Pride Season is here, and it’s in full swing. Naturally most of the excitement and expectations are focused on the Festival, but it’s also important to remember that Pride is much more than a party. It’s a movement, and this is the month in which we not only celebrate, but renew our determination to participate.
To help us keep the momentum, it’s important to be reminded not only of where we are in the fight, but also of where we have been- and this June, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is offering an opportunity to do just that with its presentation of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, The Pride. Stylish, witty and affecting, it presents a snapshot of two very distinct time periods by examining three characters- Philip, Sylvia, and Oliver- whose fate is governed by their eras.
The Pride alternates between 1958 and 2008. In the earlier timeline, Philip and Sylvia are married, but Philip finds himself secretly smitten with her colleague, Oliver; Half a century later, Philip and Oliver are live-in boyfriends, but Oliver’s sexual promiscuity threatens their relationship and he turns to their friend Sylvia for help. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that these three characters are echoes of each other across time, all of them struggling to make a better life for themselves than the one they have known before.
All of this sounds like a fascinating evening of theatre, to be sure, but does it really have anything to do with Pride? According to director Michael Arden, who is wrapping up his year-long stint as Artist-in-Residence at the Wallis with this production, the answer is “Yes, quite a lot.”
Arden, along with the Center’s artistic director, Paul Crewes, wanted to embrace the spirit of Pride, reaching out to the LGBTQ community through a project which would reflect the concerns that affect it. Obviously, that’s a tall order; how do you address such a wide range of issues in a manner which can also be entertaining for its audience?
A number of ideas were floated, one of which was a staged reading of The Pride, which Arden saw in its original 2008 production at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and which he felt would be a perfect match for the Wallis’ outreach effort. Crewes agreed; so much so, in fact, that he decided to go one better and mount a full production of the show.
Arden couldn’t have been more delighted. “The material resonated with me as a gay man; I connected to the experiences in the play on a personal, emotional level. I felt it was a story that hadn’t been told before and about an aspect of gay life that isn’t widely discussed.”
As to how it relates specifically to Pride, it comes down to a lot more than just a coincidentally appropriate title. When asked how the play reflects the spirit and purpose of the Pride movement, Arden is eager to answer. “By viewing these characters’ experiences in two different time periods, we get to see how things have changed, and also how they haven’t. Remember, part of the play is set in London in 1958; homosexuality was a criminal offense, and that had a huge impact on the way gay men and women lived and loved. When we get to scenes set in 2008 New York, we can see the ways a different social environment has affected gay life- certainly for the better, but also with deep shadows still being cast by the less accepting attitudes of those earlier times.”
In other words, there are direct threads between the obstacles faced by the play’s central trio across fifty years. As Arden points out, there is a third perspective on The Pride, created by watching it now- a decade after its original debut- from which we can see that those threads are still intact.
“The play was written before we had Marriage-Equality, so we can observe the differences in our own time from both the eras we see in the show; but right now we are very much in the middle of a time when there’s a strong backlash against the progress that has been made, and there are a lot of regressive forces at work in the culture that are directly tied to the same prejudices and fears that existed in the past.”
Can The Pride teach us a way to battle against those prejudices and fears in this era of Trump-fueled socio-political retrogression? Perhaps not; according to its press release, it is a play which “explores fate, love, fidelity and forgiveness,” and “asks questions about contemporary life (gay and straight), without presuming to answer any of them concretely.”
As Arden sees it, however, it can help us learn to fight that battle for ourselves. “Just like in any play, these characters are all fighting for what they want. What they do to win that fight is shaped by their environment, by the age they live in. That can help us recognize the ways our own struggles are affected by our current situation. Understanding how progressive and regressive cultural beliefs are tied to our history helps us to recognize how the roots of our current issues reach into past, and it can lead to change by allowing us to let go of the burden of shame we may have inherited and instead embrace the pride we need to live our lives now.” Or to put it another way, quoting a particularly colorful line of dialogue from the play, it can allow us to “stop sucking the dick of our oppressor.”
Artistically speaking, you can be sure that The Pride will be a production created with integrity. Arden’s own “Pride” story dates back to when he was a student at Julliard, and Sir Ian McKellen came to the school to speak. It was not long after the actor had famously outed himself to the public (though his sexuality had long been known to his friends and associates), and one of the students asked him if his announcement had made his career better or worse. Without hesitation, McKellen said “Better. Much better. By being honest about who I am, my work as an actor can also come from a place of complete honesty.”
It was a statement that rang true for Arden, who has embraced that philosophy in his own artistic career. He brings his own true, gay self to his work, and then allows his productions to be shaped by the intertwining of that perspective with those of his collaborators (in the case of The Pride, he is particularly excited to add that his cast brings together the viewpoints of a gay English man, a gay American man, a straight American female– who is also a mother-, and a straight American man). “As an artist, my job is to reflect back to the culture what it presents to me, and not hiding behind a mask gives me a clearer surface when I ‘hold the mirror up to nature.’”
You can see that reflection for yourself when The Pride opens later this month.
— The Pride will receive its Los Angeles premiere in this new Wallis production that stars Neal Bledsoe as Philip, Jessica Collins as Sylvia, Augustus Prew as Oliver and Matthew Wilkas as The Man. Performances begin in the intimate Lovelace Studio Theater on June 8 through July 9 with opening slated for Wednesday, June 14.
Single tickets: $40 – $75 (prices subject to change)
Online – TheWallis.org
By Phone – 310.746.4000
Box Office – Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Ticket Service
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd,
Beverly Hills, CA, 90210