A Conversation with Joe Breen
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Written by Margarita Javier
Photography by Emma Pratte
September 28, 2017
On a breezy evening in Hell’s Kitchen, I met up with my tall, well-spoken and charming friend Joe Breen, a NYC based playwright whose latest play, All My Love, Kate, is being presented as part of this year’s ESPA Drills at Primary Stages. It tells the love story of two men whose relationship is challenged when one of them enlists to fight in World War II. I attended an early reading of the play last year, and found it to be deeply moving, surprisingly funny, politically relevant, and full of sharp, witty dialogues. I sat down with Joe over wine and hummus for a long and engaging conversation about his play, the things they don’t teach you about World War II, the LGBT community, authentic representation in the arts, and our mutual obsession for musical theater.
Margarita Javier: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and where you come from.
Joe Breen: I grew up in Western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. I was exposed to a lot of great theater out there. I moved to New York City in 2002 as an actor, singer, and dancer in the musical-theater world. Somewhere along the line, I started writing.
MJ: Why do you write?
JB: It was something that I never really put much thought into; it was something that I always just did. A lot of times, it would be something you could do at 3 o’clock in the morning, or in between acting jobs. It was something I did for fun, but I never thought much about doing anything with. And then, within the past few years, I really started taking it very seriously and looking at what I was doing. And here I am.
MJ: Why did you suddenly start taking it seriously?
JB: Once I made the decision to stop performing, I decided to go back to school. While I was in school, the academic part of my brain was being stimulated in a way that it never had before. I didn’t go right to college after high school. The artistic side of myself was not being fed at all. So I found myself writing to fulfill that, and the more I wrote, the more I actually started believing in it and wanting to do something with it.
MJ: What kind of stuff were you writing? Was it always theater or did you write anything else?
JB: I used to write a lot of short plays. I wrote some screenplays in my early 20s. I wrote a novel—an unpublished novel. And then a play that I had started over 10 years ago, which I had worked on on and off, I really started focusing on getting that finished and getting it where I wanted it to be. I felt the drive to create something. I started to realize that I got much more fulfillment out of writing something and creating something, and creating a world, than I did in actually performing. That was a big sort of “Aha!” moment to me.
MJ: You mentioned a play that you had been working on for 10 years. What was that?
JB: It’s called The Hands that Hold Us. It was a finalist for the Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship last year. And then it was selected as part of Capital Repertory Theatre’s NEXT ACT! New Play Summit. There were four plays chosen to get staged readings, which took place last October.
MJ: It’s amazing that you just decided to do this seriously and already you’re a finalist for awards and getting staged readings.
JB: It was. And I have to give a lot of credit to a company called The Bechdel Project which produced the first table read. I sent the play to a friend of mine, Maria Maloney, who’s one of the founders of the company. And she said, “Let’s hear this out loud!”
MJ: Why theater specifically? What draws you to theater as an art form?
JB: As far as writing for theater, I think it’s because theater is where I’m the most comfortable.
JB: Because I know it. It’s something I’ve always done. As a kid, I was in productions of The Music Man and Mame—you know, community theater.
MJ: So you fell in love with it as a young kid.
JB: Yeah. And as I evolved and became a professional actor, writing theater seemed like the natural next step.
MJ: Who and what would you say are your artistic influences? Who are your favorite writers, favorite playwrights, and favorite pieces of theater?
JB: I’m not gonna lie; I’m a big musical-theater dork. So when I’m asked, “What are your favorite productions?” I sit there and name a bunch of classic musicals.
MJ: Like what?
JB: Man of La Mancha, A Little Night Music … I love Sunday in the Park with George. Most recently, Bandstand. I have to plug Bandstand, one of the greatest things I’ve seen in a long time. I also loved The Visit.
MJ: An underrated masterpiece!
JB: Yes. That’s where my heart is.
MJ: But you mostly write straight theater.
JB: Yes, I only write straight theater. When it comes to playwrights, I love Tennessee Williams. I love Eugene O’Neill. Sort of the big classic Americana plays.
MJ: I’m also a big theater lover, and I sometimes go see a piece of theater that makes me go, “Yes! This is why I want to work in theater!” Have you had moments like that? What’s the earliest experience you had where you were like, “This is what I want to do”?
