Q&A: Drew Fornarola and Scott Elmegreen, “Straight” Playwrights

Was there an incident that prompted writing “Straight”? Or how did you develop the central message of “Straight”?

Drew Fornarola: “Straight” originated where I believe most theater should begin—with an idea for a compelling story about unique characters. If you begin with a political agenda or a “central message,” then you wind up with more of a propaganda piece than a drama—and I think the audience can tell and distrusts you. We started with an idea for a story about three people. As it developed, issues came bubbling to the surface: fidelity, relationship dynamics, sexuality, etc.

Scott Elmegreen: We actually began with the ending—that was the spark that inspired us and ignited the rest of the show. From there we worked backwards, trying to explore honestly and empathetically the circumstances that precipitate the kind of big life decisions we see our characters make over the course of the play.

Was the response to the play surprising? What has pleased you most about the reaction to “Straight,” from both audiences, critics and family/friends?

Scott: The most gratifying thing about the response, for me, is the number of critics and audience members who have written and said that the play “gets it right”—even when the actions of our characters might surprise or upset them.

Drew: I love watching audiences watch this play. Most rewarding to me have been emails and social media posts, especially from young people, saying that they recognize themselves in these characters. A 14-year-old boy wrote me a beautiful email about what the play meant to him.

Scott: Way too many people have said to us that they’ve seen the situations of “Straight” played out in their own lives, and that they’re just so relieved to get confirmation that the conflicts of the show are more universal than everyday conversation might lead one to believe. The advantage of theater is that it allows us to peek behind the curtain of private lives, and to explore truthfully the things that are either too taboo or too difficult to talk about in everyday life.

Drew: I’ve heard from several students who’ve studied the play in college courses since its publication last year. When people say the play helped them better understand themselves or someone else, that’s extremely special.

Did you anticipate “Straight” would have such a strong life after its off-Broadway premiere?

Scott: It was always our hope that “Straight” would be seen and would facilitate meaningful conversations in a variety of cultures and contexts; it was written to be approachable across a spectrum of perspectives.

Drew: The play is relatively simple to produce—all you really need is three great actors and a couch. And we thought the subject matter would be timely and interesting. But it is one thing to plan and quite another when it actually happens, and we’ve enjoyed packing our bags and seeing some of these new productions firsthand.

Scott: It is amazing to see the play resonate with people across the country and around the world.

Drew: One very pleasant surprise has been the international interest. Translated productions in Spanish (Mexico City) and German (Vienna, Hamburg) are planned this year, along with an English presentation in Sweden. Hebrew and French translations are also in the works.

Utah is highly conservative, and Salt Lake City has the national headquarters of the Mormon Church that does not condone gay marriage. Yet the church teaches that families are vitally important. Aren’t there major additional burdens placed on gay adults in loving relationships who want to marry and begin a family?

Drew: Extraordinary strides have been made toward LGBT equality. Just 12 years ago, gay marriage was not legal in any state. Now it is recognized on the federal level as a fundamental right—really incredible. So we should celebrate the progress made, but also recognize that there is so much more work to be done. Not just for gay people, but also for people of color, the disabled, women, the poor… The ability of theater to help encourage and facilitate the kinds of conversations needed around these issues is one of the main reasons we love this medium.

Scott: The central conflict of “Straight” is that all three characters are not being honest with themselves or with each other about what they really want and need out of their relationships and out of their lives. Whether that pressure is internal or external, I think writing and seeing this show has really driven home, for me, the extent to which living with pretense is toxic—both on an individual level and on a societal one.

What message is the Mormon Church sending youths who are struggling with their sexual orientation and obedience to the church’s teaching of complete celibacy unless in a straight marriage?

Scott: You’d have to ask the youths of the church about that! I have not had any personal experience with the Mormon Church. My own bias is simply that people and societies are healthiest when they attempt in good faith to be clear-eyed about human behavior—to accept it and to work with it constructively instead of trying to shape it by force. The purpose of art, in my view, is to broaden the horizon of our collective empathy, and in that vein, I hope that plays like “Straight” allow audiences from all perspectives to better understand and accept each other—particularly on issues where people might disagree.

Drew: As a Catholic, I’ve observed that sometimes the opinions of the majority of a congregation’s members are not always reflected in the official position of the church, and that while churches do evolve on issues, they sometimes move more slowly and deliberately than the individuals who comprise them. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a similar dynamic might be at play in the LDS Church. I hope our play can encourage constructive dialogue on these challenging topics, and I really appreciate the opportunity to have this piece presented in Salt Lake City.

What would you like to add to this interview?

Scott: Thank you so much to Utah Rep and the Sorenson Unity Center for presenting our play, and thank you to the audience for your support of new, live theater. We hope you enjoy it, and we’re honored to be a part of Utah Rep’s season!