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Dear ONE: An interview with Josh Irving Gershick

Diversionary Theatre has a moving and personal new audiocast program called the AmeriQueer Series, featuring plays never before performed in San Diego. The first in the series is Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America. Streaming through October 29th, this first in the series illuminates the lives of queer Americans through letters written between 1953 and1965. In an interview with the writer and director, Josh Irving Gershick talks about how this project came to be, creating it as an audiocast, and how the need for connection and community is something people are still looking for today.

Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America Photo Credit: Diversionary Theatre

Josh Irving Gershick is a man of many talents; he writes and directs plays and film, and is also an author of two acclaimed oral histories “Gay Old Girls”, and “Secret Service: Untold Stories of Lesbians in the Military”. He is a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, an American Library Association Book of the Year Nominee, and multiple winners of the ForeWord Book of the Year Award for LGBT Nonfiction. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Gershick has used all of his skills to create pieces that illuminate the lives of LGBTQI Americans whose lives have been hidden from history.

Gershick says he has been collecting stories ever since he was a child, and that proved to be an invaluable skill when creating and shaping the piece that became Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America.

Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America itself happened in an unexpected way: In the fall of 2012, I received an SOS from a friend at the ONE Archives Foundation: They were having a celebration commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the archives. (The ONE Archives’ full name is the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. It is the largest repository of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world.)

At the last minute, the organizers realized they had no entertainment for their gala! What they did have was a trove of letters that had been unearthed by a graduate researcher. Would I, could I, they asked, create some kind of performance out of the letters? I had 30 days.

The challenge, of course, is taking a letter, something written by strangers of many different personality types, and putting them together into one dramatic and cohesive piece.

A letter is a letter: It’s not a monologue or necessarily performative at all. And it’s the rare original missive that is not digressive and rambling: Many of the people who wrote to ONE magazine had no one else to talk to. So my central mission was to create from the letters dramatic soliloquies in missive form, deeply restructuring the letters while preserving each correspondent’s unique voice, language, syntax, and story. It’s delicate microsurgery, and the final product must be seamless. I view this as sacred work, and I think of myself and the actors who perform the letters as mediums, calling forth and conserving the voices of our queer forebears.

After a successful first production, using works that were largely written by white, cis-gender white men, Gershick was inspired to find more letters that better represented the LGBTQI community.

That first-time out, the audience was spellbound – laughing crying, cheering. It was a spiritual experience. I immediately went back into the archive – and did so repeatedly during the next eight years – to mine new and more diverse letters. I knew there had to be letters written by people of color, women, bisexuals, and transgender folx: I set out to find them. Our queer past is not monochromatic.

Gershick says that with this great responsibility of allowing these voices from the past to be heard again came some great fun in taking some vintage radio influences from the past and combining it with current day tech to make this audiocast.

I’m a huge fan of vintage radio drama, and particularly the work of Richard L. Breen, who wrote the late-1940s private-eye drama Pat Novak for Hire, starring Jack Webb, Raymond Burr, and a cohort of some of the era’s finest voice actors. So when Diversionary Theatre’s Artistic Director Matt Morrow proposed we do Dear ONE as a COVID-era audiocast, I was in with both feet.

The real challenge was that we had to rehearse and record remotely, using Zoom and apps such as Audacity. And I loved writing the soundscape that contextualizes and bookends the show (and which sound engineer Matt Lescault-Wood so beautifully realized).

Featuring letters from more than 40 people of various races, orientations, and genders. Gerhsick deliberately cast the actors against type, which further subverts audience expectations and perceptions. The cast of this series includes Diana Burbano, Nicky Endres, Monique Gaffney, JP Karliak, and George Takei.

The thing that strikes me repeatedly – no matter the format – is how individual actors find different notes and moments in the letters, and how each actor makes that letter their own. It’s a fascinating process. I love working with actors. I love the process of mining the text, remaining open, and holding space for discovery. Also, because we cannot see the actors, we are forced to focus on the language itself.

For the younger members of our cast, Dear ONE provides a compelling history lesson, but as our ensemble’s senior statesman, George Takei actually lived through mid-century queer America as a gay man of color. The 1950s and 1960s are not an abstraction for him: He was there.

There is one similarity between the past and current day, the need for connection and community.

Then and now, all beings seek connection. And we do that with the media available to us. Thank G-d for Zoom and other video platforms, and for podcasts, audiocasts, email, and the good, old-fashioned telephone during this pandemic. This is how we stay connected.

The queer people who lifted their pens and wrote to ONE, in many cases, had no community – they were alone (or thought they were). They did not have email, social media, or Zoom. They had a pen and paper, and they used these to find and forge a connection. They wrote of loneliness and longing, of joy and fulfillment, and of their daily lives, hidden from history. The remarkable thing about the letters is that so many queerfolx – gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people – had such a positive self-image, despite the damnation of the parent culture.

The most amazing part of the audiocast is how beautifully this talented cast brings bringing the past to life with heart, humor, and heartbreak.

I’m proud of our ensemble.

Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America is streaming online as an audiocast Friday, October 16 – Thursday, October 29th, 2020.

Other plays in this series include companion plays Lewiston Friday, October 30th – Thursday, November, 12th, 2020, and Clarkston Friday, November 13th – Thursday, November, 26th, 2020.

Tickets are free to the public. For more information please go to Diversionary.org

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