First of all, an apology: My condensed interview with Haley White, who plays the leading role in The New Ensemble Theater Group’s production of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” ran a whole week ago in the April 19 issue of 7, and this extended interview was supposed to run the same day. Oops. But the good news is there are still more chances to see the show, which runs through May 4 at the Broken Leg Stage.
Here’s the extended interview:
Question: For those who aren’t familiar with the play, can you give a brief description?
Answer: At the height of his career, just as his plays “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband” were hits on London stages, Oscar Wilde was tried by the British Crown for “gross indecency with male persons” and as a result he exposed the hypocrisy of Victorian society- far more dangerously than his plays ever did. Written by Moises Kaufman in a similar style to “The Laramie Project,” a group of actors take on many different roles to explore the story from the outside-in, using court transcripts, newspaper and eyewitness accounts from the 1890′s to tell the story. As a result, the play has a documentary style to it, with a lot of emotional punch.
You’ve done lots of research on Oscar Wilde. Does anything you’ve learned clash with the way he’s presented in the script? If so, how did you reconcile that?
Because the script is based on actual quotes, transcripts and literary excerpts, I am finding it stays pretty true to the information I am learning about Wilde in my research. In the play, he is presented as a wonderfully complex character- a flawed human being full of charm and wit as well as arrogance, insecurity and regret. Everything I am learning about him in addition to the play just expands on all of that. I am entirely enchanted by him. He is such an amusing subject to study, and I find it so heart-breaking that the world will never know what other brilliant books and plays he might have written had he not been put through these trials.
Are you aware of any other productions that have cast Oscar Wilde with a woman?
I know of several productions that have used women in the ensemble but I have not heard of any other woman playing Oscar. I don’t know if that’s because there aren’t any other directors out there as foolish brave as Heather Parish or any female actors as delusional ambitious as myself.
Parish cast Hamlet as a woman last year, and she emphasized that in that case, she had a woman playing Hamlet as a woman, not as a man. Are you playing Oscar Wilde as a woman? Or are you, as a woman, playing Oscar Wilde as a man?
The script very nicely sets up that I am playing an actor who also happens to be playing Oscar Wilde. We are not necessarily asking the audience to believe outright that I am male. We are simply asking them to believe that, in the scope of the majority of the play, I am Oscar Wilde. That’s not too much to ask of an audience, right?
The short answer to that question is yes; I am playing the role as a man.
How do you think gender-bending casting affects this story?
I hope not too much, to tell you the truth. I know I am not a man, but I am also not Victorian or British. I am also not a genius. I am an actor playing a part to the best of my ability and in many ways I personally identify with Oscar more so than I do with female characters I have played in the past (Annelle from “Steel Magnolias,” for instance, is nothing like me). Heather and I have talked extensively about whether people would be more comfortable seeing a straight male or an ethnic male than a woman in the role and if so, why? We had two straight males portraying a homosexual relationship in our production of “Baptized to the Bone.” Why is that switch in orientation acceptable but a switch in gender isn’t? Is it because gender is somehow more important than orientation in our values, our identity, and our artistic portrayals- historical or otherwise? Is it because we place far more value on gender—especially in relation to women in “male roles” in both society and in the theater – even in this post-feminist world? These are only some of many questions we asked ourselves before deciding we were making an artistically sound choice. Oscar himself once said, “I make no social distinctions at all of any kind,” so I hardly think he would have minded (at least in the context of looking at the situation from a modern lens). Also, casting a female and indirectly posing those type of questions about art to our audiences is exactly the sort of thing the play is about.
Real quickly, I’d also like to mention that it was very interesting for me to watch Terry Lewis’ portrayal of a woman in Stageworks recent production of “I am My Own Wife.” I saw his performance on opening night, while in the depths of rehearsal for “Gross Indecency.” I felt like I was watching our show, and my role, from a reflected angle. It was a very cool experience. I have a great deal of admiration for Lewis and his work. He made me believe he was Charlotte von Mahlsdor not because he legitimately looked like a transgendered woman, but because he honestly and respectfully acted as though he was one. I can only hope to bring a similar honesty to my portrayal of Oscar.
Can you tell us a little bit about your acting background?
In fourth grade, I started out as the dodo bird in a community theatre production of “The Trials of Alice in Wonderland” (apparently, I’m big on court dramas). I remember being disproportionately upset I did not get cast as the Queen of Hearts. I made an awful stink about it and I have been unreasonably distraught over many casting decisions ever since. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts from California Lutheran University in 2002. I think most of what I know about theatre (and much of what I know about life) I learned from my family and mentors at the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, where I worked on and off season for several years. I consider myself equal parts actor, director, producer, stage manager, costume designer and writer. I couldn’t possibly love any one area in theatre more than any other- not for very long, anyway. I’ve worked in different capacities for theatres all over southern California, have performed in several independent and short films, and (my personal favorite) have taught many K-5th graders about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England.
I have been back in the Central Valley for only a few years (I grew up in Corcoran, CA). This show marks my second production in Fresno. I am very quickly falling in love with the arts and the artists in this town. I have been trying to get to every show I can and have been consistently impressed with, and inspired by, the quality and quantity of work here.
What do you hope audiences take away from this production?
I think that Heather and TNE hope audiences walk away with a jumble of thoughts about how we judge people as a society, how we treat the “other”, the responsibility of art and artists to lead, a new curiosity about Wilde and his work. . . many things. As Wilde said, “Anything is good that stimulates thought in any age.”
From my own perspective, I hope audiences can take in the beauty and the tragedy of Oscar’s life and translate that to their own universe however they see fit. This is a story about love, about art, about human frailty, about the dangers of having a government interfere with personal and private matters and as icing on the cake, it is also a biography of one of the greatest minds to have ever lived.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I have spent the past year working on an LGBT-themed play about a young man who dies by suicide and how his life and sudden loss affects his loved ones. The TNE Lab has been very helpful in assisting me with script development over the past eight months. We have tentatively scheduled a first semi-public reading of the show for Wednesday, May 15th at the Broken Leg Stage. The goal of this reading is to get feedback from the audience to develop the play further. People can write us at firstname.lastname@example.org if they are interested in attending and being part of the process.
There’s a lot going on with The New Ensemble, and a lot of ideas stirring around Fresno theatre. The cast of “Gross Indecency” is excited to be a part of it all and we hope audiences will come along for the ride.
Bee photo by Craig Kohlruss