A Conversation with C. Michael Wright
by Marcella Kearns
“In some ways, I feel as though everything in my life has been leading up to this play.”
Throughout C. Michael Wright’s time as Producing Artistic Director, I’ve asked him what spurred him to include each play in the mainstage lineup. He selects his plays as carefully as jewels, after all, threading each together under a broader theme for each season. I’m always curious. Turns out GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM, the cap on MCT’s 2019-2020 season and his final artistic project as the head of the company, has a resonance for him beyond its placement.
Before we undertook a practice of social distancing, at our last in-person meeting in the office, Michael reflected on the shifts we would undoubtedly have to take to bring this story to the public. The eternal optimist, though grieving losses as all of us are these weeks, Michael modeled for me a radical acceptance. “‘Life is but a dream,’” he continued, and smiled.
What follows, gentle patrons, is a conversation he and I had back in early February about the play, his love for it, and dreams. Enjoy.
Michael and I are sitting at Miss Katie’s Diner. We’ve come here before to do artistic homework. Once we crossed paths when I was working on FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE; we’ve talked FIRES IN THE MIRROR and admin together; we’ve come for a breakfast after an early-morning television interview on Arts Avenue. Today, he’s the subject of our work. Over coffee and corned beef hash, I ask him the basics: Why is Martin Sherman’s play in the season? What does he love about it?
“Recognition,” he says promptly.
“Elaborate for me! Where are there points of recognition for you?”
If what touches us in a story is recognition of ourselves in others, GENTLY hits home for Michael in ways untold. He connects to the character he is slated to play in the production, a pianist and American expatriate living in London.
“It’s about Beau. But nothing specific about Beau’s history that I relate to,” he replies. “It’s the general sweep of growing up in a similar time frame, when it wasn’t easy to grow up being gay. You were forced to keep secret. You were bullied. There were so many things that Beau goes through that I can find parallels with.
“He traveled, I traveled, because of my artistic life; our experiences are very different but took us to many interesting exotic places. I love to sing, love music, love cabarets. I certainly did my share of going to clubs where Beau would have been playing. I have that history and that easy access. Very rich memory triggers.
“I certainly lived through the AIDS crisis,” he qualifies, digging deeper. “I’ve certainly dealt with crazy artist types. I’ve met and been courted by famous people. I have my own history of living in New York in the 70s and 80s and all the adventures I had as a young gay man. I also think the fact that Beau’s an artist, a musician, strikes a chord too—”
“—no pun intended—”
“—no pun intended!—because I feel like theatre has been my savior as a gay man. Has been my outlet to meet other gay people in a more comfortable setting. It was the same for Beau. And the fact that he has that one channel, that creative channel that keeps him going.”
Michael pauses. “I often feel like theatre saved my life,” he says finally. “And Beau never says it, but I think music saved his life. Because it gave him this hook, this identity. This outlet that helped him survive incredibly difficult times. It’s the struggle and the survival more than anything that I relate to.”
“Saved your life literally or allowed you to be able to live fully as who you are?”
“Saved my life literally.”
We sip our coffee. His words sit between us. So often the power of art is touted, and for so many reasons; but not so often is such a fundamental story told.
“You have quite a lot in common,” I say, after a time. He nods. I shift gears slowly. “May I ask about your early homework on developing Beau?”
“Sure!” As is his nature, Michael leaps to another subject with an energy that seems infinite.
“What are some strong choices or aspects of character you see to develop, before going into rehearsal? Will you be tapping in to that history?”
“I don’t tap into the history. I tap into the story. The emotional journeys. I think it’s really important that Beau not feel sorry for himself. He’s not a victim. He doesn’t play victim. But he has cut himself off because of all the pain he’s been subjected to. Low self-esteem is a big issue, not feeling worthy—because of growing up at a time when he was made to feel less-than. So it’s hard for him to feel, to understand that he is worthy of happiness, family, love.”
“So that’s a challenge that you foresee going into this process.”
“Yes. I definitely think one of the dangers is to fall into character as victim, and I don’t think it’s about that. He’s an emotionally scarred individual that’s still open to positive experiences but also surprised by them.”
I consider positive experiences—namely, the love Beau finds within the play. That leads me to asking Michael about his take on the experience of different generations within the story. GENTLY chronicles the struggles and triumphs of the gay rights movement from a personal viewpoint and through the histories of its characters—Beau, who’s seen very difficult times; Rufus, a younger London lawyer; and Harry, an even younger performance artist.
“I think it’s hard as an older gay man telling a story about different generations of gay men not to feel too terribly envious of the new generation!” Michael confesses. “How much easier it is for them! How much more acceptance there is in the world. Tolerance. Understanding. Empathy. But at the same time, I rejoice in knowing that it’s a better world for my young comrades.
“Which is also why I want to tell the story,” he says, spreading his arms wide. “I want to acknowledge the facts of historical truth while also celebrating the changing times.”
“‘Celebrating the Journey.’”
“Yes,” he smiles. At this point, the bill comes. He takes it and won’t let me pay. (Michael Wright!) “I felt like I had to go elsewhere to be who I am. But look. Look what I got to do. I was so fortunate. I’m so lucky.”
Michael says his goodbyes quickly. He has an errand—to buy Valentine’s Day candy for the Broadway Theatre Center box office staff. He’s long made it a tradition to bring them occasional treats. Surprises await.
Life is but a dream, I think, as I watch him drive away.
So. It’s over a month later. The world has been changing, and now the radical change has come to us here in Milwaukee. We won’t be able to be in a room together to share GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM, but we’ll hopefully catch it on the bit stream. For a boss and artist who’s made a career of connection, now telling a story about change over generations—what a gentle bridge Michael’s been for us between the past and the future.