The May 7 Philadelphia reading of “8” will feature high-profile actors such as Randy Harrison (“Queer as Folk”), Phillip Spaeth (“Smash”), Gavin Creel (“Hair”), Rory O’Malley (“Book of Mormon”) and Forrest McClendon (“The Scottsboro Boys”).
Out actor and gay activist O’Malley was instrumental in getting Black involved and getting the stories behind the fight against Prop. 8 — which overturned marriage equality in California in 2008 — onto the stage.
“I started an organization called Broadway Impact in 2008 after Prop. 8 was passed,” O’Malley said. “We got the Broadway community involved in the fight for marriage equality. We did things like phone banks and rallies, and we wanted to bring our action and what our organization was doing back to the stage and into the theaters. I was watching a clip of Eve Ensler talking about ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and how it went from a one-night event in New York and how it inspired community theaters across the country and universities to do the show and raise money for domestic violence and other women’s issues. I thought, That is exactly what we needed to do. So we approached the Foundation for Equal Rights and Dustin Lance Black, who is on the board, and Rob Reiner and all those guys, and they loved it. Lance offered to edit together transcripts of the trial and put them in the format of a play. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years now. I was in the New York and L.A. premieres. I’m so excited that phase two, which is bringing it to theaters across the country, is launched.”
O’Malley said is was important to both him and Black for “8” to use the actual words of the trial transcripts, first-hand observations of the courtroom drama and interviews with the plaintiffs and their families.
“There’s a lot of personal sides to the witnesses and the testimony from the plaintiffs, the lesbian couple and the gay couple,” O’Malley said. “There’s a lot of conversation between the lesbian couple and their two sons, the twins. It makes it personable and real and human. This isn’t just about law. It’s affecting real people’s lives. The couples are so strong and courageous. Their story is so important and compelling. I just don’t know how anyone can argue with them when it is just put in simple terms about just being about love and being able to say that to the rest of the world that you love another human being and you want to spend the rest of your life with them.”
The story for “8” is framed by the trial’s historic closing arguments in June 2010, and features the best arguments and testimony from both sides. It also includes flashbacks to some of the more notable moments.
“If you see the show, you’re going to be shocked that it was said that there was no case from the other side,” O’Malley said. “People had to ask over and over again: ‘That was all they brought to a federal courtroom? That was all the evidence they had?’ And it’s the truth. There is no evidence. There is no other side to this argument. [Plaintiffs attorneys] Ted Olson and David Boies are two of the smartest lawyers in the country of our time and they put together such a seamless case, and they speak so eloquently on the issue that there was no need to dramatize it any further. I flew to San Francisco for the final arguments and waited outside the courtroom at 5 a.m. just to get in there. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life, getting to watch Ted Olson give his closing arguments in the case. And it’s part of the play now.”
Since “8” premiered in September 2011, the production has brought in over $1 million to support AFER’s efforts to achieve full federal marriage equality. It has also attracted celebrities to the cause such as Brad Pitt and George Clooney, who have lent their talents to all-star readings of the play.
“We’ve had a lot of people reach out, not just to participate, but to have it go back into the hometowns and the theaters they grew up in,” O’Malley said. “Rob Reiner reached out to George Clooney in L.A. and there was no hesitation. Then people just started showing up to be a part of it. It really speaks to how important this is to the arts community.”
O’Malley said he isn’t concerned about the celebrity factor — that some of the high-profile readings of “8” will overshadow the message of the play.
“What’s important is that these lines are being heard. I know that the fact that George Clooney and Brad Pitt said these words, YouTube got involved, and overnight there were 250,000 people who watched it live. I’d like to think that people like our organizations, but the truth is [the celebrities] got their attention and once they got there, they stayed and watched. Now it’s close to a million views on YouTube. Our fear was we never wanted to do anything where we are preaching to the choir. We don’t want to say we got to people who love theater. Of course they are going to be with us on this issue. Really, we need to teach our choir how to sing and a lot of times we don’t. We don’t know how to talk about these issues. We know marriage equality is right because it’s a human right. But how do you articulate that when you’re talking about the Constitution? And that is what the show does.”
In addition to productions in major cities, AFER and Broadway Impact are licensing “8” to colleges and community theaters nationwide to generate action and dialogue about marriage equality.
“Right now, I think there are over 100 productions that have been confirmed,” O’Malley said. “I will be in a few of them. Really this is about getting people in the local community to be these characters, get up on stage, do the reading and immerse themselves in what this constitutional argument is. Then they can bring their friends and family to the event to start a dialogue about it and bring community leaders in the gay-rights community together in North Carolina and New Hampshire, places where people are voting on it. We’re doing our part in the theater community to make a statement. This has been our two-year mission, to get it to this point. What we want to accomplish as an organization is to go beyond New York and Broadway and reach out to local theaters across the country and have an open dialogue with them about what we can do to make marriage equality possible in their state. That’s what our goal is. There are so many people in New York that, like myself, come from Ohio or from Oklahoma, red states and blue. The theater communities in those states are like an oasis for the gay community there. It’s where they can be accepted for whomever they are. It’s just a more accepting environment. Our goal is to reach out to those people and to get them activated and let them know that they are supported by the Broadway community and that we celebrate who they are.”
The Wilma Theater hosts a one-night-only reading of “8” on May 7 at 7:30 p.m., 265 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.wilmatheater.org or call 215-546-7824.