On the Phone With James Lecesne

On the Phone With James Lecesne

James Lecesne, author and star of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. (©Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne is a Renaissance man. As a writer, he wrote the screenplay for Trevor, the 1994 Oscar-winning Live-action short film that inspired him to co-found The Trevor Project, the national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) young people. He’s also written several solo shows for the stage, was a writer on TV’s Will & Grace and is the Emmy-nominated adapter of Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City. As an actor, he’s appeared across the nation and on Broadway in plays that range from The Boys in the Band to I Am My Own Wife to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. All these experiences come together in Lecesne’s latest project, the Off-Broadway play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which he has adapted from his Young Adult novel, Absolute Brightness, and in which he plays all nine characters, including a New Jersey detective, a teenage girl, a hairdresser and the head of a dance-and-drama school, among others. Leonard Pelkey, the 14-year-old hero of the piece, never appears onstage, but it is his disappearance and murder that set the play in motion. Critics call it “engrossing and touching” and Lecesne’s performance “a tour de force.”

Francis Lewis: Congratulations, on the show being such a hit.

James Lecesne: Oh my God it’s so exciting. It’s amazing.

FL: Where did the idea for Absolute Brightness, your Young Adult book, come from?

JL: For a long time, I had been doing these one-person shows. As I traveled around the country, I thought what if I actually wrote a book and then I wouldn’t have to travel. So that’s what I did. I wrote a really long monologue in the form of a book. It’s basically the same story as the play, but it was from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl. I thought this is great because I’m never going to play a 16-year-old girl onstage. And, of course, now that the show is on, there I am playing a 16-year-old girl.

FL: What prompted you to adapt the book for the stage?

JL: Theater is my first love. The book came out in 2007 and deals with issues like bullying and young people being their authentic selves—like Leonard Pelkey who is, I would say, flamboyant. Around 2010, a lot happened in that [LGBTQ] world with the It Gets Better campaign. Certainly a lot happened for The Trevor Project. I wanted to say a few things and stimulate some conversation and some thinking around this idea: How do we encourage young people to be themselves? When is it safe for them to be themselves? What can the community do to ensure a young person’s freedom to be themselves and how is the community responsible when things go wrong? These were things that I wanted to talk about more to adults than to young people. I wanted to take a slightly darker approach [than the one in the book] and maybe deal with more complex issues. However, I’ve done the show for young people, and they’ve loved it.

FL: And no doubt the show is going to attract many more young audiences.

JL: I think humor crosses generations and hopefully [the humor in the show is] universal. Humor is a really great way to be able to reach all kinds of people. This story, the one onstage, is told from an adult point of view, the point of view of a detective who is investigating the case [the disappearance and murder of Leonard Pelkey]. The nature of his questioning and his investigation lead him to slightly different conclusions than those in the book. One of the reasons why it’s a one-person play is because there are pieces of each of the nine characters, young and old, in pretty much everybody.

FL: Did your own life experiences inform the work?

JL: Yeah, of course. One of the things that I think is so universal about the piece is that everybody, regardless of their gender expression or sexual orientation or whatever their background, goes through this period in adolescence when they’re trying to figure out the world, trying to figure out who am I? Who is my authentic self? And how can I express that in a world that wants me to be like everybody else?

FL: And it seems to be happening earlier and earlier.

JL: I think part of it is because parents now actually see their kids as people. When I was growing up, kids were better seen and not heard. You did what your parents told you to do. But nowadays, I think there’s an environment that’s encouraging young people to have their own personalities and not just be extensions of their parents. In some places. Certainly not everywhere.

FL: You’re not only the author of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey; you’re also its star. Does the performer ever say to the author, “I think we ought to change this line …”?

JL: Oh my God: all the time. Thank goodness for Tony Speciale, the director. I was very smart to have pulled him into this because he’s very good at advocating for the writer. It’s hard because as a performer you want to be liked, and as a writer you want to enlighten people. As I’ve gotten older, my desire to be liked has lessened and my desire to enlighten has increased. Also, my confidence as a writer has grown. I realize that’s what I want people to go away with: Not how fabulous I am, but how fabulous they are because they’ve made this connection or they’ve figured something out.

One of the things I like about what I do is that hopefully I make people listen to one another more deeply. You think you know somebody but you don’t. You have to hear their story. The play is really about the idea that this kid Leonard—who doesn’t even appear in the play—brought something to his town that its inhabitants only understand once he is gone.

FL: You play nine different characters without props and costumes and on a minimal set. A challenge?

JL: The big thing is people’s imagination. I always think people are the greatest theatrical resource you have available. They’re the best set designer, the best costume designer. Basically what I do, I give audiences the prompts. I give them the permission to imagine. And then off they go. That’s the fun of it. I do about 20 percent of the work, and they do the rest by imagining the world and its people.

FL: Is there anything in the pipeline after this?

JL: I hope it goes on forever. Once we finish in New York, we’re going to other places. L.A., San Francisco, London, Toronto, Boston, D.C. I’m always working on something, always trying to find the next story. I’ve got a couple of things I’m tinkering with. But this has got most of my focus at the moment.

FL: Perhaps another Young Adult novel?

JL: An amazing thing has happened. A couple of years ago, I made a book of Trevor, adapting it as a novel for a modern young person. A couple of weeks ago, I went to Italy, where the Trevor novel has been translated into Italian and has been chosen as one of the Top10 must-read books for young adults in that country. So I went to a book festival there, with all these young people who are so excited about the book. I thought this story that I wrote 25 years ago is doing its job in a country that really needs that story right now. They’re behind, seriously behind in terms of gay rights. Young people in Italy have embraced the book and are so in tune with its message. And not the message of being gay, but the message of being who you are, whoever that is. It was amazing to see that that little story that has done so much here over the past 20 years is now doing its job somewhere else.

It was a thrill. And mostly because those young people have their hearts and minds so wide open. It gave me a lot of hope for Italy. I’m now talking about translating Absolute Brightness into Italian, and I hope to do the show there sometime.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., btw Ninth & 10th aves., 212.239.6200, www.absolutebrightnessplay.com, thru Oct. 4

For scenes from Absolute Brightness, check out the slide show below.