Article Title:Silo Theatre's The Boys In The Band
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:15th June 2005 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:776
Text:It could possibly be the definitive chronicle of social destruction at a gay birthday party. Actor Shane Bosher, who plays birthday boy Harold in the Silo Theatre's new Auckland production of sixties classic The Boys In The Band, thinks we've all been there. "We've all been at dinner parties that have spiralled out of control," he laughs. "There's a voyeuristic quality to the design of this play where the audience can be a fly on the wall but not feel they're going to get a plate thrown at them." Originally produced in 1968 at a time of burgeoning gay liberation, director Jonathon Hendry has thankfully avoided the temptation to update the story for his version. "We haven't done anything tricksy to say, for example, this is Ponsonby Road in 1999. That sort of thing can be very awkward," he says. So for fans of the play, or its 1970 filmed version, it's all still there – the bitchy, smart dialogue at the birthday party from hell, featuring a petri dish of gay characters from all points on the butch/femme and Kinsey compasses. The Boys In The Band is renowned for its fireworks, and in an intimate theatre space like the Silo, Hendry is taking full advantage of the opportunity to make the audience into unwitting guests, rather than merely giving them a spectacle to view. "We guarantee there's no audience participation, but they'll feel part of this world," he says. "Rather than watching a world, you experience it. It's [the author] Crowley talking from 1968 with the anger, passion, humour and love – there's a lot of love in this play – we can sit there at this dinner party and assess how we relate to it." It's an intimacy that has been appreciated in earlier Silo productions, says Bosher, where audiences have sometimes felt they'd like to get up on stage because they're having such a great time. "In a production recently we had a staging environment where audiences chose their alliances to particular characters, and people started talking back when they could see a character about to make a wrong decision. And I think there will be an audible response to this play, especially with the percussive nature of the dialogue, where characters use words as weaponry against each other." "That's definitely something the author wants," Hendry agrees. "He wants the audience to feel they are part of something, that they are the voyeur at a party. At the Silo, people are going to watch these people up close and personal, and they really are living embodiments of these characters, as opposed to film where people are naturally distanced. Increasingly, this is a play that's being produced in smaller venues with great success." The uncomfortable action in Boys centres around the Chernobyl-style meltdown at Harold's birthday party, instigated by host Michael, who uses his tongue as a relentless weapon of mass destruction. How does it feel, as an actor, to be able to do something on a nightly basis in a play that you could never get away with in life? "Well, I think I'm in the closet over that – I really love it but I'm pretending I don't," laughs Stephen Butterworth, who plays Michael. “It has got to me at times, where I just feel like all I'm doing is abusing people, and I've gone home and thought 'why do I feel so awful?' It's because I have just been treating everybody like shit, and it's sometimes hard to drop that when you leave the room." Butterworth wouldn't be the first actor to find character traits rubbing off on him, but Hendry says it can sometimes be a bit of a mirage. "There's a theory about actors who have played incredibly heady characters like Oscar Wilde that over the years you actually start to feel you're as clever as the character you play. The thing about Michael, why you love watching him create this havoc, is the fact that he's on fire. The wit, the sharpness, and the speed with which he makes a quip, or a joke to annihilate... it's not just belligerence." There's a certain guilty thrill that comes with a role like this, says Butterworth, and the audience will get caught up in it. "At times, when it's really firing, it's just like playing with the best fireworks. It's fantastic. It sparks, it shatters, and it gives me spine tingles because I manage to annihilate six people in one scene. It's cruel but I love it. It's like watching an accident on the highway – you can't look at it, and you can't look away. The audience will find themselves laughing at something that they find despicable and then catch themselves." We all love a good train-wreck – witness the continuing popularity of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another classic to which Boys is sometimes compared. But while Woolf centres on a heterosexual marriage and the horrible battle of wits between the partners, Boys operates more as a cross-section of gay life, from sissies to self-loathing jock wannabes, who see all their flaws and foibles exposed during the course of the play. "It has a team of people that get put in and are basically the ammunition for skirmishes. Crowley is writing a lot about stereotypes, archetypes, film law – he's like a magpie, stealing from pop culture," says Hendry. "Likening it to Virginia Woolf is the same as likening it to Tennessee Williams or other things, because he self-consciously puts that in the play. That's part of our gay mythology of course." The play is often criticised for being dated, a relic of the pre-liberation times when gays were crippled with problems. Many reviews of the filmed version treat it as a museum piece, but the reasoning behind such an assessment is flawed. It makes precisely the same mistake they criticised the play for, only in the opposite direction – assuming that no modern gay audience could relate to such a self-loathing bunch because none of us feel like that now at all. "I think the through-line of most of the characters are totally poignant to what people are going through today," says Butterworth. "This is one of those plays where the characters look at themselves and say, why are we so hard on ourselves? I think homosexuals still feel like that." While acknowledging that we're not living in a time where it's illegal to be gay, as it was at the time of Boys, it's important to recognise that the issues themselves have not gone away. "We can't belittle the experience of someone choosing to accept themselves. We can't say, oh we've moved on so obviously everybody has,” says Bosher. “Through the process of coming out, there is a process of self-reprimand that people go through that is very pertinent to the experience of the play." Hendry agrees. "The closet is still alive and well, and that's a reality for some people, something I discovered when I went to Blenheim recently. We can look around us and see ourselves not fitting into society and thinking there's something wrong in us. I heard Theresa Gattung the other week being interviewed about women's issues, and she was pointing out that any gains we've got aren't there forever. We have to keep the fight going. What's happening with Destiny Church is really potent for me when I look at this play, because we can't shoot ourselves in the feet. We can do a lot of harm ourselves in terms of being both too comfortable and too complacent." Perhaps the problem with Boys is not that the play has dated, but its original audience has. Hendry tells the story of how film critic Richard Kramer assembled three separate audiences to watch Boys on its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1993. The first, a group of 40-year-olds, swore blind they were nothing like the characters in the film. The second, a group of 30-year-olds, said they were more like the characters than they'd like to admit. The last, a group of 20-year-olds, said they were exactly like the characters. "This was the first mainstream play that didn't say homosexuality was a sickness, it was a state of being," Hendry says. "We still wrestle in our own gay culture with what it is to be gay, with all the raft of different people – the straight-acting gays who don't like sissies. There are issues like civil unions that highlight our differences. It's not like there's a magic happy pill that you can take and say I'm gay and therefore I'm going to agree with everybody." We live in ambiguous times, which allows for elements of the story to be interpreted in different ways. Written in a time before AIDS, dialogue which makes joking references to being wary of nosebleeds in the kitchen take on a whole different meaning. So too do readings of certain characters, like Alan, the "heterosexual" guest. "His sexuality is entirely ambiguous," says Hendry. "However, the heterosexual media and the homosexual media at the time both seized on the idea that Crowley was trying to write about the guy who had been dropped into the snake pit, the guy who got caught up in all the problems of the 'gay world'. I don't think he's doing that. There are really interesting questions raised about Alan throughout so that, like any good story, you rethink what you've seen. We're really trying to allow the audience to work out their own story with that." The best stories get their messages across by providing an entertaining setting, be it horribly uncomfortable or wickedly funny. The Boys In The Band is a play that achieves both, and Hendry and his cast are planning to give their audience something to think about, as well as a great night out. The Boys In The Band plays at Silo Theatre, Auckland, from 15 June to 2 July. Chris Banks - 15th June 2005    
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