Interview with Conrad Askland, writer of “Pray the Gay Away – a serious musical comedy”
So you have traveled the world as a music director for Cirque du Soleil. You have traveled all over the world with your talent and are even being sought out now by large companies. Why stay in Skagit Valley, WA and why do this show right now?
I’m not doing “Pray the Gay Away” because I WANT to do this show. There are plenty of other projects I could work on that are much easier to bring to stage. I’m doing this show because I HAVE to do this show. This show HAS to be done. And why in Skagit County? Skagit County is where my heart calls home. It is my tribe. It’s where I want to be and it’s where I enjoy doing my original theater works.
Tell me why you HAVE to do this show?
Because of the current political landscape in the United States. A lot of things that I thought had changed in the United States or I thought were in the process of changing, haven’t. We are learning that collectively in our country right now. I think it’s important to put this material up on the stage so people can see the beliefs that are fueling gay conversion therapy and the erosion of human rights. To me it is a mandate to bring this to the stage. It is being done with a treatment that is both serious and humorous that I think will surprise many audience members. Audiences will ultimately make their own decisions on that.
What qualifies you to put on this show?
I struggled with that for a long time. What gives me the artistic right to create a show about this subject matter? I’ve read reviews about movies on this topic that said: “It’s just another show written by straight people for straight people about gay causes.” It took me a full year, while reading and doing research, to come to the place where I felt validated with the artistic license to create this show. I do have very unique experiences and insights that eventually made me realize that I am possibly the ONLY person that can tell this story in the way that it is being told. While researching I would constantly come up with insights that, in time, I realized were very unique. Those unique insights are a product of my background and experience and that is what makes the perspective of the musical “Pray the Gay Away” very unique.
Being your fourth musical, what is different in this project from your first three?
The local theater public knows that this is my fourth musical. What they don’t know is that most of my time over the last seven years has been spent studying musical theater, script writing, character development, plot development; all these things on the side. With formal schooling: Wesleyian University, Berklee College of Music, Colorado State University, working with different playwright groups. Each of my previous shows have increased my skillsets where I felt I was finally ready to attack something this complex. This is by far the most complex work overall that I have attempted, partly because it’s a new story. It’s very rare that successful musicals are built on a new story and the reason is that it’s so very difficult to work out all the details of a new story.
How many months or years have you spent thinking on this particular project?
I started thinking of it back in 2015 and even doing rough drafts of the script, but it was always kind of something on the side. I started working on it in earnest during the summer of 2017 when I was on tour with Cirque du Soleil. This has been my primary focus now since early 2018. You could say two years of focused, 6 day-a-week work.
We have spent a lot of time with various reading groups and focus groups to test material. As a reference, my first script draft was well over 300 pages. All of the current material has been culled from those original concepts and ideas. My original concept score had over 5 hours of music material. What exists now is what we consider the best and most compelling parts. Sometimes I write a complete song within a single day and sometimes I spent several hours going back and forth over a single measure. So the time spent on a project is relative.
How did you select your directive team and why?
Lindsey Bowen (co-director) is the only one who, early on, understood the heart of what we’re trying to do with this show. It’s not easy putting on an original show and it’s not easy getting into the mind of the writer. Lindsey wanted to co-direct with Gabe Guevara because of his energy and their past successful collaborations.
How does this stand in comparison to Book of Mormon? How is it different?
I had thought of a concept in the ballpark of this show over twenty years ago. Never even pursued putting that on stage because there’s no one who would produce it. The sentiment of the general public has changed over time and the Book of Mormon did open the possibility to bring religion into musicals. Book of Mormon shows some of the theology of the Mormon church but really does it as parody. What’s different about Pray the Gay away is we do go into the theological beliefs. The way that I’ve written and scored the church, to me is not at all a one dimensional parody. In fact, I think some people may be surprised that a lot of the show feels like maybe I’m on the side of this particular church due to how they are represented. To me, it’s very important to understand the various beliefs and put forward what those beliefs are. The Book of Mormon has a lot of moments that are offensive to a lot of people. Those moments, I think, are less in Pray the Gay Away, but may seem more offensive because we get more into the social beliefs that are fueling the gay conversion therapy. I think this show goes a little deeper and finds different points to use as it’s entertainment focus. I was personally offended at several moments during Book of Mormon. But I thought it was brilliant and I would want to see it again and again. It was not afraid.
