“Outside the Frame: Voices from the Other America,” running through April 22, will feature a collection of nationally renowned monologists and solo artists, including transgender playwright Deen and out storyteller Tim Miller.
Deen will present “Draw the Circle,” a work that details his journey as a transman, through April 8 at InterAct Theater at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.
Deen created the piece during Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group in 2009 and has fleshed it out with a series of staged readings since, presenting the world premiere this week.
The work traces Deen’s transition and the difficult reactions he faced by those in his conservative South Asian-American family.
While it is a solo piece, Deen takes on the characters of his family and friends, exploring their responses through their points of view, not his own.
That format enabled him to more acutely envision the challenges his family members experienced in coming to terms with his transition, he said.
“It was healing in a way because it showed me that there are no bad guys — this has been hard for everyone and everyone’s doing their best to love each other in the way they’re capable of. Sometimes the way people act that is hurtful to us isn’t done from a bad place but is actually done from love,” he said. “There’s still part of me that’s mad — mad that my parents don’t go to PFLAG meetings or march in Pride parades — but then, there’s the other part of me, the writer Deen, who can better understand their cultural background and where they’re coming from. I’ve always, in the back of my mind, known that they’re doing the best they can, but I’ve felt that more — it’s been more real — since I’ve been involved in this play.”
Deen will next take the show to Chicago and hopes to eventually bring it to New York City. He has also been invited to present it in India, which he said would be meaningful, as he is eager to introduce the work and its message to the myriad audiences that could be faced with similar situations.
Although “Draw the Circle” focuses on the transgender experience, Deen said the show has a universal message.
“In some of my readings, I’ll have people who are not LGBT, not minorities, not South Asian, come up to me and say that the show reminded them of something that happened with their own mom, or someone else in their family. At its heart, it’s a show about family.”
Similarly, Miller’s work is a commentary on broader social issues that has been shaped by his identity as an LGBT community member.
“Lay of the Land,” which premieres April 12-15 at InterAct, examines the wide-ranging challenges impacting the LGBT community, and is being billed as the “State of the Queer Union.”
The impetus for the show was the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which hit home for Miller, a California native and resident.
During the five-and-a-half months marriage equality was legal in the state, Miller attended more than 200 weddings.
“We called it the ‘summer of love.’ It was one of the most joyous times of my life,” he said. “But on Election Day, slightly over 51 percent of the state voted to attack families in my state and, especially within all of the heat and power and hope of Obama being elected, it was quite dramatic. I lived in New York for 10 years, but I grew up in L.A. and spent almost my whole life here, so I was just heartsick. And I decided to take a dose of my own medicine: I challenge people to get out and tell their own stories, and I felt I had to make a piece that responded to this and responded to the idea of if we can really consider ourselves citizens in this country.”
That question is in part informed by his own experience with such laws as immigration regulations, which have prevented him from sponsoring his longtime Australian partner for citizenship.
While Miller believes he eventually will have to leave the country to remain with his partner, the landscape for LGBT rights isn’t entirely devoid of hope: He said he tries to illustrate that balance in his performance.
“[In February] there was a two-week period where so much progress was made, with legislatures in Washington [state], Maryland and New Jersey all passing marriage equality. Of course the unpleasant governor in New Jersey vetoed that legislation, but I think they’ll still take care of that,” he said. “So much is happening so quickly and, while it’s not enough to help my family and others that are harmed every day by the mean-spirited federal laws, to not acknowledge that things are happening would be false. So I try to walk that tightrope.”
Many of Miller’s past performances have focused on LGBT themes, often presented in frank, unapologetic formats. He has toured throughout the South and, even at traditionally conservative locales like a Baptist university and among large heterosexual contingents, he said the show was well-received and appreciated.
“A lot of times the audience is just 2-percent lesbian and gay. I go to colleges where there’s not a single out faculty member or student. But I feel like my work is very connectable and funny,” he said. “I’m approached so many times after a show by straight people who say that they’d never thought about things in this certain way or never really saw how systemic homophobia works. I think it’s just as important to be speaking to an audience of straight people as it is to an audience of LGBT folks.”
One of Miller’s most impactful responses came recently in Philadelphia.
He made headlines in March after Villanova University canceled a performance-art workshop he was scheduled to lead at the campus.
“I now wish I had never heard the word ‘Villanova,’” he said. “That was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
As Miller was scheduled to be in town for the InterAct performance, a Villanova professor worked with him to set up the workshop on campus, which was designed as an academic exercise and, thus, less edgy than some of his performances.
However, the university received intense pressure from conservative religious organizations like antigay Catholic watchdog group Cardinal Newman Society, which also spoke out against Notre Dame University selecting President Obama as its commencement speaker in 2009.
“I think the most negative, bizarre reaction I have ever had was the cowardice of Villanova. People all over higher education can’t believe they would buckle and cancel this workshop,” he said. “They showed absolutely no spine and now embolden these thugs to keep doing the same thing.”
Villanova University president Rev. Peter Donohue said the college experienced a “flood” of negative responses to Miller’s visit and contended the school canceled the event because of its content, not because of Miller’s orientation.
Miller said that Donohue never reached out to discuss the situation with him.
“They completely stonewalled me and lied about me in the media,” he said. “It shocked me that they would behave so unethically in the media. And this is a real university, not a Bob Jones University, so it was shocking.”
Following the conflict, Bryn Mawr College stepped in to host the workshop, which will be held April 16-20 in collaboration with Muhlenberg College, which will host Miller for a lecture April 17.
Many Villanova students will take part in the workshop, Miller said.
“I think the real shameful lesson President Donohue taught was that students have no academic freedom at Villanova, so they have to go a mile-and-a-half down the road to Bryn Mawr to find that freedom he denied them,” Miller said. “That will be a powerful learning moment for the students. He didn’t silence me, he silenced the students.”
But, Miller added, he will seek to give a voice to those students, as well as to those who participate in his performance workshop April 9-15 at InterAct.
The six-session series will culminate in a production of original pieces by participants April 15.
“It’ll be a gathering of pretty wild queer performers and actor folk from Philadelphia and other parts of the country,” he said. “I want to encourage people to tell the story they need to tell. What is the thing they need to bring form to? People want to get their voice heard, and the workshop will help them find ways to locate the powerful moments in their lives where they’ve transformed themselves or confronted injustices, the moments that have framed who they are. We need to encourage and embolden truth instead of trying to silence and shame it. Solo performance art is one of the most charged spaces where your authentic human selves can come forward.”
For more information about “Outside the Frame,” visit www.interacttheatre.org. To register for Miller’s workshop, call 215-568-8079.