This week John met with with Rory O’Malley (IMDB), Tony-nominated actor from The Book of Mormon, King George of Hamilton, and founder of both Broadway Impact and Belt the Vote. When not on the stage or in front of the camera, Rory has been activating the American theater community on important issues such as gay rights and civic engagement for the last decade. In this episode, Rory discusses how he one day decided to take action on an issue he cared about and how he eventually found himself leading communities across the nation.
Links to subjects mentioned:
- Broadway Impact
- Belt the Vote
- Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope
- 1969 Stonewall Riots
- 2008 California Proposition 8
- Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS
- Bernadette Peters
- Cynthia Nixon
- The Book of Mormon
- Eve Ensler’s Ted Talk
- The Vagina Monologues
- Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
- Dustin Lance Black
- 8 (the play)
- When We All Vote
- Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS
- Gavin Creel
- Jenny Kanelos
- Lin-Manuel Miranda
Listen to our other podcasts here or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play
John Bwarie: Hello, this is John Bwarie and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence where we explore how leaders engage and build community.
In this episode I spoke with Rory O’Malley, Tony nominated actor for The Book of Mormon, King George of Hamilton, and founder of both Broadway Impact and Belt the Vote. When not on the stage or in front of the camera, Rory has been activating the American theater community on important issues such as gay rights and civic engagement for the last decade. I met Rory in his Los Angeles home to learn about he one day decided to take action on an issue he cared about and how that led him to lead communities across the nation.
We’re here in Culver City, California but you’re not from Southern California.
Rory O’Malley: No, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.
John Bwarie: Cleveland, Ohio. You’ve had a career that’s taken you to Southern California, to New York, and I’ve seen the work you’re doing and I don’t often get to sit down with a Tony nominated actor, but we’re not going to talk so much about your method, creating a character-
Rory O’Malley: My acting, my creative-
John Bwarie: … your creative process.
Rory O’Malley: That’s good. I don’t really have much of a method so.
John Bwarie: Good, and I wouldn’t know what you were talking about if you talked about it. What I do want to talk about is your work with community. I think it was probably I started noticing it because we were Facebook friends on social media, probably what, seven or eight years ago now?
Rory O’Malley: Sure, sure.
John Bwarie: So tell me, the question is, how did you begin on this path? You’re an actor, right?
Rory O’Malley: Yeah.
John Bwarie: And you’re a good actor. How did you get into the world of, “I’m going to work with community”?
Rory O’Malley: Well, it’s interesting because I didn’t see it as being the path of what I was going to be doing but it very quickly became the most important work of my life as being what my husband has coined an actorvist, an actor and activist, the actorvist.
John Bwarie: And there’s your title.
Rory O’Malley: There you go. Yeah, that’s probably better for the business card. What happened was that when you’re an actor and you have a passion, you can throw yourself into it 100% and you still can only work maybe one month out of the year. It’s one of those jobs where even if you’re passionate and you work very hard you’re not always given the opportunity to do what you love. So I was working very hard in restaurants, in temp jobs, and I really wanted to find ways to make myself useful when I wasn’t on a stage, when I wasn’t in front of a camera. I think it was back in 2008 I had read Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. This was maybe 2007 because it was before the election, and not to get too political-
John Bwarie: That’s okay.
Rory O’Malley: … but it changed my perspective on what was possible. He was a community organizer and I felt very strongly that I was the one I was waiting for. He used that quote, that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and that really resonated with me. You know, I want to have all this change for marriage equality and the gay community, and I’m waiting around for somebody else to show me what to do. I’m waiting around and I have all this time, and I’m yelling at cable news, and I’m on social media, but I’m not taking that action. I’m the one that I’m waiting for. I have to do something.
His campaign was much more than just a presidential campaign for me. It was a call to action. And so I went home to Cleveland, Ohio where I grew up in a very important state and just started volunteering for his campaign. So I learned how to knock on doors and have conversations with people about issues, I learned how to run a phone bank, I learned how to drive a car in the … before he was the vice president, Joe Biden’s motorcade. I was doing all these things and I was like, “Wow, I’m just showing up at their door and being put in charge of things.”
John Bwarie: And just for context, how old are you at this point?
Rory O’Malley: I was 27, 26, 27.
John Bwarie: And this is your first foray into politics and community?
Rory O’Malley: Oh yeah, for sure.
John Bwarie: So you weren’t a student, or a student body president, or-
Rory O’Malley: No, I would say I was so solely focused on my art, on acting, that there was no room for anything else, and at that point, in my mid-twenties I realized that I wasn’t going to have all of my satisfaction in life just from acting, and that I needed to expand my horizons and I needed to be passionate about something else. I realized that activism, and specifically for gay rights, were so important and there was that moment, especially in the gay community.
There have been different moments where we’ve really had to step up to fight for something. In the ’60s it was Stonewall, and the Stonewall Riots, and fighting just to be in a bar, just to gather as a group and to hold each other’s hands. In the ’80s it was the AIDS crisis and being able to live, being able to survive a plague. My generation was very clear, our leg of the race was going to be to be able to marry each other, to be able to make a commitment. I thought, “If I don’t do everything I can in this moment, how will I … I knew it was going to happen, how will I ever look at my one day husband or one day child in the eye and say, “I didn’t do anything. It just was given to me.”
So it was very important to me to hear that call and to do what I could not just because I needed something to do but because I wanted to be able to tell my grandkids I didn’t just sit back and watch this change happen.
