20 Questions: Crayton Robey

A revolution was born on the evening of 28 June 1969 in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Police raided the Stonewall Bar, a haunt that was, and remains, home to the gay habitués of the West Village. Fighting for their right to assemble in public, the patrons marshaled enough resistance to beget a revolt that changed the course of history.

No more would these people stand for being rounded up onto the paddy wagon like prisoners. The uprising ushered in the modern gay liberation movement, creating a community instilled with self-respect. So significant was the Stonewall rebellion that LGBT history is essentially divided by two chronological spheres: Before Stonewall and After Stonewall.

The Boys in the Band, a ground breaking play by Mart Crowley, landed right in the middle of the pre and post-Stonewall era. Originally produced for the stage in April 1968 at The Playwrights Unit, a theater founded by playwright Edward Albee in downtown Manhattan, The Boys in the Band was a blunt and incisive commentary about the lives of gay men. The diverse emotional profiles of the plays’ characters emphasized the breadth of attitudes gay men had towards each other and about themselves, equal parts pride and self-loathing.

The Stonewall rebellion of June 1969 had only recently ensued by the time The Boys in the Band arrived in selected movie theatres in 1970. With a screenplay written by Crowley and directed by William Friedken, the cinematic translation of The Boys in the Band contained all the wit and starkness of the source material yet, less than 24 months after the play’s debut, it represented a community whose identity was undergoing a radical change. Director Crayton Robey (When Ocean Meets Sky, 2006) explores this dynamic in Making the Boys, a documentary that tells the story of how The Boys in the Band evolved from words on a page to the stage to screen and into history as a defining historical document of gay men in the mid-20th century.

Interviews with Mart Crowley, Edward Albee, cast members from the film, and a host of other personalities and significant figures explain why The Boys in the Band was important 40 years ago and still remains a vital reference point in a history that, for far too long, was marginalized or completely ignored in the text books.

“From a political point of view”, Robey says, “some people would like to rewrite that history. You need to know who the pioneers are that came before you. We have eye-witnesses who were there. We need to know our history because it gives us much more power in terms of where we are today and we see just how far we’ve come and just how far we haven’t come”.

That history was told on 27 April when the Tribeca Film Festival debuted Making the Boys, presented through the Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca All Access On Track initiative. While preparing for the Tribeca screening festivities, Crayton Robey gave PopMatters some insight about what fuels his creative process in this edition of 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Slumdog Millionaire (2008). That brought some tears to my eyes. You see people going through such horrific hardships. Your little daily life and your little issues, they mean something, but in the scheme of things, we are so blessed.

2. The fictional character most like you?

When I was an actor, I loved playing Alan Strang in “Equus”. Like Alan, I have a passion for life and a passion for art and theater and film.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life(1976). It captures your imagination. It’s romantic, it’s a little political, it’s classic. That has a lot of wisdom for me.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I’m not really a Trekkie or a Warrie. If I would have to pick, maybe Star Wars but I don’t really know why. I’m not really a fan.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I’m thinking of something like kale with ginger, garlic, a little olive oil and a little lemon. It cleanses everything and it gets your palette fresh and it’s easy to digest. The taste is great.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I guess I’m sentimental but I’m proud of this country at this particular moment. People are really paying attention to their environment, their world, their communities, their politics, education. This is deep. This is an interesting moment. People are enlightened. I kind of dig being on the planet right now. People aren’t walking around asleep. They’re totally awake.

7. You want to be remembered for…??

My honesty. My truth. I don’t care if I’m really remembered for my warmth, that really doesn’t do anything for anybody but if I leave a little bit of the truth, that’s enough. My respect for people and things and the past.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi. My friend Al D. Rodriguez was outstanding. My grandfather because he was a powerful and loving.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Honestly, Alex Haley’s Roots (1977). I wish that I had done that, giving people that opportunity to discover themselves and their culture. I think he provided the world with a gift about African American culture, society, tradition. I think he laid it out really nicely, I just wish it had been me!

10. Your hidden talents…?

I do have a lot of talents. I think I’m just a creative being. I don’t know if they’re really hidden. I’m a good sneezer. It would get me out of class in school, I know that.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

You are enough. Just do you. Don’t do anybody else.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I think my education is the best thing.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

I feel very comfortable in clothes. I don’t care what they are. I can go from Levis to Armani in a second. I am a clothes-horse. I love fashion. I love dressing up, dressing down, dressing in.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I’d have my friends Sara Ramirez, Carson, Marlow, Lisa, Carlos, Darcey, Harriett, and Christopher there. I’d have Oprah Winfrey there. I’d have Barack Obama there. I’d have Michele Obama there. Beyoncé. It’d be a nice dinner party.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I’d go back to the ’70s. I’d want to be everywhere. I think that was such a sexy time to be alive and I just want to know what that felt like. I want to know what it felt like being a man coming of age at that particular time without knowing anything about AIDS, with this whole introduction of life that you can do and be anything.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Spa vacation. It just does it.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Love is essential. Nothing else.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

My favorite place in the world is New York City. That’s my all-time favorite place. I love the diversity of people and cultures. I love the energy. I love the magic, the history, the pulse, the beat, the smell, the excitement, the hunger, the grime, the dirt, the possibility, the edge, the heart, soul, the pace. I love the city. To be mixed in it and able to do the things you do is a gift.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Thank you for taking on this tremendous responsibility. I believe in you. I will do whatever I can to make this world a better place. I will inspire any of my peers and my community to do the same. I’m committed. You have my unconditional support.

Photo courtesy of 4th Row Films

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of projects. Of course, Making the Boys. I’ve been developing and working on a screenplay called Pines ’79, which is absolutely fantastic. It’s written. I do have a team that I’ve been working with but I’m ready to take it out in the world to really make it happen. I just decided to direct it, too. That was what was holding me up.

I’m going to be working on a few projects with Carson Kressley. I also just started this foundation called The Al D. Rodriguez Liver Foundation that is in honor of my friend Al who passed away. It was established with a group of friends. That’s exciting because we’re able to keep Al’s memory and spirit alive through the foundation and to do really great outreach with so many different communities to bring awareness to hepatitis as well as anything arts-related.

We’ve got such a cool group of people on that board. Everybody has a different kind of background. There’s some performers. There’s some doctors. There’s some filmmakers. There are some singers. It’s like a gay family and we want to do something to give back to others what he gave to us. We are determined to make this work and see it evolve because of who he was.

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