When a stage becomes the world (and the other way around)

By Matthew Greene

Playwright Matthew Greene reflects on the life experiences that culminate in his new play, Good Standing, about a gay Mormon facing excommunication the week after marrying the man of his dreams. Good Standing premiers at Plan-B Theatre October 18-28.

It all started when I was six years old. My parents took me to see my first play at a local community theater. When the actor playing Rumpelstiltskin asked for volunteers from the audience to help him spin straw into gold, my hand shot straight up.

I remember distinctly how I felt, up on that stage, as I saw the illusion of this fairy tale theater melt away: The scenery had nails sticking out of the back, the costumes had seams and zippers, and the theatrical world that had me fooled faded into a dark backstage world filled with prop table and water bottles and other actors waiting for their cues.

Some might say that was the moment the magic was spoiled for a young spectator like me. I would say the magic was just beginning.

In that moment, theater transformed from something mystical and far removed into something that human beings can do. Stories could be invented and shared, performances could conjure laughter and tears, and a group of unrelated people could and would willingly sit together in a darkened room and lend their collective belief to the fiction playing out in front of them. Without that belief, I started to realize, the whole thing crumbled. With it, though, something truly beautiful could happen.

I sat in other rooms in those early years that fostered and relied on collective belief. There we sang hymns and performed rituals and felt a connection not just to a higher power but to each other. I remained in those same rooms as I got older, buoyed up by the shared belief, the communal faith.

There was no Rumpelstiltskin at church, but there was plenty of audience participation. And the closer I got to the action, the more clearly I could see the seams, the nails, and the darkened backstage world. Still, I pressed on, hoping there was a place for me on that stage as well, hoping in that room full of believers we could create something beautiful together.

To say there just “wasn’t a place” for me as a gay man in the Mormon church is too simplistic. It doesn’t acknowledge the years I spent there, learning to serve and to love, instilling a foundational belief in ultimate good. But something happens to the proverbial square peg being forced into a round hole: Eventually it gets damaged. Mangled. And I had to bow out.

It’s painful to leave, even if it would have been more painful to stay, and that pain is at the heart of Good Standing. Throughout its development, the play has taken many forms: a breakup story, an anti-religion tirade, a family drama, a romantic saga against all odds. In the end, it’s a solo play that contains a smattering of all of the above, wrapped up in the kind of theatrical package that made me believe so many years ago.

After all, we’re all trying to spin straw into gold.

Matthew Greene’s Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea premiered at Plan-B in 2013. His latest, Good Standing, premieres at Plan-B Theatre October 18-28, then plays United Solo in New York on November 4. Details and tickets at planbtheatre.org

This article was originally published on September 30, 2018.