At The Flash, a new one-man, five-character play that charts seismic cultural changes in recent gay American history, gets its New York City premiere Aug. 13-24 as part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. Set in a bar called The Flash, all of the characters from the 1960s onward are played by David Leeper, who co-wrote the script with husband Sean Chandler. David Zak directs, repeating his earlier work when the play had a lauded run in Chicago. The writers shared their thoughts about the process of conjuring their play.
Billed as a dramatic comedy, At The Flash features “the history of a gay bar as seen through five stories that ricochet and collide over five eras of gay history,” according to production notes. “The action begins in the present day, as Rod prepares for the grand reopening of The Flash. Traveling back to 1965, The Flash is an unassuming hole-in-the-wall. Richard, a husband and father of three, struggles with his sexual identity amid a raid. Moving forward to 1979, Miss Sparkle, an aging drag queen, recounts the significance, struggle, and lessons of Stonewall. In 1989, Derrick dances, drinks and drugs the night away while waiting for the results of an HIV test. In 1996, Mona fights an uphill against the Defense of Marriage Act to lay the groundwork for recent strides in the LGBTQ community. At The Flash examines the importance of remembering where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go.”
The play was conceived as a one-man show for Leeper. “Originally the concept was to write a monologue show for me to perform that would go in chronological order,” Leeper told me. “As the monologues developed into a more cohesive story, Sean came up with the brilliant idea to chop it all up and have the stories unfold in a series of jumps back and forth. That’s what made it go from a monologue/character study into a play about something.”
The script was recently chosen as one of 32 FringeNYC shows this season to be published by IndieTheaterNow.
Leeper performed At The Flash under the direction of David Zak for its Jeff Recommended 2012 world premiere in Chicago, its West Coast premiere at Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles, and its international debut in Dublin at the 2014 International Dublin Gay Theater Festival, where Leeper was nominated for the Michael Mac Liammoir Award for Best Male Performance and the writers were nominated for an Oscar Wilde Award (Best New Writing).
Leeper’s resume includes leading roles in regional productions of David Mamet’s Oleanna, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July and Tom Dudzick’s Greetings.
In addition to At The Flash, Chandler’s writing includes Radical Morality (Nicholl Fellowship Quarter-Finalist, Creative World Awards Semi-Finalist, PFP Great Gay Screenplay Contest Semi-Finalist) and Kissing The Frog Prince (Scriptoid Writers Challenge, All Access Screenwriters Competition, The Screenplay Festival Semi-Finalist).
Director Zak’s work has won seven Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago, including four for Directing (Animal Farm, Dr. Sex, Parade, Pope Joan), two for writing (The Hiroshima Project, The Count of Monte Cristo) and a special Jeff for Fostering Diversity in Chicago Theater. He fosters new LGBT screenplays and scripts in his roles as executive director of Pride Films and Plays in Chicago, and as artistic director of Summer Pride Fest in Chandler, VT. He was artistic director of Chicago’s Bailiwick Repertory Theatre for 27 years.
The Fringe production’s sound designer is Alexander St. John. Jennifer Davison is the stage manager.
At The Flash will play Under St. Mark’s at 94 St. Mark’s Place Saturday, Aug. 13 at 8 PM; Thursday, Aug. 18 at 4:45 PM; Friday, Aug. 19 at 4 PM; Sunday, Aug. 21 at 2:45 PM; and Wednesday, Aug. 24 at 9 PM. Tickets ($18) are available by visiting www.AtTheFlash.com.
Here’s my chat with Sean Chandler and David Leeper.
Take me to the first inkling of the idea for At The Flash? Whose notion was it? What inspired it?
David Leeper: Sean had the initial idea to write a play about a bar over the decades. We were both interested in the idea of the role a bar plays in the gay community that is so vastly different than the straight community.
Sean Chandler: I remember the very conversation we had in our car. We were driving down Franklin Blvd. on our way to a play in West Hollywood and I asked David if he wanted to co-write a one-person show about gay history.
What did you “see” first — a place? Characters?
David Leeper: I would say the place was the first visual I had in the conception of the show and then the characters as we saw each decade seemed to fall right into place.
Sean Chandler: I envisioned The Flash as a version of a long-shuttered gay bar from Garden Grove, California called DOK West. Once we identified the prevailing issues of each decade decisions were made of the characters based on their ability to convey those points of view.
How did you build the play together? That is, who writes what? Who edits?
Sean Chandler: Although we ran all ideas for the show across each other, the structure of the play was created and managed mostly by me. David is wonderful at writing toward the emotional heart of the characters and many of the more poignant moments have been written to that strength. We both, however, have written individual parts that have thrown people who know us for a loop when they find out who had the strongest hand in the segment.
You explore five characters (and supporting characters, too?) over a period of five decades — 1965 to 2016. What made you land on these parameters? Why not 1945, for example?
David Leeper: Well, originally the decades were all in order going back from the current decade, but also, we wanted to look at the major benchmarks in modern gay history that is relatively not that long ago. Going back too far would be interesting but maybe not as relevant in a timeline. You know, looking at what we learned from the generation just before us.
Sean Chandler: 1965 felt like the strongest point of reference to write toward my emotional knowledge of gay history. Also, the 1960s seemed to be the era when visibility was finally given to activists’ efforts.
Are there characters and decades you played with/considered that ended up on the cutting room floor?