Is this show “Pro Gay Rights” or “Anti-Gay Rights”?
For me, this is not a short answer. Personally, I support “Human Rights” and I feel that the LGBTQ+ community should be fully included in that. It makes me very sad that we even have to use the term “Pro Gay Rights” instead of just “Human Rights”. It makes me think of someone asking “Are You Pro African-American Rights?”, and how awkward and wrong that question sounds to me. For me it is all Human Rights.
PTGA does have a lot of fun and drama with representing different belief systems in many different ways. As part of good story-telling, it’s important to me that I accurately portray both the church stance and the stance of various LGBTQ+ members. In many of our early focus group meetings, both LGBQT+ members and allies said they really wanted to understand this specific church stance in a way that was not one-dimensional. We also had church members who said they wanted to understand the opposing arguments. So all this has been incorporated into PTGA. There is humor in PTGA and there are also the places where we show these arguments and belief systems. Neither side is sanitized. We show “warts and all” on both sides. I say “both” sides, but in reality there are many nuanced opinions and beliefs surrounding the topic of gay conversion therapy and the related theology that accompanies that.
This is why writers should never comment on their own work. We get too geeky about it. Sometimes it’s more balanced to just share other people’s reactions to the actual material. So, one person from a reading has said “I read the script and it is super-empowering to the LGBQT+ community.” For people that have experienced the show content we are so far getting support from both the LGBTQ+ community and it’s allies as well as support from members of local churches.
Do people find the title “Pray the Gay Away” offensive?
Some do. I do as well. The term “Pray the Gay Away”, to me, is an offensive term in that it marginalizes people. We had many, many discussions on the title for the show and stayed with the “Pray the Gay Away” title because that is at the core of what this show is all about. Everything in the show is centered around praying the gay away and everything that I consider wrapped up in that ball of wax which includes cultural bias, misogyny, theological perspectives and on and on. When I gave my presentation of show excerpts I presented the logo and show title. I said that to many people the term “Pray the Gay Away” is offensive. To many, the reaction is similar to seeing a photo of a drinking fountain in the 1950’s with a sign that says “Whites Only”.
The “Pray the Gay Away” logo includes colors of the Pride Flag. The vertical stacked logo also has an inverted pink triangle as a background. The pink triangle was a marking that was found on some concentration camp survivors at the end of World War Two. The marking identified homosexual men, which at the time also included bisexual and transgender individuals. The pink triangle symbol was reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970’s as a response to homophobia. The symbol was reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community and used as a pushback against homophobia. For me, the pink triangle is a reminder of the ongoing progress, or lack of, in Human Rights. Just the sight of the pink triangle is very emotional for me.
Some people are confused when they see “Pray the Gay Away” and they think we might be a church group that is holding a rally to pray the gay away. Our show is being presented by a community theater nonprofit group. The show itself is not affiliated with any particular church. That does happen in our show, but as part of telling a full story that, in my opinion, is much-needed theater on this subject.
Some church members wonder why people are angry at the term “pray the gay away” and other community members wonder why some church member would even try to “pray the gay away”. The whole reason for our story is to show parts of why it happens and what fuels it. I find various aspects of this world humorous and also heart-breaking. Those feelings are being expressed through the genre of American Musical Theater in this show.
With a subject that can be very controversial, why as a writer is comedy so important, and how have you built that into this show?
