One creative outlet for actors disappointed with the roles they're typically offered is to try their hand at play writing. That way, those actors can create much more meaningful and juicy characters to play themselves.
That's was the initial impetus for Olivia Dawson and Ray Proctor, the creative writing team behind OUT LOUD. This semi-autobiographical play about the friendship between two African-American actors, one overtly religious and one openly gay, has its world premiere starting this week at Chicago's eta Creative Arts Foundation.
Dawson and Proctor became close friends while they were at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when she was working on a masters of fine arts in acting and he was getting a doctorate in Shakespeare studies. After graduating and heading to Chicago to get back into the acting scene, Dawson and Proctor found themselves disappointed by what roles were being offered to them.
"It was difficult finding work, so we decided that writing a play for us was a viable option," said Proctor about the creation of OUT LOUD, calling it an examination of love and friendship. "It's about these two Black people who have advanced degrees, who are actors and performers who are struggling to find out what it means to work in Chicago in a world where so many roles for Black actors and plays for Black actors are sometimes not the best-written stuff."
In OUT LOUD, the characters of Eva and Benny get to express their frustration at only being offered roles as servants or the funny gay friend. But they also learn how to be friends when they expose their vulnerable sides to each other once circumstances prod the two to become roommates.
"Our hope was always that we would get to do the original performances," Proctor said, noting that he and Dawson received plenty of great feedback when they produced and appeared in readings of OUT LOUD in multiple cities. "But that's not the way it worked out."
This past August, Proctor left Chicago to begin a teaching job at Albany State University in Georgia. And instead of performing in OUT LOUD, Dawson is now serving as the play's director.
Taking on the role of Benny is out actor Watson Swift, acknowledging with a laugh that, "there's a certain trick to being an actor, who is performing in a show that was written by a director, that is also semi-autobiographical."
Since Swift is essentially playing a role modeled on and created for Proctor, he's made the effort to speak with him for the sake of research.
"But once it becomes the play, you have to create it on your own to bring the character to life, though the insights are always helpful," Swift said.
Swift easily identifies with his character's views and frustrations, since he, too, is a Black actor who happens to be gay. Yet Swift says he was careful not to play the role as a stereotypical gay man or a caricature.
"It was important for me to bring as much authenticity to the role as possible," Swift said. "These are real people with real problems and you want that to shine."
Swift really enjoys the first scene of the play as OUT LOUD provides a rundown and send-up of stereotypical roles thrust upon Black actors, ranging from the God-praising gospel singer to the streetwise urban thug.
"Not that there's a market for that, but you don't want that to be only kind of stuff that you get cast in," Swift said.
As a performer, Swift has pursued his own method of finding juicy roles by auditioning for classical plays so directors will think twice about colorblind casting and focus on his acting abilities. Swift has also trained extensively with The Second City Training Center and the Annoyance Theatre, creating and developing characters and situations that are not necessarily race-specific.
"I tend to gravitate more toward those roles because I find them more challenging," Swift said, adding that with improvisation you're already generating a lot of your own content and characterizations. "It makes me feel better as an actor when I can go for those roles as opposed to something that would more stereotypical."
Although Proctor hasn't had as much involvement as Dawson in staging the world premiere of OUT LOUD, he has made plans to be in attendance for opening night in Chicago. Proctor also hopes that OUT LOUD will transcend any race labels that some people might try to attach to it.
"Does this mean that white people won't be coming to see this just because it's a 'Black play?' Those are some of the things we talk about in OUT LOUD," Proctor said, adding that his characters ask whether or not they will be seen beyond caricatures like "the gay best friend" or "the angry Black woman." "Our goal when we wrote this was the complexity of the characters and fleshing them out as fully realized people with fully realized desires and objectives."
eta Creative Arts Foundation's world premiere of Olivia Dawson and Ray Proctor's OUT LOUD plays through Sunday, March 9, at eta Square, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. There is an 8 p.m. preview on Thursday, Jan. 16, and an official press opening at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17. Regular performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $30 with discounts available for students, seniors and groups. Call 773-752-3955 or visit www.etacreativearts.org .