An Interview with Unnatural Acts director and co-author Tony Speciale

What made you want to bring this story to the stage?

As a gay man, learning of this story, I think I felt very fortunate. I was raised in Kentucky in a conservative environment. However, in high school I found a way to survive within that system, and actually connected with like-minded people who were discovering their sexuality at the same time. I feel like I was able to bypass a lot of discrimination that many of my friends, and certainly my older friends from generations just prior, had experienced. So, I think I had a healthy teenage and college life—I felt pretty open. And what struck me about the Secret Court story was that, in contrast to my own experience, here was a group of young men in 1920 who were ahead of their time, and despite the fact that they had found each other, and found a way of communicating—sharing their ideas, their desires and passions with each other—they couldn’t survive, and the system destroyed them. This touched me deeply and emotionally. Thinking about how lucky I have been to live in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries and how wrong the timing was for these young men, I wanted to give tribute and memorial to them, because I recognized similarities in my own friends and in myself. I often wondered how I would have reacted and what I would have done if confronted with the same circumstances.

How close are the 11 men we meet on the stage of CSC to the men that are in the trial transcripts? And how did you go about imagining their lives beyond the transcripts, evidence and correspondence?

Although there are over 500 pages of documents, to call them “transcripts” is inaccurate, because they are often shorthand and sparse notations of the interrogations. Correspondence included from students or their families to the deans were written after the fact. The records of the trials themselves are somewhat cryptic. So when you try to create characters from those records, you look at their life: what you know of their lives during their time at Harvard, and then their journeys after their school experience, or how their lives end. And most of these endings were tragic. But for instance, we see that one of the men who most likely was not a homosexual, was found guilty by close association with the others, and he was expelled and readmitted a year later to finish his degree. He was on the debate team and a student representative while at Harvard, and eventually went on to become a prominent federal judge. So you start to piece together a trajectory for him based on what you know, and you can see he was very interested in politics and law, and as an artist you can imagine that perhaps this event radically altered his perception of justice.

The eleven men appearing on the stage of CSC are an imaginative representation of what we know of the eleven men we read about in the transcripts. And of course this play was written collaboratively with a group of writers who are also actors so they bring their own personalities and their own desires and drives—all of that imagination mingles together in a beautiful way.

Can you talk about the way you and the Plastic Theatre developed this play?

This play had several phases. The first was research. We, individually and together as a group, did an enormous amount of research about the time period of the teens and twenties—from culture trends, meaning the music they listened to, the dance styles they had, silent films that were just being created—to what was occurring locally in Boston and nationally with the Spanish Flu epidemic and Prohibition, for instance—to the global crisis of The Great War, what we now call WWI. We looked at life at Harvard under then President A. Lawrence Lowell and the focus of his administration. And then we researched what it may have been like to be a homosexual at that time, but actually people weren’t identified as such, it was considered a disease. And of course we had the actual archival documents, that are fragments and sometimes barely legible, so it took hours, weeks and sometimes months to crack a phrase or sentence that would give us clues about a character or event. Even now there are still discrepancies and missing pieces of the puzzle that we will never know. And from all of this, we began to create a world for the play, a pool of knowledge that became shared information in the group.

The next phase was a process of daily improvisations and exercises that were built on creating an ensemble, a group of men, a society. And we applied that research and those fragments we knew about the characters on our feet, while improvising certain events and situations that we discussed previously or that I would suggest to the group. And a structure slowly started to emerge that the writer-actors would inhabit. Sometimes we recorded the work and reviewed it later, or transcribed it. Then we’d read it and compress it, and return to improvisations again, generating more and more material.

Next we went into a process of rewriting, editing and further distilling the play, and after a year we then pared down to a smaller writing group within the Plastic Theatre—myself, playwright Nick Norman, dramaturg Heather Denyer, and three actors who are in the cast, Jess Burkle, Joe Curnutte and Jerry Marsini. Over the course of several months we refined the structure, dialog and events of the script to sculpt the play that appears on CSC’s stage.

Beyond recovering voices that have been silenced, which, in and of itself, is an important reason to encounter this play, what else do you hope an audience will take away?

UNNATURAL ACTS represents an examination of a specific group of people at a very specific moment in our country’s history, who struggled under severe circumstances. And what I find beautiful about this story is that it contains a lot of life and love and sensuality and intelligence. It’s a story about brotherhood. And I think anyone can relate to having a close-knit group of friends. The play is as much about life as it is about death, but death is also a very important character. Death brings things into perspective. My hope is that anyone who comes to see the play, and I think everyone will find at least a character to whom he or she relates, will be moved by the characters’ vibrancy. And I hope that the events of the play—which are horrifying—will bring attention to the hate and intolerance that is still very much a part of the experience of many gay, lesbian, questioning youths any minority really—who are searching for a way to live a genuine life. And hopefully the play will help us all find a more open and tolerant future.