Written by Essay, First Person, Theater

You Have Changed Me Forever

The role of a lifetime plunges an actor into one of the deadliest chapters of American history.

“Hello, you don’t know me. I hope you get this message. Sometimes, when you try to send a message to someone you’re not ‘friends’ with on Facebook, it gets blocked, or you have to ‘approve’ it. I hope you’ll approve this message if it gets to you.

I saw The Normal Heart on Saturday night, and haven’t slept well since. My father died of AIDS in 1995. I was 15. Except he didn’t die of AIDS, he died of ‘cancer.’ Except we all knew it was AIDS because he was gay and had been sleeping around with men for years. We were a Catholic family, and so shame was tantamount to pretty much everything, especially my dad’s secret life. There were a lot of years after he died where Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries were lonely days, hollow days where not much was said and my sister and I would sit with our mom around the table and stare at our food.

Watching you on stage, the frustration and rage, it was so palpable it cracked me open, like an egg, and I feel like I can feel again. Except now I feel a lot of rage too. I feel like the rage is taking its revenge, saying, “You ignored me for 20 years and now I own you.” I feel like you brought it into my life. It was like you were breaking barriers up there. I could feel how uncomfortable the audience was at times. Like they were afraid of you. I was too, I guess, but also relieved. I don’t know what you are doing up there, or how you manage to live the role several times a week, but I want you to know that you have changed me forever. More than the play. More than the production. YOU.

I didn’t know who Larry Kramer was before the other night, but I’ve been reading up on him and watching videos on YouTube. He wanted to change things and wake people up and he could only do it by shattering everyone around him that wouldn’t listen. He’s lucky someone like you can interpret his intentions. I will probably see the show again before it closes. For now, I’m figuring out what to do with these feelings. Like, how do I forgive my dad? How do I talk to my mom, after all these years, about what really happened? How many more people out there are just like me, waiting for something to come along and break them open? Too many innocent men died. For nothing. I think I might take boxing lessons.”

In the summer of 2013, I was 40 (and a half) years old and really taking stock of my life, as one is wont to do at 40 (and a half). I had been in Los Angeles exactly a decade at that point, and reflecting on my career as an actor: roles won, roles lost, characters deeply inhabited, their skins later shed like a snake once a show ended, reviews, awards, pounds gained and dropped again, friends made and later lost, the worry over male pattern baldness. Things had changed drastically after I moved from New York to LA. In New York, I was working on Broadway, making a living acting. I was on a good trajectory there. Where I grew up, and in my time, theater had always felt like a great act of rebellion, a middle-finger held up high to everything normal and expected and accepted. Thespians were teased and bullied, but I prided myself on being subversive, anathema to their pack mentality and bougie normality. Theater was punk AF.

In LA, however, acting suddenly felt like trying to be part of the popular kids at school again. Clique mentality. I wanted no part of it. How was I going to succeed if I had no interest in playing by the rules? I didn’t want to be hot or muscular or skinny or alpha or tan or commercially viable or normal in any way. I didn’t want be a closeted actor just to get good movie roles. Fuck that. I desired to shave my head, ring my eyes with raccoon-black eyeliner; cover my body in tattoos; pierce every part of me; paint, and join a band. I contemplated whoever managed to pull off “LA success” with bitter disdain and squishy envy. That’s okay—I’m not above being human. Actors are not superheroes, despite the way the media depict them and fame and fortune define them.

I happened to be perusing the interwebs that summer when I came across an extensive breakdown for The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 agit-prop manifesto about AIDS in the early-to-mid 1980s and how he and his friends banded together to create Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood was going to produce, overseen by one of the theater’s founding members and Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. The play hadn’t been done in LA in about twenty years, and though it had been given a slick, starry revival on Broadway a few years prior, it felt, perhaps, like something that sunny, surfer-y Southern California had no right to consider. It’s my (arguably harsh) opinion that Los Angeles has always felt too granola (read: passive) for the righteous anger of stories birthed in New York by New Yorkers.

Nonetheless, The Fountain had a reputation for mounting plays with a social justice bent, and Kramer’s behemoth was certainly no exception. I drafted a cordial email to the casting director asking to be seen. I’m a firm believer that if you want something done, you do it yourself, and immediately. In other words, I wasn’t going to ask the manager to ask the agent if I had been submitted and then wait around, to receive neither a response nor an appointment time. When casting responded to my inquiry I assumed the team would want to see me for the role of Bruce Niles, the strapping gay ex-marine. At 6’2”, broad-shouldered, and north of 200 pounds, I figured it was the only role they’d consider me for. Instead, they asked me to prepare the role of Ned Weeks, the play’s antagonistic protagonist. Ned is molded out of the playwright himself, the pejorative Larry Kramer. It was the true story of him and his friends, after all, and he was going to tell it his way. It’s a colossal script, with a role as immense as Hamlet, and on nearly every page it elucidates Ned’s pushiness and righteous anger. How does an audience go on a journey, and root for, a disagreeable character?

