Interview with Dave Deveau (My Funny Valentine)
by Leah Bailly (Some Reckless Abandon)
Dave Deveau, playwright and star of “My Funny Valentine” is a bit of a boy-wonder. Star of Nickelodeon TV shows and operatic librettist (he writes the words), his work spans multiple genres and over two decades. His film “Belly” is currently touring festivals in four continents, and his theatre has been produced by such greats as the uber-hip Buddies in Bad Times. A recent graduate of UBC’s playwriting MFA, Dave is returning for his second SummerWorks festival. I took a moment to ask Dave a few questions about his latest work:
1. Your piece, “My Funny Valentine” is based on the tragic murder of Lawrence King in his Oxnard, California middle school. What first drew you to this story as the basis for your one-person play?
To be honest, I had never really conceived of writing this play. I first encountered the story while watching an episode of Ellen’s talk show in February of last year (which has transferred into the play). The show is usually upbeat and goofy but got quite solemn for a moment while she talked about Lawrence’s murder. I became hugely emotional, but was mostly incensed that I hadn’t heard about this story before – that media outlets weren’t outraged by the tragedy of it all. Over the course of 2008 I finally decided that I needed to write about it as no one else seemed to be, but my relationship to the material was still so emotional and raw that I couldn’t fathom coming to the page with it. It’s been one heck of a journey being able to come to the material without getting tied up in strictly the emotion.
2. The death of Lawrence King has raised awareness regarding hate crimes, and many gay and lesbian rights groups are labeling this murder as such. However, the family of Lawrence King appears to be against classifying Larry’s murder as a “hate crime”. What are your feelings on this?
This was part of my real fuel to write the piece. As the details of the legal aftermath came out, I was shocked. Larry was bold enough to come out at age 10 and then his own family decided to deny a huge part of him? Unacceptable. It’s not just that they haven’t been using the word “hate crime”, but to go on record saying their son was not gay is too much.
3. What kinds of research were required for you to craft your play “My Funny Valentine”, and how did you know which sources to trust?
I started at the core – the first articles that came out in Malibu papers outlining that a student had been shot and that no one really knew why. And then day by day the articles get more detailed and more horrifying. A major article in Newsweek, which was one of the first to do major coverage, stirred up much controversy when the journalist suggested that Lawrence was “wielding his sexuality like a weapon” – certainly that got the gay press involved in a huge way.
On the flipside I’ve watched countless video responses of gay teens in the US who just felt moved and needed to talk to the world on YouTube. Everyone has an opinion, and sifting through all of them you slowly start putting the facts together.
4. How careful have you been in reconstructing this story according to the real events? Nonfiction/fiction: how did you reconcile the gaps in what you know?
The show is constructed around my own connection to Lawrence – a haunting of sorts. So within that frame, the events themselves are intact. Obviously in writing a show you’re creating voice for people you don’t know and as such there are fictionalized relationships, perhaps, but not fabrications. I’ve chosen characters who, for the most part, aren’t right at the centre of the events but have a passionate relationship to them. People who’ve been referred to in articles, but whose voices have never quite emerged – that’s been my focus.
5. There has been much speculation since the murder of Lawrence King about the age at which young men and women are coming out as gay. How does your show deal with the themes of coming out, and (if you can) how can you comment on the fact that gay youth are coming out earlier than ever?
The show touches on coming out at early ages and I think it’s a fantastic thing. If young people are able to come into their own at an earlier age, it gives them more opportunity to really discover themselves, which sounds so trite until you look at the statistics of gay teen suicide. These stats came up in earlier drafts of this piece, and they’re staggering – ten year olds hanging themselves because they feel they’ll never be able to come out to their families! Horrible shocking stories. It’s fascinating to hear people in articles and responses to articles go on about how children at that age don’t know what they want, and yet we have young heterosexual boys and girls who have “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” in grade 1 and some parents think it’s adorable. If these straight models are encouraged at young ages, then why not alternatives? It’s up to us to provide that support, that encouragement. (And now I’ll hop off my soapbox.)
6. The trial for the murder of Lawrence King is just beginning now (July 2009). What impact do you think this has on your play, and how will it resonate with future performances?
A lot can happen before opening – there just might be some last minute changes. We had a moment mid-rehearsal the other day to acknowledge the beginning of the trial. It’s strange in a way: half a continent away we’re digging into the emotional and personal core, while they’re analyzing the factual and legal core.
7. Why did you choose theatre as the genre for this particular story. I know you work in opera and film. Why is the stage the best venue here?
I think the Lawrence King story could work in any genre, really. But for these purposes, I want to personally engage with the audience: just me and a few props. Yes, there are other characters being performed, but ultimately it’s about my own connection to the material, my deafening rage, my sadness and inviting the audience to invest in the story in the way I have: “This is what got me… what do you think?” That’s hard to achieve on film certainly, and in opera as well, which is a much bigger medium. This is a tiny show in a tiny space and it requires that immediacy and intimacy.
8. Small theatre festivals (and audiences) often shy away from dramas, and tend towards comedy or sketch theatre. How do you find the balance between entertaining and working with heavier themes?
I don’t think that’s the case with SummerWorks audiences. I had a drama in the festival two years ago (Nelly Boy) and we had good houses. SW audiences are here to see good, well-thought out, and often challenging theatre, which looking at the programming this year they’ll get en masse. Much of the audience base is made up of regular theatre-goers. It’s a different crowd than a Fringe audience, in a way, not that there’s anything wrong with Fringe audiences, I’ve been a part of them for years!
But my show has its share of laughs as well. As with everything, all dark has light and vice versa. It’s impossible to engage in something if it’s strictly going to take you down the rabbit hole.
9. Why a one-person show for this piece?
I don’t think of this as a solo show – the audience is the second performer. Much of the piece is direct-address and it’s really me trying to engage them into this world, this story. It’s so very current, that I want people to know about it, and follow it – that’s how change happens.
10. How does it feel to be performing your own work? And why did you choose to perform this piece, and return to acting after a long stint away?
Terrifying. Absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying. But freeing when in rehearsal my director shows me that the text doesn’t necessarily sound the way I’ve always thought it did in my mind. But after a lot of time away from the stage, something this close to me, this relevant to me and the world I inhabit, seemed like the only way to do it return.