John Bwarie: So you go back to Cleveland, back to Ohio, you help the president win his election.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, and it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. It taught me so much and I was just volunteering, living at my mom’s house, and driving to one of their campaign headquarters on the west side of Cleveland. I remember knocking on doors on election day to make sure everyone had voted in those houses, and I found a young man who had been to prison, and he had never voted but he knew he was registered but he was scared because he didn’t know where to go and I was like, “You can do it, you have to do it. This is the most important day.” I got him on a bus, showing him where to go to get to his precinct to vote, and I’ll never forget that. It was one vote but it meant so much more in that he needed some help to feel confident to vote because he could, he could vote. He had his rights back after he got out of prison. That kind of just changes your DNA when you go through something like that, when you feel empowered to have that conversation with the community.
On election night, we were so happy about the results but on the same night back in California Prop 8 was passed and gay people who were allowed to get married because of the Supreme Court making a decision, they had that right taken away by voters. It was shocking to the entire gay community, not just California because I think that everyone thought, “Well, if it can be taken away in California what hope does Ohio have?” And so it was shocking, it was sad, it left this group of gay people who were married in limbo, like what does it mean for them? So I kind of felt on that night a lot of triumph, and joy, and accomplishment but I thought, “Oh my God, did I go to the wrong place? Should I have been knocking on doors in California?”
I went back to New York City where I was living and working in the theater community, and went to rallies about Prop 8 and saw many familiar faces from the theater community and people who were … Of course, the theater community has a lot of gay people in it, and everyone else certainly knows gay people and wants to support them. So we were showing up to those rallies, we were showing up to those meetings at the LGBT center, “What can we do?”
I started talking with my friend Jenny Canelos and Gavin Creel, who’s a Broadway actor, and we wanted to really get the Broadway community involved with the fight for marriage equality in New York and nationwide. So we went to HRC, we went to the different gay organizations that were doing stuff on the ground all across the country and said, “Hey, we’re here representing the theater community. What can we do?” And they said, “Just write letters, make phone calls,” and the stuff that I knew was effective, but I said, “Oh no, you don’t know what I’m saying. The theater community wants to do something on this issue,” and if you look at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS or other things that they’ve accomplished, the money that they’ve raised, the community there.
I love that you’re talking about community because that is what Broadway and the theater community is. It’s a group of people who take care of each other. Being out in Los Angeles now it’s something that I kind of miss because when you are doing TV or film you don’t necessarily know all the other TV or film productions going on. When you’re on Broadway, you know who’s cast in what, you know what theater they’re at, you know what crew’s on it. It’s a very tight-knit family. So when they have made a decision to be effective on an issue, or some charity event, or if there’s a natural disaster that needs to have money raised for it they will raise a million dollars in one night and figure out a way to come together. That’s why they were so effective around the AIDS crisis.
John Bwarie: And let me pause there. So this community that is known by those of us who look at communities and yes, you’ve defined it well, they previously had organizations that they were rallying around, Broadway Cares, well known, long standing. Besides that, were there other sort of formal engagements or is a lot of this community building ad hoc would you say?
Rory O’Malley: I would say … It’s funny because Broadway Cares was one thing and Equity Fights Aids was another. There were all these different groups, and then they came together. There’s the Actor’s Fund, which you know is supporting actors in the ups and downs of their financial stress, and there are tons of different organizations, Broadway Barks, Bernadette Peters saving dogs from shelters, and there are different organizations like the Broadway Green Alliance that’s doing stuff for environmental purposes and trying to make sure that our theaters and our community is as green as possible. They are very organized, but what I would say is the mothership is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. So to get into the weeds of it, our non-profit status for Broadway Impact, which I’m getting into, is the organization that we eventually created, was through Broadway Cares and many of those organizations that I just listed off, they are all having non-profit status through Broadway Cares.
John Bwarie: Got it.
Rory O’Malley: So it’s definitely the spirit is independent and it’s people like me saying, “Something needs to be done about this issue or that issue,” but so many times Tom Viola and Broadway Cares are the first person to go to say, “We need to do something about this.”
John Bwarie: So there’s sort of this infrastructure there to allow that community to address or attack the issues they need to deal with without having to go through the process of, “Well, where do we start?”
Rory O’Malley: Yes, so after we went to these gay organizations we went to Tom Viola and said, “Hey, we need to do something. What’s our first step?” And he said, “We are going to help you in any way we can.” I think it was literally just, “We can print you out flyers or whatever you need stationary wise to get the word out at stage doors and make sure that everyone’s on the same page.” We started a letter writing campaign. At that time there was actually something called Join The Impact, which was basically a Facebook group that was trying to get protests and rallies to be done all across the country. So we said, “We’ll be Broadway Impact. We’ll have some kind of effect in the Broadway community.”
So, that’s where that came from. We started a letter writing campaign with different Broadway shows to write to our New York State representatives. And so we would go backstage in between shows, tell the cast what we were trying to do, video tape them writing letters. For us there are two parts of our community, there’s the actors and people working on Broadway, and then there are the fans.
You know, it’s not that everyone in the world knows who those actors are. I always say, “Not everybody knows who Gavin Creel is but the people who do will follow Gavin to the ends of the Earth. They love Broadway.” I am a Broadway fan first and foremost and I’ll do whatever Bernadette Peters tells me to. We knew the power of that, you know? That there is a community out there that will pay attention to Broadway stars. And so if we tell them, “Hey, this is what we have to do right now. We have to stand up and fight for marriage equality.” We had a whole army and community of regional theaters across the country and fans of theater that would stand up and make their voices heard.
