Tonight marks the debut not only of a new queer theatrical production, but of a new queer playwright and director, Robert Roth. The play is called “When there were Angels”, Robert’s semi-autobiographical account of fleeing his emotionally abusive and homophobic family to find self-acceptance, adventure, and love–and it comes to us at a time when the need for new queer arts has been so deeply underscored.
“Watching dress rehearsal last night gave me chills,” Robert tells us, “realizing how suddenly relevant the play is now”.
“Being queer, and being in a relationship with someone of the same sex, was still mostly illegal back then”, Robert explains about the show, set in the early 90s. “The gay community was still suffering from the decimation of the AIDS epidemic, largely brought about by 12 years of a Republican government. You could lose your job, or your housing, or be denied any number of services for being queer, and that was perfectly legal. The man I was in love with risked his safety and livelihood just by being with me. Being queer was a subversive act.”
And in light of recent events, it’s clear that it still is.
“I can’t help but be reminded of that today with all of the pain, sorrow, and anger that I and my friends and loved ones are all feeling right now,” Robert says about premiering his new labor of love in this politically-charged moment of increasing divisiveness and hate. “But I also can’t think of a better way to say “fuck you” to the people who would have us be silent, who would have us disappear, then to have an amazing group of queer folks, most of whom are people of color, put on a play about gay love in a building with a neon sign that proudly has the word gay on it.”
“It’s been an amazing challenge”, Mr. Roth says about debuting as both playwright and director. “I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’ve produced quite a few events, but there are definitely a lot of nuances to directing a play that you’ll only encounter once you try it,” he explains. “I’m working with a great cast. They share a broad range of talents and quirks that have made this experience really special.”
“When there were Angels” follows the adventures of Jack, a character based upon Robert himself, as he leaves his conservative Christian family behind and hitchhikes to early 90s San Francisco, where he finds himself at a famous old hostel full of eccentric and transformative characters–including his first bonafide boyfriend. “I’m generally a pretty open person,” Robert explains, “and my friends have heard me talk about this part of my life. It makes me feel pretty vulnerable, though, to have some of the most important and impactful events of my early adulthood played out onstage in front of me.”
And how does it feel having an actor portray him in one of the most formative times of his life?
“The main character, Jack, isn’t really me, of course. He shares some similar qualities with the person I was 20 years ago, and he experiences some of the things I went through back then. If anything, he’s who I was back then written through the lens of what I know now. But Jack, the character, is his own person, too. In some ways, he’s very different from me,” Robert says.
“When I asked Collin (Fitzgerald) to read for the play, it was originally for the role of Derek. Once he read for me, though, I knew right away that he was perfect for Jack. Although he’s a newcomer to the stage, he has a natural gift for acting and an incredible versatility for displaying emotion. That’s important, because you see a lot of Jack in this play. I really enjoy working with him, and have every confidence that he was the right choice for this role.”
I asked Mr. Roth what the title, “When there were Angels” means.
“This was a period in my life where a lot of the people I met and became friends with turned out to be exactly the right people for me to meet at the time. In that sense, they could be described as sort of guardian angels, you know? Not that they were all looking out for me. The lessons they taught me, though, were beneficial and important and have stayed with me to this day.”
“I think those experiences are common for all of us at different points in our lives, too, even if we don’t recognize them until after the fact.”
In the play, Jack falls in love for the first time–with an enlisted army man with a wife.
“He obviously wasn’t straight,” says Robert of his real life experience the story is based on, “at least not completely. Our relationship gave me a valuable opportunity to learn more about the spectrum of sexuality that people sit on; bisexuality, pansexuality, and such. What it came down to was that he very much wanted to love, and to be loved. The mechanics of it weren’t that important.”
Drugs are also a central theme to the play, and a central theme to Mr. Roth’s life at the time.
“My relationship with substance use has been pretty rocky throughout my life,” Robert confesses. “It’s important for me to be real about that. But it’s also important to be real about how that impact wasn’t all negative either. Positive or negative, though, drugs like LSD were a big part of my life back then, and they were certainly a big part of this story, which is why you see things like an acid trip depicted onstage. Honestly, that was a really fun scene to put together.”
“I wrote the story with an audience in mind, of course, and hope that everyone who comes to see it will be able to relate to the experiences they’ve witnessed in their own way,” Robert says. “The themes I wrote about are fairly universal; love, loss, and discovering who you are through challenge and adversity.”