An actor, singer, producer and director, 29-year-old Tim Garner founded his eponymous production company last year and made his well-received debut withTake Me Out, a play by Richard Greenberg about an American baseball player who deals with coming out from the closet. This month, he’s following up with another ‘gay play’ in the form of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which starts with eight guys celebrating a friend’s birthday, but soon gets complicated as their prejudices and true colours come out. Gwen Pew learns more.
24 Jul 2014:
You mentioned before that a lot of your friends are part of the LGBT community – would you say that that’s one of the reasons why you decide to stage plays that often deal with homosexuality?
I certainly would. It was actually a realisation that came to me midway through the season of Take Me Out. I hadn’t decided to stage that play because of its LGBT theme – it was simply a play that I always loved and would one day put onstage somewhere in the world, but in Singapore in 2014 it carried an extra weight. Then midway through the production I looked around at the people that were seeing the show, the warm welcome received by the critics and personal comments people were making, and I thought that perhaps this should be my mission – rather than stage one LGBT play and then move on to other more popular things, maybe I can contribute to the LGBT cause with an impartial voice, as a straight ally, and help tell these stories that audiences here hadn’t seen before, and maybe never would.
It’s a small contribution to a community that has welcomed me unconditionally since I was 15 and been mentors, advisors, inspirations, angels, and have not once held my ‘straightness’ against me – and I have a real thing for justice, so it now seems like the obvious road for me. Friends have suggested that I be wary of pigeonholing myself, but it’s no real concern to me – if someone can build a reputation as a supporter of one avenue of human rights through presenting unique, unknown plays, and eventually be relied upon for this, I’ll gladly do that.
How do you decide what works to stage? And is the fact that they’re ‘gay plays’ a must-have criteria?
Essentially, they are favourites of mine as dramatic works in their own right – And maybe in the same way that my social circles for the most part consist of gay people, so do my personal favourite theatre pieces. Sometimes the ‘gay’ element shows up in varying degrees – with Take Me Out it was a small but essential catalyst in an otherwise straight world, but with The Boys in the Band, it’s an overwhelmingly potent theme. And in A New Brain, which I’ll do next year, two characters just happen to be gay and nothing more is said about it – it’s simply a normal part of the world that the show is set in. This, ultimately, is what I want to convey…the plays are about lives, and sometimes the people whose lives we’re watching are gay people. In a couple of years, if things grow the way I’m hoping, there are other shows with themes around broader humanity, the triumph of the human spirit, struggle and ultimate success, etc, that I’d love to present. Shows that really mean something, ones that change lives and opinions. As much as I love things like Anything Goes and Joseph, you won’t see them from me.
What do you love about The Boys in the Band, and why did you choose to stage it?
Foremost, I love the wit. The characters are incredibly intelligent and it will be extremely thrilling as a performer to speak the lines on the pages. Mart Crowley has taken the most hilarious, pointed, desperate and pathetic moments from his social life and put them into a two hour birthday party, and each character serves a careful purpose. There’s no dead weight in the piece, even if one character sits and doesn’t say a word for 30minutes. To share a stage where everyone matters even if they’re silent will be very exciting for me and I hope for the rest of the cast. I also love the overall world it displays – the 60s, of course, where there’s an element of decadence, and of course where friendships can turn on a dime and loyalty is so fleeting…I think it will really make people think about how they treat their friends. I chose to stage it as almost a reference point to Take Me Out, which was a very contemporary look at the LGBT situation in sports – with Boys, I thought it might be interesting to go back to where it all began, literally, as Boys was the first play to seriously show gay men as regular people, rather than some funny uncle or camp villain. I think it’s important to have perspective on this journey and to know where it all began. I hope the audiences find something in that as well. And finally, Mart Crowley calls the play ‘a condemnation of the closet’. So if there’s some way that the play encourages anyone out there to be a little more of who they truly are, then that’s great. No shame.
And the cast – have you worked with them before, or did you find them through auditions?
Some of them I have worked with before – Chris Bucko, who was terrific inTake Me Out, will be playing a role, and others I’ve either performed with or know from around the industry. I didn’t hold auditions for this one – with Take Me Out, I did to find certain roles – but with Boys it was mostly a matter of feeling of who might fit which role, and who are actors or friends in the industry here who perhaps don’t get to perform as much as they are capable of. When you’ve been an actor for a long time and if you sit and observe enough, you get pretty good at knowing what kind of person can play strongly which kind of role…and with the amount of visualising I do, it doesn’t take long to work out who I’d offer roles to first. In the end, with Take Me Out, I hadn’t heard any of the actors read their lines before we began rehearsal – I just went with my intuition and who I knew would ‘fit’, and in performance the cast was exceptional, with many of the reviews and general public commenting along those lines. ‘Is this the Broadway cast?’ one lady apparently asked!
There are nine dudes in the play. Which of the characters do you relate to the most, and why?
I think I relate quite well to the character Hank – I’m actually playing Michael – but mostly Hank because of his balanced nature. If someone spills a glass of wine, Hank would be the one to clean it up, and so would I. He does similar things in the play – helping a character who has just offended many of the others but who needs some assistance. I guess you could say he’s quite caring and understanding. Michael, on the other hand, is almost the polar opposite. I’ve never had to be as mean onstage as I am in this play!
When it was first staged in the late ’60s, many of the audience members were shocked. Do you think that Singaporean audiences will feel the same way when they see it?
I don’t think it will be quite as shocking this time around – film and TV have conditioned society to a lot of what Boys first showed, both in terms of hedonism and the language used – but I think it will be confronting in another way. Rather than look at the stage and say “that’s not us”, as was the reaction 45 years ago, I think audiences now will ask “is that me?” By the end of the night I think the audience will have forgotten that any character is gay or straight, and just see them as humans – it’s so raw, so visceral, that the characters and audience will have been equalised – no one escapes the wrath of The Boys.
What are some of the other plays that you hope to stage in the future? And do you have plans to move away from works that feature gay characters (or do shows that talk about lesbians, or bisexuals, or transgenders)?
I have some other favourites – A New Brain, of course – but also, later this year I’ll present The Normal Heart which looked at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York. I’d love to look at some Terence McNally plays and maybe eventually Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee. Ironic isn’t it – the musical theatre guy is doing mostly plays – but that’s where my heart is going. I definitely need to do more reading on the L, B and T areas and see what might be interesting for audiences here. Much like the inclusion movement stands for, I’m open to anything!
And finally, tell us a bit more about yourself – where are you from, how old are you, when and why did you come to Singapore, and how did you first get into theatre?
I’m originally from Auckland, New Zealand, although my accent is closer to Australian now and I think many people think I’m from there. I’ll be 30 in a couple of months which is scary, and I’ll probably have to throw a party for that one whereas usually I don’t – I can’t stand the attention. I arrived in Singapore in 2006 to study at Lasalle which was really a life changing moment. I’ve grown up here and almost can’t remember the person I was before Singapore. It’s been a wonderful place to develop. It was really Les Miserables that shook me to the core and showed me that a lot of meaning can be gleaned from what we see on the stage. And of course, because it’s a musical, I would sing the very catchy songs around the house and started to imagine maybe being an actor. This led to high school productions, amateur theatre shows, some professional work (but in Auckland at that time it was quite limited) and finally a realisation that I should study musical theatre overseas if I wanted to part of the industry in Australia – which I’m still working towards – I audition for those shows when I might be ‘right’ for a role, but mostly now I’m putting things onstage here!