The practice of conversion therapy is an unmitigated moral failure. The stories of people who survive it, and the tragedies of those who don’t, are complex, heart-breaking and worth telling over and over again until that evil is purged from the world.
For that alone, I applaud Ty Autry for sharing his experience by writing and performing this piece. It is part of the exorcism we actually need. On the stage, when religious extremism is a driving force in a story, right out of the gate it faces a unique challenge.
In a rapidly secularizing society most of the audience members who encounter it will not automatically understand the real context. Sure, there are many mainstream examples to be had – chief among them the film adaptation of Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased.
Even our own homegrown Christian luminaries like former Prime Minister (yup, still feels good to say) Scott Morrison and tennis-legend-turned-human-letter-to-the-editor Margaret Court give you a lingering taste of the brittle and baseless self-righteousness involved.
But even with an abundance of mainstream portrayals, few people outside of those emotionally crippling cults truly understand the paradoxical logic they employ to manipulate and scare their adherents into submission.
It is, of course, all about power and the performance of power. That makes these kinds of way-out denominations a fertile subject for drama. If you can allow the audience to feel the claustrophobic reality at their core, you will set the stage for fascinating tales of human loss and triumph.
This piece struggles to do that, in part because it is a dramatisation of real events rather than a straight telling of them. Reconfigured that way this story would be an inspiring and emotionally vivid autobiographical account.
A second obstacle is that none of the other characters, with one exception, develop much of a presence in the piece. They do not palpably exert the influence on Alex that the audience needs to see to viscerally feel the hard reality of his context. Autry’s clear talent for character work could bridge this gap if the script allowed it.
A Southern Fairytale wears its American identity very openly. What could be more American than the convenient capitalist narrative that anyone, no matter the obstacles life dumps in their path, can struggle on to somehow, someday ‘make it’? Whatever that means.
This foundational myth (inexplicably often described as a dream) is woven throughout this story. It is conspicuous in the many references to a back catalogue of largely Disney-produced children’s stories.
I love the hint at a reclamation of the slightly archaic insult ‘fairy’ in the title of this piece, but beyond the double entendre there is no denying that fairytales, as an art form, are dull. They subjugate the joy of storytelling to the purpose of moral instruction, or, in the miserable case of the aforementioned corporation, the cold pursuit of profit.
The impractical idealism of ‘happily ever after’ stands at odds with the pain and growth inherent in a reality where people will try to pray away your gay. This conflict is largely ignored and that is a missed opportunity given the title.
What this piece does very well is levity, and with subject matter like this you need to let the audience breathe. Autry has a wonderful awareness of cadence and rhythm that ensures his jokes land, especially when they pack a punch.
I would have liked less of the kind of knee-jerk sexualised humour that routinely gets us outrageous homosexuals labelled “Fabulous!” by diversity-struck human resources staff everywhere. It is fine when it fits but at times it didn’t fit. While it solicited the obligatory laughter, it rang hollow.
More than that, this performance leaned too heavily on an established vocabulary of artificial gay ‘tells’. Relying on an insincere limp wrist and a burst of RuPaul’s Drag Race references to code a character’s sexuality is at best lazy and at worst offensive. The audience is smarter than that and Autry has the skills to avoid this dilemma.
There is a great deal to love about this performance. Director David L. Carson and Autry have opened a window into a world that needs to be seen and heard to be believed.
Autry’s access to the emotional landscape of his upbringing is a rich and very moving gift to the audience. All the theatrical ingredients are there. A few tweaks to the recipe and this show could be the quintessential story of its kind.
A Southern Fairytale
The Butterfly Club, 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 31 January 2023
Season continues to 4 February 2023
Following its Melbourne season, A Southern Fairytale will be presented at Perth’s Fringe World (16 – 19 February) and Adelaide Fringe (16 – 18 March). For more information, visit: www.jtyautry.com for details.
Image: Ty Autry – photo by Mike Glatzer Photography
Review: Daniel Townsend