Matt Montgomery and Jesse Alvarez in Facing East. Photo by Allyson Fournier Photography.
Matt Montgomery and Jesse Alvarez in Facing East. Photo by Allyson Fournier Photography.

Nate Gardner is the first to admit he is not a fan of straight plays (for the uninitiated a “straight play” has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but is the theatre term for a non-musical). But it was a chance encounter with Carol Lynn Pearson’s stage drama Facing East that would eventually thrust Gardner into the role of producer of a musical.

A merchandising manager for touring musical theatre productions across North America, Gardner found himself in San Francisco during a stop. Seeing an ad in his show’s playbill for a production of Facing East, Gardner decided to check it out.

“I’m not a play person at all, I prefer musicals, but I thought that since they supported our show with an ad, the decent thing to do was support them,” says Gardner. “It completely destroyed me.”

Facing East tells the story of a Mormon couple coming terms with their gay son’s suicide.  Told in a series of flashbacks at the funeral, the parents unexpectedly meet their son’s lover, coming face-to-face with a reality they’ve long ignored and are forced to reconcile their feelings with their beliefs.

Having grown up in a religious environment himself, Gardner, who identifies as gay, says he went through his own dark time as a teen, and was in search of a project that might help others going through similar circumstances.

“I had been looking for something that I could foster, grow and build,” he says.  “I wanted to do something that could give back and I thought Facing East could be that opportunity.”

Approaching Pearson about turning Facing East into a musical, her first reaction was not encouraging.

“She laughed at me when she heard the word musical,” says Gardner who first met the playwright over a bowl of soup in her home. “I convinced her though that what I wanted to do was a chamber musical of sorts, and when she heard some of the music for the first time she got on board.”

For Pearson it was the thought of her characters singing and dancing on stage that she found hard to imagine, but as Gardner talked about his vision, she had a change of heart.

“I realized it was going to be a very moving, contained and emotionally powerful piece,” she says.  “Like a small opera that would intensify the emotions.”

While the musical’s development has largely taken place in the United States, the connection to Vancouver’s Fighting Chance Productions, who will present the world premiere, came via the company’s artistic director, Ryan Mooney.

Taking to social media a few years back in search of cheap tickets to a touring production of Billy Elliot, Mooney found himself connecting with Gardner who happened to be working the show. And while Gardner offered up free tickets, it came with a request to meet to discuss Mooney’s company becoming involved in the development of Facing East.

“Nate liked what we did and asked if we had ever considered doing an original musical,” says Mooney. “It isn’t something that we have done in the past, but Nate was very persuasive.”

In development now for more than five years, the first iteration of Facing East got a public performance in 2011 with a staged reading in Chicago. It is a milestone that Gardner remembers vividly, helping to reinforce his belief that Pearson’s straight play could indeed make it as a musical.

“At the end of the show we were all in the lobby when a woman came out of nowhere, balling her eyes out,” Gardner recalls. “She hugged us all, telling us that she was LDS [Latter-day Saints] and said that she had lost a child because they were gay, and never knew how to deal with it. She thanked us for putting the story on stage.”

Facing East plays the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) from April 23 to May 14.  Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.