James Lecesne Interview

An Interview with James Lecesne

By Fiona Kyle, Dramaturg

We’ve been thrilled that you’ve returned to Hartford Stage so many times over the years. Audiences may remember you from The Mystery of Irma Vep in 2004, as a solo performer in I Am My Own Wife in 2007, and most recently in Motherhood Out Loud in 2010. Students will remember you from your time working with Project: Transform, where you helped them create and perform an original theatre piece in 2015. What most excites you about working at Hartford Stage?

James Lecesne in 'The Mystery of Irma Vep.' Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
James Lecesne in The Mystery of Irma Vep. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

I’m thrilled to be returning to Hartford with The Absolute Brightness of Leonard PelkeyFor me theater is so much about community—building it, caring for it, while challenging and celebrating everyone who is a member. Over the years, I’ve watched Hartford Stage expand and serve an ever-growing community—not only with their diverse programming, but also through their community-based programs. A couple of years ago I participated in Project: Transform, a ten-week program that gives high school students the opportunity to speak their minds about the changes they would like to see in their neighborhood, community, and world. For them, it was an amazing experience to create and perform their own piece of theater. For me, it was a reminder of what community is here to do—it makes more, more for everyone. 

You’re not only an accomplished actor and playwright, but you’re also a celebrated author. Your young adult novel Absolute Brightness was published in 2008, which served as the source material for this play. Can you talk about the process of adapting your own work to the stage? What compelled you to return to Leonard’s story?

James Lecesne in 'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.' Photo by Matthew Murphy.
James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The novel of Absolute Brightness was published in 2008—a few years before the subject of bullying began to dominate conversation around young adults. Then in 2015, I felt the time had come to revisit the themes of the novel in a way that would engage adults as well as a younger audience. The novel is told from the point of view of 16-year-old Phoebe Hertle; but for the stage-play, I chose instead to tell the story from the point of view of Chuck DeSantis, a small town detective who is investigating the mysterious disappearance of Leonard Pelkey. Chuck seemed a better narrator for a mature audience, more equipped to face the darker aspects of the story. I wanted to explore how we as a community can encourage young people to be fully themselves, while at the same time protect them from the dangers that are out there. How do we value a generation of young people who are struggling to discover who they truly are? And how can we celebrate the unique gifts that come with diversity and the inclusion of even the least among us?   

In astronomy, Absolute Brightness has been defined as “the total amount of light produced by a star irrespective of its distance from an observer.” What drew you to use that term for the title of both your book and play?

I stumbled upon this term while writing the novel, and it seemed like the perfect metaphor to describe the way our qualities as individuals operate. Each of us brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there. We shine no matter what. Your brightness is the part of you that cannot be denied. 

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is not the first time you’ve adapted your own work. In your play, Word of Mouth, one of the characters you portrayed was a boy named Trevor who realizes that he’s gay, tries to commit suicide, but then decides to live. You adapted Trevor’s story for the film of the same name that won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1994. Are there differences between adapting for the stage and adapting for film?

I love to tell stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film, a novel, a TV series, a play, or a puppet show, a story can engage hearts and minds in ways that nothing else can match. Of course each form of storytelling requires a certain set of skills. I could write a book (and maybe I will someday) about what’s required for each medium. But more fascinating to me is the fact that each and every one of us is brilliant at being able to receive and make sense of a story. Stories are our common language, and regardless of the form, we all know when a story is speaking to us. 

After the HBO-premiere of Trevor in 1998, The Trevor Project was launched, a nationwide 24-hour crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ+ youth. It has helped hundreds of thousands of young people in this country in its nearly 20 year history. Would you tell us more about the process you, Peggy Rajski, and Randy Stone went through to co-found and launch The Trevor Project?

James Lecesne in 'I Am My Own Wife.' Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
James Lecesne in I Am My Own Wife. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Trevor film, directed by Peggy Rajski and produced by Randy Stone and Peggy, won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, and some time afterwards HBO agreed to air the film with a wonderful wraparound presentation by Ellen DeGeneres. You can watch the film here: www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/history.

It was a remarkable opportunity to bring the story of a gay young person into the living rooms of millions of Americans and to a certain extent, normalize the experience of growing up gay. At the time, Randy, Peggy and I considered putting a telephone number at the end of the film in case there were kids out there who identified with the character of Trevor and needed a place to turn; but after doing some research, we discovered there was no 24-hour suicide prevention hotline specially for gay and lesbian young people. And so we took on the assignment—raising funds, training counselors and getting everything ready for that first broadcast on August 8, 1998. That evening following the initial broadcast, we launched the first and (still) the only national 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and Questioning teens. Incredibly, we received over 1,500 telephone calls from young people around the country that night. Not all of the calls came from LGBT young people, but every one of them recognized something in Trevor’s experience that made them feel less alone. For almost twenty years The Trevor Project has been saving young lives. Through Trevor Lifeline, Trevor Chat, Trevor Text and Trevorspace, we’ve been reminding generations of young people that they are not alone and encouraging them to be who they are. This is how a single story can change the world.