THEATERMANIA: Have you made any changes to the piece since its initial run?
MARC WOLF: No, I haven't. I thought about it and discussed it with my director, Joe Mantello, but my sense was that the play is of its time, even though it speaks to an issue that's incredibly immediate right now -- maybe even more immediate now. Because of 9/11 and the two wars, the military is much more visibly a part of our life right now than when I did it before. But I felt that the audience could watch it and see how far or how not far we've come since I interviewed the people in the piece.
TM: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been back in the news again a lot lately. How much of a factor did that play in the timing of this engagement?
MW: I was sort of itching to do it again. And when President Obama actually mentioned "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in his State of the Union address, I was really re-motivated to bring the stories back, especially when I saw people like John McCain and others who were bringing up all those nasty old stereotypes of gay people that they had brought up in 1993. The debate is still the same. The military has now sent out this 32-page questionnaire, and a lot of those questions are still like, "How would you feel about taking a shower with a gay person?" Why are they so obsessed about that? Those silly stereotypes keep being brought up, and I think this whole debate stereotypes the military as well, as a bunch of bigots who just can't handle being with gay people. And that's not true either.
TM: How optimistic are you that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be overturned in the near future?
MW: I would say there's movement towards it, and I'm cautiously optimistic. But remember how people were optimistic before? A lot of military personnel came out in the '90s, because they were sure it was going to be overturned. And then it wasn't, and they were kicked out. It's really hard to tell.
TM: What initially sparked your interest to do a show about this subject?
MW: I'd say it was just anger. I'm Jewish, and I learned as a kid in Hebrew school about Peter Bergson, who was a Palestinian Jew who lived in Jerusalem during World War II. He came to America to try and get the American Jewish community to be more vocal about what was happening to the European Jewry at the beginning of the war. But the American Jewish leadership didn't want to be too vocal or stir up anti-Semitism at home. Bergson was just furious at this complacency. I was in a play about him when I was younger, and that really affected me, and made me think about what silencing does to a community of people. I saw I was faced with the same issue in my own life, with my own gay community. My government was enforcing people from my community to be silent and that's so dangerous. It creates an environment where they can be abused, discriminated against, and killed. I felt the passion and the anger to unlock their voices.
TM: How did you build up enough trust to allow your subjects to share some very potent and potentially dangerous stories with you?
MW: Well, I did not do an e-mail blast saying "Hey, I'm looking for people." Because the military is really serious about this, and I was going up against a pretty major institution. My very close friends in New York knew I was doing this, and people from New York are from all over the country. So, one friend would say, "I grew up in Oklahoma, and one of my friends is dating this guy at the military base near where I used to live. Do you want to maybe interview them?" So they would call the friend, I would talk to the boyfriend who was in the military, and they would say, yes, we trust this chain [of connections]. I would fly out there or drive out there, and meet that person. My interviews were really more conversations, as I was sharing my own personal experiences, too. Then at the end of the interview, I would ask if there was anybody else who might want to talk with me. And, of course, they had created this network of people, so I would usually spend two, three, four days in one of these locations, interviewing two or three people a day through this little chain of meetings.
TM: Did anyone ever change their minds about your using their stories?
MW: There was an African-American man whom I had spoken with, and when he saw his interview he changed his mind and withdrew. It was a brilliant interview and he's an amazing, amazing man. And I was very sorry, but I understood. Even though I had changed his name, and certain details like the car he drove, he was so paranoid, because the military had really chased him down and pursued him into his civilian life where they informed civilian employers that he was gay and had been thrown out of the military. And that kind of risk is still so powerful in so many of the people that I interviewed.
TM: Can you talk about how you went about choosing whose viewpoints to include?
MW: I researched the issue and interviewed people about the policy even before collecting these stories. I knew there were some themes and debates that I had to cover, but I tried to do it through storytelling. I really try and present the point of view of people who are not bigots and don't think I'm going to go to Hell, but who really think it's best for the military for gay people to stay in the closet. And that challenges the audience to really explore the stories more openly. Then there's the whole idea of what it's like to live a lie, and a couple of my characters were thrown into military prisons, so, that's in there. I think there's a really interesting interview with a young kid in active duty who doesn't really care if gays are in the military or not, but wants to know why that is the focus of the media attention.
TM: Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the show is that there are some very funny and even campy moments, in addition to the more dramatic ones.
MW: Yeah, sometimes when I'm performing it, I actually do think, "Am I in a comedy?" When you take a look at it, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" sounds like a children's game, and there's something very bizarrely Catch-22 and farcical about the whole thing. It also breaks down the idea in our imaginations of what a gay person is and in our national imagination of what a military person is; bringing those two together is surprising. And in the specificity of what it's like to be in that life, funny things happen. You have to survive with a really strong skin and a pretty good sense of humor.