Friday, July 20, 2012

Interview: Dustin Lance Black

Academy Award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was in attendance for a staged reading of his play "8" Friday night at The Western Stage. Here is a transcript from a short interview he gave "The Beat" prior to his appearance.

For the record, what was the time frame you lived in and attended school in Salinas?

I was here 88 to 92, maybe the end of 87. Because I was here for junior high a touch, and then I went to high school here. I graduated from NS High School in 1992. I was always in Salinas. We were working in Fort Ord. My step-dad and mom were working at Fort Ord.

I was always on the north side. We started in an apartment that was down by (Northridge) Mall. And we ended on Julia, 945 Julia (Street). On the corner of Alvin and Julia.

Talk to me about what you took from those formative years for you, growing up in Salinas.

Mexican food is better here. There’s no Rositas (Armory Cafe) in Los Angeles. I came away with two different ways of pronouncing Rodeo, or Ro-day-O.

I did spend a lot of time here (gestures to The Western Stage). This was kind of my little oasis. I felt a little isolated and a little different here. Growing up Mormon, it wasn’t that kind of community. I was a closeted gay kid and at the time there was almost no place in the country where that was okay, and I was into the theatre, and that also was like, at least at North High, there wasn’t much of a theater program. So this became home, and it was a place, I learned how to open up, even though I was incredibly shy. They gave me confidence in who I was.

But I also, I was very fortunate I started in the apprenticeship program here. And as a part of that program, they match you up with a mentor. One of the people who is on stipend or is employed with the Western Stage. And I picked a director, his name was Leo, and he’s actually in the play tonight, which is amazing. And he told me if you want to be a director one day, then you have to learn everything.

I hope he remembers this, but he just said you should try doing every department. So for the next few summers, I did prop department. I did scenic design department. I did lighting, I ran around in those lighting things and hung lights. I ran the lighting boards for Steel Magnolias, and the Crucible. I only messed it up a couple of times...

And then finally I auditioned becasue they were doing Peter Pan, I auditioned for a part in it, I got to play John. And so I learned how to be a renaissance man in the theater, which I’ve carried over into film, which I try to do and work in each department, and to also know, before I start yelling at anyone for not doing their job right, I know first hand. I can appreciate what they do.

I took all of that away from here. I think the main thing I leanred here is there is value in individuality. That’s not something I learned in Texas or the Mormon Church. It took coming to Salinas and the Western Stage to finally start learning that lesson for me. And that’s the thing I’ve built a career on.

Was Stienbeck’s influence there at all?

I will say I love Steinbeck, but when your high school teachers are starting to throw every single Steinbeck thing down your throat, you start to resist it (laughs). I like Steinbeck, but I’d read Of Mice and Men before I came here, and they started to make me read everything (of his) and it started to feel like medicine. And I didn’t learn to like him again until after I left. In fact, that’s when I started to appreciate him. I learned a little bit more about history and I was able to relate it elswehre, to match myself there. He’s one of my favorite writers.

At this point, it’s probably you and him as Salinas’s favorite sons...

Well, what about Zac Efron’s ex-girlfriend? (Vanessa Hudgens). When I see her out, I’m always like what’s going on? You’re from Salinas too!

You’ve done "Milk," a historical reference piece. You did "J. Edgar" with Clint Eastwood, which was a historical reference script. And now with “8,” another historical reference piece. Talk about historical reference in your work...

I’m clearly not an original thinker (laughs). I keep leaning on history...I’m a big history buff... People ask me if I’m worried that I’m becoming pigeon holed in real-life stories, and I say boy, it’s the most lovely pigeon hole I’ve ever seen. I think that history, the lessons of history, when forgotten, it truly does mean that we’ll repeat those mistakes. I’m not the first person to say that. But I think we do it far too often. I’m not picking willy nilly from things that just excite. Often, as I’m looking at the present, I’m looking into the future, the problems we may face. If you know your history, there are solutions there. So with things like Milk, it was so incredibly frustrating because I saw the problems we were up against, and I thought by knowing the problems there are solutions that are happening. There were things we were not doing in our movement that we should have been doing, that we were doing back in the ‘70s. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of those leaders, we lost those messages of outreach and education. Of coming out, introducing ourselves. Asking for everything, taking the fight federal. Acting like a real civil rights movement. In that way, I saw a real piece of history that spoke to tomorrow.
In J. Edgar, I saw our country moving heading in the same direction he did, taking away civil liberties. Invading people’s privacy. Using fear to get a country to let go of their civil liberties and to let go of their rights to privacy. So I wanted to investigate that in that one.

And in this one, it’s a bit different because it’s so present. For full disclosure, I’m one of the founders of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which funded, created and supports the case against proposition 8 here in California. So the four of us, me Rob Reiner, Chad Griffin and Bruce Conlin, that created the foundation were in the courtroom every single day. For us, it was incredibly exciting, for the first time in history all these people who had said all these heinous things about gay and lesbian people for generations now on tv adas and yard sgins, in paid advertiesements they took out in newspapers when they were out speaking, could come into court and raise their right hand and promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And it was so moving, to see that most of them wouldn’t even show up. Under deposition, most of the rest fell away. One person who claimed to be an expert on marriage, out of all the thousands who said all these heinous things about gay marriage all these years, only one would show up. And to watch what happened when he raised his right hand and when he testified, and to listen to all his arguments fall apart. And by the end for him to change his mind and come out in favor of equality in marriage was one of the most moving moments I’ve had in my life. He’s since done it officially in the New York Times, their only witness, I don’t know how this case is going to hold up in the Supreme Court, has come out for equal marriage.

But that’s what happens. We finally had a truth test. Who’s telling the truth. The heart breaking thing was the other side knew it. They knew it before hand. They were so afraid for people to be in that room, for reporters to be reporting on it, and certainly for cameras to be in that court room. They took the fight to keep cameras out of the courtroom all the way to the Supreme Court and unfortunately they won. And so what I got to see and the founders got to see was kept from public view. This play comes from frustration, and it’s for me, an act that says you cannot keep the truth bottled up. The truth will find the light. So when you see the play, I can’t take credit for all the words. I can take credit for the editing. But by design, it had to be all the words from the trial. Redacted down to three and a half weeks, so we could do what I never imagined would be so wildly successful. That it would be in 200 cities now, and would have had the productions in LA and New York, that I think got it out there worldwide. But it’s an education outreach tool It’s saying know the truth about gay and lesbian people. And understand what these U.S. Supreme Court justices will be looking at come the fall.

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