JB: I grew up watching a lot of old musical films. Also, growing up in the Berkshires, we had Williamstown Theatre Festival, Berkshire Theatre Festival, and Barrington Stage Company. In the summer, there would be summer stock—The Mac-Haydn Theatre which is a small summer-stock theater that only does musicals. Because that was my big love, my uncle, who also loved musicals, had season subscriptions, and brought me all summer long to Mac-Haydn Theatre. When you see a production of The King and I on a tiny, round stage and Anna’s in a hoop skirt, there’s no room for anyone else. And in my head as a kid, not being able to separate or see the difference between that and Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the film—there’s something magical about that.
MJ: Tell us about Primary Stages and ESPA. How did you become involved with them?
JB: Kimberly Faith Hickman, one of the founding members of the Bechdel Project, was an assistant director at MTC for Of Good Stock, written by Melissa Ross. Kimberly had said that The Hands That Hold Us reminded her a lot of Ross’s style, so she connected us through email. Ross and I had a little back and forth over email; I was asking for advice because, like I said, I was very new to this. I’d had some short plays produced over the years, but never a full length play. I was very much out to sea. With the short plays, you can enter them to random festivals here and there. But when suddenly you have a large two-hour-plus play, it’s different. So Melissa, who actually teaches at ESPA, suggested I take a class there. She said they have a lot of amazing instructors, so I signed up for a first draft class with Bess Wohl who wrote Small Mouth Sounds, and that’s where I really started working on All My Love, Kate.
MJ: And All My Love, Kate is being featured as part of this year’s ESPA Drills. How did that come about?
JB: The ESPA Drills happen every year, and the rules are, in order to submit, it has to be a full-length finished play that has been developed in some way at Primary Stages. Over the span of a year, I had taken four classes there and had worked on All My Love, Kate. So I submitted it—it’s a blind submission process—and they got back to me and said I was a semi-finalist, then a finalist, and then I was one of the four plays chosen.
MJ: So yours is one of only four plays chosen. Do you know anything about the other playwrights in the series: Liz Appel, Jacqueline Bircher, and Daniel Loeser?
JB: Yes. Primary Stages ESPA sent us to a house in the Catskills on a retreat and I was very nervous because you know there’s always one person—especially when you get a group of artists together—there’s always going to be that one person that makes you want to bash your head against the wall. But there was not. Other than the four of us, there was Sarah Matteucci, the Associate Director of Education of ESPA, and playwright Crystal Skillman, who was our faculty advisor. The four of us connected so quickly. We’re very different people, very different writers, with very different processes, very different styles. The four plays are very different, but we’re all very supportive of each other. I know that sounds ridiculous, people say that all the time, but it really is true. We keep saying we were shocked at how well we jelled, being as different as we all are.
MJ: So, All My Love, Kate. What is it about? What was the inspiration? How did you come up with it?
JB: At the core, it is a love story. It takes place in the 1940s right before and during World War II. It’s about two men—they live together, they have a life together, they’re in a committed relationship. Then the war happens and one of them joins the Air Corps in a station in the Philippines. That’s the basic plot. It’s about two men who want to be together, but can’t. But on a larger scale, what I hope that I’m doing is examining the idea of what it means to be an American, what it means to be a patriot, and whether or not you can be those things if you don’t fit into the definition that has been set up by the government, by the country, by society.
MJ: Right, how do people who don’t conform to heteronormative standards fit into the narrative of American history?
JB: In the ‘40s it was a different mindset when talking about war. Nowadays, many of us look at war in a very cynical light. In the ‘40s, when America went to war, if you were a man, you joined up. You didn’t question it. You just did. And to be an American hero—a male American hero—you went to war, you fought for your country, you put your life on the line. And as for women—gender roles blurred a little bit in the ‘40s for women. Because suddenly they were allowed to go to the workforce to replace the men who were fighting. Various branches of the military had all-female divisions. The women, they had secretarial jobs, they worked the radios, they did things that were not combative, but the women were fighting for the country all the same. It all leads to the inspiration of my play—and it’s the women who were at home, who didn’t join the ranks, who didn’t necessarily go to the factories—they had their own part to play, too. To be an American hero as a woman meant to sacrifice your husband, your brother, your son. And if they died, then you suddenly became part of a group that was called the Gold Star Wives. And they were held up almost with reverence, almost like the Virgin Mary, because of all they had sacrificed. There’s actually a song in Bandstand (to bring it back), “Who I Was,” that Laura Osnes sings about what her life was like before she became a Gold Star widow. And so that whole idea of these women in a way being glorified for sacrificing the men in their lives, I started to wonder how many Gold Star men and women there were who went unacknowledged, because at that time men and women who were gay in the military service could not admit to having those loves at home, could not tell you, they couldn’t even admit who was waiting for them at home.
