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3 November 2015 – Out in South London – LGBT Magazine Show
<<Ok so next we’ve got a segment here where Alex Goldberg speaks to Oliver Johnstone, who plays Drew, the editor of student newspaper, in Christopher Shinn’s play Teddy Ferrara. This story tells of campus politics and loneliness and is based on the Tyler Clementi case. Clementi was an eighteen year old American student who committed suicide. Oliver gives us the background to the real events.
Oliver: I hadn’t heard about Tyler until I read the play and then I found this New Yorker article, which was really, really amazing actually at just illuminating the whole case ‘cause it was a while after it happened, so fundamentally what happened was that Tyler Clementi had just joined Rutgers University in New Jersey. The summer before starting, he’d come out to his parents and then in his first year – at American universities which I didn’t know, actually – you share with a dorm mate for your … It’s amazing that you can’t even choose – you have no say in it, it’s really Russian roulette and you’re in one of the most vulnerable times of your life and then to be thrown in with someone you don’t know who – you don’t know whether they’re going to judge you for who you are or – it’s tough and Tyler certainly found it tough and so what happened was, he asked his roommate to have the room – he wanted to go on a date with a guy that he’d met online and unbeknownst to him, Dharun Ravi the roommate had put his webcam on his computer, pointed it at Tyler’s bed and then essentially – live streamed him with his friend down the corridor in his friend’s room, called Molly Way, and they live streamed Tyler and posted a link online to it and he said things like “Can’t believe this is happening in my dorm room” like: “Look at my weird dorm mate” like all this kind of thing, I think it was-
Alex: This is sort of surprising because I think Rutgers is a pretty liberal-
Alex: open minded, New Jersey’s, a pretty open
Oliver: Yeah, from the research we’ve done it seems that way, I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like an overly kind of hostile atmosphere. It’s progressive, it’s liberal and it’s a university on the East Coast, so you wouldn’t expect something like that necessarily to happen. Although I think, to be honest, one of the reasons the play works, it’s because things like – you never know when something like that’s going to happen, you know that can happen anywhere.
Alex: What can you tell us about Chris?
Oliver: Chris Shinn?
Alex: Yeah! What do we know about the playwright?
Oliver: First and foremost, he’s brilliant and I really like his writing. All I’d say is that a lot of what happens in this play comes from Chris’s real life, it’s deeply personal to him. And as a result we had to be kind of gentle with it in rehearsals, if you see what I mean, because, it’s – you know, it’s so much a part of him. He told me once that all of the characters have an element of him in them and some of the events that happen in the play – not Teddy related – for example – some of the things that happen between Gabe and Drew come from his real life relationships.
Alex: Interesting! Is there anybody in your life or a celebrity or someone that you got a bit of inspiration for this newspaper editor?
Oliver: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I guess when we started out I had this idea that he was kind of obsessed with Truman Capote, as a sort of stand out gay writer and a real kind of force to be reckoned with. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily continued throughout. He wants everyone to want him, he also wants – when he publishes an article in the play, that reveals that a former – Basically what happens is, the year before Teddy arrives, a student called Kevin Gilman who was the kind of really popular on Campus – I wouldn’t say Jock – but he was just like – everybody really liked him and he was…well, Drew believes he was a closeted gay and Drew says that he had a relationship with him and then he uses that relationship in the following year, which is when the play takes place, he publishes a story saying Kevin Gilman was actually gay and “I know because I had a relationship” with him even though he keeps it anonymous. So when that article comes out he desperately, desperately, wants it to make a big, big impact, the ambition in him is going, you know, this is huge, I want my iphone to be ringing with reporters in local news.
Alex: Your character talks about “We want the national press on this, we want the state press” so there one could argue really should you be outing this dead guy for your career? That’s the moral question, isn’t it, for Drew?
