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Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia

Ryan Spahn discusses his objective for writing NORA HIGHLAND, and the journey it's taken him from first putting pen to paper to Celebration's YouTube.

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia

The Celebration Theatre's program of celebrating new works returns with Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND airing Tuesday, December 15, 2020 at 7:30pm PT on Celebration Theatre's YouTube Channel. NORA HIGHLAND chronicles the casting of a notable gay character in an upcoming Broadway revival, while challenging the phenomenon of straight performers being lauded for their work in queer roles. Playwright/director/actor Ryan Spahn discusses his objective for writing NORA HIGHLAND, and the journey it's taken him from first putting pen to paper to Celebration's YouTube.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ryan!

Were you happy with the response you received for your film premiere of Nora Highland on October 26 at the Newfest NY LGBTQ Film Festival?

Oh, man. I was. Very Much. Thank you for asking. I was floored that the film was selected for NewFest. I couldn't ask for a better premiere. I am such a fan of NewFest. Once the movie screened, a lot of strangers started reaching out to me on social media expressing how much the movie resonated with them. One person, in particular, has begun developing a summit in order to further the discussions Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia presented in the film. If Nora Highland helps to move the needle with regards to the erasure of queer performers in entertainment, I couldn't ask for anything more. And, for funsies, I have been profoundly obsessed with "Gold Derby" for years, which is an awards prediction and entertainment news website. They did coverage on Newfest and selected Nora Highland as one of the "Top 5 Films of the NewFest." We were listed behind the starry Kate Winslet/Saoirse Ronan film Ammonite. That blew my mind.

On December 15th, NORA HIGHLAND will be featured on Celebration Theatre's YouTube channel. How did this collaboration with Celebration come about?

My history with The Celebration Theatre goes back two decades. I moved to Los Angeles when I was seventeen, but I didn't come out as gay until I was twenty-one. During those early years, I was a confused actor doing my best to hide everything about myself. I yearned to find gay mentors. I barely had any deep gay friendships, let alone gay role models. I wasn't sure where to look. I was reading Backstage West and I saw that The Celebration Theatre, an LGBTQ theatre company, was holding Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia auditions for THE BACCHAE. I auditioned and got cast. Through the friendships I made on that show, particularly with then Artistic Director Michael Matthews, I realized that being queer is the only minority group where it's very likely that nobody in your immediate family will be a part of your minority group. You might be totally alone in your experience. You can grow up isolated, which was the case for me. But, within this company, I realized I could create my own family. I could choose my family. It changed my life. The Celebration Theatre was the jumpstart to my career in the theatre, both as an actor and as a writer, and it was the gateway to finding my first long-term romantic relationship.

What has been the gestation period of NORA HIGHLAND? When did you start putting it down on paper?

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia I started writing the play version of NORA HIGHLAND two and a half years ago after a series of horrifying auditions. One, in particular, involved a casting director telling me to remember that the character was "straight" before I had even opened my mouth. The assumption was that I didn't have the skill to be anything more than gay, which was something the casting director only knew because they knew my personal life. It was not something we had discussed in the room. These kinds of experiences, coupled with seeing a shattering number of LGBT galas in which our own community honor straight allies, ignited in me a desire to write.

Was NORA HIGHLAND originally formatted to be performed as a full stage production live before your filming for its premiere at Newfest?

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia I wrote NORA HIGHLAND as a play, and I'm looking forward to it having a first production one day after the pandemic is over. The play is deeply theatrical; two performers play all the parts. It was first performed during the inaugural Pride Plays Festival in 2019, with Rebecca Henderson and Michael Hsu Rosen. You could feel the discomfort and heat in the room. Something you cannot feel with film. I yearn for that.

This Celebration production is the fourth incarnation of NORA HIGHLAND - including the benefit reading in April (with Michael Urie and Tessa Thompson), film at Newfest and now Zooming at Celebration. Any tweaks between the Pride Plays Festival version of NORA HIGHLAND and this Celebration production?

