In a city as culturally diverse as Vancouver, colour-blind casting, where actors of colour are cast in roles that may have traditionally been played by white actors, is becoming more common. For Kevin Bennett, director of The Priory, his own colour-blind casting is complemented by sexuality-blind casting, with a straight man playing one of the show’s key gay roles and a gay actor playing it straight.
“In casting a show it doesn’t matter to me whether an actor is gay or straight,” Bennett says. “As a director I’m looking for those certain qualities that an actor can bring to a role, not their sexual orientation.”
Michael Wynne’s booze and cocaine-fuelled dark comedy sees a group of 30-something friends reunited for New Year’s. Among the guests is gay architect Daniel, played by straight actor James Elston, who mysteriously leaves his British accent at home. A surprising if fleeting booty call from a young man he recently met online prompts Daniel to reevaluate his search for human connection in a digital world built on instant gratification.
With relationships at the core of the show, Bennett says his casting has as much to do with how the actors relate to each other as anything else. “With Jimmy [Elston] it was actually something in his eyes that led me to him to cast him in the role of Daniel,” he says.
For the role of Carl, it was all about how the actor would be able to relate to Caitlin Clugston, who would play his wife. Bennett ultimately tapped Gui Fontanezzi, the second of the two gay actors in the cast, and while he and Clugston manage a certain vitriolic tone in their roles, at times they veer more toward monotonous shouting.
“I am an actor first, gay second,” laughs Fontanezzi at the suggestion that playing a straight character is somehow more difficult.
“Daniel is very similar to me,” offers Elston. “He becomes infatuated and gets ahead of himself in relationships. I see a lot of myself in this character, so it isn’t overly difficult to play a gay man.”
If Elston and Fontanezzi’s performances suggest that who one sleeps with has little bearing on one’s ability to play a role, the four gay members of The Priory’s cast and crew still wish they had more visible role models from which to draw inspiration.
“I think those formative years when you’re a teenager, when you’re aspiring to figure out what you want to do, that’s when they are essential,” says Christopher Cook, who plays the booty call.
“This is my first time as a gay man playing a gay character,” he adds, “and I do find it familiar, so I guess that does make [playing the role] easier.”
Costume designer Christopher David Gauthier says that in school he was desperate for some reflection of himself.
“Growing up it was important to have role models because gay people can be so negated sometimes. Until I found those role models, the world was a frightening place,” he says.
As to any moral responsibility to come out publicly, the foursome appears to be split.
“Everyone has the right to do whatever they want. It is not my position to tell anyone what they should or should not do. For sure, if they do, it would be for the greater good, but I don’t think people are free to do what they want,” Fontanezzi says.
Bennett echoes this comment, saying the whole notion of coming out publicly can be a bit tricky. But he still thinks it’s important to have role models in every line of work. “Seeing more people coming out, doing what you want to do, and seeing that they are happy, is really great,” he says.
“People need to be more honest about their sexuality. It shouldn’t be a ‘thing’ anymore,” Cook says.