So we started to do that and we became Broadway Impact. We ended up-
John Bwarie: And what year is this now? We still in 2008, 2009?
Rory O’Malley: This is 2009.
John Bwarie: Okay.
Rory O’Malley: Because it was basically the election of 2008, November 4th, 2008 that Prop 8 was passed and that we went into … I remember the inauguration on January 20th, 2009. I was with Gavin and Jenny and we went and did a little retreat of what can we do to really spark this activism in our community. I remember we kept taking breaks to watch Obama’s speech. Man, I was young then. I kept thinking what a blessing your twenties are because you have all of that hope, and you don’t have any of the knowledge of how difficult it’s going to be to make those things happen.
John Bwarie: Now let me just push back a second. That’s a decade ago, approximately.
Rory O’Malley: Yes, it is.
John Bwarie: And now you’ve had the experience. You know how difficult things are. Does it change the worthwhileness of doing it now when you’re not as young?
Rory O’Malley: No, no, it doesn’t change the worthwhileness. What it changes is I don’t waste any time in getting bogged down in the things that aren’t going to be effective, in the things that made me worried, and I have less fear and anxiety about trying to move forward without knowing what you’re doing, which is so hard and you realize, that’s kind of a trick for every part of life. Just keep going. Nobody knows what they’re doing. We’re figuring it out as we go.
John Bwarie: Absolutely.
Rory O’Malley: And I think that a lot of times people think, “Well I can’t do that because I don’t know how to do it. Clearly the person who did it, they know exactly what they’re doing.” No, they just aren’t afraid to keep going even though they don’t know. You can’t know how to do something until you’ve done it. I think that we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to motivate the Broadway community without having any knowledge of community organizing other than working on a campaign, but this is very different. It’s not getting someone elected, it’s truly trying to speak to your representatives, and make legislation get passed or work on an issue. It’s very different.
So we did a letter writing campaign, we had a rally in Times Square, we invited the cast of Hair, we invited Cynthia Nixon. Cynthia Nixon actually announced at our rally that she was going to get married to her girlfriend at the time. She’s an amazing actor and also has been … She’s definitely much more of an actorvist than I am. She ran for governor, and she knew how to use that moment to get people to pay attention, and it gave us so much, her just showing up and also announcing that there, but her showing up, the cast of Hair, Audra McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson, so many different people from the Broadway community came to perform. So there were thousands of people who just wanted to see the performance. They might be interested in the issue and supportive but they wouldn’t show up for a rally if they weren’t hearing the cast of Hair sing. They show up and all of a sudden we got a call from Mayor Bloomberg’s office asking if he could speak at the rally.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Rory O’Malley: We’re just 20-year-olds in our apartments in New York.
John Bwarie: And this is the mayor of the largest city in America.
Rory O’Malley: Exactly, asking permission to speak at our rally. He was registered independent at the time and he was … It was a very big deal, obviously for many reasons. And then we got a call from the governor’s office asking if the governor could come and speak. And so it just turned into this big thing, and all of a sudden all those organizations that we had to reached out to say … they were asking if they could speak. They were calling us-
John Bwarie: And this is your first public thing that you’re doing?
Rory O’Malley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Bwarie: How long had you been working on the letter writing and formulating this idea?
Rory O’Malley: It was May.
John Bwarie: So just a couple of months.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, yeah, no, we were in way over our heads, but the reason it happened is because we went to Broadway Cares. There was going to be an anti-gay rally in New York on a day, we found out about it. It was 10 days out, and we went to Tom Viola and Broadway Cares and we said, “This anti-gay rally is happening. We have to do something positive in response.” Tom and Broadway Cares said, “We’ll help you put on a counter rally, something positive.” We put it together in 10 days, did not sleep for 10 days. It was insane.
John Bwarie: I’m sure, the permits alone. We were in meetings with NYPD. It was way over my head. It was so scary but so important and it really lit the fire of how the Broadway community was going to respond to this in New York City.
Earlier you mentioned that as a working actor you might work a month out of the year.
Rory O’Malley: Sure.
John Bwarie: At this point were you working full time on this effort or were you actually also working as well? I mean, you got to sustain yourself.
Rory O’Malley: Yes, you do. No, I wasn’t. I’ll tell you that I think I had been working right before the holidays that year, and then I was doing workshops. I was doing readings, which are just closed readings of scripts of a little musical called The Book of Mormon.
John Bwarie: A little thing.
Rory O’Malley: A little show. We didn’t know where it would go. I remember very clearly thinking, “Is this okay for me to spend all this time not getting paid, all this passion and effort being thrown into something? If I have an acting job come up I might have to turn down.” Certainly I turned down auditions and opportunities, and I just knew that I would never regret throwing myself into something like this. Obviously, skipping forward now I’m married to a man, and we have a child, and 10 years later the work that I did in that is the most important work in my life. It’s more important than anything I’ll do as an actor because I get to be a father. I get to be a husband because of that.
So, basically we threw that rally, we were riding high, and then we did a phone bank, and the New York State legislature didn’t pass marriage equality and it was terrible. It was like, “Oh, we came so close.”
John Bwarie: Had the legislature already been considering it when you started or did you know that was your goal when you started out that you wanted New York State legislature?
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, there was a state by state approach by all of the LGBT organizations at that time. It wasn’t what ended up happening in terms of the Supreme Court. That wasn’t really … There needed to be these short-term successes in different states. So our focus at first was, let’s see what’s happening in New York, and because we had a governor who was supportive, who wanted to introduce legislation and would sign it, what we needed was a state senate that would do it, but it was in Republican hands, it was kind of close though. We had a phone bank and we were just calling, having Broadway actors, we would be like, “Come to our phone bank tonight. It’ll be the cast of Spelling Bee will be here making phone calls.” We would have all these people who had never been to a phone bank in their life show up because they wanted to meet the cast members, you know, which it’s important to know what will make your community show up.
Certainly all of the people who showed up were passionate about the issue but everyone is so afraid to have a conversation with another human being about an issue. If you show them someone doing it who they respect in their community they’re a lot more inclined to do it. What I learned from the Barack Obama campaign was that there were nurses for Obama, there were teachers for Obama, and there were these people who would knock on doors as a group from work with their friends. I realized that engaging with a community and saying, “No, this is what we’re doing right now. Don’t worry about the bigger picture. This is your group of friends, your coworkers, your small community. We’re doing something for a larger purpose but it’s still just your friends and it’s your community making … You’re speaking with your group. You should feel welcomed here.”
John Bwarie: Making it bite sized.
Rory O’Malley: Yes.
John Bwarie: And it’s about you.
Rory O’Malley: Yes, and that I realized was what we needed to do with the marriage equality fight, is make it about theater, and know the theater community is not going to be responsible for marriage equality but we’re going to play our part. We’re going to do what we need to do to affect change on our scale at least. Of course Broadway starts showed up, and we were disappointed when it didn’t pass in New York. It really never got up for a vote and the politics in New York, in Albany is crazy, it’s crazy. I think people went to jail. It was like, “Okay, maybe we need to have some more elections.” It was a lot of crazy stuff going down, but we learned a lot and we said, “Well how can we affect change in our community on a broader scale throughout the entire country?”
We started putting together pamphlets, and sending out ways to write letters, but we weren’t getting paid. We weren’t an organization that could research every single state legislature and try to figure that out so it was very generic and it didn’t feel like … Our biggest problem was always, what’s the action? Of course people care. What do the do about it? We couldn’t come up with a good action. So I started watching TED talks looking for inspiration and I watched Eve Ensler do a TED talk and it was about The Vagina Monologues which she put together and produced. She did them on her own and then celebrities started doing them for charity events, and they would raise a lot of money for women’s issues, reproductive rights, and domestic violence, and then they started doing them on colleges all across the country. I remember seeing it at my college.
John Bwarie: I remember too.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, so it was like this movement of doing The Vagina Monologues, and raising money and awareness, and it was a light bulb moment if I ever had one where I thought, “Oh my God, we need a script. That’s what we need. You don’t have to explain what to do with a script when you give a theater all across the country a script. They know exactly what to do, put on a show. So I was like, “Well, what’s our script?” At the same time Prop 8 was in the courts because they were trying to overturn it. There was an organization called the American Foundation of Equal Rights and they put money together. Chad Griffin is the head of it, was the head of it, and who is now the head of HRC, and they funded it so that Ted Olson, big time Republican, and David Boyce who was a big time Democrat, they actually went against each other in Bush versus Gore. They were the two lawyers who fought against each other and they were coming together to fight Prop 8. It was a good story. It was like you can have an argument but sometimes it’s who is giving the argument, and to have Ted Olson really be the voice, the conservative fight for marriage equality is what I think the cover of Time said.
I was so intrigued with how they were fighting for marriage equality, and then they were in the courts in San Francisco and the video and the cameras were not allowed in the courtroom. The gay community were all outraged because it was the most important court case of the gay community ever probably. So the transcripts were being released, and I said, “Well let’s put these transcripts on stage.” So we connected with the foundation and pitched them this idea of doing something like The Vagina Monologues [inaudible 00:28:07] that we could put it on a stage with big celebrities and then inspire theaters across the country to do it as well.
John Bwarie: I remember this point in history, right? It’s all happening pretty quickly.
Rory O’Malley: Very quickly.
John Bwarie: So what is the conception to you get the light bulb moment, this is happening, you see it. Are we talking months before they say, “Let’s do it,” are you talking a couple weeks we’re going to start working on it?
Rory O’Malley: It was probably weeks or months before they said, “Let’s do it.” It was probably a year before it was actually up on stage.
John Bwarie: Okay.
Rory O’Malley: Because any artistic endeavor takes forever. You want it to happen tomorrow but it’s going to take a long time. But it kind of needed to because the story … When we approached them they didn’t have final arguments yet for the case. It was still in the court. I and Jenny, who I worked with, and Ben who also worked on it with us, we flew to San Francisco because we knew we had to be there. We still hadn’t really ironed out any kind of agreement or what we were going to do. We got to the federal courthouse at 4:00 AM and we were three of maybe a dozen people who were allowed into the courtroom for the final arguments by Ted Olson to the federal court.