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia Oh yeah, the play has been tweaked. A lot. Particularly when it was put onto film. Plays are language driven and films are a visual medium. A lot of the dialogue was cut when NORA HIGHLAND became a screenplay. But, the play itself will continue to grow and evolve until it has its world premiere. So much in the industry is changing, particularly around queer representation. Even just this week, a handful of articles came out about the casting of James Corden in The Prom. People are saying he's giving the "Worst Gay-Face" ever.

The debate of only casting gay actors for gay roles gained more prominence with diversity and inclusion taking more importance. What is your opinion of casting only gay actors for gay roles and straight actors for straight roles?

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia I do feel the best actor for a role should get the job. But, quite often, the best actor for a role is never in the room to begin with. If there's a demographic of people who are given every opportunity, then they will inherently be better. Straight actors are universally given more chances, so they are simply better at auditioning. They are working that muscle. Because it is a muscle. When a queer actor does get into the room, they might not seem as "good" because their muscle has had less of a workout. It's time for the entertainment industry to stop giving the same demographic of people every opportunity to succeed, because once that happens, the best actor for the job will actually get the job.

I've always thought it quite a puzzlement that for Modern Family, Jesse Tyler Ferguson never won an Emmy for his role of Mitchell, while Eric Stonestreet won two for his role of Mitchell's husband Cam. Did you ever lose a gay role to a straight actor?

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia The work Jesse did on Modern Family was so nuanced and specific, it almost didn't read as acting. He was that good. Eric was wonderful, too, but straight actors are lauded for playing queer. Because it feels like capital-A acting. I can't begin to tell you how many roles I have lost to straight actors. One time, I was told I was "too gay" to play the gay role I had been workshopping, and then the straight actor who replaced me swished it up on stage. I was devastated and confused. It's mind-boggling the hoops those in power, particularly gay men, will go through in order to be surrounded by straight actors. It's deeply rooted homophobia. People need to hold themselves accountable. And if they're too weak to do this themselves, they need to have someone by their side who will enforce this.

I'd love to learn the backstory of the empty seat next to you at the Ahmanson for DOUBT in 2006.

Oh, ha! I was set up on a blind date with my now partner, Michael Urie. At the time, we had not met in person, but had spoken on the phone. Our mutual friend, James Ginty, had set us up. But then, Michael had to cancel the day of our first date due to a friend's health emergency. I couldn't find anyone to take his place last minute, so I sat with an empty seat next to me at the Ahmanson and watched Cherry Jones scream "I have such doubt" totally alone. It worked out in the end because once Michael and I both moved to New York, we reconnected and have been together for over twelve years.

Interview: Ryan Spahn's NORA HIGHLAND Aiming The Spotlight On The Industry's Homophobia What's in the near future for Ryan Spahn? More writing? Acting online with some of Los Angeles theatres?

It's such a strange and harrowing time. I am grateful for my health and for any opportunity that comes my way. As an actor, I will appear in the upcoming seasons of Modern Love and The Second Wave. I am also attached to star in a play that will be in Los Angeles in the late Fall of 2021. Fingers crossed that works out. It would be such an honor to be back on my old stomping ground. As for writing, the film version of NORA HIGHLAND is making the festival rounds. I have also begun a workshop with The Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre of an adaptation of the letters chronicling my ten-year-long email friendship with playwright Adrienne Kennedy. It's definitely not a play. I am not entirely sure what it is, perhaps a book, but I promised Adrienne I would make something of our connection and this workshop is my first step.

Thank you again, Ryan! I look forward to Zooming NORA HIGHLAND, and seeing you live again on the Los Angeles theatre boards.

For free viewing of NORA HIGHLAND, log onto Celebration Theatre's YouTube Channel Tuesday, December 15th at 7:30pm PT. (Donations always appreciated.)

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