In the spring of 1992, Milwaukee writer Will Fellows began interviewing 75 gay men, ages 25 to 84, who'd grown up in farm families throughout the Midwest. Fellows, himself a gay man raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, knew that many males like himself, who'd subsequently fled to larger metropolitan areas, felt like outsiders among their urban counterparts.
Fellows' goal was to give voice to the experiences of rural gay men who were typically overlooked or ignored by gay urban culture — or else, as he wrote, simultaneously stereotyped and romanticized as wholesome and virile "country bumpkins with rosy cheeks, ready to be plucked if they venture into the big city."
The outcome of Fellows' interviews was his 1996 book Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men From the Rural Midwest, a compilation of 36 personal narratives of gay men, most of whom had abandoned rural living. Despite stories that have many dark themes in common — personal anguish, social alienation, violence, religious conservatism, sexual puritanism and rigid gender stereotypes — many of these men still felt a deep connection to their agrarian roots.
Later this month, a theatrical version of Farm Boys will be performed as part of the Vermont Pride Theater Summer Festival at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph. Adapted for the stage by Chicago-based playwright David Zak, Farm Boys will feature an entirely Vermont-based cast.
Zak, 59, is executive director of the Chicago nonprofit Pride Films and Plays and has won seven Jeff Awards. A self-described city boy, he grew up in Lisle, Ill., just outside Chicago. Zak attended college in Jacksonville, Ill., "which is definitely farm country, so I can relate to some of these stories Will collected," he says.
This will be the second stage adaptation of Farm Boys, albeit a very different one from the first, which was written by Dean Gray and Amy Fox and performed in New York City, St. Paul, Minn. and San Francisco in 2004. That version was loosely based on characters from Fellows' book and created a fictional storyline.
This time, Zak tried to cleave closer to Fellows' original aim of providing a forum for these men to speak in their own voices. "I love the idea of a stage production that does the same thing," he says.
The impetus for this version of Farm Boys came from Kim Fountain, executive director of the RU12? Community Center in Burlington. During a recent meeting with Fountain, Zak — who's been coming to Vermont every summer since the seventh grade — asked her, "What play do you think Vermonters would want to see?" Though Zak nixed Fountain's first idea about gay divorce — "In Illinois, we're still celebrating gay marriage!" he says — he was intrigued by her other idea of portraying life in rural gay America.
When asked about the likelihood of a lesbian sequel — Farm Girls, perhaps? — Zak could say only, "It's in the works."
Seven Days interviewed Fellows and Zak separately by phone from their homes in Milwaukee and Chicago, respectively.
SEVEN DAYS: Do the original subjects of Farm Boys know there are stage adaptations of their stories?
WILL FELLOWS: Yes. About five or six years ago I was approached by a university archives in Wisconsin to acquire the original Farm Boys research material, interview recordings and transcripts, so I had to get the subjects' permission. Some gave permission without any reservation at all. A few said no, they didn't ever want their material in the archives available for public scrutiny. Others said yes but wanted a delayed release some years down the road. That was an opportunity to let them know what was happening [with the play], if they weren't aware already.
SD: How closely did your own upbringing mirror those of your subjects?
WF: As I was doing these interviews, then later shaping them into narratives for publications, I was struck over and over again by what a personally illuminating experience this was: the insights I gained into being a gay male, a person from a rural background who was no longer living and breathing farm life, yet how some of its influences had carried over. At one point I remember telling myself that even if the book never got published and it just sat in a filing cabinet for the rest of my life, it was still worth doing because it was so enriching.
SD: Were your experiences as painful as some of theirs?
WF: There were quite a number of very difficult and awful experiences represented in the book. That wasn't my experience. My farm upbringing was, if not an idyllic, then at least [an] extremely nurturing space for me, and I'm grateful for it. I don't romanticize it, but I do recognize that my experience was much more benign than many of these individuals'.
SD: What most surprised you about their stories?
WF: Even though most of the men I interviewed were no longer farming — it's not a book about gay farmers — I was struck by how often they exhibited a certain longing for a return to that life and, sometimes, even had little fantasies about perhaps one day being able to have some land in the country. Even though they felt that who they were and the nature of their lives were at odds with being part of those kinds of communities.
SD: Do you think farm boys' interviews today would be very different than they were in 1992?
WF: I do. All these interviews I did over 20 years ago. The general cultural environment is so drastically different. Back in the early '90s, a major propelling force for many of these men to contact me and tell me about their lives came out of the whole HIV hysteria, and not just the demonization [of gay men], but also the vast dying that was under way, and the need to tell the world who we are, where we come from and what we're about. As I look back on it now, I'm more aware of the influences of time and how it shaped what the book became.
SD: When the film Brokeback Mountain came out in 2005, did you feel vindicated — or that it had stolen your thunder?
WF: Actually, it was interesting to learn that copies of the book had been given to [actors] Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as they were preparing to play those roles. I think that's wonderful, that two actors would have been given some pretty basic source material to get a sense of the cultural and historical context out of which these characters were arising.
SEVEN DAYS: David, did you see the previous stage production of Farm Boys or read the script?
DAVID ZAK: I read the script. I knew it had been adapted, but it was not very satisfying. We all grew up on The Laramie Project and other documentary pieces where you hear the original voices. When I went back to Will, I said, "This needs to be a group of voices of people baring their souls, in the same way they did when you were interviewing them."
SD: How did you structure your version?
DZ: It's pretty conversational, people talking about family and the seasons, and a lot about religion and how religion impacted people, as well as the usual topics: school, sex, relationships with parents and children. It's quite rich in terms of the variety of details.
SD: Tell me about the cast.
DZ: I've got seven men who are really an interesting group. One of the actors is still in high school, but this will be his second summer with Chandler Pride. One of the guys is in college. A couple of the performers are at the opposite end of the spectrum — they're retired. So they range in age from 17 to 70, which is part of what this whole experience is: old people and young people telling stories.
SD: How does the play unfold?
DZ: Some of it is literally them enacting the oral testimonies that were recorded. Others are thematically interwoven, dramatic interactions between them. It'll be entertaining, I think, and there will be moments when someone sits down and tells a story that just breaks your heart. And it breaks your heart because you know it's exactly the way that story was told to Will Fellows.
SD: Did you talk to any of his original interviewees?
DZ: I didn't want to go there. Almost everybody in the book is given a different name, though I know the names of the original people because I got access to the original documents. Some people think this is some sort of a dig against rural life, that things must be really horrible [for rural gay men]. But what I find really exciting about the book is how much joy there is for people talking about the animals or the land or the seasons. For some of these guys, rural communities really are their home, and they hate the city. I always picture these characters at the Chicago Pride Parade, which had, like, a billion people watching the drag queens. They'd be horrified and running in the other direction!
SD: Anything that really surprised you about the book?
DZ: The different experiences people had with their families and their religion. In some of the stories there's this [sense of] "We're working with the animals. We know what happens with the birds and the bees." There's a frankness about how Mother Nature works. And yet, in our house, nobody talks to each other." So that's a theme that comes back a lot, that being a part of the cycle of life outside the house doesn't necessarily make for peaceful relations inside the house.
SD: Does the play present these characters as they were, or them looking back, removed from rural life?
DZ: A little of both. I think some people look back and say, "Thank God I got out of there." There are others who look back at that experience and realize that's home. So one of the characters talks about how he and his partner raise pigs, and none of their gay friends can believe that they love their pigs. [They say,] "And we never take vacations, because, if the pigs get sick, we've got to be there for them." So there's a real pride that "This is who we are and this is where we'll stay." That's a really strong message. Home is home and, for some people, the farm is where your heart tells you to be.