Q+A: Frank Anthony Polito, NYC Stage Actor and Author of Band Fags
Frank Antonio Polito, has written several young adult novels and plays, blogged, written for Instinct Magazine and acted. He works hard to portray LGBT characters in normal, though dramatic, culturally acceptable “straight” settings like you might imagine on mainstream shows like Pretty Little Liars, The Carrie Diaries, Hannah Montana or Gossip Girl. As a fan of young adult series, despite being an adult [*blush*…*hide Vampire Diaries from my iPad viewing history*], I really had to talk to him about his awesome work!
How does New York, the city which can be a big character itself in shows like Law & Order and Sex and the City, play a part in your work, whether the stories are set there or about people who might fit in around Manhattan?
All the novels I’ve written are set in the Detroit area, where I grew up. But the protagonist in DRAMA QUEERS!, Bradley Dayton, is an aspiring actor with the dream of getting out of his tiny hometown of “Hazeltucky” and moving to New York City to become famous. In DQs there’s a chapter where Brad travels to NYC to audition for the Juilliard School of Drama. I based this scene on my first visit to New York City when I was 19 years old, and tried to capture that feeling of being in big, new, wonderful world filled with so much possibility – and other gay people – and knowing you belong there.
Apologies if this comparison is bad. When I saw the description about “Band Fags,” your book, I thought of “The Carrie Diaries” because both are set int he 1980’s and seem to cover young people coming of age and caring obsessively like teens do, about love. Do you see a similarity at all too?
Not a bad comparison at all! When first I heard about THE CARRIE DIARIES and it being set in the ‘80s, I knew that I had to watch. There is definitely a similarity with BAND FAGS! as both rely heavily on pop culture – particularly music – to set the tone. In BFs every chapter is titled after a popular ‘80s song, and the story itself is chock-full of ‘80s references. When you’re a teenager pop culture is your life. Especially in the ‘80s when there was no Internet or Facebook or Twitter to occupy your time. And love – so important to a teen of any time period! But in the ‘80s, you had to pick up the phone if you wanted to talk to someone. You couldn’t text, email, or instant message them when you were lying in bed, under the covers, late at night.
Can the word “fag” ever be used positively? People differ a lot on this answer so nothing you might say is ever wrong.
When I chose the title of my first book, I didn’t even consider that it might be an issue. To me, a “Band Fag” is someone who plays in the school band. It’s a compound word and has nothing to do with being gay. But the word “fag” by itself, I realize, is a different story. Kids today will use words like “fag” and “gay” to mean “stupid.” In a way I think it’s great that these words have taken on a new meaning – but why can’t saying “That’s so gay!” mean “That’s so cool!”? I hear young African-American guys calling each other the N-word all the time. But I don’t know if they’d appreciate a white dude calling them that. Me, I won’t even spell out the N-word, let alone say it. And yet I have no trouble writing the word F-A-G. Maybe it’s because, after so many years, I’m finally proud to be one?
Do you base your work on your real experiences or do you hate doing that, opting for taking on fiction or other people’s life experiences?
When I began writing, I did base my work on my own personal experiences. I would just change the names – “to protect the guilty,” and liven things up a bit at the boring parts. But more and more, I’ve taken to writing totally original stories – though there is still a part of ME in the characters and the events that take place. For example, in my first Young Adult novel LOST IN THE ‘90s, the protagonist is a teenage boy who’s the singer in a ‘90s cover band, and he travels back in time to 1994 on the eve of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I’ve never been in a band, nor have I ever traveled back in time. BUT… I lived through 1994. I will say that writing about your own experience is easy, but making things up is a lot more fun.
Why do you think if there are so many good LGBT themed teen screenplays and books to turn into great TV movies that so few are made? ABC Family, Disney and The CW could seriously benefit from this kind of work!
This is a GREAT question! When BFs first came out, I was contacted by a producer who wanted to pitch it as a TV series. He said that ABC Family was open to doing a show with a gay teen protagonist. Unfortunately they passed, deciding they were only developing shows about teen girls. However, 5 years later we still don’t have a TV show with a gay teen protagonist. I honestly think it’s because being gay is based on sexual identity. If you take away the SEX element, what do you have? To me, this is a ridiculous way of thinking. Why can’t we have a show about JUST being a teenager– and the main teen character just happens to be gay? I think it’s because being gay is still so much of an “issue” in itself. Once it no longer is, then maybe things will change.
What have you learned from your real life work that you never learned from getting a master’s degree in writing?
My MFA is in Dramatic Writing. I didn’t study novel-writing in school, so I was never taught how to write prose, ie “narrative.” But I usually write in first person, so I consider everything in the story as “dialogue.” The narrator is telling the story, much in a way that an actor would perform a one-person show. What I have learned from “life” is that it’s all about WHO you know. It’s an old cliché, but so true. I always advise aspiring writers to get out there and meet people – like editors and agents, and other writers who can recommend them to agents and editors. But I’m terrible at following my own advice. I hate so-called networking.
How did you identify yourself differently when you performed in drag for “One Angry Man” versus your daily life as a man in male dress?
When I was hired to play the role of Iris, I was told that the character was a “transvestite.” But when I read the script, I didn’t see her that way. I believed she was “transgendered” and this is how I played her: as a WOMAN. Yes, the film is a comedy. But I couldn’t consciously go for the laughs. I couldn’t play Iris as “a man in a dress.” On set, there were a few other actors, straight males, who I could tell were uncomfortable around me. I don’t know if it’s because they were homophobic, or they thought I dressed in drag on a daily basis, or they found me attractive! I never went as far as using the ladies room – but to be honest, I didn’t feel right using the men’s. I imagine this is how most transgendered people feel all the time.
People joke meanly about drama and theater being part of the gay world, but there is no denying that while many people in films are straight, many more are gay. What are the positives, rather than the negatives people want to see, about the LGBT presence in cinema and on the stage? And in your case, the stage and literature?
What I want to see, personally, is a gay character who is NOT a stereotype being played by an openly gay actor. It’s fine to cast someone like Rob James-Collier as the gay footman on DOWNTON ABBEY, I love him! But why did the part have to go to a straight actor? Out of all the gay actors in the business, they couldn’t find one who could play the role just as well? I think this comes down to homophobia on the part of casting directors – most of whom are gay themselves. It’s as if they get off on having “power” over the straight men. In terms of literature, I think a lot of gay writers just want to write stories about gay people – and not stories about people being gay.
On the other hand, what helped you prepare for your work that you did learn in college?
Again, I studied Dramatic Writing – plays and screenplays – which relies heavily on dialogue. And I’ve gotten a lot of praise for the dialogue in my novels because of the training I received. I also studied Acting for many years, so I’m able to read my dialogue aloud and get a good sense as to whether it sounds “real” or not. I also learned a lot about dramatic structure in graduate school. This has helped a great deal when plotting out a new novel. I never used to write from an outline. Now I always do.