Bullying has long been a brutal, pervasive reality in schools that continues to this day. With the upcoming production of “fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life,” 7 Stages creates a space to talk about it.
“It’s the story of Jo, a high school girl who, in her junior year, starts to recognize her artistic talent as a graphic novelist,” says playwright Sarah Gubbins. “When she encounters a traumatic bullying event, she leans on her artistic expression to help her through. She comes to understand her artistic expression through her English teacher, who introduces the works of Carson McCullers to her.”
Jo’s bullying is focused on her being an out lesbian tomboy at her Catholic school – a timely source of discrimination.
Gubbins, who is gay like her character, wrote the play for Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company as part of their Steppenwolf for Young Adults program. “fml,” which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2012, was the product of a program to combine new works with more familiar productions.
“We had been talking, and it was around the time where the media was covering the tragedy of Tyler Clementi,” Gubbins tells us. “It was just about when Dan Savage was starting his ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, and I thought that writing a play could provide a platform to start something on this issue of bullying, particularly for queer kids.”
Gubbins may have known what issues she wanted the play to focus on, but she credits Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ artistic and educational director, Hallie Gordon, for suggesting the connection to Carson McCullers. McCullers’ works, particularly “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” proved inspirational to Gubbins.
“We were talking about the issues that the main character would be going through, and I thought of other works that might be inspiring to her. That novel has always been haunting, but Hallie Gordon made the suggestion, and I went back and read the novel again, and it felt very perfect,” Gubbins says. “I liked the idea that there was an identifiable female protagonist, and I felt her artistic awakening was gonna have an emotional arc. There’s an emotional parallel to the character.”
Though she sees parts of herself in many of the characters, Gubbins acknowledges that Jo is in many ways who she wishes she had been as a teenager.
“It’s important for me to see her as a character who has progressed from the time when I was a teenager. She can be in a Catholic school, out. Being out was something I was never conscious of, and I think that the reason she has the strength to just be herself and to ask the really hard questions about what it means to be true to that self … and kind of just being out in an environment where you can be out at such a young age is a brave and remarkable thing,” Gubbins says.
“That makes her quite a superhero,” she continues. “I think her capacity for empathy, her drive to really look at her gender presentation and be honest and true to that gender presentation is also part of the play that is much more of a journey for me personally.”
The need to be true to one’s self is one cast member Troy Stephens, who plays Jo’s best friend Mickey, knows all too well. In a video posted to 7 Stages’ YouTube account, Stephens discusses his own struggles coming to terms with his sexual orientation, which was complicated by his newfound religious beliefs.
“My college career was insane. I went to five different colleges in a seven-year span, to finally graduate. The reason it started so crazy, when I graduated high school, I got engaged to a woman, and I was going into ministry,” Stephens says in the video. “After three years of that, I realized I had completely and totally lost my identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Something had to give. …
“[Eventually] I ended up landing at Shorter University, and and I found a group of people and a family that knew from Day 1: look, I’m gay, I love Jesus, and this is who I am. And what they did was they just totally and completely welcomed me with both arms.”
7 Stages’ production of “fml," steered by out director Heidi Howard, is a joint production with The Big Read, a program to expose audiences to great works of literature. In conjunction with this Atlanta production, artists from 7 Stages visit local schools, libraries, service organizations and public festivals with free copies of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Classrooms not only read the book and discuss its themes but create artistic responses to it – much like Gubbins’ own artistic response to the book, “fml.”
“I think it’s so terribly exciting,” Gubbins says. “I think it’s really important for students and young adults to feel that theater is a branch for them, that it embodies their stories, and to get them to make plays with their imagination like that…to develop the empathy they’re going to need, and the kind of strength they’re going to continue to need to confront these issues.
The play was originally intended for young adults, but Gubbins hopes that audiences of all backgrounds can learn something from it.
“I hope that they are able to have a very empathetic response to all of the characters in the play, and to understand how complicated standing up to bullying behavior can be,” she says. “More than anything, I want this to be an opportunity for folks who may not spend a lot of time thinking about gay issues to have 90 minutes to drop into what it might be like to be somebody’s child.”