It was one of the most important days of my life because you were listening to Ted Olson make the case for marriage equality, and of course I believe in it already, but I started to understand why it was constitutional, why it was important. So we left that courthouse and I was like more determined than ever to get this on a stage, and knew that they were going to have a journey to the Supreme Court. So this was just the beginning. One of their board members was Dustin Lance Black who won the Oscar for Milk. We ended up having a meeting with him and he said, “Hey, what if I write the script and edit together the transcripts?” I fell out of my chair. I was like, “Yeah, that would be pretty effective.” So we started working with him, and he has a very busy schedule, and so we probably worked for another six months on script and where we were going to produce it. We ended up producing it on the stage where The Book of Mormon is, where I was performing in The Book of Mormon.
John Bwarie: So by this point now you’ve landed a big Broadway show.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, I had lost a Tony by that point. I had already been … It went from being this thing that I was doing because I also had the time because I wasn’t working as an actor to being in a Broadway show, a hit Broadway show, and having a platform.
John Bwarie: Which is what, eight times a week?
Rory O’Malley: Yeah.
John Bwarie: So you don’t have much time.
Rory O’Malley: No, no, I didn’t have a lot of time and at that point we realized that we were going to be doing this. Once they signed on and said, “We see your vision and we think that it’s worthwhile for us,” Jenny Canelos who had been … we had all been working for free, she was made into a salaried employee but it was all under the Broadway Cares umbrella. So we had an office in Broadway Cares and we had an actual organization.
John Bwarie: It went from inception in January 2009 to this point we’re talking-
Rory O’Malley: It had to have been … 2010 is when we were in San Francisco and the end of 2010 is when we really were locked in with the foundation. We were going to do it, we had a script, and 2011 is when they produced the show.
John Bwarie: So in two years you went from community volunteer in Ohio, to inspired actorvist, to leading rallies, to doing things you never thought you would do, out of your comfort zone, to nominating and losing the Tony as you mentioned, to now staging what became, correct?
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, right.
John Bwarie: So what happens? You stage this and what’s the way the community responds?
Rory O’Malley: Well, it was incredible. Not only did it raise a lot of money but we had on stage with us Morgan Freeman, Jonathan Lithgow, and just an incredible cast of actors. So it got a lot of press, and people were talking about it, and it was a very compelling piece of theater because it was real, it was transcripts, it was still happening. So we had a great night and then we thought, “We have to do it in Los Angeles as well. Obviously, it’s a story about Prop 8 in California. We had two actors sign on that really got everyone’s attention, George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
John Bwarie: Some little-known actors, right?
Rory O’Malley: Yes, exactly. We produced it in California and had a big fundraiser with those two and many, many other wonderful actors including Martin Sheen who played the Ted Olson part and he was phenomenal. I got to be in it as well. I played one of the witnesses and basically just stared at the judge played by Brad Pitt the whole time. We did that and Google was so intrigued by what we were going to do that they asked if they could make a donation to the non-profit and if they could stream it live. So they streamed it live, it’s still on YouTube now, on YouTube, and that was something that was watched by theaters all across the country. By the end of that night, the next day we had hundreds of submissions to put on a reading of 8 the Play as it ended up being called in their community.
Over the next two years after that we were able to produce 8 the Play in over 500 theaters all across the country in all 50 states. It was translated into different languages and really became this huge success. What we would do is target and talk to states that were either voting on it or that were having some kind of conversation and put it on there, and then have local leaders from a gay organization come and do the talk back afterwards, have the conversation, why it’s important to fight for marriage equality, and then cast that net of people in your community who would stay afterwards to find out what they could do about it.
John Bwarie: So not only was it creatively interesting and artistically incredible as you’ve described but you’re using it as a tool. It is one of many tools that I’ve heard you talk about that you developed as a way to activate and engage a community that was already a community of some sort but now moving in the direction you need to move.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah.
John Bwarie: And we know this about tools, they don’t always last forever. Is that still being performed? I know Vagina Monologues is still being performed, right?
Rory O’Malley: Right, right.
John Bwarie: Is 8 still being performed?
Rory O’Malley: Not that I know of.
John Bwarie: Okay, and it’s okay.
Rory O’Malley: Oh, it is. Broadway Impact doesn’t exist right now. Our goal wasn’t to create a non-profit that we would just have to find new issues for. It was, “This is our goal.” We made a mission statement in the beginning was to fight for marriage equality, and a lot of times, of course, people wanted us to fight for trans rights and things that are very important to us but we knew what we could handle. We knew what was possible and if we started to look away from this one goal-
Yes, that we would get overwhelmed. So when the Supreme Court overturned DOMA, when the Supreme Court said that marriage equality is the law of the land we didn’t say, “Well what does Broadway Impact do now?” We said, “Broadway Impact has fulfilled its mission.”
John Bwarie: That’s an incredible statement for so many organizations that think their goal is to exist, not to serve their community’s mission. That’s a model that more need to hear about, that you can achieve your mission and be done.
Rory O’Malley: Right. Well I think that it’s tough because the blood, sweat, and tears. This is about as shiny and squeaky clean of a version of talking about all this stuff because along that road there were many times where I was like, “This was the worst idea I’ve ever had. Why did I say let’s do a play?” The amount of work that our director, Jenny Canelos, poured into that project where we thought, “This is never going to happen,” for months at a time, you know? The drama of it all. Come on, it’s theater people and gays so there’s a lot of drama going on behind the scenes. It was very difficult to get it to where it was. So I can see how people would say, “I’m not just going to walk away from this now, all the contacts and all of the work that we’ve done. Let’s find something new.” We considered, should we turn this into something else? But we realized that it didn’t have to … It was going to change completely no matter what, and that’s why we started … We did start something last year with something called Belt the Vote. It was a social media campaign that my husband Gerold Schroeder and I started engaging with the Broadway community again to get them to do voter registration.
