Frank De Julio talks about his experience as a co-author and actor in UNNATURAL ACTS.Who do you play in UNNATURAL ACTS? Can you describe your character's role in the play?
I play Keith Percy Smerage. He is a transfer student from Tufts University, which automatically makes him an outcast among the boys at Harvard, and he is an aspiring actor whose passion is endless. I see him as a bleeding heart with a desperate need to be accepted, who falls in love for the first time in the play.
How do you relate or connect with him?
I connect with him on so many levels. From the research we know that he was very close with and had great love for his family. He was an artist who desperately wanted to better himself and tap into his full potential. In the letters he wrote to his mother, Grace Smerage, he had self-esteem and confidence issues. He came from a working class family and had to really learn how to survive. I moved to NYC two weeks after graduating from high school when I was 17, on my own, without knowing anyone. I lived in a hostel for a year and I have been here for seven years now. The questions on my mind since the day I arrived here have been: "How can I get closer to what I want out of life?" In this way, I believe Keith and I are a lot alike. I have been working on this character on a daily basis for the past two years. He has honestly helped me become a better person and artist. He has made me fully realize that acting is about paying tribute to the person you are playing. Truly. Serving that person and giving them as much credit as possible.
Please tell us about your role as one of the co-authors of the play. What has the process been like for you as both a writer and an actor?
When Tony offered me the role of Keith I was thrilled. I had no idea what I was in for and how special this would become to me. I quickly became obsessed with Keith. I had never considered myself a writer. I tried to help create a person who did not get a chance he deserved in life, by finally giving him the chance he deserved. The process as a writer and actor has been a very interesting one. We have been working on it for so long now and gone though so many different variations of structure, arch and character development, that every word in this play brings back at least five memories I have from the past two years. I always work better on my feet and a lot of this play was inspired by improvisation sessions we had at the beginning of our process (4 hour sessions 5 days a week doing writing work and on our feet improving in character). That's where I really found Keith.
Why do you think this play is important?
This is a story that has been hidden for the last 91 years. It needs to be heard. The men who went through this horrible event deserve to have their story told.
If you wanted the audience to take away one thing from UNNATURAL ACTS, what would that be?
The reality that this event actually happened and there are so many other stories out there like this that we have no idea about. And unfortunately, they are still happening today.
This interview appears in CSC's CLASSIC Newsletter. What made you want to bring this story to the stage?
As a gay man, learning of this story, I think I felt very fortunate. I was raised in Kentucky in a conservative environment. However, in high school I found a way to survive within that system, and actually connected with like-minded people who were discovering their sexuality at the same time. I feel like I was able to bypass a lot of discrimination that many of my friends, and certainly my older friends from generations just prior, had experienced. So, I think I had a healthy teenage and college life—I felt pretty open. And what struck me about the Secret Court story was that, in contrast to my own experience, here was a group of young men in 1920 who were ahead of their time, and despite the fact that they had found each other, and found a way of communicating—sharing their ideas, their desires and passions with each other—they couldn’t survive, and the system destroyed them. This touched me deeply and emotionally. Thinking about how lucky I have been to live in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries and how wrong the timing was for these young men, I wanted to give tribute and memorial to them, because I recognized similarities in my own friends and in myself. I often wondered how I would have reacted and what I would have done if confronted with the same circumstances.
How close are the 11 men we meet on the stage of CSC to the men that are in the trial transcripts? And how did you go about imagining their lives beyond the transcripts, evidence and correspondence?
Although there are over 500 pages of documents, to call them “transcripts” is inaccurate, because they are often shorthand and sparse notations of the interrogations. Correspondence included from students or their families to the deans were written after the fact. The records of the trials themselves are somewhat cryptic. So when you try to create characters from those records, you look at their life: what you know of their lives during their time at Harvard, and then their journeys after their school experience, or how their lives end. And most of these endings were tragic. But for instance, we see that one of the men who most likely was not a homosexual, was found guilty by close association with the others, and he was expelled and readmitted a year later to finish his degree. He was on the debate team and a student representative while at Harvard, and eventually went on to become a prominent federal judge. So you start to piece together a trajectory for him based on what you know, and you can see he was very interested in politics and law, and as an artist you can imagine that perhaps this event radically altered his perception of justice.
The eleven men appearing on the stage of CSC are an imaginative representation of what we know of the eleven men we read about in the transcripts. And of course this play was written collaboratively with a group of writers who are also actors so they bring their own personalities and their own desires and drives—all of that imagination mingles together in a beautiful way.
Can you talk about the way you and the Plastic Theatre developed this play?
This play had several phases. The first was research. We, individually and together as a group, did an enormous amount of research about the time period of the teens and twenties—from culture trends, meaning the music they listened to, the dance styles they had, silent films that were just being created—to what was occurring locally in Boston and nationally with the Spanish Flu epidemic and Prohibition, for instance—to the global crisis of The Great War, what we now call WWI. We looked at life at Harvard under then President A. Lawrence Lowell and the focus of his administration. And then we researched what it may have been like to be a homosexual at that time, but actually people weren’t identified as such, it was considered a disease. And of course we had the actual archival documents, that are fragments and sometimes barely legible, so it took hours, weeks and sometimes months to crack a phrase or sentence that would give us clues about a character or event. Even now there are still discrepancies and missing pieces of the puzzle that we will never know. And from all of this, we began to create a world for the play, a pool of knowledge that became shared information in the group.
