost the ability to define what marriage was for us.

Would you say that there are couples out there that are nostalgic for that time and place?
I don't know that there are couples who are nostalgic -- for example, the couple in my play is not nostalgic. What they're saying is that "We have been, for all intents and purposes, married for 45 years. If we get married, what does that say about the time we were together? I didn't want to be fooling around with you -- in my heart, I was married to you." I think marriage does two things: it allows us to be accepted in society as equals, but at the same time it gives us a preexisting contract that we now get to use. I think that it is of course much better that our marriages be recognized, but with very step forward, we have to acknowledge that we no longer get to, in the same way, manufacture the constructs that bind us.

If we explained this concept to a hotheaded young activist, it may take some time to sink in. How can we go about bridging the generational gap?
At the end of the day, what playwrights are able to do is to tell personal narratives, and I think that personal narratives are the way that we understand each other. I think you may agree or disagree with certain political or social views that the other person has, but by telling their story you get one step closer to understanding them. Whether you’re gay or lesbian or transsexual or transgender, young or old, I think that this is something we as a community have to be looking at.

Much of the fate of marriage equality lies in the hands of those outside our community. If at all, how did this affect Standing on Ceremony?
A lot of national conversation that is taking place around gay marriage is a lot about how straight people feel about gay marriage. And I think what's wonderful about this evening of plays is that you get people who are, some, in our community, some in close proximity to our community, really trying to tell the story from the other side. There is a whole variety of points of view portrayed in the play, but it’s wonderful to have the possibility to talk from within our community specifically. It's an evening that really allows for those conversations to occur on the stage.

Were any of the plays written with the intent to convince those outside of our community of the fact that we deserve rights like marriage equality?
Theater is not a good place to convince anybody of anything. I think that theater is a place that is able to articulate personal stories that are true and have integrity. By showing those stories I don’t think you convince, but you create a bond between people's humanities. And who wants to be lectured?

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays starts previews on Monday, November 7th with a special nationwide performance schedule. It opens on November 13th. For more information, visit standingonceremony.net

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