Rob Anderson, the writer, director and star of the new gay-themed musical Straight Camp is, remarkably, just 18 years old. Sort of. To inform the character of Pastor Father—the effeminate leader of a camp that tries to convert young people struggling with sexual orientation—Anderson, who is actually 25, took on the guise of questioning teen and reached out to an Illinois-based org called PFOX (Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays). “They hounded me,” says Anderson, who forwarded me PFOX’s list of surreal-sounding affiliated organizations, including adventureinmanhood.com and wifeboat.com. “It felt to me like the dad who comes in while a bunch of teenage guys are playing games and watching TV and tries to hang out— and you’re like, there’s something really off about this.”
Anderson, who grew up in New Jersey, endured a religious and culturally conservative upbringing. “If I had come out when I was a kid, I would’ve had to go through religious-based [conversion therapy],” he says. Anderson even recalls his mother (with whom he says he now maintains a great relationship) disparaging Melissa Etheridge for the song “Come to My Window,” because it references same-sex attraction. “You think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that those are the kinds of things my family said.’ ”
Anderson tapped the improv theater iO, where he works as a house manager, as his venue of choice. He says iO cofounder Charna Halpern was sympathetic to the story. “She had dated a guy who was gay,” Anderson starts. “They loved each other but she saw some show about these conversion therapy programs, and it kind of clicked. She talked to him about it and he was like, ‘Yeah, I am gay.’ ”
But is the ex-gay movement still a talking point in the era of marriage equality? Exodus International, a leading organization aimed at “helping” gay Christians with same-sex attraction, famously announced in 2012 that it would shift away from reparative therapy, dealing a huge blow to the movement. Anderson says that’s not a problem. “[Our] concept comes through a bunch of teenagers not really knowing who they are and having outside pressures,” he states. “Anyone can relate to that.”
Mike Malarkey, who wrote the score, agrees. “I’m not gay but I felt connected to it really quickly,” he says. “It really is a lot more about self acceptance and knowing your own personality.”
Regardless, Straight Camp isn’t preachy. It aims to make its point without being heavy-handed and while having some fun, mostly at the expense of musical theater. “If I know one thing, it would be musical theater,” says Anderson, a member of the iO musical improv troupe the Deltones. “I stopped doing it when I came here to do improv and comedy. This is almost getting back into that and exploring the person I was three years ago.”
Anderson does have one previous musical theater experience in Chicago under his belt: 2012’s frivolously raunchy Steamwerkz: the Musical, a parody of bathhouse culture that sent Anderson running around in nothing but a towel. In Straight Camp, the clothes are back on, but in taking aim at religious zealots, the gloves, at least, remain off.
Straight Camp debuts Thursday 7.