The cast of the Fountain Theatre’s production of The Normal Heart. Front row, l-r: Lisa Pelikan, Matt Gottlieb, Jeff Witzke, Fred Koehler. Back row, l-r: Ray Paolantonio, Stephen O’Mahoney, Tim Cummings, Bill Brochtrup, Verton Banks, Dan Shaked.

I remember fastidious and conscientious preparation, pacing around my apartment as I familiarized myself with the sides, the excess of monologues and the dynamic emotional landscape. Yet I have little memory of the audition and callback. There were a lot of guys there, many that I knew, and perhaps I entered into a zone not unlike an Olympic athlete to stave off distractions, to keep myself in the game. After it was over, I felt exhilarated but deflated. I blew it, I thought. They want a name. It’s a coveted role. Forget it. Days later, I received a phone call from the director, Simon Levy, while I was eating brunch with a friend’s niece who was visiting LA. He offered me the role and I felt something inside my body shudder, shift. It felt like my bones had shed a skin, molted like a spider, and the fresh bones beneath were glowing white, vulnerable, fragile, could snap like the bones of a bird. I’d ordered pancakes, but couldn’t eat them, stared down at the puddle of warm dark syrup on my plate, dragging a fork through it, marveling at its unfailing gumminess.

It was a hot summer and we rehearsed at this condominium village in the Valley, where there was a large community room used for events and performances. It reminded me of an economical replica of the set for The Lawrence Welk Show. There was something otherworldly about it, like we were in a different time. And we were. Not Welk’s time, but later: the play begins in 1981. Simon had a strong connection to the material and was deeply passionate about how he wanted this thing to go down. At the first table-read, he invoked enormous compassion by inviting us into a safe and sacred space, and then heartwarmingly warned us that we were all in for quite a ride. He was right. For many hours spread across many weeks, the cast of eight men and one woman wormholed their back to New York’s West Village in the early ‘80s, attempting to resurrect the deadliest and most harrowing chapter of gay history, a milestone on the timeline of American Civil Rights.

Unlike most 21st-century plays that clock in at 90 minutes, have three or four cast members and one location, The Normal Heart is a relic, a play from the past. It runs two and a half hours across a dozen locations, spans three years, and includes costume and set changes, many props, and technical trickery galore. Especially in a space as cozy as The Fountain! This was to be an intimate production, an intimate glimpse into the cost of intimacy amongst homosexual and bi-sexual men and women emerging Icarus-like out of the sexually liberated ‘70s only to crash back down with singed and melted wings. Kramer had been best known at that time for a searing invective against his own kind, a novel called Faggots, an unflinching and unflattering dismemberment of the promiscuous, lascivious, party-boy culture of gay men in the ‘70s: bath houses rampant with endless anonymous sex and drug use.

But Kramer wanted more for modern gay men. He wanted them to aspire to the acquisition of a great station in life, to be as powerful and respected as the heterosexual Caucasian men who held every lofty position in the world. He wanted gay men to be out and proud, and to fight back. He didn’t want glory holes and bath houses and clandestine lives. He wanted power and respectability and outward intelligence. He wanted to archaeologically plunder the history of homosexuality in the world, to understand its place in humanity. Not only from a sociological point of view, but from a purely physiognomic one as well. Because he was oft dismissed and rendered a pariah amongst his gay brethren of the time, when men began falling ill and dying of this mysterious “gay cancer” in the early ‘80s, it was difficult for Kramer to get people to listen to him. So he became a banshee. The play is his irate commemoration of everything he and his friends went through—the illness, the decay, the endless death, the hopelessness—between July of 1981 and May of 1984.

The AIDS memorial in the lobby of the Fountain Theatre. Audience members were offered markers to write on the wall, as a way to commemorate lost loved ones. Photo: Tim Cummings.

In preparation for the role, I began to watch an intense documentary called How To Survive A Plague, directed by David France. Its deft documentation of the early years of the AIDS epidemic chronicles the efforts of burgeoning activist groups like GMHC and later, ACT UP. It is one of the most important documentaries ever unleashed onto the world. I watched it every single week of the run to keep myself tethered—enflamed—to the world of the play. In my little corner of the crowded dressing room, I began pasting up relevant imagery. Not only pictures of Larry Kramer, but of countless skeletal souls who looked like Holocaust victims—dying, depressed, forgotten, alone. I have a sixth sense for looking at a picture and channeling its energy; the moment itself caught for eternity. The essence of that moment seems to rise like thin wisps of incense smoke from the picture, and I inhale it and it charges me. And yes, the guys in the cast made fun of me for my Wall of Pain, but I let them and I laughed too, because I loved the guys from the show so much. I knew it was strange and overwhelming and maybe even sad to plaster my sacred space with harrowing imagery, but so too was the experience of these men—more so than I could’ve ever imagined. And that’s all I was trying to do: imagine truthfully. Just because something is ugly doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