MJ: Why was that important for you to explore?
JB: In many ways, I think we as an LGBT community take for granted—I mean, this is such an old, gay man way of like, “Oh if the kids only knew!”—but we take for granted, especially in this city, the freedoms and the rights that we have. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been overturned; that’s amazing. But now we’re in the process of our President saying that Trans soldiers are not allowed to fight, cannot be a part of the military, cannot voluntarily fight and die for their country. I started writing this play before that happened, but it’s taken on a very interesting timeliness, which surprised me, because my writing tends to be a throwback when it comes to “queer theater”—and I hate that term.
MJ: Why do you hate that term?
JB: I find it reductive. Because as soon as a play—not even a play, but a film, a novel, anything—if the voice that is highlighted is a gay character, a black character, an Asian character, or a Latino character, it suddenly becomes “a gay play,” “a black play,” etc. And there’s this weight and this extra expectation that is placed on them. And I think as gay writers, as far as theater goes, what we write has tended to be very timely. It talks about a specific experience in a point in time. You look at Tennessee Williams, he was writing gay men. They were self-hating closeted Southern gay men. But at the time, that was a very true experience for the average gay man. Now we look at Tennessee Williams’ plays as period pieces. We then moved on to Angels in America and Torch Song Trilogy, or Torch Song as it’s called now, which I cannot wait for. And those plays were very specific to the gay experience of those times. Very of the time—what the gay community was dealing with in that moment. Although, if you look at Torch Song, a character in that wants to get married and have children, which was very forward-thinking. We weren’t, I don’t think, actively fighting for marriage equality when that play was written.
MJ: I think the LGBT community was, but it wasn’t at the forefront of the narrative.
JB: Right, there were other battles to fight. But now when those plays are done, they’re looked at as period pieces. Now we have plays like Dada Woof Papa Hot, by Peter Parnell, which explored the idea of Ok, we can get married and have kids and a house; we can be out and proud. But then what? What happens to the community that we built and the community that kept us safe for so many years? What does it evolve us into?
MJ: Funny you mention that, because I was going to ask you about the changing landscape of theater that deals with LGBT issues. There was a piece in the New York Times when Dada Woof Papa Hot came out about the changing landscape of LGBT theater.
JB: I remember that!
MJ: It was about that play as well as Steve by Mark Gerrard, at Signature, and it was about how now that we have marriage equality, what are these new-wave LGBT plays talking about? They interviewed Craig Lucas, and he actually said that he wouldn’t bet on “a whole bunch of plays celebrating our achievements only because we don’t know how long those achievements are going to last.” This was in 2015. Now, after the 2016 election, we’re realizing that Lucas was right; all of these things that we were celebrating may not be as secure as we thought they were. Suddenly, we realize we’re not past these issues yet. I was thinking about how supposedly we’re past talking about the AIDS crisis in theater, and just recently Michael Friedman died of AIDS complications. So these things that we had supposedly moved past from, we haven’t. You mentioned revivals of Torch Song and Angels in America, which is coming to Broadway next year, and suddenly we’re realizing, yes they’re period pieces, but they’re still incredibly relevant.
JB: Much to our surprise.
MJ: So I wonder: As a gay writer, are you consciously writing as part of this history and do you have anything to contribute to the new wave of LGBT plays?
JB: It’s interesting because one of the questions I always hate as a writer is when someone asks “Why are you writing this? What do you want the audience to take away from this? What are you saying?”
MJ: By the way, why are you writing this? What do you want the audience to take away from this? What are you saying?
