FREE RANGE: Johnny Dunn’s New American Classic Gets Staged Reading in New York City

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In Johnny B. Dunn’s Free Range, national rodeo champion and local hero Chad Raines returns home to his father’s ranch outside a small Western town.  Chad has just suffered an accident which has ended his career as a bull rider.  At the same time, he and his father are both tormented by the loss of Chad’s mother as well as the death of Chad’s brother, whose cries for help went unanswered until it was too late. Unable to reconcile with his guilt, the now-former bull rider turns to drugs and liquor. Chad finds a way to stay in the rodeo scene, albeit reluctantly: He agrees to coach the local high school Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) to prepare them for their state’s regional rodeo. Meanwhile, the upcoming event is creating a showdown of sorts between another pair of brothers in this tiny town. Toby, President of the GSA, will be competing against Mark, the President of the Rodeo Club.  Mirroring Chad and his deceased brother, Toby and Mark don’t see eye to eye.  Toby is battling for respect, while Mark emerges as one of the GSA’s antagonists.  Haunted by the memory of his brother– who committed suicide because of bullying– and with the rodeo on the horizon, Chad must decide what side he’s on.

Shining a spotlight on a slice of American life that doesn’t always get represented on TV, in movies, or in other aspects of pop culture, Dunn’s Free Range will offer its audience a look inside, in his own words, “a big world in a small town”.  The screenplay deals with themes that are both ageless yet timely as we approach 2019, including family ties, LGBTQ youth, homophobia, and cultural mores that are changing faster than we know it. Dunn’s screenplay features many fully-fleshed characters– both LGBTQ and straight– all with stories that need to be told.  Audiences will get their first taste of Johnny Dunn’s Free Range at an exclusive staged reading at New York City’s The Wild Project on Sunday, August 26th at 2PM.
Johnny B. Dunn took the time to speak with me about Free Range and much more:
JR: Good morning, Johnny.  Thank you for speaking with me!  So, how did the idea for Free Range come about?  And, what was the progression from the idea to the upcoming reading of the screenplay like for you?
JD: My husband and I spend a lot of time working with LGBTQ youth.  We were both born and raised in Oklahoma, which was a very tough place to grow up gay.  We were living in Texas in the ’90’s, and he founded this new organization named Youth First Texas, which basically provides support for LGBTQ kids.  Youth First Texas gives them opportunities which they wouldn’t necessarily have, and helps the ones who are homeless because they were kicked out of their homes.  We spent a lot of time working with youth, and one of the things that frustrated me was that all of the films that were dealing with gay content were rated R.  We could never take kids to go see a movie.  We’d have to wait until it came out on DVD, and then show them in the youth center.  But the films were mainly for an adult audience, and no one was really looking after the kids who were in Middle America who needed to see stories that were about them.  My husband challenged me, and said, “Why don’t you write one about gay kids in some small West Texas town?” (Laughs) I said, “OK!”  Because I grew up in Oklahoma in a small town, I had a lot of friends in high school who did rodeo.  They were barrel racers or bronc riders– so I understood that world.  I didn’t play in it, but I understood it.  While I was in Texas, I met one of my dear friends who has about six or seven belt buckles for bronc riding to his name.  He was very involved in IGRA, the International Gay Rodeo Association.  I thought, “Wow.  There are some resources here that I can tap into.”  I needed something that would appeal to youth, which could be written in a way that youth could see it and feel like it was their story. But I also wanted to make sure that it didn’t fall into any stereotypes.  That was one of the reasons why the character of “Toby” is who he is.  Toby is who you would normally think of as a good-looking, butch, popular kid in high school– who just happens to be gay.  He leads a bunch of “brat pack” kids who come from all different styles within their subculture.  What if he were the leader, and wanted to bring everybody up to the same level as everyone else in high school– to create equality across? What would he be?  What would he look like?  So, I decided to put it in the world of rodeo.  There’s probably no sport more butch than rodeo!
