GayFest! Goes Beyond the Gay Archetype: Interview with Sean Chandler and David Leeper, co-authors of AT THE FLASH, part 1

AT THE FLASH has arrived in Philadelphia to headline Quince Productions’ GayFest! 2015. Co-authored by playwright Sean Chandler and actor David Leeper, this play had its world premiere in Chicago at the Center on Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theater. Leeper stars in this one-man play, embodying five different characters over five decades of history as they wrestle to live in the social reality of their respective eras from the focal point of the same fictional gay bar called The Flash. Winner of the 2012 Great Gay Play and Musical Contest, this 80-minute play made its international premiere in 2014 at The Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, receiving an Oscar Wilde Best New Work Nomination for its performance.

Sean Chandler and David Leeper have been committed partners for over 22 years and became legally married in 2008. In addition to AT THE FLASH, Chandler’s staged play and screenplay credits include Grand Matriculation, written with Christy Oliver; Kissing the Frog Prince; and Radical Morality. He is a member of both The Dramatists Guild and Pride Films and Plays Writers Network. Leeper’s acting credits span both theater and film, starring on stage in works like Oleanna, Fifth of July, Greetings, Merry Wives of Windsor, Titanic, Bobby Gould in Hell, and Am I Blue, as well as appearing in films such the short dramatic thriller Manipura (2015) and Fifth Helena Drive (2015). He will also be starring in the upcoming comedy-horror film, Garden Party Massacre (2015). (Read part two of this interview.) [Plays & Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Street] August 7-9, 2015; quinceproductions.com.

David Leeper.

David Leeper plays five characters in AT THE FLASH.

One man, five characters

Alex Boucher:  How did you come up with the idea of AT THE FLASH?

Sean Chandler: We wanted to write an entertaining and edifying play that covered GLBT history over the last fifty years, showing the evolution of such a pioneering chunk of time in our community. Through research, we created characters surrounding the common issues of each decade. The mutual setting of the bar came naturally, as gay bars were the original GLBT community centers, long before more formal places existed.

Boucher: In what ways is AT THE FLASH different from other one-man shows?

Chandler: It is written more as a play than a typical one-man show, where the performer comes out and does one start-to-finish monologue after another. Although each of the five characters represents their own decade, there are a multitude of edits, wherein the action slides from one decade to the next, in accordance of theme.

David Leeper: There’s no narrative to the audience, no self-examination, not a single biopic moment. The play comprises of five characters that can be played by any actor.

Playwright Sean Chandler.

Playwright Sean Chandler.

“Almost like writing music”: Beauty in character

Boucher: Reviewers of your previous productions have praised your ability to transition between—and actually become—your diverse characters: “David remolds with dexterity the muscles in his face almost naturally as he changes the pitch and tone of his voice” (Jake Webb, WeHo News). What did you do to develop this kind of character acting?

Chandler: I’ll let David take this one, but I will say that he did a herculean amount of work to develop these characters.

Leeper: David Zak—the show’s director and founder of Pride Films and Plays, a great Chicago-based organization that finds and fosters new GLBT works—and I spent a lot of time working on each character along with a movement coach to find their differences and how their physical bearing would vary. Vocally, it was almost like writing music. We had to place them on the scale from lowest to highest while still staying true to each character. It was hard to not go too far and make them caricatures but rather real characters.

Boucher: What advice do you have for young actors and playwrights to create their characters the way you have done with your play?

Chandler: There will come a time in the writing process when the characters need to stop being personal connections to the writer and need to start completely servicing the story. You have to let go and allow the characters to answer the critical questions, as opposed to you the writer answering them. Tough to do, but it blows the characters wide open for development.

Leeper: Always start with the script. The answers are all in there. Their physical bearing, voice, mannerisms and ticks all come from who those people are and the situation they are in. If they don’t match up, the audience will read it.

Boucher: Sometimes in theater or film, characters walk a muddied line between stereotype and archetype. What measures have you taken in avoiding stock cultural representations when creating and portraying your own unique historical characters whom audiences have come to know and love?

Chandler: It’s a combination of creating as many details as possible, while occasionally going against the grain of the character. This makes the characters specific and relatable, while occasionally surprising the audience.

Leeper: That was a challenge we recognized early on in the writing and early stages of production. Because the characters in AT THE FLASH are rather “stock” archetypes, their stories and the performance of them do not become stereotypes. We approached them from a universal place so the audience could relate to them and their struggle, regardless of who they are.

David Leeper in AT THE FLASH. Photo by Sean Lambert

David Leeper in AT THE FLASH. Photo by Sean Lambert

Flashing beyond FLASH: New projects by Chandler and Leeper

Boucher: What lies ahead for AT THE FLASH?

Chandler: I’d like to get it on a New York stage and will be submitting it for consideration of next year’s Fringe Fest. Also, we’ve written a complete treatment for a television series based on the play and are working diligently to have it read and considered.

Boucher: What future projects are you developing?

Chandler: I’m currently writing a musical called Running that is based on a very public outing of a married mayoral candidate. I am writing the book, while two-time Jeff Award winning Chicago composer, Leo Schwartz, is writing lyrics and music.

Leeper: I’m focusing on acting. We just relocated to New York so I’m trying to get my foot in the door both for theater and TV/film. I’ll be doing a feature film back on LA in October.

Boucher: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Leeper: I love doing this show. I miss the characters and the bar when I’m not doing it. It’s weird, but it feels like a home to me. The other characters that we’ve created seem real to me, and it’s like a reunion of sorts when I get back on stage. There’s also a connection with the audience that is so wonderful. To hear their stories after the show is what this play is all about: Our past, our future, and remembering where we come from and that we all play a role. I’ve had people just hug me after the show and say “Thank you.” We’ve had teens bring their parents to the show to help them understand as a family what they are going through. It’s been a wonderful experience and I enjoy and appreciate every time I get the opportunity to perform it.

Chandler: Thank you for your interest in AT THE FLASH. We hope to see everyone at this year’s Gayfest!

GayFest! runs August 7-22, 2015, at Plays & Players Skinner Studio [1714 Delancey Street]. AT THE FLASH runs August 7-9. See quinceproductions.com for a full calendar of shows. 

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About the author

Alex Boucher, graduate from Cedarville University in public communications, would love to become an editor. When he is not flogging books at Barnes & Noble and working as an editorial assistant to a playwright, seeing plays and writing reviews, he likes to decipher old tomes, written by theologians and philosophers.