BWW Interviews: Brian Shnipper on Creating STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS
Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, which opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre on November 13, assembles some of America's most illustrious and Award-winning playwrights, including Mo Gaffney, Jordan Harrison, Moisés Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Wendy MacLeod, José Rivera, Paul Rudnick and Doug Wright, all responding to one of the defining issues of our day -- the on-going battle for marriage equality throughout the United States - in a heartfelt, funny and altogether illuminating evening of short plays that celebrates the courage to be in a relationship - any relationship.
Conceived by Brian Shnipper and directed by Stuart Ross, Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays features a rotating cast of the best actors from theater, film and TV. The premiere cast includes Craig Bierko (The Music Man), Mark Consuelos ("All My Children"), Polly Draper ("thirtysomething"), Harriet Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie), Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Richard Thomas (Race).
Shnipper recently took time out of his busy schedule to chat with BroadwayWorld about the show’s LA origins, moving it to the East coast, the writers involved, and more!
So what exactly is STANDING ON CEREMONY?
It’s a collection of short plays about gay marriage in America, by Doug Wright, Paul Resnick, Wendy McLeod…a bunch of different playwrights.
The show just made its off-Broadway debut, but it has much longer history on the West coast. Can you just take me back to how and why the whole thing came about?
Well it all started in 2008. It was right before the election, and we were about to gain our first African-American President, but on the other hand we were about to lose Prop8- I live in California, so we were voting on that. And I was sitting in the kitchen of the house that I share with my partner, and my dogs were at my feet, and I thought ‘How am I any less normal, or any less deserving of any rights given to any straight couple in this country?’
So I started calling playwrights that I was friends with and that I had worked with, and I started asking if they were willing to write a short play on the issue. Then I directed the very first benefit performance of it in 2009 in Los Angeles. That was very different in structure- it was 35 actors with a different cast for each small play. It was Debra Messing and Jason Alexander and Alfre Woodard- a whole bunch of people!
And then Stuart Ross became my producer, and he produced that performance and he said, ‘Why don’t we bring this to New York?’ Then I directed a benefit performance at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2010 in the same way that I had done it in Los Angeles. That one involved Matthew Broderick and Kathy Najimy, and we also gained a few playwrights because Paul Rudnick and Doug Wright are on their board and they wanted to write a piece for it.
So it kept evolving and changing, and then we went back to Los Angeles and we brought it down to six actors, which is the way it’s done now. They all take on all nine or ten plays, depending on which plays are performed that night. And now we’re in New York!
You were a pivotal part of creating the show and getting it on its feet in LA, but you’ve been able to take a little more of a backseat role with the off-Broadway show. What has that been like for you?
Yes, Stuart Ross is directing this one. You have to hand it over at some point and give it to the world. It’s like letting the foster parents takeover! I came for previews, but I didn’t want to breathe down their necks. It’s his production, and I definitely let it be his production.
On November 7 STANDING ON CEREMONY was performed in over 40 theatres across America. I’d imagine that was a pretty cool moment for you…
It was amazing because it was getting done in places where it really needs to get done. I love that it’s playing off-Broadway and that it’s getting a full commercial production, it’s a dream! But you do want it to play in Arkansas and Kansas and Mississippi, and other places where this message really needs to get out.
Did you expect a different reaction in regions of the US that are known to be more conservative?
We really haven’t gotten much backlash. If there has been, no one has shown me; but even threads that I have seen (in chatrooms or emails), they’ve all been really positive. It’s been a really wonderful experience.
It’s great when you can produce anything in the theatre like this when you’re not just educating but you’re entertaining as well. It’s been great to do a piece of theatre that does both of those things, and that’s what theatre does really well.
When it comes to the playwrights that are involved with this show, you’ve really got the best of the best. Did you ever imagine that you’d be able to find such an all-star group of writers who would want to write about gay marriage?
Well I started to get an inkling when my first four playwrights said yes, and I thought, ‘Wow, I might have something here!’ Even with the initial benefit, we got writers that I’m still looking to bring back into the fold- people like Susan Miller, Marcus Gardley- we’ve had some amazing writers. There have been about 25 writers that have actually written pieces for this as of now.
People who go to see STANDING ON CEREMONY more than once might not necessarily see the same set of plays twice. Is that just a result of having so much great material and not enough time to squeeze them all into one show?
That’s exactly it. Jeffrey Hatcher and Joe Keenan are actually two other playwrights who have written pieces, and Jeffrey was one of the original people I asked, because I’ve worked on his plays many times and I love his writing. There’s so much good material, and depending on the cast, it works better to have other pieces just because of who they are as an actor.
But Jeffrey actually wrote a piece about a straight couple. The man’s sexuality is questionable and they talk about their relationship and the son that they have. And it goes through the son growing up and they start to realize that their son might be gay. And they want him to know that if that’s the truth, that he doesn’t have to go the route that his father did, and he can chose to marry a man if he wants to. It’s a beautifully written piece, and I’m hoping that at some point all of these pieces will get incorporated back into it.
I’d imagine that it’s really hard to pick a favorite, but is there a play that really hits home for you personally?
I hate to say it, but it’s true: they’re all my babies and I love them all equally. What I do love about it is that when I started to ask authors to participate, I made sure that once we got a certain kind or author that we went polar opposite to get another one- so that they were all approaching it from a really different position.
Doug Wright wrote this wonderful piece that was adapted from a Facebook thread; and Neil [LaBute]’s is so dark, and Jose [Rivera]’s is so lyrical. So I can’t say that I have a favorite, but I love that there’s a variety.
Opening of course was on Novemer 13, and the show seems to be loved equally by the audience and the critics. Did you expect that kind of success when the show was just an idea in 2008?
When I got all of the original pieces together, Wendy MacLeod and I were talking and she said, ‘You could have the next VAGINA MONOLOGUES on your hands.’ And I said, ‘You know, we may just have that!’ because it’s done in the same kind of ‘reading’ format. So I started realizing that I might actually have success.
When I started directing it in Los Angeles, I think there were 19 reviews, and 18 seemed like my mother wrote them. There was one that objected to the format of it- with the music stands, but they really didn’t have anything bad to say about the production. It was great to get those kinds of reviews.
When we came to New York I was kinda worried, because New York critics are the harshest, but I had a feeling that it would at least get some positive reaction. But you never know!
Have you learned anything from this whole experience?
Personally, I’ve really learned that if you put your heart and soul into something that really matters to you, that it pays back ten times. It’s the most important work you can do- if you really believe in it.
For additional information on STANDING ON CEREMONY, visit: http://standingonceremony.net/. Tickets are $25-$125 and can be purchased here.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus