He asked and they told - but it wasn't easy.
The government's official policy toward gays in the military may be "don't ask, don't tell," but for three years beginning in 1996, actor Marc Wolf interviewed 200 current and former members of the armed forces - straight and gay - their families, politicians and even the sociologist who wrote the policy.
Many were wary at first. Some feared he was working for the military. "It took a while. I was an unknown actor from New York who had this sort of crazy idea," Wolf said last week at Center Stage where his one-man show, "Another American: Asking and Telling," launches this season's Off Center series on Thursday. "People had to make a leap to trust me."
The show was inspired by the work of former Baltimorean Anna Deavere Smith ("Fires in the Mirror," "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992"). In Smith's style, Wolf transcribed the taped interviews and edited the verbatim transcripts. He compiled 18 of them - a third of which use pseudonyms - into play form.
From the beginning, Wolf hoped the show would give voice to the voiceless. Looking back over the history of repressed minorities in the 20th century, he said he realized that "when a community is silenced, it creates an atmosphere for abuse to take place."
Two organizations, the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (which honored him in Washington last week), helped locate people to interview.
Because many had never told their stories, he was concerned that the experience could prove upsetting. So even after he'd won a subject's trust, he'd ask if the interviewee had someone he could call afterward. And, he made a point of checking back two or three days later, when interview subjects frequently reported they'd had bad dreams or trouble sleeping.
Although Wolf, 38, is gay, he said, as a writer, "I try and present all sides of the argument. As an actor, I don't judge a character, and I don't judge these people."
At the same time, he acknowledged, "Dramatically and theatrically, the balance is tipped in favor [of the gay interviewees] because their story has not been told."
Performing the show, for which he won an Obie Award, has become pretty much a full-time occupation. Wolf has had bookings coast to coast, and an Australian run is likely in 2002. He's also working on a book, which would allow him to include much of the material that didn't make it into the play.
When Wolf began working on the show, the policy had been in effect for three years, and the issue seemed to have dropped out of sight. That didn't mean it was resolved.
"The truth was, we haven't heard about it because the policy prevents it," Wolf said. "It seems to me the harassment's gotten worse."
Show times for "Another American" in the Head Theater at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $25, with discounts for subscribers, members of the military and students. Call 410-332-0033.
'A Night of Action'
Action Theater will present a benefit called "A Night of Action" at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.
The evening will showcase Action's diverse repertoire, including: "The Ring Cycle," three short, surrealistic comedies by Ring Lardner that total five minutes of stage time; "Theater 1," one of several short Samuel Beckett plays that Action has toured internationally; "Field of Study," a monologue by artistic director Tony Tsendeas, which is part of a larger work-in-progress; and excerpts from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Tales from the Bros. Grimm," both by company member Robb Bauer. In addition, Kristen Toedtman will perform songs by Kurt Weill.
Tsendeas said he hopes the event will help the theater expand its board of directors as well as raise additional money for future tours and productions. So far, theaters in London and Edinburgh have expressed interest in presenting "Dr. Caligari."
Tickets are $35 and include a dessert reception with the company. For more information, call 410-523-6004.
Free staged readings
The Baltimore Playwrights Festival will hold the first minimarathon of free staged readings for its 20th anniversary season at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
A discussion with the playwright follows each reading. The scripts currently scheduled are: "Never Say Die," a drama by Thurston Griggs; and "Free Fall" and "Private Beaches," a pair of one-act plays by Mark Scharf.
For more information, call 410-276-2153.
Also at Fell's Point Corner, director Barry Feinstein will teach an acting workshop on scene study tomorrow through Dec. 4 at the theater, 251 S. Ann St., from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays. Some experience is recommended. The fee is $50. For more information, call 410-466-8341.