Interview: Andrew Keates
We speak with director of Passing By, the latest gay-themed play to hit London
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What made you want to revive Passing by?
I was thirteen when I came out to my mother that I was gay...
On that terrifying night, I had been reading a play, which gave me the final push of confidence to come out and be true to my nature; the play was Bent by Martin Sherman. I still remember wondering who this man was, his name printed in bold on the front cover of my pyjama striped play text. Many years later I’d find myself graduating from my respective drama schools and deciding what was going to be my London directorial debut. Of course, it had to be Bent. To cut a long but vibrant story short, Martin and I met in person, he granted me the rights to do his play and it was a huge success. In many ways, Bent put me on the map and since that production we’ve become extremely close friends. Once again Bent had change my life. I always knew all of Martin’s works, however, there was one play that wasn’t in direct sunlight, hiding in the shadows in an out of date anthology of Gay Plays Vol 1. It was Passing By. I begged Martin to let me do it, however he thought it would just be unfashionable. After all, who would want to see a play about two happy homosexuals nowadays? I told him that was precisely why I thought it would be so groundbreaking. Finally we were in a climate where audiences could watch a gay couple could fall in love and their gayness wasn’t the pink elephant in the room.
How did you finally get it out of the shadows and on to the stage?
In 2012 Martin finally gave in and our production of Passing By played to sell-out audiences at the Finborough Theatre. The waiting list for tickets became ridiculous and I knew we had to bring the show to a bigger theatre for a longer run. I spent the next couple of months applying for Arts Council England funding, private investment and set about bring the Passing By team back together. All came back successfully and finally the show is back, with two new wonderful actors, additional creative team members and a truly dynamic production. I feel very proud that my career, and even my life, started with Martin’s most famous play and now it goes on with his least known. Finally, I can give something back to him. Thank God for being gay.
Do you think its setting on NYC in 1972 will still have resonance with London in 2013?
Absolutely. Cities are pretty suffocating places to be and there’s no greater antidote to a hectic metropolitan lifestyle than a simple duvet day with someone special. The play is set in 1972; a time of liberty, play, love and even childishness. There is a beautiful innocence about both characters that warms our now modern, fearful audiences. The vibrancy of falling in love in a chaotic environment should be a very familiar ideal for Londoners, regardless of age, or indeed, sexuality.
Simon Callow described Passing By as "utterly radical". Do you agree with this and why?
For Simon, who played Toby in the very original Gay Sweatshop production, the play changed his life, as he writes very effusively about in his autobiography. The reason was because it's a play where being gay is not an issue. The characters are not written stereotypically to serve a crass comedy, whilst not written as victims to serve a political drama. Passing By is a love story that happens to be between two men. It is neither self-serving nor self-loathing. In many ways, it is the most radical gay play ever written, because it’s written for a time where audiences simply don’t care about what sexuality they are, only that those two human beings are reaching out to one another and falling in love. No obstacles or major historical contexts to pull in audiences; just a simple relationship. I think that’s totally radical.
Why do you think shows such as this in smaller venues are so important to London's Theatre landscape in the UK?
I’ve got to be careful being quoted in Gay Times for saying that size doesn’t matter, however, I’ve only ever sought out and accepted projects where telling a great story is the primary objective. Sadly the majority of large theatres in this country have commercial audiences to cater too, and what’s wrong with that, but it’s the smaller theatres that cater for those that take the risks of doing something new, something lost or something unique. They’re powerhouses. They’re also the venues where encouraging the next generation of theatremakers is a priority. It’s a small but perfectly formed world to live in and one I’m proud to be a part of.
What are your hopes for this revival?
Quite a few! Firstly, I chose the Tristan Bates Theatre as it’s in the heart of London’s West End, which has an enormous and diverse gay community. What’s been such a joy is how much the play resonates with young people. I hope by bringing Passing By to the TBT I can give London’s gay community something they’ve never seen before; their own lives on stage. Secondly, as much as I’ve just said how I want the gay community of London to cherish this little show, the most rewarding feedback has been from heterosexuals saying that they had forgotten about the two characters sexualities and instead just went on a journey with two characters falling in love. For me, that’s got to be a testament to how far we’ve come thanks to prejudice. Lastly, I don’t want this to be the end of Passing By. I’m very keen to seek out other theatres who might want to house this charming, honest, little love story. It’s one thing to do it in London, it would be quite another to take it to other parts of the UK.
Passing by is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London until Sat 30 Nov. For more information and to get tickets, visit the Tristan Bates Theatre Website.
Words: Lee Dalloway (@Leeroydalvin)