I had to say goodbye to some of my best friends this year. People I have gotten to know as my second family for the past four years are moving on to pursue theatre careers across the United States. Meanwhile, college memories dangle dangerously close in my rearview. My life will continue to play out in Champaign for another year-and-a-half as I pursue a master’s degree in another field. But I don’t feel sad. If anything, sentimental feelings overwhelm me with the deepest, most genuine sense of happiness I have ever experienced. I am proud of myself. I am so incredibly proud of my friends. And I am so proud of the growth I have seen from one friend, a fellow Theatre Studies major, whose work ethic and creative ingenuity have engineered a film that only hints at the greatness lying ahead for him.
A nearly two-year-long whirlwind of rehearsals, meetings, roadblocks, cancellations, some shocking displays of unreliability, and restructuring—not to mention a worldwide pandemic and a multitude of other projects—gave 22-year-old director and playwright Jordan Ratliff an unprecedented challenge when developing his senior thesis project. Plans for a production to take place in the university’s Armory Free Theatre quickly pivoted to an online format in March of 2020. Ratliff took these changes in stride. A few days after we spoke, his final work, Gay Card, was released. It now lives online for anyone and everyone to see.
Smile Politely: What led to you putting on this production as a Theatre Studies major?
Jordan Ratliff: I very much care about queer theatre, and read about queer stories and things like that. And while I was interning at Victory Gardens over the summer of 2019, I believe, it had come across my Spotify suggested… I love the fact that it wasn’t about a typical story about coming out and being like, “Oh look, I discovered my sexuality.” You don’t see a lot of stories of what happens after that. Gayness doesn’t end at coming out. I really liked that this story was something that was after coming out. And I really loved the music, and I just thought it was a really great story overall that didn’t take itself too seriously but had a really nice lesson… Anytime we have a queer storyline in any modern media, it’s always “I discovered my sexuality” or “My peers don’t accept me because I just came out as gay” or something like that… We have this story, Love Victor, and I was so excited because it was a POC-lead queer story, but he didn’t say “I’m gay” until like the very last line of the entire season.
SP: And when it comes to queer POC representation, the pool gets even smaller.
Ratliff: Absolutely. We have Moonlight, and I’m just like… We barely even get to see the two guys be intimate together or anything like that… We don’t get to see queer people of color just unapologetically being themselves.
SP: Are there any other reasons you decided to put on this specific production either in terms of academics or professional goals?
Ratliff: I wanted to be the first person in seven years to direct a musical in the Armory. I had that goal sophomore year, didn’t get my musical passed, but then I found this one. And I was like, “If I play my cards right… I feel like I can finesse my way into getting this approved.” Which I did, which is great. Because the rights weren’t held by any big licensing companies, it was through the writers and it’s a lot easier to get to know the writers and stuff than it is to try to convince a giant corporation, “Please make this available.” … But since COVID ruined everything—it really did—I decided that I worked way too hard to get all the rights and get everything together with quite a big production team and everything, so I was like, “I don’t want to let this show die. I worked too hard to get this approved.” So I said, “You know what, my whole college career has been me being outside the box and how I can make my own work.” So I figured, trying to do it in a film kind of way with Zoom somehow, incorporating Zoom and stuff like that with COVID guidelines and everything in mind, was a nice challenge for me. And I wanted to see if I could do it… I wanted to push myself and see what I really could accomplish if I put my mind to something.
SP: What did the project look like in terms of outline and desired outcome when you first started?
Ratliff: The original design was going to be a lot of really cool choreography that I had in mind with making the ensemble a huge part of telling the story, and incorporating different movements and things like that. There’s one scene where, in the top of Act Two, the main character is finally succumbing to all of the pressure of assimilating into gayness, of just being hypersexual and everything. And there’s an opening number, and in the original version of that there was going to be the ensemble yanking him around the stage, and it was going to be this big cool movement thing of everybody moving as one unit… It was going to be very minimal in terms of set design. It was just going to be a platform that we were going to build, and we were going to have projections to put on the back screen for the different numbers. And technology stuff. We had already started choreography, it was a lot more intricate and the blocking was a lot more intricate. I really miss it.
SP: How many people at that time were involved in the production, and in what ways?
Ratliff: We had an additional cast of 17 people. And on my production team we had a lighting designer, we had a sound designer and an assistant sound designer, we had a set designer, a tech, two stage managers, an assistant director, vocal director; we had a full production team ready to take on the project and everything. I think the only thing we didn’t have was a costume designer.
SP: Did you, at that time, have any involvement from the department heads?
Ratliff: No, not really. I kind of built the entire production from the ground up. I was the one who talked to the book writer and composer about obtaining rights, I was willing to negotiate with them, got to network with them and everything. And when I tried to bring it to the department I got backlash, and I got scolded for trying to do other people’s jobs, which if I would have done that — if I would have just left it to them I would have had to wait like two months for us to even begin rehearsals and everything, which would have set us back so much, which would have only given us like a month to actually get the show together. So yeah… I’m the one who found all of my production team, I cast everything, I’m the one who was in charge. I had to go through the department to reserve spaces, and even when we were trying to have rehearsals we constantly got kicked out because the department would give us the reservation but then they would say we were disrupting the rehearsal next door for our main stage production. So they were just giving us almost nothing.
SP: So how has the production changed over time since its initial stages, including but not limited to people’s involvement like what we were just talking about?
