Acting Out: Steven Fales on Confessions of a Mormon Boy
Not so long ago Steven Fales was a model Mormon -- clean-cut handsome with an ingratiating smile and personality that could easily have made him a television spokesperson for his Church. Married with two children, he was a true believer; except he had a secret that put him at odds with Mormon doctrine: he was sexually attracted to men. When he acted on his attraction, his wife divorced him, and church elders began the process of ex-communication. This was followed by a move to New York where he hoped to pursue his Broadway dreams, but instead found himself a high-paid escort with a drug problem. What was next -- a career with Lucas Entertainment?
No, it turns out. Fales instead turned inward, and put together a performance piece -- Confessions of a Mormon Boy -- about his experiences that recently opened at the Soho Playhouse where it and its buff star have created quite a stir. Not that it made it to New York overnight, rather Fales spent the past few years crafting a workable script from what was first a stand-up routine, and taking it to theaters throughout the country (including an engagement in Salt Lake City) prior to returning to Manhattan.
No doubt his is a story that has been told before -- indeed the concept of the gay Mormon torn between his religion and his sexual drive was addressed in Angels in America (on screen and television) and in the indie film Latter Days, now a staple on the Logo television network. "It may seem this story," wrote EDGE reviewer Jerry Portwood when recently reviewing Confessions of a Mormon Boy, "has already been told - perfect Mormon falls from grace into the arms of another man - but in fact Fales manages to combine series of familiar vignettes with personal revelation that feels almost original and largely transformative."
Most reviewers agree that much of Fale's appeal comes with his charming delivery that has been compared to a slick stand-up act; but there's no denying the power of his story, which recreates such key events as the "reparative therapy" and, most significantly, the ex-communication process he was forced to endure.
"They tried me as a homosexual," Fales recalled in a recent television conversation. "And it's terribly dehumanizing, a form of spiritual abuse. The charge was homosexuality. It was very challenging to get through that. I got divorced, ex-communicated, and came out all in one breath. I was very confused and angry and hurt. I left Utah, left my children with their mother, and came to New York to seek out my chorus boy dreams, and got involved in the whole gay party scene very fast.
"So," he continued, "quickly this very good Mormon boy was making a lot of money as an escort and got into drugs. I saw more in 6 months than it would have taken me 6 years to see. I call it my gay internship."
The operative word in Fales story is Mormon, a religion distinguished by its conservative doctrine, arcane rules, and its near-cultish hold on its Utah-based community. This is the world that Fales grew up in aware that he was different, but unable to articulate in what way.
"I would be called 'fag' or 'fairy,' but didn't know what that was. In my Mormon world, there were no resources to come out. You want to be good Mormon, and to get into Mormon heaven you have to be married. So of course you get married because you want to go to heaven. So before you know it, you're married with kids. When you realize that you really are gay and it is not going away -- all the praying in the world isn't going to change who you are."
Yet he tried -- confessing his same-sex attraction to his girlfriend, named Emily, who became his fianc?e, and willingly undergoing "reparative therapy" that he hoped would change him.
"The therapy is not the electroshock therapy, but it essentially tells you that you have a deficiency in your masculinity: your desire to sexually couple with a man is because you don't identify as a man. And so through this process your masculinity is restored. You do a lot of talk about how your mother made you gay, and your father wasn't there and that made you gay; so you're essentially told to butch it up and not be gay. It was very in vogue in the early 1990s and I bought into it, but it didn't work."
Nonetheless he married, attended graduate school in Connecticut, had two children, and returned to Utah, where he began to act out on his gay urges.
"I didn't have any experiences until I moved back to Utah, and I began cheating on Emily a little bit here and there. This was on-and-off for about 6 months. I came clean to her, and she wanted a divorce, or course, it was just too much; especially since her father had been gay." (He had died of AIDS and her mother, Carol Lynn Pearson a well-known Mormon poet wrote a best-selling book about her experience.)
"It's funny. My wife and mother-in-law are so talented that I often call myself the Mormon Peter Allen."
Ex-communication followed, along with humiliation and a realization that he had pretty much used up all his options as an actor in Salt Lake City. New York beckoned, and it wasn't long before his boyish good looks and easy-going manner led him to a career as an escort.
