Playwright Sean Chandler and actor David Leeper have been committed partners for over 22 years and became legally married in 2008. Their theatrical collaboration AT THE FLASH had its world premiere at the Center on Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theater in Chicago and headlines Philadelphia’s GayFest! 2015 this month. In the second of this two-part interview with the co-writers, they tell Phindie about the real-world inspiration behind the play, and what they hope it carries back the world. (Read part one here.) [Plays & Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Street] August 7-9, 2015;quinceproductions.com.
From Life to Theater
Phindie: You said that “[playwriting] can be a very solitary experience.” As co-authors of AT THE FLASH and partners in marriage, walk us through the process of writing your play together.
Sean Chandler: David and I write from two different perspectives. David writes more from an emotional place, whereas I write more from a structural place. It’s very rare that we write together in the same room. I would usually generate where we stood with the structure and hand it over to David, who would work on creating the more emotional moments.
David Leeper: Sean is very disciplined. He can assign himself tasks and do them. I’m the fixer and editor. Some lines in this play have existed from the very first written monologues. Other parts have completely changed. Sean is a great storyteller. He was the one who had the brilliant idea to chop up the script and have it bounce back and forth. He also brilliantly wrote the rapid-fire exchange that happens late in the show.
Chandler: In this process, the actual writing can still be a very solitary experience; however, it’s nice to have a partner involved who can motivate and inspire when a temporary case of writer’s block sets in.
Phindie: Is there real-life gay bar which influenced the setting of your play?
Chandler: This is the number one question we are asked. In my mind, AT THE FLASH is based on the very first gay bar in which I ever set foot: DOK West, which was located in Garden Grove, California. If I hadn’t found that bar at eighteen years of age, I don’t know what I would have done.
Leeper: It was the first gay bar for many in the Orange County area before it closed on my 21st birthday.
Phindie: Journeying through five decades of GLBT history in 80 minutes, each of the five characters grapple with the specific issues of their respective eras. In what ways do their stories reflect your own journeys throughout the years?
Chandler: If I had to identify myself with a character, it would be Rod, the millennial who has remodeled The Flash for its grand reopening. He struggles to prove to his parents that his attainment of a successful business and family is equal to that of a heterosexual individual, at times over-compensating to exhibit that legitimacy. I found myself pulling from my own relationship with my father in writing his segments, who has since passed away. I’d like to think he’d grow into full acceptance. Recently, my stepmother told me that he would have been very proud of me. Even as a fifty-year old man, I was profoundly touched.
From Theater back to the World
Phindie: Tell us about responses from audiences and critics, especially those that might be sitting on the fence of GLBT issues.
Chandler: My hope is that we’ve created a piece that generates overall human empathy. We’ve had many straight audience members tell us that they had little to no idea of the severity of struggle within the gay community. That achievement of edification is extremely rewarding.
Leeper: We wanted to appeal to a broad audience in reflecting a lot of people’s stories and show for those who are on the fence—or completely on the other side of that fence—the struggle and the reality so many of us have faced. We didn’t want to rely on sex, which is the easiest and laziest way to sell a show, to leave audiences feeling empty. Our play had to be more than that.
Phindie: GLBT equality is “always transitioning but never arriving,” as Chris McCormack, reviewing your LA production, pointed out. How could a play which both entertains and informs become part of such a transitioning phase from a much maligned minority to an equal part of society?
Chandler: The play is written in a non-threatening manner. Although it does contain some strong language and mature themes, its lack of overt sexuality makes it a great teaching vehicle for gay history in a broad spectrum of venues.
Leeper: We find audiences who veer away from the “gay audience” are really affected by our show. I think schools, churches, and organizations would benefit from seeing it and spark discussions. We did a one-night performance at a Unitarian Church in San Fernando Valley, California. It was a huge success.
Phindie: What real-world action would you like to see audiences take after seeing your play in order to create a paradigm shift for equal rights?
Chandler: If audience members can feel comfortable getting to know our characters, they can most certainly reach out to that gay friend or family member who might be struggling and stand with them. The struggle and issues that the gay community, or any minority, face take on a different tone when there is a personal connection at stake.
Leeper: I’d like to see an awareness that we are all the same in one way or another. We all want to love and be loved. We want to be happy and accepted. It’s no different between straight and gay, male or female.
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.