John Bwarie: And that was last year. Once an activist, always an activist.
Rory O’Malley: That’s right.
John Bwarie: You ended Broadway Impact when? When did you say, “Okay, [crosstalk 00:38:26]”?
Rory O’Malley: You know, I would say that we really had the talk with Broadway Cares and said, “You know, we’re not going to be asking for money anymore.” That’s not like, “Oh, let’s shut down the office,” but it was. It was like, “Let’s move on,” and I would say that probably happened in 2015.
John Bwarie: Okay, and so here we are 4 years later or I guess three years later, so you had a break there. In that time, opportunity to recharge or just you were busy with other things? Did you have a calling to do more activism? The last couple years for some people has been challenging in terms of activism.
Rory O’Malley: Oh yeah, no, yes. I wouldn’t want to say that I was burned out from my years of Broadway Impact but I certainly couldn’t walk into any kind of activism without knowing exactly what it was going to take from me, what it was going … how difficult it was, because it’s really great when you start and you don’t know, you know? You can walk through any door if you don’t know what the challenges are behind it. But I knew and I could never unknow.
So for those three years, I got married, which was what it was all about in the first place, and Gerold and I moved to Los Angeles, which I had spent time in before I lived in New York. We wanted to start a family and really felt like Los Angeles would be a great place to do that. I also just needed to learn what the community was out here. It’s very different, like I said, from a Broadway community. There are many more people and it’s much more spread out just like the city of Los Angeles itself as opposed to New York. We’ve adopted our son and we were going to adopt a child initially back in June of 2018. We’d spent about six months talking to a birth mother and about a day before that child was born she changed her mind and decided to keep the child, which happens all the time and we knew but of course after six months of anticipating it was heartbreaking.
Every day we’d say, “Well, what are we going to do today? We were going to have a baby.” You know, if you clear your life for a child every day when you don’t have something to do, it weighs pretty heavy on you. So we said, “The world looks like it’s crumbling around us, our plan crumbled around us, what can we do that’s positive?” I felt very strongly that the Broadway community needed to have a voter registration drive and that we needed to make sure … I had so many conversations with people in the community who were not registered to vote. We did a voter registration drive when I was in Hamilton and-
John Bwarie: Oh yeah, you did that one too.
Rory O’Malley: That one too, yeah, yeah. Well, it was very … because I was doing Hamilton in 2016 on Broadway during the election it really kind of … It wasn’t like I was doing Hello Dolly. Some days I wished I was because the election kept coming to us no matter what.
John Bwarie: Right, were you performing when they had the … it was an incident during the performance if I recall, political-
Rory O’Malley: Well I was performing when Mike Pence came, right after he won the election. We always do a curtain speech at the end of the show to raise money for Broadway Cares at that time of year. So he just happened to come at that time of year. And so in the speech we also said, “Mr. Vice President elect, thank you so much for coming. Also, we hope that you heard the message in the show and thought you represent every person of color and sexual orientation.” It was a very nice message that apparently his boss did not like and we started getting Tweeted at constantly. So it was putting us in the epicenter at least for a period of time of the national conversation and the political conversation.
You know, of course I was … I think I’ve made it clear that I got inspired to get into politics and it wasn’t because I wanted lower taxes. It was because I believe in social change, in helping the communities that really desperately need it. So it was not an election that I was excited about, let’s just say that. It’s more that people were complacent, including me. I know that I could’ve done more in 2016 and maybe it’s Catholic guilt but it’s guilt nonetheless. I felt guilt for not doing enough.
After we missed out on having that child in June of 2018, before the election I thought, “Well, I’m not going to go through another election and feel like I didn’t do anything.” So we started to reaching out to, of course, Broadway Cares and we were able to do it from Los Angeles. We got the Broadway community involved but then we got the Gavin Playhouse and regional theaters involved and they were all willing to do voter registration drives in their lobby during shows. That was the dream for me always is not just to reach the Broadway houses but to be all across America, to be in my hometown of Cleveland.
John Bwarie: How did you know that that was the mechanism you wanted to use? Did you talk to people? Were they open to it? What kind of research did you … because you could’ve chosen a couple of ways to do this, right?
Rory O’Malley: Sure.
John Bwarie: You could’ve just been, “Hey, we’re just going to do social media and spread the word.” How did you get to the point, “Well, we could do … what you just described?
Rory O’Malley: Well I think it really was just my trial and error of Broadway Impact. I knew I didn’t have time to waste. What I did was, I said, “We are going to hire a social media manager. We’ll hire a publicist. We can’t reinvent the wheel. We can’t do this on our own.” So we partnered with an organization called When We All Vote that as actually started … It was a non-profit started by Michelle Obama and a whole team in DC. I said, “We don’t know how to register voters but we know how to engage the theater community. Let’s partner up and we will engage the theater community, which has theaters all across the country, and you tell us how to register to vote.” Then I talked to Tom Viola, my buddy over at Broadway Cares, my mentor and hero in all of this stuff, and they could not have been more supportive. In this issue voter registration is nonpartisan, it is something that can be done as a nonprofit, so it was just a no brainer of how we can make quick, effective change in our community.