JB: [laughs] Well that’s a three-part question. When I started writing this play, I just started writing a story that happens to take place in the 1940s, a very interesting point in history. And the play just happens to be about two men. Well no, I guess I can’t say that it “just happens” to be that way, because I made the decision to write it about two men because of the whole question of how many Gold Star widows were men. See, I am in awe of writers who can look at something, one of the great topics and say, “I’m going to write a play about that. I’m going to write of today and now,” and have something to say about that. Because if I tried to do that, I’d be afraid it would come across as too heavy-handed.
MJ: I know what you mean, but I’ve spoken to a lot of writers and I feel like most come at it from a very personal standpoint; I don’t think it’s always wanting to make a political statement. I think for most writers, it’s a very personal experience and then you can extrapolate any kind of political message from that.
JB: I guess that’s what I was trying to get to. When someone says, “What do you want people to take away from this?” I never know; I don’t know what I want people to take away from this. My last play, The Hands That Hold Us, is about Alice, a 25-year-old woman who, during her third bout of cancer, chooses to forego treatment, much to the chagrin of her family. Now, while writing and working on that, a lot of people asked me, “Are you saying that people should have the right to kill themselves? Don’t they have a responsibility to their family to fight?” And I never knew what to say to that. Because when it comes to the character of Alice, I still don’t know if I agree that what she did is right. I don’t know if I would do that. So I guess what I’m saying is it’s up to the audiences, to people like you, to go see the play and walk away and draw your own meaning and conclusions. Because one person could go to this play and say “Oh, he’s showing us why gays should be open in the military” but then someone else could say “My God, he’s showing us why gays shouldn’t be open in the military.” It’s subjective; all art is such a subjective thing.
MJ: Your play is fiction, but it does take place during World War II. During the process of writing, did you do any research? Was historical accuracy important? Did you come across any real life stories that may have inspired your characters?
JB: When I first started going down this road, I knew that gay people were out there in the world during this period; although, what’s interesting is that even during readings, I’ve had people in the room who are gay and have asked me, “Well, were people living together as actual couples then?” Well, it didn’t just suddenly happen after 1981! But there aren’t a lot of examples of that. It wasn’t in the media; it’s not in films. But a very important book that I came across is called Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II by Allan Bérubé. And it’s focused on men and women who joined the US military. There’s also a documentary which is wonderful. The documentary came out as a response to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell being put into effect. And they talk firsthand to the gays and lesbians who were there. And amazingly, a lot of them in the documentary wouldn’t go on camera, even though they were lending their voices. They were shown in shadows. Even then, it would’ve been the ‘90s, these are World War II vets that lived—if not openly—lived as gay and lesbian women with partners. And they still had that fear of letting that be known. I also did a lot of reading into various battles, trying to get a general sense of the things we didn’t learn in history class. I was doing reading on the fall of Bataan and the Bataan Death March. I was very intrigued by this group of soldiers because within seven hours of Pearl Harbor being hit, the Philippines was hit. We weren’t at war yet, officially. The military people in the Philippines, both American and Filipino, hadn’t even heard about Pearl Harbor yet. So within seven hours, the Japanese Imperial army bombed Manila, which became the Battle of Bataan. Ultimately, Japan won the battle and in what was a truly horrific war crime, this group of soldiers was marched over I think six days, 60-plus miles, no water, no food, and something like 70,000 American and Filipino POWs. What fascinated me about this group of people that was involved in the Bataan Death March, is that they were among the first soldiers to be captured during World War II and one of the last to be released. They were shuttled from a few different countries, shuttled from different camps; so much so, that the military and the government lost track of them. Many of their families were told that they were presumed dead. And then suddenly, World War II ends and all these soldiers are coming back saying, “I’m not dead.” So I was very fascinated by that. Which actually leads me to one of the biggest struggles I’ve had in writing this play. It’s a Japanese character named Toshio, who is a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army. And the reason I’ve struggled so much with him is because, from the very beginning, I have been hyper-aware of being a white man writing a person of color, who, historically in this moment of time, was considered and will be considered the “villain.”
MJ: Right because at the time Japan was the enemy of the United States.