Oliver: I guess so, yeah, and it’s highlighted later on in the play when someone kind of calls him out about it. My feeling is that he didn’t necessarily – he doesn’t see it as exposing, he sees it as something else, until it’s said to him and maybe there is maybe he does harbour a little bit of guilt. I think the way Drew works is that he kind of outweighs it with something that’s more important for him. You know, it’s more important for him, therefore it’s the most important thing that needed to be done.
Alex: So a couple of other issues playing underneath. You’ve got another, maybe, closeted gay character who is best friends with your boyfriend within the play. So tell us about that character.
Oliver: So Tim is Gabe’s best friend, they’ve been best friends since his Freshman year, and Tim has a girlfriend called Jenny. Drew’s just really paranoid that Tim is in love with Gabe because Gabe is constantly talking about Tim and constantly getting texts from him and Drew is convinced that Tim is actually a closeted gay as well and he kind of winds Gabe up about it, then… I won’t ruin it, but something happens in…
Alex: Yeah, no Act II spoilers! This obviously is an issue in the States, that we hear about all the time, It Gets Better Campaign. I don’t know if you’ve heard about that?
Oliver: Yeah I’ve heard about it.
Alex: yeah from Dan Savage. How does it play to UK audiences and is this as big a problem? Gay bullying on campus at university here?
Oliver: I know friends have gone through bullying in quite a big way. In terms of my background, the gay friends that I have, that are similar backgrounds. It was ok, I mean, it existed on a level, but not in a way, as fervent as it can get, you know, and I think…There’s a point to be made in the play that thinking about suicide is a universal thing whether you’re gay or straight, but it certainly – the figures suggest that being gay you’ve a higher percentage of young people think about it.
Alex: There’s a lot of references to the gay cruising culture in this play? Was that completely new to you? Had you even heard about – toilet shenanigans and –
Oliver: Yeah, well it’s funny ‘cause my character is quite – Drew is quite anti-gay funnily enough. Dominic the director suggested to me that he suffers from a form of internalized homophobia and I think that’s right and so as a result he doesn’t go to gay bars, he doesn’t –
Alex: He won’t go to this dance that the boyfriend really wants to go to
Oliver: Yeah and he says that he believes that the Queer Students Group is too segregating and in terms of the toilet stuff I think-
Alex: Do you think that’s harmful for the gay community? ‘Cause there’s a few judgements on that within the play. The characters have differing views on – if that’s ok, that gays can sort of run around, and have public sex and some think ‘Mmm, in order to be equal we need to act like straight people and sort of…have sex in a bed’.
Oliver: I think it’s good that the play shows it, because it’s trying to show a broad, honest spectrum of gay life on campus, or queer life on campus. I had my questions as to why the characters in the play do do it, when they don’t have to? I mean, do you have an opinion as to why you think that Gabe goes and does that?
Alex: I think it’s just from history. I think it’s the fact that the majority of history, gay men have had to run around and find each other, not in traditional places and maybe we have a little bit more work to do, especially if kids are still killing themselves.
Oliver: Yeah, absolutely!
Alex: What’s the response been to the play?
Oliver: I’ve never been involved in something where the audience response has been so vast. Some people really don’t go for it.
Alex: Is that, like, subscribers of the Donmar who go to see everything and weren’t really expecting this subject matter, maybe?
Oliver: Yeah, I guess so, it’s a challenging play for everyone, really. But I guess some of the patrons of the Donmar have a slightly more traditional outlook on life and – I know that’s not a great answer to give! What I can say is that the younger audiences have really got on board with it. We’ve had people coming up to us after the show saying “Thank you so much because you’re representing a people that is not often represented on stage in such a high profile way.”
Alex: And some of you have open workshops. They offer a practical insight into the work. Are you involved at all in those?
Oliver: I will be, I haven’t been yet, but I will be in the ones coming up. There’s a group of young people and you go and talk to them about the play. They have questions about acting, they have questions about the play, they have questions about theatre in general. And you just go and talk it through with them and hopefully inspire them to kind of go out and create their own theatre.
Alex: (says information on Teddy Ferrara)
Alex: Thanks for chatting with me today.
Oliver: No worries. Thanks very much Alex.>>