The Organic Theater Company is premiering a new production called Out of the Blue, in which a gay Russian teen comes out to his parents. In Russia, "blue" is slang for gay.
While being performed in Russia, the venue received bomb threats and federal investigations of anti-gay propaganda laws. The touring company of original actors was unable to continue because of continued controversy.
With the Chicago production, Will Burdin stars as Boy, who comes out to his mother and father. Burdin became an Organic company member in 2015 and previously appeared in productions of Tartuffe, Macbeth and Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Windy City Times: Hi, Will. What is your theater background?
Will Burdin: I started acting as a teenager in school plays and at a community theater. We did a lot of Shakespeare at the theater, and I had seen some in Chicago at that point and thought, "I could do that. It looks fun." I still love Shakespeare's beautiful writing and the challenges it presents to an actor.
I grew up in Illinois, and Chicago was always just around the corner, but I think other reason I came here to work as an actor was the way this city's theater community feels. It is collaborative and supportive, everyone wants everyone else to succeed. We all want to see what we're capable of creating, and it's a great environment to be making art in.
WCT: How did you hear about this play and role?
WB: I have performed with Organic Theater for several years now, and became a company member last year. Our artistic director Alex Gelman told me about this play last summer. I was immediately drawn not only to the story of the play, but to the dramatic story surrounding the Moscow production. This was an exciting chance to tell a new story that needed to be told.
WCT: Talk about the character of Boy.
WB: The boy is just that: he's a kida teenager. He's by no means a saintly martyr. He's a messy, complicated human being, as are all the characters in this play. Yes, he's likable and mild mannered, but he still fights with his parents. Yes, it's hard to watch this nice kid go through adversity, but he's not perfect.
WCT: Why is his name left obscure?
WB: There are many reasons why the playwright may not have wanted to name the boy. I think it has something to do with his identity; to his mother, he is "honey," to his father he is "son." In a play about a young man finding out who he is, it's interesting that the other characters all have identities they wish he would fit. It's a play about that conflict, who he really is and who people want him to be.
WCT: Was the Russian accent challenging?
WB: We don't perform the play in Russian accents. This is usually how foreign-language plays are done. As an audience, we want to connect to the characters and see a little of ourselves in them. For example, Hamlet isn't performed with a Danish accent ( even though it's set in Denmark ) nor is it performed in a British accent ( even though Shakespeare was English ).
When you see the play, you'll hear a number of Russian names, though they'll be said with our normal American voices. The point is, these are just people we know, and as actors we want to sound natural.
We've watched this script go through several drafts of translation, each one sounding more real and natural. The goal is to reduce how foreign this play feels. If we've succeeded, the audience will feel like these people could be their neighbors, relatives, and people they meet in the street. Instead of thinking, "This is a story that takes place somewhere else, far away from here," we want to be thinking, "I know people like this, they are in my life and they could be going through this same story right now."
WCT: "Blue" is slang for gay?
WB: The Russian word for light blue has come to be used as a slang term. It may come from the idea that girls wear pink and boys wear baby blue when they are born; therefore, if a boy likes boys, he could be called "blue." The original Russian title uses this poetically, and our title is a nod to that, and acknowledges that the boy is "coming out" quite suddenly.
WCT: What is the overall plot?
WB: We see the boy wrestle with his identity when he is young, where he feels different from the other boys he knows, and finally see him accept his identity. His parents tell him they're getting a divorce, and then, in a last ditch attempt to stop them, he tells them he's gay. He is then forced to live the life of someone who is openly gay in an environment that isn't tolerant or accepting, and he faces the challenges associated with that.
WCT: Out of the Blue was met with controversy when performed in Moscow?
WB: The Moscow production at the Satirikon Theatre caused a stir, yes. The Russian government almost immediately began investigating theaters for potential use of "pro-gay propaganda," and the production received bomb threats as well for the same. In the Russian production, a pre-show announcement plays that begs the audience to keep an open mind, that the story is important and happening around us.
WCT: What happened when the original company wanted to tour?
WB: The Moscow production had the opportunity to tour to other theaters, but several of them declined because of the protests that often occurred outside the performances. One theater in St. Petersburg was ready to do a production of the show, when a bomb threat was called on the theater. In a beautiful statement, the audience members who planned on seeing the show that evening cleared out of the theater while it was checked for explosives, and then, sometime around midnight when it was deemed clear, they surged back into the theater and watched the play be performed.
WCT: What can audiences take away from Out of the Blue?
WB: In this play we get a look at a different culture, a different country, but a familiar story. I think it's easy to distance ourselves from horrible things by saying "this doesn't happen in America," but this play does a good job of analyzing the why. We see in this play how dogma can lead to tragedy, and what simple prejudices can grow into if accepted by the public. Just because marriage equality is now a reality in the U.S. doesn't mean things are perfect. The beliefs that lead to prejudice are still being preached not only here, but across the globe.
WCT: What are your plans for after the show?
WB: There's not only a great theater community in Chicago, but across the whole midwest that I'm remaining active in. I write, too, from time to time, and like to stay busy.
Out of the Blue runs now through Sunday, July 10, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Visit organictheater.org and greenhousetheater.org for tickets and information.