Inside the community hall of Mount Vernon’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church gather a group of thespians, singers and dancers. It is a mid-week run through of “Pray the Gay Away,” with only five more rehearsals before opening night. The scene being worked on as I entered was one of the more serious and pivotal to this musical, examining the controversial practice of gay conversion therapy. It is being billed as “a serious musical comedy” with a musical score reminiscent of the pop ‘80s sound mixed with soulful ballads, “a full-blooded musical with an irreverently comic heart.”
“Pray the Gay Away” takes place in small town Minnesota during the early 1980s. Through musical storytelling and satire it depicts a fictional conflict of beliefs and identities between the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s theology that “homosexual behavior is intrinsically sinful” and a Youth Pride LGBTQ support group fighting for human rights.
The local community, caught in the middle, deals with the collision. Lindsey Bowen, theatrical director brings her energy and passion to the stage production. She explained, “Our cast is made up of 43 actors who are diverse in age, gender and social backgrounds. This blend has proven to bring a great amount of passion and discussion throughout the rehearsal process and to this production.” As I watched from the wings, I witnessed this passion and dedication.
Afterwards, I sat down with the mastermind, creative and musical director Conrad Askland, to talk about this timely play, from inception to world premiere production. This is Askland’s fourth full-length musical and, he said, “by far my best work.” Askland took a two-year hiatus from his career as musical director of Cirque du Soleil and Rock of Ages to write and develop “Pray the Gay Away.”
“It is not the show I want to do but the show I have to do,” he says rather openly and humbly. “This is a story that has to be told. We are seeing a roll back in the rights of LGBTQ community. It’s not just about gay rights, it’s about human rights.”
The seed thought of this story began years ago, while he was working as a musical director to Rock of Ages aboard a cruise ship. After a cast member shared his tale of undergoing conversion therapy, Askland began to research the topic. He learned both sides of the controversy, leading him to write about it in the best expression he knew how, musical theater. In the words of Willy Nelson, “music is a common denominator that brings us all together. It cuts through boundaries and goes right to the soul.”
Asked “why premier a play of this magnitude in the Skagit Valley?” Askland replied, “This is my home, my family is here, my theatre family is here. And besides, change starts in your own corner.” The Theater Arts Guild agreed and without hesitation agreed to produce the play. Other local alliances quickly formed, with PFLAG Skagit, Burlington Lutheran Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Skagit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship uniting to “generate support and champion LGBTQ and all human rights” said Matt Bianconi, the play’s producer.
A TAG member, Bianconi finds the message of this play as extremely relevant, “bringing a discussion to the stage highlighting the conflict between some religious beliefs and gay rights, something so many people have struggled with.”
With Askland focused on the production, I asked Bianconi his wish for the future of the play. “It is worthy of national attention, for sure,” he smiles. “But our main goal is to reach others who are struggling, let them know they are not alone and hope they feel connected within this local community.”
Bianconi said he and Bowen have found “the community support has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive.” While the play may expose the horrors of conversion therapy and the damage it causes, it also is about redemption and reveals to the audience a message of hope, of connection and of inclusion.
Askland confessed he pondered the question, “When people see this, will they still feel the same?”
“Pray the Gay Away” is a beautiful, humorous and heart-breaking story that may have the audience leaving the theater with more questions than they entered with at the beginning. May new conversations begin.