I think we went through different ways of how to be most effective and there’s still things that I was like, “Oh man, we really thought we were going to be able to do A but we did B and C and they were smaller but man, I’m just so glad that we did it.” You start to reach out and you realize that … There was someone who I have so much respect for in the Broadway community, Kirsten Wyatt, she’s an actress, and she was already trying to organize a voter registration table at the Broadway Flea Market at one event, I said, “Hey, let’s team up,” and she is the reason that Belt the Vote was so successful. She engaged the community and she works with [inaudible 00:46:38], and we’re already talking about how we can keep getting prepared for 2020.
John Bwarie: It sounds like you leveraged your experience of doing everything yourself to say sometimes the more effective way is to bring in the experts or the partners who can amplify what you’re doing.
Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. I wasn’t afraid to … We made an initial video with Broadway actors talking about Belt the Vote and voter registration and I was like, “I’m not going to be in it. I don’t want to be in it.” It was mostly because I knew if I was in it that the ownership of it had to be the entire community, and because I was the one doing all the emails, that was enough of me within the community. What I wanted was for other people to carry the banner, and to take ownership of it, and feel like it was theirs, and no one should know where it was started or care.
I think that was really successful and it was definitely … it was so important just to reach out to define roles right off the bat, have a goal that was attainable, and also just to be easy on yourself. This isn’t your job, this is everything you do is positive. Every bit of work you do on it, even when it fails, is positive because you’re trying. I think it’s different, obviously, when you step into something where you’re taking money and getting paid. It changes your expectation of yourself. So that’s why I don’t get paid for this stuff, so I can fail miserably.
John Bwarie: So you’re behind scenes pulling strings, you’re becoming the godfather of the Broadway community in terms of activating them, engaging them. You mentioned that you’re planning for 2020, some activation there. Long term, I also know you’re busy working here in LA, you’ve got some stuff coming out soon. Does this sustain? You never give this up in the next 50 years?
Rory O’Malley: I can’t quit it, that’s the problem. To be honest, I would have days where I’d be like, “I’m never doing this stuff again,” just a terrible day where sometimes the hardest days I had weren’t with people who disagreed with me but the people who agree with you completely, and are telling you you’re doing it all wrong, and you’re doing it for free out of the passion in your heart, and you want to say, “Well then you do it. Why are you yelling at me that this is wrong? I’m just trying my best.” And so on those days you think, “This isn’t worth it.” But the truth is that we’re all running the same race, you know, even with the people you completely disagree with.
We’re all trying to make humanity better. I mean, no one thinks they’re the villain. Everyone’s working towards that goal and there are just different times where it’s your turn to run that leg of the race. When the baton is passed to you have to run with it. There are times when it’s not your turn. I’m so glad that we took that time before the election last year to register voters because on November 4th, 10 years to the day that Barack Obama was elected we got a call saying there was a baby and we had to come pick him up because he was our son. It was two days before the mid-term elections. So it was really funny, I laugh about it because I’m on social media and calling people like, “November 6th, we have to go vote, register,” and I ghosted two days before, they’re like, “Wow, did he vote? Where did he go?” Luckily I had voted early, but I had life come into the picture, and it’s funny because I look at how passionately I was throwing all of myself into voter registration up until November 4th and I had videos, and things I was making, and all my emails, and then November 4th on it’s just my baby.
I’m so glad that I can tell him that I was working so hard for change, but now it’s not my leg of the race right now. I’ve been approached by different people already about voter registration stuff which it’s insane, it’s insane. I don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t know, I certainly do know a lot more but the fact that people would approach me about how to run a voter registration drive. What do you mean? I know now, yes, but it’s just funny how people wait to think they have to know how to do something perfectly before they start, just start.
John Bwarie: I was going to ask, is there pressure from your community? Are you not self-appointed but are other people like, “Well, whatever Rory’s going to have us do next is what we’ll do”?
Rory O’Malley: You know, I think that especially after the 2016 election I was called into meetings and I was asked, along with my other colleagues from Broadway Impact, “What is Broadway Impact going to do and what are you going to do about who was just elected president?” You know, one, I didn’t know what to do. I was like, “We missed the chance to do something that we had to get more people to vote. That was what we needed to do.” And obviously there’s a ton of stuff that can be done. I was marching, I was calling representatives, I was doing everything I could do for sure. There’s tons to do. I shouldn’t say there’s nothing. There’s tons to do but I thought, “Why are you calling me in to do something? Why don’t you just do it? I’m going to show up but that’s backwards.” It was almost like when we were going to those meetings at the gay organizations saying, “What are you going to do with us?” And realizing no, we’re the only ones who understand our community. We have to engage them.
So we had always kept Broadway Impact as kind of like, “Well, maybe there will be some younger whipper snappers who want to take on that banner and they certainly can step into these roles but we have a lot of life stuff going on so we can’t maintain it in that way.” I think that it’s a personal decision of when you can stand up and affect change in that way, and I think that it’s such an honor that anyone would ask me how to do something because I’ve just been learning by trial and error as I’ve said.