JB: Right. And the worst thing you can say to a liberal white person is that they’re racist, you know? We’re terrified of that! [laughs] So, I have this Japanese character, who, in my efforts to want to make him three-dimensional, I was afraid to commit to the parts of him that would be perceived by audiences as being offensive. I had a reading this spring and, historically in the ‘40s, Americans called Japanese people “Japs.” It wasn’t even in their minds that it was a derogatory term, if they wanted to be derogatory they would use something else. This was just what they were. So I have a character in the play that represents very much the heteronormative, white-America good ol’ boy. And that is how he refers to Japanese people. After the reading, during the feedback session, another playwright in the room, a white liberal man, said he was very offended by the use of the word “Jap.” And he thought it was too much, and it really took him out of it. And so, of course, my white liberal Spidey senses started tingling, thinking, “Oh God, what have I done?” But in the room were two Asian actors—one Filipino, one Cambodian. And both of them stood up and said, “Oh no, that’s not offensive at all; it’s very valid. It rings true to me.”
MJ: Because it’s being said by a racist character.
JB: Exactly. So that was interesting. Flash forward a year later, just recently, I’m still struggling with this character. And one night before a reading, I made a very bold choice, and had him do something that I was very uncomfortable with. The next day, when that part came up in the play, there was an audible gasp. And during the feedback session, those white liberals of us in the room were like, “Oh that was so shocking! We’re afraid of what that’s going to make Toshio look like.” But the Japanese actor in the room said, “No, he’s a trained soldier. That is exactly what he would have done in that scenario.” So it’s a very hard thing to write an “other” to myself, because we handle those characters with kid gloves, and risk making them, for lack of a better term, an “Uncle Tom” character.
MJ: It’s interesting because I think a problem not just in theater, but in any kind of artistic representation—when it specifically comes to white people writing people of color, especially white liberals writing people of color—there’s a tendency to idealize.
JB: So that we can say, “See? They weren’t all bad!”
MJ: Right. And in this overt effort to not be offensive, it creates a stereotype in itself. It’s interesting that you’re so hyper-aware of that.
JB: I’m very fortunate that I have very outspoken people of color in my life that will call me out on things like that. And they make me aware of my white guilt. [laughs]
MJ: So when writing for Toshio, have you done any research? How do you approach being authentic to a Japanese character, apart from your liberal guilt?
JB: Something I feel very strongly about, and it’s something that’s unfortunately not feasible for the reading, is I want all of Toshio’s dialogue to be in Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese, I’m writing all of his dialogue in English with the intention of it being translated. For the purposes of a staged reading, there’s not going to be projections of his lines.
MJ: But your intent is for the character to only speak Japanese.
MJ: Do you want it translated for the audience?
JB: I’ve gone back and forth. Initially, I wanted the English speaking audience to be as clueless to what he’s saying as the American characters in the play. But I think feasibly down the road, when it came to a full production, I would want to do the tried and true projections of the translations. But for the purposes of this reading, Toshio will be reading his lines in English, just so everyone in the theater can understand what is happening. But that is something I feel very strongly about. I want him to speak Japanese. I’ve also done research into the treatment of homosexuality both in Japan and in the Japanese military. Which surprisingly, within the world of the military, was much more accepting because in the American military, if you were outed as gay, or you outed yourself, it was an automatic dismissal—dishonorable discharge. There were no rules about that in the Japanese military at the time because it almost wasn’t acknowledged that it was a thing. But openly, the male soldiers were having sex with each other, but it was almost seen as a necessary evil. But it wasn’t thought about as anything more than that. It’s hard to find testimonies and documentation of gay Japanese people from the ‘40s because it wasn’t acknowledged. But, of course, there were! So I’ve tried to piece together as many things as I could find, and then of course, at a certain point, you have to let that go and write for the story you’re creating.
MJ: One of my earliest memories as a theatergoer was going to see A Chorus Line as a little girl with my parents and sister. I’m from Puerto Rico, and we were on a trip to New York. This was in the ‘80s, I’m aging myself, but I was young. And, like yourself, I’ve been an avid theatergoer all my life. And I have this vivid memory of seeing this Puerto Rican woman character in this play on Broadway.
JB: Diana Morales!
MJ: Diana Morales! And she was talking about being from San Juan, and I had this immense feeling of recognition and just wanting to root for her that was very foreign to me. I wasn’t used to seeing myself represented in that way. Anyone who is in some way outside the norm, it’s very rare to see ourselves represented in the media. Especially represented accurately. And this was very authentic and true to my real experience.
