Stars of off-Broadway’s Straight discuss labels and the play’s powerful messages

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Thomas E. Sullivan, Jake Epstein, and Jenna Gavigan

What happens when an average guy who likes being an average guy discovers something within himself that he does not consider average? How does he choose between the life he has always known – a long-term girlfriend, a career in finance, sports and beer – and the life that is pent up inside of him?

Straight, written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola and directed by Andy Sandberg, is a new play off-Broadway at The Acorn Theatre that explores the dimensions of sexuality and what it means within a personal relationship and how the outside world changes its view of a person based on how they identify.

Jake Epstein (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) as Ben, Jenna Gavigan (Gypsyas Emily, and Thomas E. Sullivan as Chris, work together to discover the many layers of Ben’s story and expose the truth behind the labels.

This play is so incredibly open and vulnerable. How to do you keep yourself in that head-space as you prepare?

JG: You saw our last show of the week, so it’s there. It’s hard to make it go away.

JE: When you’re tired that vulnerability creeps in. That’s actually a really great question, how do you stay vulnerable?

TS: To give the stock answer I suppose, I know their histories a little bit, my training allows for a certain degree of fallback. So even if I’m not feeling up for it every single night, I have a solid foundation, I can always go back to what I was taught. And my technique makes it easier for me to find that extra reserve.

JE: For me, the truth is vulnerable. What’s real is vulnerable because there’s no shield in front of it, there’s no faking it, and it’s literally real. What’s funny about doing a 90-minute play with no intermission is as the thing goes on, you get tired.  There’s the element of reality to the story and relationships and characters, so there’s an element of reality that comes into play and that just leads itself to vulnerability without us trying to be vulnerable, it just creeps in there.

You all have amazing chemistry, and as a three-person show, you really have to. How did you bond? Was it instant bonding, did you do fun activities?

TS: Alcohol!

JG: We went to dinner right before we started rehearsal. They auditioned together, and I hadn’t met them, but we met for a sort of very casual table read with just the writers and the director, and then the next day we had a photo shoot where we were all laying on top of each other. So it was jumping in and we were friends.

TS: It was the second day we ever chatted to each other and we had to be groping each other on camera, so that was kind of trial by fire.

JE: I feel like rehearsing the play bonded us. Just going through what you have to do in the play is inherently bonding. You’re in each other’s space and literally swapping germs, you don’t have a choice other than bonding.

JG: Am I the asshole because I don’t think there’s an asshole? Is that how it works? I don’t think any of us are. You have to praise the casting for figuring this out, without having us all read together, that we would somehow mesh because it doesn’t always happen that way.

JE: Yeah, very true.

Do you have any fun backstage stories?

TS: I start to lose my mind about 20 minutes before the show. Once the house is open and the audience is filing in. That 30 minutes between house opening and curtain-

JG: He gets a little antsy.

TS: I just want to tear my skin off; I’m just so ready to roll. I’m like, ‘let’s do the thing!’ so that’s probably really irritating to these two.

JG: I have to actually clean up, and do my hair and put on a little makeup. But I also listen to Disney songs in my dressing room and act like a child.

Do you have a favorite album?

JG: I’ve been listening to Annie.

TS: We’re transitioning more into musicals.

JG: Yeah, musicals in general. That’s somehow what gets my emotions out.

JE: We had a phase of dance parties that have kind of subsided. I miss it a little bit.

JG: Yeah we were into dance parties for a while.  We should probably get back into that.

JE: It’s nice to dance with people that you’re gonna be intense with.

JG: The energy!

TS: The pre-show ritual has evolved since we opened.

JG:  Yeah, I think we let go a little bit.

JE: Also, we have this sign in sheet, and you’re supposed to sign your name to let people know you’re there. So we started having themes – I don’t know how it started but it has evolved. We’ll do a theme of the day and everyone has to sign in with that theme.

JG: Like, someone will write ‘chardonnay’, and then someone else will write ‘pinot grigio’, that sort of thing and someone will always veer far off.

JE: Inevitably someone will screw it up. Specifically our assistant stage manager, Greg Balla – give him a shoutout- screws it up every time! Actually, he’s wonderful. He covers both of the guy parts in the show.

TS: Not only is he the assistant stage manager, he also has to know both of our parts.

JG: He also gets up on ladders and changes lights.

TS: He’s also technically our master electrician.  

JE: He’s very capable. We love Greg.

When you first read the show, whom did you anticipate Ben ending up with?

JG: I’ll be perfectly honest; I didn’t have the full script when I auditioned. I just had two scenes and I had such little time that I didn’t even ask for the full script. So I didn’t read the full script until after I took the job. I don’t remember being surprised, I don’t know why. The audience doesn’t – from what we can tell – expect the ending.

