In an explosion of creativity this fall, Jackson actor and playwright Andrew Munz wrote a one-man play called “Tumbleweed.”
On its face, it’s about Munz’s experience of growing up gay in Wyoming.
But “Tumbleweed” covers so much more ground than that. It explores isolation and loss, cowboy culture and community, equal rights and identity. It’s about finding your tribe, gathering your confidence and the impact of solidarity. It touches on the murder of Matthew Shepard and the suicide of Trevor O’Brien, a young gay man in Wyoming. It takes a particularly off-color joke told by the author and humorist David Sedaris about gay men and tumbleweeds and turns it on its head. It even includes a scene starring Wyoming’s relentless wind.
In fact, one of the most remarkable features of the play is just how much Munz managed to weave into the stripped-down, hour-long show.
Munz recently gave several “Tumbleweed” performances in New York City in partnership with Destiny Manifests, a gallery, theater and organization that features artists who create work in tandem with the western landscape.
He sat down to talk to WyoFile about the play, his journey as an LGBTQ+ activist and what lessons he wants audiences to take from his work.
WyoFile: You grew up in Jackson. How did you find theater?
AM: I was in fourth or fifth grade, and I did a production with Missoula Children’s Theater of “Alice in Wonderland.” I played one-sixth of the caterpillar. I liked the sense of expression and portraying someone other than myself. It was something totally new, and I really loved it.
WF: And you went out into the world before coming back to Jackson. Tell me a little about that journey?
AM: In 2011 I moved to Chicago for two years to study acting and improv theater at Second City and the Annoyance Theater and iO Theatre. Chicago was overwhelming. I enjoyed doing theater and I loved the aspect that improv offered, which was completely collaborative and a format of theater that celebrated uniqueness. I got addicted to that. However the competitiveness of improv and everybody’s desire to be on “Saturday Night Live” was a little detrimental to that collaborativeness. Ultimately, it was not what I wanted.
Iceland ended up being a big reason [that I returned to Jackson.] I went to Iceland for the first time in 2012. I thought it would be a new unique place. What I found there was a very similar place to where I came from. In Wyoming, all the towns are far from each other, there’s a lot of empty space, a small population and a certain heritage and culture. Somehow Iceland kind of paired all of that together for me. It was such a change from Chicago, and it made me realize, ‘oh I kind of belong somewhere that isn’t as congested.’ So I came back home and got right back to the swing of things.
WF: What spurred you to write “Tumbleweed”?
AM: I recently had a big tragedy in my life. I lost my father and step-mother at the beginning of September to a murder-suicide. I ended up escaping back to Iceland right after it happened.
The Destiny Manifests project run by Erin Roy and Roy Productions was an opportunity I knew about prior to the murder-suicide, which I think now of as “the event.” It was something I kept in mind and knew I wanted to do. So I came back from Iceland and I was like, you know what, I’m just going to do it. I called up Erin, I said, hey I’m going to write something. I’m not sure what that is yet. The Wyoming Arts Council offered a small grant that paid for my flight. The pieces just started to come together.
I wrote a script before I left Wyoming. Then I got to New York and half of that script just wasn’t feeling right. It felt like getting therapy out in front of people. I didn’t want it to be that. I wanted it to be honest and I wanted it to be more about who I am in this journey of figuring out what I value in the aftermath of a tragedy like this. It was a path for me to really put myself out there entirely. Kind of a big honest confessional. A dispatch, as I call it.
But another part of it was, I wanted to give Wyoming a happy ending. Give gay people in Wyoming a story that did not end in death or break-up or someone contracting AIDS. All of that is so frustrating when you are growing up in a place like Wyoming, that is already telling you that you need to suppress who you are, if you’re different. I was always different.
And it was important for me to write “Tumbleweed” in an effort to educate people outside of Wyoming about the struggles that are still present. Because we are the least populated state, and then you factor in the fact that Wyoming is the tenth largest state, that’s a lot of empty space and not a lot of people. It’s one big collection of small towns. So, as I write in the script, being different is more obvious in a small town, and being different in Wyoming is more obvious.
Expressing my struggle and my difference in the landscape of LGBT issues is my way of not only saying ‘hey this is who I am,’ but also, ‘don’t forget about us.’ Don’t forget about people like Trevor O’Brien and Matthew Shepard. Because it’s not all over, and it’s not all solved.
WF: You cover a lot of ground in the play. If someone asked you, what would you say it’s about?
AM: It’s about my journey from being in the closet and being ashamed of my own differences, and my path towards being an activist. And at the root of it, it’s a reclamation of that [David Sedaris] tumbleweed joke. But the foundation that holds it up is self-acceptance, and self-salvation in many ways.
WF: You explore your own story, but you also write with great intimacy about Wyoming’s cowboy culture, its unrelenting wind and the scars of pain it bears from historic events. Talk about the state’s significance in the play.
AM: Wyoming of course at face value is the setting. But it also represents a bigger idea. It represents a place that was, to tie it into Erin’s Project, manifest destiny. A place where you had the opportunity to build your own life and be free of judgement and be free of certain third-party restrictions. And with a history of equal rights. “Equality State” is our moniker.
You would think that it would be a more accepting place taking into account the history of freedoms. And yet what you find is that traditionalism does not evolve when it’s in a vacuum.
With all of this open space, there’s a lot of room for new ideas for inspiration, but not a lot of open-mindedness in accepting those ideas. So when you start thinking about helping out people who are different, who may believe differently or act differently or love differently, it’s odd that it’s so much to ask. Especially in 2019.
WF: You also touch on your own activism. What do you think Wyoming can do to improve its landscape of acceptance?
AM: It’s so complicated and it’s not something I have the answers for. But ultimately it goes back to it’s up to us as individuals to stick our necks out for each other. On a very ground level, we have to be accepting of one another. Of your neighbor, to the people teaching your kids, the person who is serving you at a restaurant.
But there needs to be greater strides. And there’s no hope for greater strides if that conversation resides only at that ground level of acceptance. It needs to start translating into bigger picture, it needs to start being implemented into law, like a non-discrimation ordinance, a hate crime law, equal protections.
WF: Are there any plans to stage “Tumbleweed” here in Wyoming?
AM: There are certainly thoughts.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.