JR: (Laughs)  I would have to agree!  I can tell you that it probably has a higher risk of injury than most other sports.  Rugby is a close runner up!
JD: Yes! So… what if we had the guy who was the national rodeo champion and who was this gorgeous, cologne-pushing, Marlboro Man type– and he was asked by a group of gay kids to coach them?  What does HIS world look like?  And how how does he deal with this?  Granted, he has something in his past: his brother, who helps put him over the edge to want to do this.  But at the same time, he realizes that he’s risking a lot.  He’s potentially risking his career, because no one wants to see the “Marlboro Man” hanging out with a bunch of gay kids.  So, that’s kind of how it all came together.  I wanted to do something that wasn’t going to be another “coming out” story.  I wanted it to be something that was showing these kids struggling in Middle America, and doing their best to fit in.
JR: That sounds great!  So, rodeo is indeed a sport, but it’s also a subculture.   Most of the men and women who are involved with it take it very seriously.  They eat, breathe and sleep it. They work hard, but also play hard!  What did you learn about the people involved in the rodeo subculture while working on this screenplay?
JD: One of the things that’s very interesting about rodeo is: If you think about it from the perspective of the Olympics– when they started in Greece– it was about people who were soldiers, who were physical in their jobs.  They needed to know how to throw spears.  So, they created javelin.  It was all about what  they do in life for their work, and then putting it into the form of sport or play that allowed them to leverage their skills and do their jobs.  Rodeo is the same thing.  You’ve got cowboys who have to do calf roping because that was the way you branded a calf.  You have bronc riding because that was the way you had to break wild horses in order to have domestic horses that you could ride.  And so, rodeo is really just the Olympics: These are cowboys who do these things on a daily basis, and bring their skill into a sport that’s fun and games– but it also gives them the ability to exhibit who they are and what they can do. It’s very unique in that way.  It’s not like you have soccer players who “soccer” all week long and then go play soccer on the weekends for sport!  Soccer is strictly sport.  With rodeo, cowboys are doing what they do every day at their job.  And then, they put it in the form of, “Let’s just show who’s the best at doing those things!”  It is a very proud culture.  Even though there are some who are doing it for the sport and the game of it, there are still some cowboys out there who rodeo because that’s what they do.  They break horses, they brand cattle, they do their things on the ranch…  The gay rodeo is still very much about that guy who lives on the ranch.  Maybe he lives alone, but he does all of those things… and going to an IGRA rodeo is his way to meet with his community.   I also think it’s a rite of passage in some way: the ability to say, “I work alone a lot.  Nobody really gets to see what it is that I do.  Now I get to bring it so that others can see it– and if I win, then I get to claim that I am a true cowboy!”
JR: Right!  So, did you get the chance to go to any of the gay rodeos, or talk to openly gay cowboys or cowgirls, for your research for Free Range? 
JD: I did.  I got to meet and talk with a couple of bronc riders.  The women who I talked to were primarily barrel racers.  I didn’t get to meet any of the women who were into the rough stock events.  It’s fascinating.  I’ve been to both the gay rodeos and the non-gay rodeos, and I think that the big difference is that when you have a non-gay rodeo, it’s a big event– like a football game. A gay rodeo may have 50 or maybe 100 people there, and it’s really more about the people who are there to both interact with and compete against each other– not just about drawing a crowd.  In addition to the competition, it’s also about the socializing and the ability to affiliate, and to reinforce that culture that they have– a culture where they can be themselves and not have to fit into what people call the “typical” gay stereotypes.  What I find fascinating is that the state of Oklahoma took the National High School Rodeo Championship last year.  When I was reading the articles about these high school kids that competed on a national level, I was thinking to myself, “Gee, I wonder which ones are gay.”  You know they are probably there.  I had to do a lot of studying and researching not only about GSA’s, but also to get an understanding about what it was like to be in the rodeo and to be in high school, because that’s kind of the world that we were creating.