JB: Because that came from the testimony of a real Puerto Rican.
MJ: Right, Priscilla Lopez. It was actually her real story and it was vivid. And I had never seen that on a Broadway stage. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had that experience. Of seeing yourself as a gay man recognized?
JB: Growing up in the ‘90s, I was still trying to figure out what it was that made me different. I came out to my parents on my 16th birthday, but prior to that, I didn’t know what it was that was different about me. But the first one that I can remember—and what’s interesting is I couldn’t even identify it at the time—where I was like, “Oh! That’s me!” was Rickie in My So-Called Life. I was just like, Wow, he’s hanging out with Claire Danes and combing her hair; hanging out in the girls’ bathroom—all the things that I wanted to do.
MJ: And the character doesn’t even acknowledge he’s gay until one of the very last episodes.
JB: Right. I didn’t have the self-awareness to realize, “That is it. That is who I am.” But I remember being fascinated by him. To parallel your musical theater story, one of the first gay characters I remember in a musical is Molina from Kiss of the Spider Woman. I remember being in my room singing along with Chita Rivera and Brent Carver, but again, not understanding that what I was seeing in Molina was myself. And that my reverence for Chita Rivera was the same as his reverence for Aurora. I didn’t have that. But I was still doing it.
MJ: You still felt that connection, even if you couldn’t identify it.
JB: I imagine for you it’s a very visual thing; you’re like, “Oh! There I am.”
MJ: Yes, it’s very visual.
JB: For me it was an emotional connection without understanding what that was.
MJ: There are some writers and artists in the LGBT community who talk about the dangers of what they call “queer assimilation” as a way of finding acceptance in a heteronormative society. Even the idea of marriage as a way of normalizing these relationships, letting straight people know, “We’re just like you” in order to gain acceptance. But some artists believe it’s at the cost of losing this culture that was always in the fringes, this otherness that they’re very proud of. That’s a complicated issue and has many sides, but I was just wondering how do you personally feel about that?
JB: I am a gay man who has always wanted to get married. I’ve had other gay men look at me and say, “That’s just because you grew up wanting to be straight, wanting to be Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.” Is that valid? Perhaps. But for whatever reason, I’m someone who very much believes in the institution of marriage, not in a religious or even political or financial way, but to me there’s something very powerful about being able to say, “You are the one for me; I am committing to you.” At the expense of not being able to go to a bar and hook up with anyone I see. To me, there’s something very special about that. Now, that’s not to say that I think that marriages last forever and that there’s one person for everyone. I’m not saying that. But for me personally, I’m someone who finds that to be a very special thing. There’s a play Off-Broadway right now, Afterglow, I have not seen it but my understanding is that it’s about a committed, married, same-sex couple who’s exploring the idea of polygamy, or at least an open marriage. ‘Cause it’s saying, We have this connection, but do we have to play by “heteronormative rules”? So when it comes to the question of gay marriage as falling into queer assimilation, I would say it doesn’t have to be, because you can make up your own rules. And it’s not just for gay people, straight people, too. No one’s saying what the rules of your marriage have to be. I feel like if there is a couple who has committed to having a life together and raising a family together but they choose to have an open marriage, it’s certainly not my place and I should never tell them they’re doing it wrong. But on that same token, if I choose to have a monogamous relationship, I think it’s dangerous for someone to turn around and say I’m doing it wrong because I’m trying to assimilate.
MJ: Of course, I mean there have been monogamous same sex relationships throughout history.
JB: Right, and I get how people are equating —I also don’t like the term “gay marriage.” Marriage equality— equating marriage equality to assimilation, I get it. But fighting against that is, I think, dangerous because to be gay does not necessarily mean to be a polyamorous person. A lot of people rope that into part of our culture, but I don’t see that as a cultural choice, I think that’s just a sexual choice.
MJ: Authentic representation in the arts has become a hot-button issue lately. Mostly when it comes up, we’re talking about people of color, but it’s been used to included the Trans community—Trans characters should be played by Trans actors—and we’re starting to see greater representation of disabled actors playing disabled roles that had traditionally been portrayed by able-bodied actors.
