Standing on Ceremony : The Gay Marriage Plays

11/22/2011 12:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

I remember when my sister married the love of her life in 1991. People she didn't know very well asked if they could attend her wedding. They had never seen two brides walk down the aisle and they didn't want to miss something that seemed like such a rarity. It's not a freak show. It's not a spectacle. It's our wedding, thought my sister and her future wife. However, the affair proved to be a genuine declaration of their love and commitment. In fact, during the reception, the catering staff deemed it one of most fun weddings ever because nearly everyone hit the dance floor.

But it wasn't until 2004, nearly 14 years later, that the state of Massachusetts finally caught up with them. My sister, her wife and their two beautiful boys, who were four and eight, stood outside city hall as the original rabbi who first married them back in 1991 technically made it legal this time. Strangers congratulated them. Teenagers told them that they were cool. It was a long time coming.

But many other states had a long way to go.

Across the country in 2008 when it seemed that Proposition 8 was likely to pass in California (and thus prevent the rights of same-sex couples to marry), director Brian Shnipper, sat in his kitchen which he shared with his partner and had an epiphany. He remembers, "My dogs were at my feet and I thought, how are we any less normal or less deserving of the same rights that are afforded to any heterosexual couple in America?"

But what could he do? Shnipper turned to the all-powerful pen for answers. (Or actually, make that the pens of some of the greatest playwrights around.) "What if I were to create an evening addressing the issue," recalls Shnipper. " He called playwrights he had worked with and the first four said "yes." More were happily recruited (via friends and Facebook), until he had a compilation of hilarious and touching short plays, which he called, Standing on Ceremony.

The collection of plays was directed by Shnipper and performed to great acclaim in California. And most recently, with director Stuart Ross, the show opened off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater with a portion of all ticket sales benefiting Freedom to Marry and other organizations promoting marriage equality.

Imagine a night of Pulitzer Prize-winning, Emmy-winning and Tony-nominated play writing gravitas (think Doug Wright, Neil LaBute, Wendy MacLeod, José Rivera, Moisés Kaufman, Paul Rudnick, Mo Gaffney Jordan Harrison). The actors -- Craig Beirko, Mark Consuelos, Polly Draper, Harriet Harris, Beth Leavel and Richard Thomas -- are no slouches either. All this from a moment of inspiration at Shnipper's kitchen table. I asked Brian Shnipper to tell me more.

Q: How were you able to make each play unique and special?

Brian Shnipper: The playwrights' voices were so completely different. And the plays that came in were complete polar opposites of each other so we didn't have to worry.

One of the playwrights asked me, "What are you looking for?" I thought, I don't need 10 love letters to gay marriage. I was really happy that they all came at it from a very personal level and from a very different personal standpoint. I was very happy that nobody was preaching. The writers gave such humor, complexity and humanity to their works.

Q: Not all the playwrights who wrote a piece for Standing On Ceremony are gay.

Brian Shnipper: When I first had the inspiration, my initial instinct was to recruit 10 gay authors. Within minutes I realized that was wrong. I needed to have everyone's voice. I wanted to include male and female gay writers, straight ones, people of color. I wanted it to be inclusive because the piece addresses the issue of inclusion of diversity.

Q: What do you hope people take away from the plays?

Brian Shnipper: I want them to walk away realizing that we should be afforded the same rights as anybody else.

In 2008, I directed the first benefit in Los Angeles with Debra Messing and Jason Alexander. Then I directed it for New York Theatre Workshop as a benefit in June 2010. Each time the show has gone up, people have walked up to me and said something like, "My son is gay and I'm dealing with the idea of, 'Do I really believe in the idea of gay marriage?'"

Standing on Ceremony helps families realize that we're not dealing with a religious issue. A lot of people come at this thinking that they don't want it passing federally because they think of it as a religious issue and it's not. It's a federal issue. It's a personal issue that we deserve the same rights as anyone else.

Also, I wanted to create an evening that reflected the complexity of the issue. This meant trying to see it from as many perspectives as possible. It also meant keeping it personal as opposed to political. You don't reach people by hitting them over the head, especially with an issue as polarizing as gay marriage. You need to draw them into a personal experience and move them. If it reaches them on a personal level, that's when they change. That's how you bring about change.

Q: Tell me more about what inspired the clever title.

Brian Shnipper: I started thinking about words associated with marriage when the phrase popped into my head. I thought what if "standing on ceremony" were to mean something else, what if it meant taking a stand on marriage as opposed to relying on formality or what's been done before. That was it, I had my title.

Q: Do you find that people are responding differently to the plays because of the passage of same-sex marriage rights in New York?

Brian Shnipper: When we knew we were bringing Standing on Ceremony to New York, we wanted to include a new piece that would address the issue of it passing in New York. We wanted the plays to evolve that as time goes on. And new pieces would come in that would reflect the change in the issue in America. This is the civil rights movement of our time. It's a piece that needs to be heard because it's so much a part of the politics of today.