Ratliff: Coming from spring of 2019 to fall 2019, people graduated, COVID hit, people were not coming back to campus, some people just had other commitments that they had done- so we had a lot of people drop. Like over half the cast dropped. Then we had re-auditions and then our cast was now at 15 people, which was fine. And then for my production team, that changed drastically. I lost almost everybody, including my music director. The only person I think who stuck with me was my sound designer… So I had to go to the department and figure out how we could still have rehearsals because rehearsals weren’t happening, because nobody was putting on any productions, other than Psh*tter… I had to find COVID monitors, I had to go through regulations and stuff like that and get everybody certified, tell everybody how that was going to work, and completely reimagine my whole concept—not completely—I had to adapt my concept to what I was going to give up vision-wise, and what my new idea was behind the show.
SP: And then that next semester—what big changes happened then?
Ratliff: Going into the next semester, we found a few more people to add to the production… And so now our production team had grown a little bit more… And then going into that semester we had two cast members drop, so luckily I had anticipated that and I had cast people as understudies… So we were still fine. Our cast was now 14 people instead of 15 people. But then throughout the semester we found somebody who was willing to be the assistant to the director for the filming part, so she was a very nice helping hand on set. And then I realized that I had been doing the work of a director, a choreographer, a producer—I was also going to be working on editing—and I was doing the work of a stage manager. So realizing that I had been wearing all those hats at once started to pile up that spring semester. It took a lot for me to finally realize that I need to ask for help… So I finally asked my advisor to help me find some stage managers, and we found three. So during the live film process we had three stage managers to help me, and that took a lot of weight off of me.
SP: What were the biggest challenges that came along with figuring out how to handle these changes?
Ratliff: Uncertainty. COVID showed us that literally no matter how hard you plan ahead for something, it all can just be crumbled down in an instant. So living with that constant worry of not knowing if something was going to work out correctly — I didn’t know from day to day, from rehearsal to rehearsal, if people were going to test positive randomly — which people did. We had a couple COVID scares here and there. Our lead got COVID in the first semester. So that wasn’t fun. There was that, there was trying to figure out whether or not I was going to get spaces reserved, whether or not people were going to come in having learned the music they were going to learn. One of the biggest challenges was having the anxiety of not being able to rely on people for stuff. Like the frustration from day to day: Are people going to know their lines? Are people going to know their music? Have people done the work backstage that they needed to do, that they said they were going to do? And it was just constant. And on top of that, even if they did happen to be together, if somebody didn’t get tested regularly, they weren’t going to get building access.
SP: What strategies did you find most helpful in order to deal with that uncertainty, either on a personal or professional level?
Ratliff: Getting some stage managers helped me a lot because there was less stuff that I had to worry about. But personally, I worked a lot on self care: meditating, taking deep breaths, and not letting myself spiral into these wells of not knowing what was going to happen next. And just coming in realizing that I can’t control what I can’t control. So just focusing on the things that I can control helps me through things. I was like, “I have this plan, but if whatever happens, I will do XYZ to do that.” And just having in my head that it’s going to get done regardless of all the stuff that’s happening.
SP: How did having such a large team affect the way that you approached and dealt with everything as it happened, either for better or for worse?
Ratliff: It put a lot of pressure on me because I just felt like, even though most of the time it wasn’t my fault, it was my responsibility to make sure people were doing stuff in rehearsal… And then I got to a point where I was like, “You know what, this is not my fault.” I just did my part. And if people didn’t show up I would talk to them or whatever. But my cast was very flexible… And people understood that it was COVID times, things were changing, I didn’t really feel like people were just being inflexible when it came to plans changing randomly.
SP: What have you learned from this experience that you most want to carry with you as you journey into the professional world of theatre?
Ratliff: “Don’t try to do everything,” is what I tell myself. “Don’t try to be everything at once.” I need to acknowledge that I do have limits as a human being, and that I can’t just do everything at once… To work with people that I know and trust, because I did take a risk working with people that I had never worked with before. And in some ways it was good and in some ways it backfired, because I was not familiar with everyone’s work ethics. But I also am learning to not underestimate myself in terms of what I can do. If you would have told me freshman year that I would have done all of this, I probably would have been like, “Ummmm no, I’m good.” I’m really proud. Like I’m watching the scenes that I’m editing and everything and I’m just like, “Wow. I did that. This was my production. I did that.”
SP: What are some other things that you’re especially proud of looking back at all of the work you’ve done, for Gay Card or just since freshman year?
Ratliff: I’m really proud of how far I’ve come as a theatre artist in general, like how much I’ve come into my own as having confidence in what I’m capable of doing, and in the work that I’m doing. And I feel like I have a voice, and it’s a very clear voice… I realized that I’m very good at making my own work and finding places where I can be helpful and places where I can show my voice.
SP: How can people learn more information about Gay Card? How can they watch the show?
Ratliff: I’m going to upload it to YouTube, and the link is going to be all over the place. I’ll be sharing it, other people will be sharing it, the cast members and production team and everybody, and hopefully I’m going to send it to Illinois Theatre and they can distribute it out a little bit… I talked to my advisor about having a live screening of it in the Armory next semester because most of the cast is—no, I think the entire cast—is going to still be here next semester, so we might do that.
SP: Is there anything else that you want people to know or that you’re thinking about when you think about this project?
Ratliff: This show really is my baby… I look back at everything and I’m just like, “This is all stuff that I did, I took the initiative because theatre is something I care about. My directing work is something that I care about. And I really am the person that made this show happen. And I’m very grateful for my production team and everything like that, but I’m really proud of the work that I did to make this show happen.
SP: As you should be.
Be sure to check out Gay Card here.