JB: Like the autistic actor who’s doing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
MJ: Right, or the Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening, or The Cost of Living, for which the playwright Martyna Majok has specified that the disabled characters must be played by disabled actors. There’s a push for more authentic representation in the sense not just of how it’s written, but how it’s portrayed. It’s partly for authenticity, but also partly to give participation to performers who are in some way marginalized. But this discussion doesn’t usually extend to the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. We have a lot of prominent gay roles being portrayed by straight actors; straight playwrights write gay themes. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer to that, but I was just wondering if you personally have an opinion on it.
JB: My view on that has evolved. But it’s a double edged sword because there remain a lot of actors who are in the closet. There are actors who will not come out for fear of losing their career. There are actors who have come out and lost their career. On the other hand, there are actors who have come out and have an amazing career: Michael Urie, for example. In one respect, if I say that gay characters should be played by gay actors, that lends credence to people saying, “Gay actors can’t play straight characters.” But with all of that said, for the past year, I’ve had a lot of readings of this play. And I had an actor, who throughout the entire process was reading the role of Danny, the character who stays in the States while his partner is overseas. And he’s a fantastic actor, but he’s straight. Now that’s something that in the earlier readings never occurred to me, until we did a reading and I wanted to mix up the voices. And I had a bunch of actors who had never read any of the roles, and I had a gay actor play that role. And suddenly something clicked in me. And it’s not that what he was doing was better than what the initial actor was doing. But it was still something that I thought, “Oh! This is right.” So moving forward, do I want to pull an Edward Albee and say, “No! Only gay actors can play my characters!”? No, I’m not going to say that. If Colin Firth wants to play one of my gay characters, please, by all means! [laughs] But I will say there is something when I’m sitting in that room—and not to take away from that straight actor who had been reading Danny so beautifully for a year—but there is something emotional for me to be watching a gay man read my words. Truth is a hard thing to get at.
MJ: Going back to the discussion we had about the character of Toshio, in terms of authentic representation, how was that approached in the casting?
JB: Toshio was the last one to be cast in the reading, because Sara Matteucci felt very strongly that he not just be an Asian actor. She wanted a Japanese actor. During the table reads, I’ve had a Cambodian actor, at one point Sara read it herself, but for the reading itself she wanted a Japanese actor. And I get it. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t think about that until she brought it up, and then as soon as she said it I thought, “Oh, absolutely.”
MJ: When is the reading?
JB: Tuesday October 3rd at 6:30 PM at the Cherry Lane Theater. It’s free!
MJ: What are your future hopes for this play?
MJ: No, honestly. I don’t think Broadway is the end goal for everybody.
JB: For me, Broadway will always be the end goal. [laughs] I just want it to have a life, whatever that means, because I’ve fallen in love with all of these characters. I have had fights with these characters and hated them all at different points like a crazy person, but ultimately I love these characters and I love the story that I’m telling. I want people to meet my characters.
MJ: Are you working on something new?
JB: [laughs] “That is not like you George!” Well played. Now that you ask me, I have a very rough draft of a first act of another play that is about a female painter during the expressionist movement and a woman’s place in the art world.
MJ: Assuming you make it, Joe Breen plays being performed all over the country and studied in classrooms—what do you think they would say is the unifying thread of your work? What will your work be remembered for?
JB: Oy. [laughs] Aside from there being a gay character in all of them, I think the common thread in my plays is—this sounds so corny—but relationships between people, whether it be romantic, siblings, or friendship. They’re all about love. Oh god, that’s awful! I sound like the end of Love Actually. “Love is all around.” But yes, truthfully, all my plays are about love. The primary passion in your life, whatever it is that makes you tick, be it romantic, or artistic, or familial.
MJ: And what is the primary passion in your life?
JB: My ultimate goal is to be able to relax. To be able to breathe. [laughs]
Joe Breen is a New York-based playwright, whose work has been seen at The Bechdel Project, Theatre in Asylum, The Boston Center For The Arts, and as part of the Primary Stages ESPA Detention Series. His play, The Hands That Hold Us, was a 2016 finalist for The Princess Grace Awards Playwriting Fellowship through New Dramatists, and winner of the 2016 NEXT ACT! New Play Summit at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, NY. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, and resides in Manhattan with his boyfriend and two geriatric Brussels Griffons.