Playwright Tom Wright: For now, I applaud straight actors making space for LGBTQ+ talent
Actor Darren Criss, who won a Golden Globe for playing a gay character this month
in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, has vowed to no longer accept LGBTQ+ scripts because he doesn’t want to deprive gay actors of roles.
So is this the right thing to do? He has won awards and gained huge acclaim from playing gay characters, and that now means he has the luxury of choosing the roles he accepts. Yet, I feel the criticism he has received from some quarters is misplaced – he is trying to make a change for the better.
Another case was the backlash Disney faced after announcing its first openly gay character (hooray) but then casting the straight comic Jack Whitehall in the role.
For years, straight actors have received acclaim for playing gay characters, but the reverse has rarely been true. It’s frustrating to be pigeonholed, but imagine not being allowed to play yourself. LGBTQ+ artists are not getting the same opportunities or being celebrated in the same way. Representation matters and casting is the most visible chance for change.
At drama school, I was told to remove my earring and act ‘straight’ to get work. I went the other way: writing, directing and producing queer work. The things I’d been told to lose – my sexuality, working-class background, regional accent – made my plays come alive.
The question of whether gay roles should be played by gay actors is as relevant in theatre. Matthew Lopez, writer of The Inheritance, revealed the three lead gay characters were played by heterosexual actors. This is nuanced by the fact that several of the play’s key creatives are gay. Still, there are consequences to the piece being delivered through the lens of straight men.
Lopez says they were the best actors for the job. But why are the supposedly best people almost always straight? No one wants to land a role through tokenism, but LGBTQ+ actors can bring more to the table.
Queer people are used to playing it straight to fit in, while straight people have not necessarily encountered the queer experience. LGBTQ+ artists can offer an authentic, nuanced understanding of the human experience.
I have two plays opening with emerging gay, bi and trans actors, enriching the work as a result. But can we advertise for LGBTQ+ actors? Is it ethical to discuss an actor’s sexual and gender identity? Can bisexual actors play gay characters? Can non-binary actors play trans actors? Can someone identify as queer and not have had a gay experience?
The truth is: we need all of it. We need to explore all things from all perspectives. Until we achieve that, Criss ‘playing it gay’ feels like a loss. I do not think his stepping aside is an ideal, long-term solution. But for now, his words might create space for LGBTQ+ talent, bringing the conversation back to the forefront.
My Dad’s Gap Year runs at the Park Theatre, London from until February 23; Undetectable runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London from March 13-April 6
Tom Wright is a playwright and director
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