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Playing it straight

Furor erupts over Newsweek article on openly gay actors

May 13, 2010

The storm started when Newsweek critic Ramin Setoodeh opined that "an actor's background does effect how we see his or her performance." He was talking specifically about his trouble --and, he concludes, audiences' trouble--accepting "out" actors Sean Hayes in a heterosexual role in Broadway's "Promises, Promises" and Jonathan Groff as a straight teen on "Glee." Read the whole piece here.

The response was quick. Actress Kristen Chenowith, Hayes' co-star in the show, fired back, calling the piece "horrendously homophobic."

"We’re actors first," says Chenowith, "whether we’re playing prostitutes, baseball players, or the Lion King. Audiences come to theater to go on a journey. It’s a character and it’s called acting...No one needs to see a bigoted, factually inaccurate article that tells people who deviate from heterosexual norms that they can’t be open about who they are and still achieve their dreams."

Ryan Murphy, creator of "Glee," called for a Newsweek boycott.

Then writer Aaron Sorkin chimed in with a semi-defense of Setoodeh.  He and others believe that Setoodeh's piece is being misrepresented. He puts the blame not on Newsweek and its story but on celebrity journalism, which has pushed the private lives of performers too far to the front, where it gets in the way of the work itself. "I can't hum a single John Mayer song but I can name five women he's slept with," he writes. "Sean, for Setoodeh, the show began before you even showed up to the theater that night."

There's no question that we bring baggage into the theater with us. And when it comes to celebrity performers, that baggage may influence our experience of the performance in some way.

But I've seen many, many strong performances by honest people playing criminals, by southerners playing northerners, by monogamous actors playing adulterers, by Americans playing Brits, by women playing men (anyone see "The Year of Living Dangerously"?), by humans playing animals, and, yes, by gay actors playing straight (and vice versa). And, I don't believe most audiences have trouble getting past the real world and entering the world of a play or film.

Setoodeh was talking about two performances and I can't comment on those since I haven't seen Hayes in "Promises, Promises" and my recent viewing of "Glee" has been spotty (although I bought Groff completely in Broadway's "Spring Awakening").  I don't know if those specific actors in those specific works create credible characters. But I don't think that whether they work or not should be pinned on the fact that the actors are gay.

Of course, there have been times when I didn't feel like two supposed lovers on stage are really interested and/or attracted to another. That's an acting problem, not a sexual orientation issue.

Your thoughts?

 

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