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Gay Marriage Play '8' Goes National During 2012

NEW YORK—
For anyone who missed the star-studded, one-night-only Broadway debut of the gay marriage play "8" or can't get to Los Angeles this spring to see George Clooney lead a West Coast version, there's hope: The play is coming to a theater near you.

The only bad news -- no Clooney.

The pro-gay marriage American Foundation for Equal Rights and partner Broadway Impact are sponsoring dozens of productions of Dustin Lance Black's play starring local actors across the country this election year. It'll be shown in states where marriage battles loom, including Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Adam Umhoefer, the foundation's project director, said the glitzy Broadway show and upcoming California counterpart help fund getting the play mounted elsewhere. "Those big tent-pole shows bring attention to the play so that all these other groups across the country can work on their productions," he said.

The play is mostly culled from the transcripts of the 2010 federal court battle that dealt with the legality of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in California.

Black's play was first performed on Broadway as a one-time benefit reading in September starring Morgan Freeman, Ellen Barkin, Anthony Edwards, Bradley Whitford, John Lithgow, Cheyenne Jackson, Christine Lahti and Rob Reiner, who is developing a film based on the trial. The Broadway event raised more than $1 million and Clooney will lead his own starry version in Los Angeles on March 3.

The trial is important to gay activists because former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson and attorney David Boies -- who represented opposing sides in the disputed 2000 presidential election -- put on a powerfully clear argument in favor of same-sex marriage. It was recorded but Prop. 8 backers have so far succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to bar broadcast of the landmark case.

That's spurred AFER and Broadway Impact to get "8" out into the nation. While they insist the play is fair to opponents, "8" clearly champions same-sex unions mostly because those who support gay marriage marshaled the most powerful arguments at trial. The judge in the case sided with gay rights activists and ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional, but the decision has been appealed.

After the Broadway reading, a test version was produced at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in November, which featured a mix of alumni and students led by Michigan graduate and Tony Award-winner Gavin Creel. The question everyone wanted answered was: Would the play work without big stars or established actors?

"The answer was overwhelmingly yes," said Umhoefer, who traveled to Michigan to see the performance. "It worked. It played. It convinced us that it didn't need John Lithgow up there to make this play have impact."

Some of the first productions this year will be in New Hampshire, where gay-rights activists are fighting an attempt to repeal the state's gay-marriage law. "8" will be performed at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., on Feb. 7 and then three days later at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H.

"In places where there is specific action being taken -- where marriage equality is going to become a reality or going to be prohibited legally, or perhaps, in the case of New Hampshire, repealed -- that is a focus and where we want to make sure this play is seen and heard," said Umhoefer.

More than 40 readings are scheduled from now until November in more than 17 states so far. It will be produced by colleges such as Stanford University in California, Towson University in Maryland and the University of Toledo in Ohio to theater companies such as the Uptown Players in Dallas and the American Repertory Theatre outside Boston. It will also be included in the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"We wanted to have some more flexibility and respond to different events that are happening at different places and be able to do it throughout the year," said Ben Pelteson of Broadway Impact. Many productions will include talkback discussions.

The play will get two showings at PlayMakers Repertory Company, the theater-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first will be April 9 and the second will be May 8, the same day voters in that state vote decide whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

"We look at this as an opportunity to start and carry on a conversation with our community and our students," said A. McKay Coble, the university's chair of the Department of Dramatic Art, who says she suspects it may trigger some controversy on campus. "My job is to unsettle settled minds."

The cast will include professional actors, graduate and undergraduate students, company members and even city officials including the mayor. The school hopes both sides in the debate will have a place at the table. "It's very important for us to have it be eclectic," said Dan VanHoozer, one of the three producers.

Opponents of gay marriage have largely ignored the play in favor of fighting their battles in court. Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, wrote in an email to The Associated Press that she has "no problem" with the rollout and questioned whether it will have much impact.

"It's not really a play and normal audiences will find it kind of dull," wrote Gallagher, who attended the Broadway reading and watched herself portrayed on stage by Jayne Houdyshell. "It won't affect any court cases."

Representatives from AFER and Broadway Impact will try to attend the shows but have also sent each producer packets of material on how best to stage "8." One obvious aid won't be available: A video recording of the Broadway production so far hasn't been released because there are too many legal hurdles.

With or without the recording, the Intiman Theatre in Seattle plans to put on "8" in June as supporters of gay marriage in Washington push to get gay marriage through the legislature this year.

Andrew Russell, artistic director of the Intman, says that "8" is "a thorough, textured, timely, gut-punch of a play" that "raises the right questions and personalizes the driving forces on either side of this important debate."

Even though the Intiman is struggling financially to open its doors this season, Russell stands by putting on the potentially controversial play. "I hope this event helps spark discussion, foster productive debate and build support for this important movement," he says.

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