Growing up in suburban LaGrange, it took playwright Sarah Gubbins, now 36, a long time to realize that she was gay. “People think there’s this ‘pop’ moment, when you know,” she says. But it didn’t happen that way for her. She sailed straight through 12 years of Catholic schooling as a tomboy—great at sports, passionate about golf, and, she says, blithely unaware of her sexuality. It wasn’t until college that it started to dawn on her, and even then, “It took me falling in love, and falling in love, and falling in love, and then realizing—oh, there’s a trend here: they all seem to be female.”
It took her even longer to discover that she was a playwright. A kid who loved literature, she was intimidated by writing. When she tried her own hand at it in high school, the distance between her fledgling work and the authors she admired seemed insurmountable. “It was like—wow—this is definitely not Faulkner, and so not Flannery O’Connor. So, OK, let’s put that away.” A theater major as an undergrad at Northwestern University, she was aiming to be an actor when she took a series of writing classes with playwright John Logan, who was in residence during her senior year. Those classes were “amazing,” she says, but she came out of them still thinking, “I’m not Chekhov, I’m not Caryl Churchill. This is really embarrassing.”
But so, it turned out, was her acting. “Awful,” she says.
Out of college, convinced of her own lack of talent but unwilling to give up on a life in theater, she started working as a freelance dramaturge at companies like Naked Eye (where she was literary manager), Next, Northlight, Steppenwolf, and Court. Inspired by the elevated role German theater ascribes dramaturgy, she took it seriously, and turned out to be good at it. But her writing chops were showing: when Lucia Mauro interviewed her as the hot young dramaturge in town for PerformInk in 2001, Mauro was struck by her “skill at writing clearly and evocatively,” and went so far as to quote a couple of paragraphs from Gubbins’s program notes as evidence. While the dramaturge was at work, the nascent playwright was watching, incubating. The best thing that happened, Gubbins says, is that she started specializing in new work: “I actually got into the room with some new plays, and that’s when I learned, this is how you make a play, this is how you rewrite, this is how you look for incident.” In 2005 she started scratching an increasingly insistent script-writing itch, and in 2006 she went back to Northwestern for an MFA in writing for stage and screen. In 2008, the year she finished that degree, her play Fair Use—a modern spin on the Cyrano story—was part of Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work. I caught it there and was glad I did, reporting on the Reader’s blog that it had a “nearly perfect comic first act,” with witty, rapid-fire dialogue, engaging characters, and a creative take on its theme that went right to the heart of contemporary debates about copyright.
Gubbins says her work is political not autobiographical, but this season Chicago audiences will be seeing two new plays by her that might be both. The Kid Thing, the season opener at Chicago Dramatists, where Gubbins is a resident playwright, is about “the question of when and why to have a baby.” That’s something Gubbins, who’s childless, confesses she’s “perpetually thinking about” these days. A coproduction with About Face Theatre (she’s also an artistic associate there), it features two lesbian couples and “a dude.” Although the producers regard it as comedy, and “there’s a lot of laughter,” Gubbins says, the subject is serious—”a huge deal for my peer group,” and a universal issue at its core.
The second play, Fml: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life, opens February 28 at Steppenwolf Theatre as part of its young adults series. A companion piece to the other work in that series this year, Rebecca Gilman’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, it’s the story of a girl growing up in LaGrange—a teenage lesbian who encounters McCullers’s book in her English class, is profoundly affected by it, and goes through an artistic and intellectual awakening. She survives a gay beating, faces a psychological dilemma, and “triumphs,” Gubbins says.
A lesbian, growing up in LaGrange? “Not autobiographical at all,” Gubbins says. “Listen, I’m gay. And I was a teenager. And I had to go through a huge awakening as a writer. And I had very influential English teachers. All these things happened to me.” But, she cautions, there’s a crucial difference: “I wasn’t out when I was a teenager. In some ways [this character] is my superhero self, the teen I wish I had been.”
Gubbins says she finds today’s adolescents who are out “astonishingly brave and inspiring.” The times are different, of course. There was no gay-straight alliance when she was in high school. And the whole notion that gays would be married? “Unbelievable,” she says. Now, “there’s more visibility. You don’t have to presume that everybody’s straight. And yet the homophobia, homo hatred, gay bullying continues.” As a sexually oblivious tomboy in LaGrange, Gubbins “wasn’t chased, wasn’t identified,” never suffered the beating inflicted on her protagonist. “It’s so complicated,” she says. “What is it about being out and confident that is so threatening to other people?
“Things are so much better today, and absolutely as bad.”