 

Your audience has been so reactive, what is that like? Everyone knows that theatre affects its audience but this is going beyond that.

JE: It’s funny you should say that, because that happens a lot. A lot of people come up to me after the show, especially in the last few weeks, and specifically have said, ‘That was so personal to me. That was very similar to what I went through. It brought me back to that time when I was figuring that out.’ What is it like to hear that? It’s a testament to the writers. I think it is a really unique story that a lot of people can relate to or they know someone who has gone through that. It kind of saddens me to hear that. I always thank people for telling me that because I think it’s really brave of them to tell me. It’s really hard for people to admit who they are and love is really complicated. Sexuality is really complicated.

TS: You take on a lot of responsibility too when someone opens up to you in that way. You’re kind of honored that they would feel comfortable talking about it to you, and you kind of have to devote yourself to that person for five or ten minutes or however long they’re willing to speak to you about it because you cant help but be engaged with something that’s affected someone so personally, something that you just performed for them.

JG: It is nice though to be in a show that people keep talking about afterwards, they’re not like, ‘Okay, that’s done’ – it gets people talking. That side of it is very fulfilling.

Ben is obsessed with the label that he is trying to avoid. What were your ‘labels’ growing up? Either given by others or your own perception.

JG: I’ll say both super smiley and perky and also very prone to emotion. Like I’ll just burst into tears in a second. My aunt and I are both nicknamed ‘pissy eyes’ by our family.

TS: One of my baseball coaches called me a hugger.

JG: That’s nice!

TS: I think in school, I was a student athlete and then started acting and doing theatre and that was kind of hard because you get ripped by all your guys from the baseball team, but you also want to fit in with this other crowd. My story is that of High School Musical.

JE: My high school was turned on its head. The people who were in musicals were the popular kids. The ‘cool people’ and the jocks were not that cool. I wouldn’t have survived in a normal high school. I have always been a lot of things, probably why I wanted to be an actor. But I was sort of this burnout, but I was also an overachiever, I was obsessed with music- my life was music, but I was also quite academic, sort of popular, but also an outsider. I sort of wanted to have a foot in a lot of things, for good and bad reasons. Sort of like, I can play a lot of instruments, none of them very well.  So that would be the label… I am label-less.

JG: I have to add one. I have always, always – even as the youngest in a group of friends – been the mom. Always. And this one [Sullivan] calls me mom. I do happen to be older than both of them, but I can remember being in the sixth grade and everyone saying,  ‘You’re such a mom’, because I was always the one that was worried about doing something wrong and that everyone was okay.

TS: What’s your sign?

JG: Gemini. You wouldn’t think it, right?

TS: No. Now I need to be fucking wary of you!

JE: That’s a good health month to be born in, by the way. You have a good chance of being healthy if you’re a Gemini. There’s a whole study about this.

JG: Jake and I are always like ‘Oh this hurts and this hurts and this hurts.’ We read this article about how depending on the month your born in you’re predisposed to certain diseases based on what your mother was exposed to what she was pregnant. Like, October- not a good month to be born, because you’re early gestation would be in the winter so that’s when flu and all that stuff happens. Anyway, I’m not really a scientist.

Ben struggles with being gay, Chris struggles with his Catholicism, and Emily struggles with her education vs. her employment and with Ben’s lack of committing – what are the things that you’ve really had to come to terms with?

JG: Show business sucks. I mean just being in show business. Going, ‘Oh, this is the life I’m choosing and I love it enough to stick it out’, because it’s sucky a lot of the time.  That’s something I’ve struggled with in my life where I’ve thought, ‘Maybe something else would make me happier in general?’ And then I realize, ‘Nope. It won’t.’ And relationships, oh God yeah. I was in something for years that was stalled and didn’t go anywhere and finally one day I was just frustrated and gave up. So I can relate to her in that way, luckily I was a little younger than her so I had a little bit more time.

JE: I agree with Jenna, show business is a really tough business.  It’s a cliché to say that but there’s a big negotiation that goes with it the longer I’ve done it. You start negotiating how much you’re willing to do that you maybe don’t always want to do or maybe its not a dream of yours, but you realize it could ultimately help you get into the right place and there’s a whole business side of it that is difficult and as a kid you dream about this glorious life that you might have and it’s a grind. Overcoming it is tough.

JG: There aren’t many jobs where you interview for a living. Most people go to how many job interviews in their lifetime and we go to that many probably in a year. So when you’re actually employed is the time that you can have some consistency.

There is a stigma in the LGBTQ community about bisexual people and Ben is not once mentioned as being bisexual despite the fact that he loves and is sexually attracted to a man and a woman. Why do you think that is?

