- “After Orlando” in Southeast Kansas
Participating in “After Orlando” meant a chance to bring fresh work to our season and challenge our audiences with difficult subject matter. The William Inge Center for the Arts, housed at Independence Community College (ICC) in Independence, Kansas, is dedicated to recognizing the role of the playwright in the theatrical process. In the tradition of William Inge, Independence’s native son, the center develops works that speak to the American experience. As a contemporary theatre piece chronicling a hate crime, After Orlando caught our attention due to its relationship to the country’s current political and cultural climate. The play also utilizes a concert/music-stand format and minimal design elements, making it quite economical to perform.
Karen Carpenter produced our production of After Orlando during her final year as artistic director of the William Inge Theatre Festival. I was assigned to act in and direct five of the twenty After Orlando scenes. Other scenes were directed by ICC library faculty and local members of our theatre community, including Heather Mydosh, associate professor of English at ICC; Sarah Owen, ICC’s director of Library Services; and local actress Jessica Gross. These scenes were performed by Inge theatre students, the college’s faculty, and local community members. I was excited to be part of this project, because I could bring my identity as a gay man into the creative process; nonetheless, the project did involve particular challenges.
The Inge Center and its students are situated in a rural, highly religious, poverty-riddled part of concealed-carry Kansas. Independence has 9,000 residents, with a predominantly white population and little overt presence of racial and cultural minorities. Some students, particularly those born and raised in southeast Kansas, had never heard of the Pulse shootings; others had heard something about the event, but were not clear on its narrative. Therefore I found that part of my job was to teach the students about the incident so that they could understand the impetus for the words they would be speaking.
Although all of the actors in the production had volunteered to be part of this experience, several were also understandably concerned about the performance’s repercussions. Since Independence is a small town, these students know mostly everyone with whom they come in contact. But with this sense of community comes a lack of privacy. Southeast Kansas natives must be careful about what they say. In particular, some actors worried that audience members would discover they were homosexual if they participated in this project; one actor feared having a panic attack if his parents came to the reading because of their beliefs on gay marriage.
Another actor said he was afraid that offended audience members would open fire on the cast during production. Since Governor Brownback signed, in 2015, a “constitutional carry” bill into law allowing Kansans age 21 and older to carry concealed firearms without a permit, and since the concealed carrying of guns is allowed on all Kansas public university and college campuses, such an act of violence is possible here. Nonetheless, my response was to affirm that, despite these fears, we were committed to producing the After Orlando project. Furthermore, they had a choice concerning how to respond to anti-gay voices in the audience. Hyperventilating was one response, but not the only one; the actors could also speak the words on the page with confident purpose on a stage surrounded by those who were as equally afraid and brave. Our production would also include a [End Page 177] talk-back that actors could either stay for or choose not to participate in if they felt uncomfortable. This seemed to calm down their trepidations, and they continued to prepare for that evening’s performance. As a faculty member, I used After Orlando to help our students experience the safe space provided by a supportive ensemble.
Another challenge revolved around casting. Since both our school’s population and the general population of southeast Kansas is predominantly white, our After Orlando cast of roughly twenty-five actors was mostly comprised of white students, with the addition of two African Americans, one Latinx, and an African American...