The next phase was a process of daily improvisations and exercises that were built on creating an ensemble, a group of men, a society. And we applied that research and those fragments we knew about the characters on our feet, while improvising certain events and situations that we discussed previously or that I would suggest to the group. And a structure slowly started to emerge that the writer-actors would inhabit. Sometimes we recorded the work and reviewed it later, or transcribed it. Then we’d read it and compress it, and return to improvisations again, generating more and more material.
Next we went into a process of rewriting, editing and further distilling the play, and after a year we then pared down to a smaller writing group within the Plastic Theatre—myself, playwright Nick Norman, dramaturg Heather Denyer, and three actors who are in the cast, Jess Burkle, Joe Curnutte and Jerry Marsini. Over the course of several months we refined the structure, dialog and events of the script to sculpt the play that appears on CSC’s stage.
Beyond recovering voices that have been silenced, which, in and of itself, is an important reason to encounter this play, what else do you hope an audience will take away?
UNNATURAL ACTS represents an examination of a specific group of people at a very specific moment in our country’s history, who struggled under severe circumstances. And what I find beautiful about this story is that it contains a lot of life and love and sensuality and intelligence. It’s a story about brotherhood. And I think anyone can relate to having a close-knit group of friends. The play is as much about life as it is about death, but death is also a very important character. Death brings things into perspective. My hope is that anyone who comes to see the play, and I think everyone will find at least a character to whom he or she relates, will be moved by the characters’ vibrancy. And I hope that the events of the play—which are horrifying—will bring attention to the hate and intolerance that is still very much a part of the experience of many gay, lesbian, questioning youths any minority really—who are searching for a way to live a genuine life. And hopefully the play will help us all find a more open and tolerant future.
An interview with Amit Paley, the student journalist who broke the story of the Secret Court in Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson. This interview appears in CSC's CLASSIC Newsletter.How did you originally discover the Secret Court?
I was doing research in the Harvard University archives when I came across a strange entry labeled “Secret Court, 1920.” There was a short, cryptic description that raised far more questions than it answered. But it was enough to make clear that there was an incredible story buried deep in the files of the university.
In your Crimson article you mentioned that Harvard initially denied your request to review the Secret Court files. Can you speak about why they resisted and how you ultimately won the appeal?
Harvard had kept these files secret for more than 80 years and at times it seemed like the university was determined to keep them locked up forever. I first requested access to the material in March 2002, when I was a sophomore at Harvard College. According to Harvard’s rules, university records are supposed to be made public after 80 years. But because these files were determined to be “sensitive,” the archives checked with the dean of Harvard College before releasing them to me.
I was a bit stunned when the dean denied my request, but I decided to aggressively appeal his decision and, ultimately, the university convened a special committee to review the matter. It seemed antithetical to the mission of Harvard—a university whose motto is Veritas—to keep this story a secret. I was convinced that I would get the information released eventually, even if I had to petition the president of Harvard or write in The Crimson about the school’s attempt to keep the story hidden from public view.
The University redacted all student names from the documents they finally released. Can you tell us what you understand to be the rationale behind their decision, and about your process of uncovering those identities?
It seemed like a huge victory when the University finally agreed to release the documents, but the fact that the University redacted the names of all the students involved made it incredibly difficult to fully understand what happened back in 1920. Harvard argued that the redaction was necessary because the records were related to a disciplinary case. That decision didn’t make any sense to me, and I appealed it. “Though the sexual orientation of those students was treated as a disciplinary case in 1920, there is nothing embarrassing or criminal about it in 2002,” I wrote in a letter asking for the full, un-redacted records. But my appeal was denied. Still, I realized that it was critically important to uncover the identities that the university had blocked out, so I put together a team of reporters from The Crimson to help me comb through the archives at Harvard and other local schools, as well as public records throughout the Northeast. We used yearbooks, freshman registers, birth records, maps of campus, and other documents to piece the story together. It took nearly six months but eventually I had confidence that we had accurately identified all the key students whose identities had been redacted.
As a student enrolled at Harvard, did you feel a sense of risk or danger in exposing this information about Harvard's past? And what were the positive or negative reactions you experienced as a result of the article? What was your communication like with relatives of the men involved?The Harvard Crimson is an independent, student-run organization, so I knew that the newspaper would support and defend me if the administration tried to punish me for pursuing this story. The Crimson has a long tradition of challenging the Harvard administration and, in fact, during my junior year, when I became president of the newspaper, we filed a lawsuit against the school for refusing to release Harvard University Police Department records that should have been made public. So I never felt like I was in any danger. The story did spark a huge amount of attention and discussion on the Harvard campus and across the country, but aside from the daughter of one of the men involved in the case, who was upset that we were printing her father’s name, I didn’t experience any negative reactions or feedback as a result of the article.