JE: The word bisexual is never mentioned in the play. You’d have to ask the writers that question because I know that was not an aspect of the story they wanted to tell. My understanding of it, whether or not the audience sees it that way, is that he loves Emily- that’s his best friend. He loves the life he could have with her; he wants to be with her, there’s no lie in that. In terms of his sexual preference on the Kinsey Scale, he is probably more attracted to men than women, but I think his dilemma is just that, the ‘so what?’ So he is attracted to men but he loves this person so much and doesn’t want to hurt this person. I don’t feel totally qualified to talk about it. Of course bisexuality exists and I also know there’s a big stigma in the LGBTQ community, but that’s also my understanding of the story that the writers wanted to tell.

TS: It’s never explicitly mentioned, the word or phrase ‘bisexual’ or ‘bisexuality’, but the whole play is littered for both of our characters with instances of sexual fluidity. It is talked about often, but it just isn’t named so explicitly, also in an attempt to escape from labels. I think there’s intent behind that.

Thomas, this is your off-Broadway debut. Is this what you anticipated?

TS: It’s been a friggin’ blast. I’ve had a great time doing it. I had no idea what I would expect but this is incredible. It’s a grind, it’s a lot of work, but it’s been an absolute pleasure. I would change nothing about this whole experience.

Jenna, we touched on this before. But you are playing a character whose career is really what defines her, ‘Scientist Barbie’. It’s a career that depends on so much- from her mice staying alive to there being actual jobs in her field. Do you relate to this as an actress in the unreliable world of show business?

JG: It’s funny because Jenna as an actress, financially, I probably could possibly get to a higher pay level than Emily ever could, which is so pathetic to say because she is doing one of the more important jobs on the planet. I’ve said this a lot and I am very lucky that I am in no debt from my college, but I have a lot of friends that are just drowning in student loans and my cousin is a schoolteacher and there is a cap on what she is going to make. She is a schoolteacher in New York City and she works her ass off and she can barely get by. And there are a lot of jobs like that and Emily is in one of those. I can relate to her in that sort of ‘how am I ever going to be an adult like my parents are?’ way. My parents owned a home when they were my age, they were married, they were on their way to having me, and it’s just not the same for our generation, especially living in New York. Real estate and all that are different in other places, but I can understand why she is latching on to her relationship as the constant in her life and the thing that she can rely on and the possibility of that going away is really scary because she has so much inconsistency in her work. I can remember points in my life where I’d say I just need consistency in one or the other. I don’t need to be greedy and have both; I just need either a consistent relationship or a consistent job. And I’ve sort of had both. And now I have both at the same time, which is really great. So I get it.

Jake, you spent a lot of years as Craig [in the TV series Degrassi]. And while Craig didn’t struggle with his sexuality, but he did struggle with a lot of things. In fact, a lot of your characters have had some pretty serious struggles. Did that help prepare you for this role?

JE: What do you mean? They’re all comedic, laugh out loud guys! I’m kidding. The reason that I like to do it is because I want to tell great stories and make people think, and entertain people- hopefully. I’ve always wanted to be part of something that has something to say, as a baby I wanted to be a Rabbi – isn’t that weird? I don’t think it’s that crazy that as I started acting I gravitated towards projects and roles that have a real, valuable message or arguments to the world that needs to be said. I haven’t specifically gone out looking for the most complex soul-crushing characters to play. When I was on Degrassi, when I played Craig, I didn’t write the script but they recognized that I could handle a lot of emotionally complex storylines so they threw a lot of that stuff at me. I think I’m also a relatively joyful person and I think it’s the right kind of person to play these kind of intense brooding parts because there’s a lot of light I bring to it naturally.

What is something that you’ve learned about both yourself and each other from this show?

JE:  Don’t eat ramen before a 90-minute play where you don’t get to go offstage.

JG: Whereas I’ve found if I eat eggs before a show, I have a lot of energy. What have I learned? They make me laugh, I’ll tell you that much.

JE: Have you ever done a yoga class before? You know how you keep going back and you keep doing the same series of things, literally the exact series every time and yet you kind of get something new out of it because of the people you’re around? That’s sort of like what this experience feels like, it’s been this extremely repetitive thing- any play is but the energy everyone brings in, I think its just been a great reminder of how to keep something monotonous alive and how to support each other. There are only three of us telling the story. I’ve never been a part of a play with so few people, so relying on each other and keeping that balloon up in the air, we all kind of help each other do that.  

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About Nicole N.

"Say yes. Show up afraid, show up prepared, but say yes." - Renee Elise Goldsberry

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