I struggled with that for a long time as well. In fact, the first year and a half when I was kind of juggling this idea around, my main difficulty was whether it should be comedy or serious drama. They both have their place. But to me, a serious drama is often something you go to because you have to, not necessarily because you want to. You’re going to be educated. Whereas comedy often seems a little empty for certain topics, that it’s all just parody and giggles. A little unsatisfying. In the summer of 2017 when I read the press release that Boy Erased was going to be released in 2018, and that it was going to be a serious drama; I knew right then that PTGA had to incorporate comedy. For two reasons: to tell the story in a different way and also, it totally embraces the genre of American Music Theater. Entertainment is my primary focus of the show. I want to create a show that people want to see. The difficulty and complexity is to create a show that’s engaging, that people want to see, yet goes where it needs to go. In my world, the word “entertainment” means “engaging to an audience”. It is important to me that the show content is engaging to an audience.
I understand that it might be counter-intuitive to think of this subject matter in context with the word comedy. One of the most difficult parts in developing PTGA was finding the right balance of humor and serious content. We have held many, many readings and focus group sessions to test the material. When I asked readers to describe the genre of the show, the general consensus was that the best way to describe PTGA was as “serious comedy.” In creating the show I do depend on the intelligence of the audience to decipher the subtext of the comedy. In our readings and focus-groups the material has been landing as I intended. I believe that theater audiences as a whole are very intelligent and we count on that for our production of this show.
My hope in creating this work is that the humor does give people a different perception of themselves and our own society. I’ve been very surprised at all of our readings that the humor is landing the way I expected it too and that people are not grossly offended. When we first announced the show publicly, the outpouring of support from the local theater communities and the general public has been really enormous as well and not something I expected at all.
Last week we did a presentation of show excerpts with full choir, soloists and script readers. We did this so that people would be more informed on the show content. At that evening we received support both from the LGBQT+ community and from members of local churches. Obviously not everyone will support the show, but so far we are gaining strong support across the board from people that are informed of the content. Most the pushback we are getting is from people who are not informed on our show content but “think” they know what the show content is.
We understand that PTGA has also been a part of your formal studies.
I just completed a Master’s Degree in Arts Leadership and Cultural Management with Colorado State University. I was able to incorporate many insights from that formal academic training into PTGA. CSU also let me use my development of PTGA as part of my study program of study, which is the CSU LEAP program.
Where did you write PTGA?
My previous shows were primarily written outside the United States. Witches (2012) was written in China. PAN (2013) was written in Greece and Italy. Romeo and Juliet (2015) was written on the island of Bermuda. PTGA is the first show that has primarily been written here in Skagit County, in Mount Vernon, WA. I started working on it round-the-clock after my work with the world tour of Varekai ended at the end of 2017.
What is the PTGA music like?
I think the PTGA music is very melodic and easily accessible to the ear. This is to balance the delicate and sometimes incendiary nature of the subject matter. Some vocalists have said “why do you have to write such difficult music”, but when I asked for clarification they really meant that the music changes keys a lot. I do change keys a lot in this show, but the music itself is very much in the style of American Musical Theater. Vocalists have said the music is very intuitive and in general vocalists have picked up the music fairly quickly.
We have heard rumors that PTGA could go far down the road. What are your plans for it in the future?
I’m only focused on bringing this show to the stage November 2019 at the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon, WA. The play’s the thing.
Any last thoughts on PTGA?
This show is brave. It does not hold back. I feel strongly that PTGA has to be brought to the stage, so here we are. As a writer, I can speak for hours on end about the creation process but all that really matters in the end is opening night. In many ways, everything I have to express is contained within the show content itself. I think that American Musical Theatre is the perfect genre for what I have to say and how I want to say it. It would be like discussing a painting I have created before anyone has seen the painting. What will be most informative is when people see the painting.
In the overall sense, PTGA to me is like pulling away a carpet that has been dormant for many years. We are showing everything that is under that carpet. Audience members will have different experiences when we show that. And ultimately, we are presenting a story that has heavy commentary on our underlying (U.S.) culture and also presenting a journey where audiences will have their own opinions and discussions about that journey.
“Pray the Gay Away – a serious musical comedy” opens November 2019 at the Historic Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, WA (USA).