JR: Are the characters in Free Range based upon, or partially based upon, any real-life people who you’d met?
JD: No, not at all.  In fact, they are all their own characters!  I tried to learn as much as I could about that world to really create those characters… but the characters aren’t based on anyone in particular.  They are just the culmination of all of the different walks of life who come together in this small town.
When I was in L.A. pitching the script to different producers, I ran into one producer who was a lesbian who really loved the script.  But she told me that she didn’t think she could do anything with it.  She said, “All of the women who I know who I’d expect to go see this movie are also animal advocates.  I can’t get behind something where you’re roping and dragging a calf, or getting a bull or horse to buck.”  So, that’s a very interesting perspective.  We have a gay community who is very much made up of, in most cases, left-leaning people.  There’s a dichotomy: “We rodeo, but we also support PETA.” (Laughs) Where’s the balance? That has created some tension.  Fortunately, that doesn’t exist in Middle America, which is where most of the rodeos are.  But I do think it has probably created some challenges for IGRA to deal with.  I also think that part of it is with society in general: We’ve moved away from rural life into the cities, and it has challenged the people who would be interested in doing events like gay rodeos.  However, I have a friend who used to rodeo.  He still has 30 acres, 15 head of cattle, goats, and horses on a ranch outside of Dallas– and he waits tables at the Cheesecake Factory. (Laughs)  But he’s determined keep his ranch. He does his thing. In Oklahoma, I have met some gay cowboys who own their own ranch and their own farm, and they wish and hope to find somebody someday.  But in the meantime, they are OK to live alone on the ranch and not be closeted.  That’s the cool thing about it. Lots of times, their neighbors and their communities are very accepting in a part of the world where you wouldn’t expect it.
JR: That’s great to hear!  So, in addition to the reading of the screenplay in New York City on August 26th, what is your next step with Free Range?
JD: We’ve got people interested.  We’ve got people looking at it.  I’m really hoping that we do get some people who come to the reading who are gonna get super-excited about it.  It’s a story that needs to be told.  We’re looking for producers or talents who want to be attached to the film.  I think it would really be cool if Matt Bomer would come to the reading.  He may be too pretty for Chad (Both laugh), but that could be a movie for him.  He would obviously be very, very excited about the topic, but it would also give him a chance to be in a gay film and not have to play gay for a change! (Laughs) So, I would hope that we just get some attention and get some buzz… and that people will want to pick it up and do something with it!  You know, one of the things that made Brokeback Mountain a success was because of an organic social media presence.  That was it.  That’s what drew people.  The movie didn’t show in every city, but research showed that people drove in for miles to see it.  One of the things I have in the script for Free Range is that one of the kids has been filming the different things that they’ve been doing on their I-Phone.  Then they upload it to YouTube.  Now you have a stadium full of people who have traveled from miles around to see it potentially as… “OK, this is a freak show.”— or others who are seeing it just as they did with Brokeback: “I’m going to travel 100 miles just to see what I know is important.”  I think that there’s the opportunity for something to happen with this. But one thing: It needs to stay PG-13!  It needs to stay at a level that would be welcome to anyone.  I think if you had something rated PG-13, it would really be cool if parents went with their kids to go see it, as a way of beginning to build acceptance.
JR: Agreed!  I can’t wait to see more!
All Out Arts, in conjunction with The Wild Project, presents An LGBT Film Event as part of the Fresh Fruit Festival: Free Range (Winner of the One-in-Ten International Competition) will be shown as a staged presentation of the screenplay by Johnny B. Dunn; presentation directed by A.J. Ciccotelli, assisted by Payton Crispe, and produced by Frank Calo on Sunday, August 26 at 2:00 PM at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St., New York City. Admission is $10 and refreshments will be served at a reception with talk-back immediately following the presentation. This is one of three special film-related presentations.  For more information, visit www.freshfruitfestival.com/film-fest-2018 

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