"I had been acting all my life, so escorting really did come easy to me. At first the adoration and money was exhilarating. But soon the dark side took over. I had sold religion, and then I start selling my body. I use my good Mormon smile to sell religion, and then I'm selling my smile to clients. And it starts taking its toll on your soul. I don't think in the end there's anything glamorous about it. It was quite fabulous, but I'm not sure it was good for my psyche. And before I knew it I realized I needed to take a look at my life and change things. That's when I started writing and came up with the play."
He took his script through a developmental process, taking it from Salt Lake to San Diego to Chicago, and getting the assistance of director Jack Hofsiss (Tony winner for The Elephant Man) to help shape it before its run at 2004 International Fringe Festival where it received an Overall Excellence Award. Engagements in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Chicago followed prior to the current off-Broadway engagement, which has been well-received by critics and, more significantly for Fales, by the audiences.
"The audience response has been tremendous. It's quite an edifying experience for a lot of people, and that's kind-of why I wrote it; hearing my story and seeing how it relates to so many other people's stories. And I am happy with the reviews. It's my first time in New York, and I'm very proud of our production. This launches me in a lot of ways here. And, you know, I have to say that opening night for me for this show was the antithesis of my ex-communication. It was my homecoming. My father was there. I've been working so hard to get this off-Broadway; so professionally and personally, it means so much."
For Fales coming to terms with his relationships with his family members -- his father, wife, and children -- are crucial to the journey he takes in the play, one that takes him from estrangement to reconciliation.
"The play is also about how I stopped blaming my father for everything that has gone wrong in my life. It's about me growing up. We have this dream in my show that we act out. It's what I call my cowboy dream. Variety recently called it this rare blast of lyricism in the show, and kind of connects me to Brokeback Mountain -- so you can call me the Brokeback Mormon. In the dream I'm in Wyoming where my father grew up and we are trying to get on the other side of this gorge. I'm riding on horseback with all my forefathers, and it's all about getting on the other side of this gorge because that's where my children are. A lot of the message of the play is about exploring the father/son relationship. I don't think until we can get complete with our parents, we can really get complete with a higher power or with God. And I have to say that my concept of God is very different than when I grew up as a Mormon."
What was also important for Fales was to repair his relationship with his wife and re-introduce himself into the lives of his children, a boy and a girl who are now 10 and 8 years old.
"I'm happy to say that I have an extraordinary relationship with Emily now. We have our kids -- our kids are great. She is a very good example of a Mormon woman who is savvy and does not buy into everything the church says. The play opened up a dialogue with her to see that when I went to New York it wasn't all fun and games. That it was difficult time for me, so it took some pressure off of me when I was able to be so honest about how it really was."
Having been ex-communicated you might expect that Fales harbored some anger towards the Church, but he still lives in Utah, where he sees his children as often as he can, and considers himself a cultural Mormon.
"I do appreciate the culture I come from. With all its warts, it's actually very good. After what I've been through, I've worked through my resentment. I recognize the good that they (the Mormon Church) do in the world, and the good things they taught me. At the same time I hold them accountable for their institutional bigotry. The way they deal with homosexuality is appalling. In many ways my play is the way I've chosen to appeal my ex-communication.
"And gay Mormons have totally embraced my story -- it's not just my story, it's their story too."
What was most gratifying for the actor was a performance he gave this past December as a benefit for one of his favorite charities.
"It was at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center. For me to come back to New York and to do my show at Lincoln Center -- I mean that's one of the greatest places you could ever perform. -- was such an honor. It was testament to how far I've come. Not so long ago I was a hooker who got caught up in crystal Meth; and there I was at Lincoln Center, and here I am off-Broadway, sober and able to share my message. It's such a gift. Wow."
Fales hopes to stay in New York with the show for some time; and after that bring it to other major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Washington DC, and, yes, Boston.
"I would love to come up there, especially when with Mitt Romney as your governor. Boston needs the Mormon boy to come and tell his story. It will shed a lot of light on your governor. He's so homophobic. So if you know anybody, have them bring me to Boston."
"Confessions of a Mormon Boy" opens on July 6th at The Art House, Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA. http://www.capetix.com