How astronaut Sally Ride coming out as gay inspired a St. Louis playwright
St. Louis native Liza Birkenmeier started out in theater as an actress. At 11, she appeared at the Muny in the children’s chorus of a production of “Annie.” But while studying playwriting at Washington University, she found she didn’t enjoy being onstage as much as creating the worlds that actors moved within.
One of her early theater pieces as a playwright incorporated interviews with Midwestern youths who were queer or trans. Another included recordings of patrons at Mokabe’s Coffeehouse on South Grand.
There’s also a St. Louis flavor to “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House,” the play St. Louis Actors’ Studio is now giving its local debut at the Gaslight Theater. Annamarie Pileggi, associate artistic director, directs a cast of four.
Small onstage moments have big reverberations in the slyly funny, subtle play. It takes place during one evening on a south St. Louis rooftop, where women meet for a book club but wind up wrestling with their own identities after learning that astronaut Sally Ride was gay. Ride was married to a man in 1983 when she became the first American woman to go to space, but she came out in her 2012 obituary.
“A lot of my feelings on queerness present themselves in various, sneaky ways throughout the play,” said Birkenmeier, 37. “But I think that anyone who's from here or has a background in the Midwest more generally might feel the summer nightness, the fullness of possibility that’s in the private space of the roof, more than someone who’s from another place.”
Birkenmeier developed the play at Ars Nova theater in New York, where it made a well-received premiere in 2019. She’s currently teaching young playwrights at Washington University.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with her about the play.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: How did you wind up writing a play about four women on a St. Louis rooftop?
Liza Birkenmeier: I started out with this epic that was supposed to take place over centuries and dealt with Francis Bacon and the scientific method. Tucked inside of that gigantic and terrible, totally incoherent play that I wrote was a scene about these women on a roof at their book club. When I started over to rewrite it, I started with that scene and when I was done I realized I had a whole draft of a play.
Goodwin: I understand that you picked a date for this story to happen somewhat randomly but then found a fortuitous historical connection. What happened?
Birkenmeier: When I was writing the first draft of the play that took place across all of these generations and centuries, I had picked a date of one of the scenes to take place on June 17, 1983. When I went back and wrote that scene as the entire play, of course I looked into that date, and I found out it was the night before Sally Ride’s historic launch, her first Challenger mission.
She had already been an inspiration to me. And a few years before I started writing the play, I read that she came out in her obituary. With her consent, her partner included herself in that. It seemed really wild, exciting, frustrating and terrible to me that somebody who could get to space could not be publicly gay within her lifetime.
Goodwin: A big moment in the play comes when one of the characters announces that Ride is gay. Did queer communities already know that in the 1980s?
Birkenmeier: I do think that there are probably people who would have assumed or guessed that she was queer at that time, who didn't know her. She was not out at that time to her close circle of friends, but she was soon after known to be gay in her very closest circles.
Goodwin: As these women talk there’s a real sense of feeling the need to repress one’s authentic self. There’s a sense of them wondering: Is it safe here?
Birkenmeier: Oh, yeah, that mood is the environment, but it’s like a story in itself. I absolutely think the piece has to do with how we perform ourselves and how carefully or not carefully we do that — how we may or may not be able to do that, depending on who we are and where we are. As these women talk about themselves and perform to each other who they are, I think there is an authenticity in performance.
Goodwin: What do you mean by that?
Birkenmeier: I feel like we have this social mistake that there is some quiet or simple truth under our louder or more vigorous or more sparkly expressions. And to me it seems intuitive that our louder or more vigorous or more sparkly expressions are closest to our deepest desires.
There are a lot of questions in the play like: Who am I now? Who am I allowed to be, and how much and how vibrantly? Can I be who I am?
Goodwin: What was it like for you when this play opened in New York?
Birkenmeier: In my mind, it was horrifying. It didn't occur to me how personal the play was, until it suddenly felt like everyone was going to be able to look at me by looking at it.
Goodwin: Is there more of you in the pages of this than you've put in some prior work?
Birkenmeier: It doesn't cover any events of my life. But it certainly captures sort of the most humiliating, devastating and exciting dynamics that I've ever experienced as a person.
Things like feeling like I've been caught or falling on my face in front of other people, as I recalibrate who I am to friends or lovers. As I open or close myself to the experience of being seen as a queer person, noticed as a queer person, all of those joys and humiliations and the dynamics that open up in the play between all four of them feel extremely [like they’re coming from] my body and intellect and experiences of the most fleeting and extreme feelings.