Controversy fuels sports discussion in America. From Deflategate to Marshawn Lynch's press conference answers, the modern 24-hour sports news cycle always needs new fodder to feed the fire. But sometimes, the most socially relevant sporting controversies fall outside of the mainstream's purview. Such was the case of the 2008 Gay World Series of Softball in Seattle. Before the championship game, a team from San Francisco was accused of having too many heterosexual players on its roster. The players in question were bisexual, but after an impromptu inquisition, the squad was disqualified. The controversy eventually led to a federal discrimination lawsuit, which ended with a settlement that recognized the team as the tournament's rightful runner-up.
The incident serves an the inspiration for the new play John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter, which premieres next week as part of this year's Intiman Theatre Festival. Co-written by Ana Brown and Intiman Theatre's artistic director Andrew Russell, the comedy touches on universal issues of identity and inclusion. John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter opens Thursday, August 20 at the Cornish Playhouse.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Russell about the origins of John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter, Intiman Theatre Festival's social mission, and three-dimensionality of Seattle artists.
How did the idea for John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter come about?
Ana Brown, who is a local screenwriter, first started work on the story about four years ago as a screenplay. Very much inspired by the events, but not necessarily adhering strictly to what happened in “real life.” I joined her as an advisor for a little bit, and then, after months of conversation, she asked if I would work with her on writing it. So we began writing it as a screenplay—which it still exists, we’ve gotten some traction in the film community and hope to one day make it into a movie—but along the way we also decided that it would make a really interesting play and would really fit with the patrons and community that attend the Intiman Festival. So that’s how it transitioned into becoming a theatrical piece.
What most excites you about the play?
From the beginning, Anna and I have been fascinated with the conversation that it sparks. Because it really does focus on a specific community—a group of gay men playing in the Gay Softball World Series—but through that specific story, it tells a universal American story about inclusion and exclusion, what it means to create safe spaces, what happens when safe spaces are no longer safe, and in many ways what happens when the majority wants in, so to speak. Which is obviously a conversation that a lot of cities are having, and, very specifically, Seattle is having.
So it’s a hysterical, big comedy, but it does pack a gut-punch at the end, and makes people really think about where they’re going to bend in order to play some ball. There’s something interesting about the All-American pastime of playing ball as a metaphor for what we’re all gonna have to do for as long as there is a planet Earth, which is get along and share space. Because there’s nowhere left to go.
Maybe Mars, but I think that’ll take a little more time to develop.
What’s your process when collaboratively writing, as opposed to just writing on your own?
What’s thrilling about working with someone that has a history of writing like Ana is that you constantly have a sounding board and you constantly have a support. I’m not primarily a writer, although I’m doing more of it, and it’s very lonely. I mean, you’re a writer, you know what it feels like to just drink coffee all day and just think about what the fuck that Word document’s gonna do. So [it’s great] being able to always have someone that holds you accountable, and if there are days when you’re not coming up with a good idea, they probably will. And you’ve got a really good filtration system: ‘cause if it means a lot to one person, it’s gonna stay in, if it means a lot to two people, it’s sure as hell gonna stay in, but if two pairs of eyes aren’t excited about it, then it’s gonna go.
Also, I’m a gay man who’s 32 who grew up in the Midwest, so my relationship to a story about gay softball players is different than Anna, who is a mother of two kids, and who’s straight, and who’s married. We both help each other in ensuring that we’re creating a story that actually is quite acceptable to anyone. When we did the workshop earlier this spring, most of our audience members were taken aback at how they saw themselves in it. We’ve got a straight couple with kids that wrestles with how to deal with this issue, we’ve got a straight man, we’ve got gay players… so it really is a big American play as much as it is a play about gay softball.
How would you asses the current state of the Intiman Theatre Festival?
It’s great! What’s exciting about right now is that the more mission-driven we get, the more positive response we receive. There are many others in the community doing this, but it’s clear that our audiences and community are hungry for stories about outsiders, stories with people of color onstage, and stories that are really epic and big and challenging and ask us to think about what on Earth we’re all doing together as humans. So that’s really motivating.
It’s also a fun time for us, because we’re trying new things. We’ve launched our emerging artists program, which is training 30 people who haven’t otherwise been able to cut into the professional theater world. We define "emerging" by a variety of terms, primarily people of color who may have hit a glass ceiling within their community or haven’t been able to enter the professional industry, or people that are shifting from one sector to another. It’s an eight-week program that includes mentoring, classes and master classes, and designated time for rehearsal and the development of a piece.
We also just successfully finished our first big show off of Seattle Center, which we did up at 12th Avenue Arts in Orpheus Descending. In many ways, we’re hitting our stride now as a socially progressive theater.
So what are your goals for the festival going forward?
Primarily it’s diversifying who you see on our stage, who’s making the work, and who’s on our staff and our board. That will take longer than any of us want, but we’re making really great strides in that direction. So that’s a really big priority for us while we continue to choose projects that are relevant and that speak to us.
If you weren't doing theater, is there another line of work you'd want to pursue?
I wanted to be a standup comedian when I was a little kid, and that quickly morphed into acting. I would love to be Terry Gross on NPR. That would be the coolest thing ever.
I really like writing—it’s really fun. Seattle is a city that embraces three-dimensional artists. I moved here from New York, which is a city where you frequently have to be very good at one thing to be successful. The success of Seattle rests on people who are doing multiple things once: producing, writing, directing. And that’s kind of what the regional cities are meant to do.
How has Seattle influenced your approach to arts?
What’s exciting is that there’s so much intersectionality, if that’s a word. I think that what makes Seattle unique is when there’s the blend, when things cross over. Seattle’s very prepped to do that. I’ll see something at the Film Forum or at On the Boards that will inform my theater-making as much as my theater training or theater that I’m seeing. I also think it’s an incredibly rich and complicated time to be here in this city, as it grows so damn quickly. I don’t think that’s something to run away from, because it’s not gonna change. But rather, how do we amplify the conversations so that our city grows appropriately? And by “appropriately” I don’t mean that there’s any right or wrong way, but that the arts and culture sector keeps up with the conversation.
John Baxter is a Switch Hitter
Aug 18–Sept 27, Cornish Playhouse, $25–$60