When it comes to the art of theatre, I have to admit I’m somewhat clueless – my only connection to the art of staged drama comes from film adaptations, a fact that is probably as embarrassing for you to read as it is embarrassing for me to confess. Because of this, I naturally had trepidation when it came to watching Every Act of Life; director Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on the groundbreaking career of Tony award winning playwright Terrence McNally seemed like it would expose my lack of knowledge on McNally’s work, pitching itself directly to hardcore fans and leaving me cold in the process.
Not only was this far from the truth, the enlightening film resulted in me gaining an appreciation for the importance of McNally’s plays both within the medium of theatre and society as a whole, eager to find a theatre hosting a repertory production of any of the works discussed here, so I could properly experience them for myself.
Told in the “talking heads” format, with extensive analysis from both McNally and the plethora of esteemed collaborators he’s worked with over the years, the documentary is perfectly pitched to complete newbies to his work as much as it is tailored to appease super fans desperate for a personal insight into his career. This is largely because the film is devoted to simultaneously allowing the playwright to confess about the intimate moments in his life that fed into his work, as well as assessing how his works were received at the time and how that paved the way for more LGBT representation within the sad confines of the mainstream.
In fact, his first Broadway play (1964’s “And Things that Go Bump in the Night”) he pushed social boundaries further than audiences could have expected, with New York theatre critics left entirely confounded by the overtly homosexual content of the play. This avant garde outing was met with widespread disdain from critics of the time – and yet, it seems like not just a pivotal moment in the making of McNally’s legend, but a pivotal moment when it comes to portrayals of LGBT people in the mainstream consciousness. When the play debuted, homosexuality was still illegal in the US; but making openly gay characters his only empathetic characters proved to be a winning move, that slowly chipped away at the conservative views of Broadway audiences over the years.
The majority of the film takes place following the AIDS crisis, documenting how he felt to be openly gay at a time when the wider public assumed that was a death sentence, in addition to exploring how personal tragedies became the inspirations for his later works. That being said, the film doesn’t follow his career in a chronological order, choosing instead to see how his working methods and recurring thematic obsessions progressed through the different eras – and how his style was affected by his varying successes and failures.
Every Act of Life proves to be a surprisingly comprehensive documentary, effectively recounting six decades of a successful career at a brisk pace. For theatre fans, this is essential viewing – and for those of you like me, who shamefully don’t watch as many plays as they should, this is still well worth a look.