Playing It Straight - A Reaction to Newsweek

A little over a month ago, an article was published in Newsweek magazine that caused quite an uproar in the theater community. The article (which can be found here), written by Ramin Seetodeh, was entitled "Straight Jacket." In it, Mr. Seetodeh made the contention that actors who are homosexual are incapable of convincingly portraying heterosexual characters. He pointed to the current examples of Sean Hayes' performance in the Broadway musical Promises, Promises and Jonathan Groff's turn as Jesse St. James in the hit television show Glee as evidence that homosexual actors cannot, for lack of a better term, play it straight. Mr. Seetodeh claimed that Mr. Hayes "came off wooden and insincere, as if he's trying to hide something, which of course he is" and that Mr. Groff "seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel." While Mr. Seetodeh does cite Neil Patrick Harris and Portia de Rossi as examples of homosexual actors who can play straight characters well, he disparages their talents in the same sentence by claiming that their characters are too broad to really count (as an aside, Mr. Seetodeh actually wrote "...they also inhabit broad caricatures, not realistic characters like the ones in Up in the Air or even The Proposal." Now, I'm no movie critic, but seriously? The characters in The Proposal were about as realistic as me being in a Broadway show - that is, not realistic at all.) And while Mr. Seetodeh also acknowledges that an actor's personal life does have some impact on the way in which an audience views their performance, he ultimately seems to be making the assertion that homosexual men just are not convincing when it comes to playing straight characters because of a deficiency in their acting skill.

When the article was published, it immediately sparked anger and indignation from the Broadway community. Kristin Chenoweth, Mr. Hayes' co-star in Promises, Promises, wrote a blistering reply defending her colleague's performance and decrying Mr. Seetodeh, an openly gay man himself, as being homophobic. I must admit, it was Ms. Chenoweth's response that prompted me to read the original piece. After doing so, I felt compelled to write a response, because while I think the Mr. Seetodeh had a kernel of a valid point, his presentation and defense of that point was dreadful and offensive on many levels, and therefore it merits a rebuttal, which I hope to clearly articulate.

While I found the majority of Mr. Seetodeh's arguments and evidence to be weak and at times downright stupid, I will admit that he had a valid point when he wrote that American culture and society is overly preoccupied with a person's sexual orientation. However, rather than acknowledging that it is a societal deficiency that prevents the audience from separating an actor from the character he is portraying merely on the basis of sexual orientation, Mr. Seetodeh argues that the reason that homosexual actors cannot credibly act straight is due to their own failings as actors, not due to the failings of the audience. It is in trying to defend this claim that his entire argument, in my eyes, falls apart, particularly when he uses Mr. Groff to illustrate his point. Mr. Seetodeh writes that "in Spring Awakening, he [Groff] showed us that he's a knockout singer and a heartthrob. But on TV... there's something about his performance feels off." He goes on to wonder if Mr. Groff's character on Glee is supposed to be gay because of Mr. Groff's "distracting" performance. Reading this, I was confused: Mr. Seetodeh was clearly insinuating that something changed between Spring Awakening and Glee, but what Mr. Seetodeh failed to acknowledge was that the change did not stem from Mr. Groff's acting abilities or lack thereof. No, the only thing that changed was that Mr. Groff came out as an openly gay actor. His acting skills or ability to play a straight character did not change; it was the audience's perception of him that changed. The difference between Spring Awakening and Glee is not the character or his acting, it's that he wasn't out when he was in Spring Awakening, but since then he's come out, and so now when he is on Glee the majority of people can't separate his personal life from his acting; they can't distinguish between the man who is homosexual, and the man who is an actor and happens to be gay.

But that failed distinction is not the fault of Mr. Groff, or any other homosexual actor for that matter. The bottom line is this: it is not the actor's who are to blame for an audience's inability to believe them as heterosexual characters, but the audience itself. The onus is not on the actor, but rather on the viewer, to not let a person's sexuality preclude the viewer from enjoying a performance or appreciating someone's talent. What I think pissed a lot of people off about this article, and rightly so, was that Mr. Seetodeh made it seem like it was the actor's fault that he couldn't find him convincing as a straight character, rather than a fault of his (and society's) own making. His argument wasn't so much homophobic as it was just plain stupid and illogical.

The unfortunate reality of our society is that a person's sexual orientation is inextricably linked with how that person is perceived by society. What we as an audience know about an actor and his personal life can color how we view his work, but that shouldn't always be the case, especially in theater, where escapism and enjoyment are the aims. Do we come to the theater to get realism? For the most part, the answer is no; we come for escapism. No one really thinks witches exist in a mythical land of Oz, or that ogres are real, or that a girl can really get three men who might be her father to show up for her wedding on a small Greek island. And yet, we love the theater and we experience it anyways, accepting certain fallacies or improbabilities as necessary byproducts of an incredible experience. If we can accept the discrepancies, inconsistencies, and outrageous moments of theater, then we can, should, and in fact must accept a homosexual playing straight without qualms. Sexual orientation has no bearing on acting ability - if we can look past other things, we should not let a facet of someone's personal life prevent us from appreciating or accepting their value as an actor or their skill in portraying a role. As an audience, we should be willing and able to look past our preconceived notions about an actor and appreciate a performance on its artistic merits and the skill of the actor, not on his sexual orientation. Failure to do so is our fault and responsibility, not that of the actor, and in that respect, Mr. Seetodeh was misguided in his thinking and writing.

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