It is approaching a year since the atrocious attack on the LGBT+ community back in 2016, when 49 people lost their lives in the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. With terrorist attacks being so painfully relevant right now, Gary Thomas’ new play tells the heartbreaking story of that painful day and it’s effect on the LGBT+ community.
“I never really thought I would be one to write about world events, but when the Pulse gay nightclub shootings happened on June 12th 2016 I felt very isolated by it,” said Gary Thomas, writer of the play The 49, opening in London this week. “My mum mentioned it once on the Monday and friends at the gym mentioned it but that was it. All the other conversations I had happened online. We say America is thousands of miles away and has crazy gun laws but this really affected me personally. I watched CNN for a few days after and it was my community they were talking about. So when I started writing about it I was able to have real conversations about it.”
The play itself is about a friendship between three people, that all end up living in the same house together. It’s a performance that explores sexuality and identity, and it looks at all the challenges LGBT+ people struggle with in today’s society. It’s an honest and raw portrayal. Gary said: “In the monologue by one of the actors, he goes through all the different labels there are in the gay community, and there is also a scene centered around HIV and protection which I am quite proud of as a writer.”
Gary’s initial attraction to writing about such a poignant story is because he had seen Bottleneck by Luke Barnes, which was a massive influence. “I saw that play which is about the Hillsborough disaster and is very cleverly written, it kind of creeps up on you and then you’re in this disaster and it’s incredibly powerful. The 49 I think has definitely taken on its own identity now though, but I liked the idea of setting things up and then it gets interrupted by this horrific event that the characters just got caught up in,” Gary explained.
When writing the play, he questioned himself on whether or not he could really tell this story. He explained: “Once I got the idea that any piece of theatre will never be as horrific as the event itself I felt better at making it about the words. There are some very still moments in the latter part of the play which are all the more powerful because they’re so still, and it’s down to the audience’s imagination.”
By starting to write the play as a monologue, it enabled Gary to really get some of his thoughts down. “I knew I wanted it to be made up of characters who got caught up in this real life event,” Gary said. So he began to write scenes and watch videos of those being interviewed that were there that night.
“One of the most striking things I read about the event was that when the emergency services entered the building from the outside once it was over, they had to shut out the sound of mobile phones ringing as relatives were still calling their loved ones, trying to find out where they were,” he said.
The attack had a huge effect on the world, but even more so on the LGBT+ community. “I never want it to not be something we should talk about,” Gary explained. “I never want it to be something that gets forgotten, or that gets dismissed. It was America’s deadliest mass shooting in recent history, and we must never forget that it was aimed at the gay community and it was a specifically targeted attack.”
With June 12th creeping closer, it is a sad day in history and Gary is marking this with a poignant piece of theatre that tells those stories in a powerful way. “I want the play to make people think about their own lives and how they live,” Gary said. “That if their life was cut short all of a sudden, through no fault of their own. Would they be happy with what they’ve achieved in life? And can they do anything different? Ultimately, are they brave enough to be themselves?”