Sex, death, love, HIV, relationships, and dating over 40: the playwright and actor Steven Gallagher and I spoke, occasionally loudly, about these things over a few rounds of cocktails one recent evening in Toronto.
This Sunday afternoon, Gallagher, 49, brings his award-winning one-person play, Stealing Sam, to New York’s United Solo Theater Festival on Theater Row after a much-garlanded history in Canada, where it received Best of Fringe and Patron’s Pick at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2013, and was awarded Outstanding New Play, Production, Actor, and Director from Now magazine.
In the play, Gallagher plays Jimmy, who has been friends with the unseen Sam for more than 25 years. They were supposed to be facing “gay middle age” together. When Sam dies, Jimmy must plan their final picnic. Jimmy steals Sam’s cremated remains from the funeral home and, says Gallagher, “tries to give his friend the send-off he deserves.”
The 60-minute play shows, says Gallagher, “a middle-aged man adrift in an unfriendly dating scene, as he tries to find love in the age of Facebook and wireless technology. The play examines dating in the post HIV/AIDS world, and the stigma that being HIV positive still carries. It addresses life with HIV and the ways it affects the life of its victims, even when they’re living healthily with it.” And, Gallagher reassures us, “It’s very, very funny.”
Where did the idea for the play come from?
I was taking a writing workshop, and one of the tasks was to write down our “obsessions” at the beginning of each evening. I thought I wanted to write a play about the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981, but I soon realized that I was obsessed with middle age, online dating, and how to navigate all of that when you're a single man of a “certain age.” I started writing scenes and monologues from the point of view of a 48-year-old gay man, which I was then, and extrapolated a story from there.
How personal is the play?
There are lots of personal details in the play. Those details gave me a way in to Jimmy’s story. For instance, we are both insomniacs, we both own a Boxer, and we were both suddenly single in our 40s. The difference is how we handle these parts of our lives. I tried to write a character who makes the opposite decisions that I would in certain situations, and take it from there—sort of the road-not-taken approach to playwriting. I think most playwrights draw heavily from their own experiences. If you look at someone like Wendy Wasserstein, her plays are pieces of her life on stage, and I think that personal point of view makes a play more believable.
What experiences of mortality have you had?
Most of my plays deal with death. I’m a very happy person, but for some reason I write about it a lot. I am a cancer survivor, so I have been faced with my own mortality. I wrote a play called Craplicker based on that experience. The title is awful, the play is fun. A dear friend passed away a few years ago, and I was in the middle of writing something, and he asked me to make the play about him. My play Memorial is about his last few days. Also, a sort of funny, but sad play.
For you, what is Stealing Sam about?
Stealing Sam is really about how we connect in this age of Facebook and OK Cupid and Grindr, where with a swipe of a thumb, someone can decide whether or not you’re worthy of contacting. It’s about people who are still trying to find love in what can sometimes be a very unfriendly social scene. It’s about loss and forgiveness and keeping someone’s memory alive.
What messages and themes did you want to explore in the play?
I wanted to examine how people perceive HIV/AIDS in an age where the physical traits of the disease have disappeared, the medication is better, and it’s no longer a death sentence. We say that we are all fine with it, but how do people really feel?
How easy or difficult did you find to write?
Writing is always hard for me. I like a good story, and so I want to make sure that this character is engaging. It’s especially difficult because it’s a one-person play, the audience is watching just me. My collaborator, Darcy Evans, and I are very insistent on calling Stealing Sam a “one-person play” and not a solo show. It has an arc, secrets are revealed. I don’t put on funny hats and play multiple characters.
Is it emotional to perform, on your own for an hour?
It’s incredibly emotional. I am telling a really sad story. My job as an actor is to try and be as fully engaged with the words and with the audience as possible. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration. I love it, but there is no one to blame but me if it all goes horribly wrong.
How difficult is dating for gay men when they get older? How have technology and apps transformed gay dating and romance?
It’s always hard, but with all this technology, it’s nuts. Since our culture is so heavily based on appearance, older guys can often get passed by when it’s just a photo on which someone is basing their opinion. When I use an online service, I like to try and meet someone as soon as possible, even if it’s just for coffee—none of this endless chat that’s so popular. It’s almost as if people are afraid to actually meet in person. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t connect and you move on. This constant Internet chatter allows people to not take responsibility for themselves. “If I don’t meet you in person, then you don't really exist”—that sort of thing.
Describe the place of HIV and AIDS in gay culture years ago, and where it is now.
I grew up where condoms were the only way to go. It was ingrained in our souls. We were all so afraid of HIV that we felt we didn’t have choice. I have had many friends who died of AIDS and those initial medications were so harsh, they left permanent physical characteristics on men. Nobody wanted to be a walking billboard. It was scary. But as medications have gotten better—and unfortunately, young gay men don’t have a sense of what it was like to live through all that—we’ve become much more lax. In a way it’s great—we should never have to be afraid of sex—but it makes me worry that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." There’s no cure yet. Yes, Truvada is out there, but 98 percent is not 100 percent.
Where did you grow up? How was your upbringing, parents, and coming out?
I grew up on a farm in Quebec. My parents were great, five kids. I knew I was gay from a very young age, but I did not come out until I was 25, when I was living in New York, of course. And by the time I told my family when I was 29, my father had already passed away. I like to think that he would have been fine with it all. The rest of my family is amazing.
How did family and friends respond to the play?
I usually tell people close to me that it’s not my story. There are enough elements that people recognize from my own life that they assume the whole thing is about me, and they get scared for me. I like blurring the lines, so for the general public they can assume what they want. But I don’t want to put my family under any undue stress!
How is your own dating/love life?
My dating life is ... interesting.
What are you working on now?
I am being commissioned to write two new musicals, and in only one of them does someone die, so that’s a great step forward for me. I’m also auditioning, and trying to get Stealing Sam done in Toronto again. This artistic life is a constant hustle.