“Coming out is not a singular event,” explained playwright Nicolas J. Clarey. “There is the anticipation, the lead up, the planning, and all of the angst that leads up to it. Then there’s the event itself and the aftermath. The aftermath is something that sticks with us for the rest of our lives. It is something that we will constantly be doing forever. We will never stop coming out in one way or another.”
About two years ago, Clarey shared a meme on Facebook about how those in the LGBTQ+ community don’t get an actual adolescence because they spend most of their time hiding who they really are. The meme hit a friend hard who reached out to him. Throughout their conversation, his friend said, “Someday I should just sit down and tell somebody my story… if they’d even listen.”
Clarey was not only listening, he was inspired.
“It’s not a topic that’s really discussed at length even in scripts for theatre,” said Clarey. “So, I thought this is a great opportunity for us to let people share their vulnerability and tell their story.”
The result became “This Is Our Story: A Coming Out Anthology,” which is being presented as a Pride Month offering by interACT Theatre Productions and Pleasant Valley Productions. The show was presented at the OSPAC Outdoor Theater June 17 & 19 and moves to the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts in Maplewood for three performances on June 25-26.
“This is Our Story” examines and celebrates the experiences of LGBTQ+ people of diverse backgrounds before, during, and after coming out. Through the lens of real stories submitted, Clarey and fellow playwright Tommy Jamerson have crafted a series of vignettes, told through monologues, scenes, and poems to bring these stories, struggles, celebrations, and triumphs on to the stage.
The act of coming out isn’t limited to just facing one’s parents, and the production includes representations of coming out to friends, classmates, grandparents, co-workers, and even to one’s own children. The goal was to incorporate a variety of voices and diversity.
In the end, they received more than 100 submissions to choose from and wound up with a cast of 19 actors to help bring the stories to life.
The large cast includes Jennifer Bobbi, Lauran Byrne, Arnold Buchiane, Ronnie D Carney, Lucien Edme, Hannah Harding, Maximillian Johnsson, Doreen Jones, Vikrant Lal, Margaret Leone, Pierce V. Lo, Kirsten Macaldo, Brielle McArdle, Janet Painter, Caitlyn Roper, Michael Schulz, Kayla Stewart, and Danny Viola.
Clarey noted that one common theme among the stories was the anticipation people had before coming out. “The plans that people make and all of the things leading up to the actual event of coming out and how they almost never go as we expect them to go - whether that’s good or bad didn’t matter,” he said.
Thankfully, there were quite a few stories in which the coming out experience wound up going much better than expected.
“It was a good mix of stories that ended on a positive note and ended on a negative note,” said Clarey. “It was a good representation, I thought. It just seemed like the common theme was that everybody had a plan of how it would go, and it just never went the way it was expected to go.”
Jamerson was involved from the minute Clarey first pitched the idea of the project. The two would read the stories and decide to try dramatizing one if the story spoke to them personally. Additional stories that they thought should be included were split between the two. Each playwright would write their own ideas for the stories and then brought back to be read together where notes and edits were made. Eventually, the stories were part of a table session where they would discuss which scenes worked and didn’t work for the show. The final piece was inviting actor friends to read the scenes before making the final call on which stories would make the show.
“We learned a lot about the differences LGBTQ+ people face within different demographics,” said Clarey. “Even though we have all these similarities and we all go through a lot of the same struggles, the uniqueness of each situation might depend upon your household, your neighborhood, or your culture. It really was eye-opening to hear all of these stories.”
Coming out may seem like an accepted practice these days, but it remains one of the most difficult things to do. It’s still taboo to come out in many cultures and occupations. On June 21, 2021, Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders became the first active professional football player to come out publicly. This was not just rare for football, but for all professional sports - many of which have members of the LGBTQ+ community who are worried about how coming out may affect their careers or their relationships with teammates.
Many in the audience will see or hear a story that resembles their own or that of a friend or family member. Clarey knows that audience members will be in different situations in their own lives, but he wants everyone to know that the aftermath is among the most difficult parts of coming out.
“I hope it may shed light on what people’s reactions to coming out can cause,” explained Clarey. “How support versus judgement can really alter someone’s trajectory in life and that tolerance is not acceptance.”
“The other important takeaway is that if someone in the audience is struggling themselves, I want them to know they are not alone,” continued Clarey. “These stories are everywhere and everyone has one of them. Even if just one of the stories in our show sparks one good thought in someone’s head who is struggling than I feel that we’ve done our job.”
One hour before each show will be a special business and resource fair promoting LGBTQ-owned businesses. interACT wants people to know that there are LGBTQ-owned businesses in the area that people may not have known existed or knew were owned by people in the community. These businesses get the opportunity to field questions by people as they walk in and let the audience members know about the resources they offer.
In addition, all profits from ticket sales and donations will benefit the LGBT RAIN Foundation of Essex County. Their mission is to help young adults (between the ages of 18-26) by providing emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing services to address the need of LGBTQ individuals experiencing crisis leading to homelessness.
“They do amazing work,” said Clarey. “They help displaced LGBTQ youths who were kicked out of their homes, get them set up with skills, and try to give them a good path in life.”
Clarey serves as Artistic Director for interACT Theatre Productions. He says the company tries to be a different kind of community theatre - one that is fully accessible and inclusive. While some theatres tend to have the same 10 people involved in each show, interACT tries to get new people involved whether they are novices or theatre veterans.
“There’s no room for egos or star vehicles in our productions,” explained Clarey. “We believe it should be for a love of theatre, not love of self. We want everyone to feel that they are part of a family the minute they walk in the door.”
“This Is Our Story: A Coming Out Anthology” will be presented at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ, on June 25 at 8:00 p.m. and June 26 at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. The production contains mature content and adult language. The show takes place indoors with reserved seating; masks are required. Tickets are available for purchase online.
Photos by Paula Roper