David Leeper: The decades were pretty clearly locked, but what to focus on in each decade was a challenge. I think that’s why the years are so specific. The characters sort of jumped right out at us for the decades except for the modern day. We had first come up with an idea that the current decade would actually be two characters, still played by one actor, and would be a couple at brunch. It just seemed messy and didn’t really have anywhere to go.
Sean Chandler: We toyed with the idea of making the current decade character a doorman at The Flash, but eventually decided that point of view wasn’t strong enough to frame the show. It was when we decided that the bar needed a point of renewal that we landed on the character you see in the play.
If you were to tell a friend about The Flash as an institution, how would you describe the bar? Are we in a specific city?
David Leeper: That’s what’s so great about the show. Everyone has their own picture in their head of their first bar and what The Flash is. In Chicago it was Sidetracks, in L.A. it was The Abbey and in Dublin it was Panti Bar. They all had a place to call The Flash. For me, it’s DOK West — a bar in Garden Grove that was the place to be on Tuesday nights in the 1980s.
As gay life becomes more open and accepted, I wonder: Did any sense of mission to preserve “lost” gay history drive this project, or did you just want to tell good stories with indelible characters?
David Leeper: As the performer, that is what I connect to the most; the history and the need to make sure we remember where we came from and how, not that long ago, it was a very different world. And how it still is a very difficult life in many countries and still here in the U.S. I think history is always good storytelling and necessary storytelling.
Sean Chandler: I hope we’ve done both. Through character and situation we’re able to express various slices of gay history in a compelling way. If we can open the eyes of a younger gay person and show them a history of their peers we feel the ultimate in accomplishment.
Were any of the characters inspired by real people, or by aspects of your own experience? Give a couple of examples?
David Leeper: I think the characters that I talk to in the play are based on real people more than those five [core] characters in the show. They are sort of an amalgamation of people we’ve all known.
Sean Chandler: The characters and the story ultimately end up driving each other. Although they may have started as general ideas of people we knew they became their own person. If I were to compare myself to any of the characters, I’d have to say that I most closely resemble Rod who represents current day. He’s tightly wound and works from a place of self-doubt, which is totally me.
Straight folks think gay folks know all about their own history. Was the writing of this a learning experience for you? What sort of research did you do?
David Leeper: I’m always horrified at the recounting of bar raids. From my modern perspective, it just seems so shocking and unreal. I did a lot of research on that. Also did a lot of research on the drag community and the idea of a “drag mama.” I loved the idea of this “created family” and it’s something I’ve believed for a long time — that we do create our own families in life and some of us have had to. Fortunately, I have great parents, but so many out there do not. To find a caretaker who’s older and wiser and for them to take in someone who needs guidance, I think is one of the greatest things you can do.
Sean Chandler: I read a very informative book called “Making Gay History” by Eric Marcus. That helped immensely with the earlier decades.
Over its years of development, what kept you guys up at night? What was the toughest thing to solve?
David Leeper: For me it was the question: are we writing something that people will want to see? Is this interesting to all audiences?
Sean Chandler: Making the show stand out. Determining its brand and marketing to that.
The play seems lean and producible — a blank space, simple lighting and lots of sounds cues. Am I oversimplifying? Does it require a literal set?
David Leeper: I would love to do this show with a very complicated set! Things rolling in and out, popping up on the stage, but I think the writing and characterizations make this function with something as simple as “lights up, lights down.” And, I think it serves the idea of the show that this isn’t a real bar, it’s the bar each audience member sees for themselves.
Sean Chandler: I knew we’d have to write something that was inexpensive to produce to break through, but we’ve had fantasy conversations about what we’d love to do with the show if money was no object.
What’s the future of At The Flash? Are you available for bookings?
Sean Chandler: Honestly, we just take the next step in front of us and execute that to the best of our ability. We are always open to bookings. We recently did a one-night performance at the 2016 Vermont Pride Theater Festival and it was an extremely fulfilling experience to take the show to a smaller population that is working toward strengthening its gay community.
Do you foresee a licensing life for the play, handing the acting job over to another actor one day? Is it possible that the play could be produced to feature five different actors, or is it strictly a solo show?
David Leeper: I would love to see another actor’s interpretation of the show. I’d really like to see a female actor do it. I suppose it could be done with five actors, but the fluidity of it would be lost and there is a subtle effect that these characters are different people, but we’re all really the same, wanting the same things.
What is the major change to the play since its Chicago launch in 2012? Is it “frozen”?
Sean Chandler: We are constantly updating the current day character of “Rod,” mostly with references and technology. The other four characters are less fluid as they are set in history.
What did director David Zak bring to the table?
David Leeper: David Zak brought so much to At The Flash. He really polished the play and had suggestions in writing, structure and performance that made for such impactful moments. Working with him for the first production felt like I was just handed a completely foreign work. It was difficult to erase my preconceived vision of the show, but he did it. Working with David Zak will always be one of the greatest experiences for me as an actor.
Sean Chandler: Without David Zak, there would be no At The Flash. He found the show through Chicago’s Pride Films and Plays and has been its biggest fan and constant shepherd. He’s also an amazing and legendary director. Can you tell I really like him?
Are you working on anything else together or separately?
Sean Chandler: We’ve written a spec TV series based on “At The Flash” that opens up the world of The Flash and develops not just the five main characters, but also characters that are never seen in the play but are spoken to. Independently of one another, I have co-written a musical called Running with my co-writer Leo Schwartz. It’s the story of a married, closeted gay mayoral candidate who is outed in a very lewd, public manner and its effect on his campaign and family. The morning after our last FringeNYC performance I fly to Chicago for a live concert reading of the show.