At the behest of my business representatives, I began working with a publicist in the weeks before opening. That was a mistake. Oh, it was a totally successful endeavor in terms of exposure and attention for the show, and a needed boost to my career, I suppose, but personally, on an emotional level, it was a disaster. Before I discovered theater at the age of 11, I was criminally shy. I had issues. I’d been bullied and beat up for years. Called a faggot, a freak, had food thrown at my head in the cafeteria, shoved around at the bus stop, my house egged and toilet-papered, a cup of piss aggressively dumped over my head and into my mouth one day in the boys’ bathroom. So when articles about me, interviews, appearances at events, and images began flooding into the world prior to the show opening, I felt exposed and afraid and started having panic attacks. I puked in the bathroom at work, I broke out in hives, I couldn’t regulate my breathing, clumps of hair fell out in the shower. I kept this all hidden from the guys in the show, from my partner, friends. I was too ashamed to say anything, to share my struggles. I was playing a warrior, for fuck’s sake—what right had I to be a weakling?

Looking back on it now, from this safe distance, I think maybe I just cared too much. The play, after all, was/is intensely personal to me. I needed the catharsis that the story, and the role of Ned Weeks within that story, offered up. I needed to pass along that catharsis, to be of service, to the audience.

Sold-out houses and nightly standing ovations filled me with confidence, so several weeks into the run, once the cast had all relaxed into the intensity of the play and our respective roles in it, I decided to take a peek at the reviews. Mistake number two. Of course there were reviews unlike any I had ever received up to that point in my journey, and I felt invigorated by the flattering words from some of the smartest critics. But as humans, we are prone to focusing on the negative, and there I was, mired by feelings of hurt, fear, and inadequacy based on some of the reviews that were not kind. There were critics who took me to task, who swore I was too loud, annoying, brash, unattractive, “bearish”; that I ruined the whole production; was woefully miscast; that I over-acted, was in a different play than everyone else. One critic went so far as to say that he didn’t understand why a black actor had been cast in a white actor’s role. “It’s all too much,” another reviewer whined. Sorry to inconvenience you, I thought. But, Ding-Dong, Who’s There, A Million Dead People, thank you very much, asshole.

I fell into a funk, a strop, grew reticent, dwelled in a dark mind-cave. These are the consequences of my actions, I believed—I’d made a bad decision and should not have looked at any of the critical content. This is why so many performers and artists simply turn the other cheek. But I needed to understand the impact that this particular production of this particular play was having. And then I received that letter via Facebook, the one that introduces this essay.

“I want you to know that you have changed me forever. More than the play. More than the production. YOU.”

I made a promise to myself not to give away my power. I realized that everything that was said that hurt me and made me feel like my presence undermined our production pretty much mirrored all the heat that Larry Kramer and his friends took for their relentless pursuit of justice battling the crisis. So many people hated Larry Kramer for simply being Larry Kramer, so perhaps my depiction of him was too real. But as I mentioned earlier, the play and the role were personal to me, and every drop of vigor and vitality that I brought onto the stage came from a genuine place. Besides, I had no interest in a representation of Ned Weeks that was slick, sexy, soft, and suave. That’s not the point of the play. The point of the play is activism. Activism is a hard shot of whiskey, not a sip of rosé from a fucking crystal wine glass.

Bill Brochtrup and Tim Cummings in The Normal Heart. Photo: Ed Krieger.

There is a scene late in the play, a very difficult one, in which Ned comes home and finds Felix, then in the throes of the virus, cowering on the floor. In a moment of weakness and rage, Ned removes from a bag the groceries he purchases to keep Felix healthy and throws them violently at the wall above his head, the last of those items being a carton of milk that explodes and sprays all over. Some nights it went so far as to land on audience members—but they were so rapt they hardly flinched. After the eruption, Ned collapses, and Felix, weeping, crawls across the floor through the detritus and into his arms. The music swells; the lights dim. We’re both covered in milk, broccoli, lettuce, bread, meat. It is gross. It smells. It is sticky. It is inexplicably uncomfortable as an actor to have to do it night after night. Plus, the mess has to stay on the stage for the final few scenes.

That’s the pain.

That’s the point.

That’s the play.

In the weeks following the closing of the show, I walked the neighborhood streets at night, wandering in and out of local parks and shops, cutting through parking lots and back alleyways, marveling at the economic disparity on full display from block to block—a gorgeous modern mansion beside a fading, dilapidated Craftsman—and pondered my experience of the play. It was difficult to let go of. It haunted me for months. I wondered when it would leave me in peace. I felt incomplete, as if Michelangelo had never finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never had to let go of the cast, thankfully; I still see the boys on a regular basis and we are a band of brothers. But I had to let go of the young men who’d perished from the plague and accept that I’d done my part to illuminate their stories by bequeathing all of my energy and all of my time. I still think about that letter from the audience member who’d written that I had changed him forever. I knew exactly what he meant. Great art, whether you are creating it or witnessing it, is always best measured by the amount of change that it manifests, both in your life and out there in the world.

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