So I’m sure we’ll find ways to engage forever, and I think that what we have done is we continue to raise money for Broadway Cares. It’s the difference in our communities. We have Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS because when the tragedy happens, a hurricane, fires, we don’t have to raise the money for that, the money’s there. We’ve been collecting money after shows for Broadway Cares. They raise millions of dollars every year by asking audience members to donate as they leave Broadway theaters. The money is there, we’ve done the work, we just need to continually provide to Broadway Cares and find ways to support Broadway Cares so that when I call and say, “Hey, we need to do a voter registration drive,” they say, “All right, let’s put together a team. Here’s the money for the website. This is all ready to go.” I’m sure there will be many, many opportunities to utilize those skills that I’ve had and there’s a reason that I keep going back to the Broadway community. They’re just very strong, powerful, and passionate.
John Bwarie: Do we get to see you on Broadway stage again soon?
Rory O’Malley: I hope so. Do you have any connections?
John Bwarie: I don’t. I mean, you’re here now doing all this film, and television, and it’s a different community. That’s a whole other conversation about the dynamic of the Broadway community you described so perfectly, and the LA community, and not just the sprawl, just that there’s so many people and so desperate. They are all over doing-
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, all spread out.
John Bwarie: Yeah.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, and also that the Broadway community is so accessible for the fans. You see a show-
John Bwarie: Right, they’re right there.
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, they’re right in front of you and-
John Bwarie: [crosstalk 00:55:42].
Rory O’Malley: Yeah, you’re in the same room, and after the show you can get a picture with them at the stage door, you know? So there’s a connection there that is very different from seeing somebody in a movie because you can be a huge fan and never see them in person. So there’s a more immediate connection So it is different. I feel like there’s a lot more value though to the far reach of Hollywood that the community that they can create. And once again, George Clooney doing our show, 8, has a much bigger reach that Google would not be live streaming that with just Broadway stars. So the power of this community and the way that they are able to engage, it’s awe inspiring, you know? I’m not going to be able to do what George does but I do feel that there has to be a social leadership in this community because this power is so strong.
John Bwarie: Well you’ve got my vote to be the leader.
Rory O’Malley: We all can be. I just shot a pilot. I worked with a cast, did an NBC pilot, and it was so much fun. I hope we get to do it again, but the way that things work I may never see them again. I may never get to work with that group of people again. We worked together for a month and it’s over. There was an actress in it, Hayley Magnus, and she said, “Hey you guys, when we come to set could everyone bring their own water bottles so that we don’t use the plastic ones?” And I thought, “Well yeah, absolutely. That’s important to remember.” Of course I’m always trying to remember to bring my water bottle but she had the social leadership and wherewithal to say, “I’m just going to say it out loud. It’ll help people remember.”
Of course, some of us did, some of us didn’t, but if you make that voice your concern, and say something, and it’s, once again, within your group, your coworkers, your smaller community you’re much more inclined. I brought my Tupperware to eat in and silverware so that when we’re eating lunch, I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to wash this and I won’t waste anything.” I think that it’s important to do that, whatever community you’re in, is to … You don’t have to start an organization to be a leader. You just have to voice what’s right.
John Bwarie: Thank you so much, Rory, for this incredible conversation, the story that you’ve experienced in the last decade. I’m looking forward to what the next decade holds and for your son, what a role model. Hopefully our kids can look at what you’re doing and be inspired to take their role when the baton is passed. I have lightning round questions just for a couple minutes. You can pass, just one word, whatever comes to mind, and I know the answer to this already, who’s the leader that has influenced you in your work?
Rory O’Malley: Well on a personal level Tom Viola at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, yeah.
John Bwarie: Okay. What play has changed the way you think about your work in community?
Rory O’Malley: Hamilton. It’s changed what I thought was possible. When I saw Hamilton the first time I thought, “Oh, this play is for me,” and that’s why I love it, and that’s when I realized, everyone can find something in this play. If you can find a piece of art that can communicate to everyone on a different level then you’ve found a great piece of art in communication.
John Bwarie: We talked a lot about partners, working with people. What’s the best quality in a partner to achieve good collaboration?
Rory O’Malley: Patience.
John Bwarie: What’s a community activation tactic that you had to learn the hard way?
Rory O’Malley: Oh, a tactic that I had to learn the hard way is listening, that I had to hear people out.
John Bwarie: Yeah, totally. What’s the key to telling an engaging, impactful story?
Rory O’Malley: Honesty.
John Bwarie: What advice would you give 25 year old you?
Rory O’Malley: Chill out.
John Bwarie: What’s the best career decision you ever made?
Rory O’Malley: Not solely focusing on my career and being open to other challenges like activism and be more concerned about family and friends.
John Bwarie: So far what has been your proudest moment as a community activator?
Rory O’Malley: I would say the proudest moment I had was being on stage with my fellow co-founders of Broadway Impact, Gavin Creel and Jenny Canelos, when we held that rally that the mayor and the governor to speak at because we had no idea what we were doing. In 10 days we organized something that, like I said, it changed out DNA, it changed our understanding of what’s possible, and I think it’s affected me as a human being in every way.
John Bwarie: What actor are you aware of that’s doing great work in the community?
Rory O’Malley: Well, my obvious answer is Lin-Manuel Miranda. You know, he has a way of being so impactful on so many different things with such joy and enthusiasm that’s contagious to our community. I always say the reason that Hamilton is so successful is not just because it’s brilliant, which it is, but because Lin made it everyone’s play. He was like, “Look at this fun thing we’re all doing together,” not, “This is my brilliant thing that I’m going to keep to myself.” It was a celebration of our country, and our heritage, and it’s what he does when he wants to help the hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. He can make an album and bring awareness to it in that way. It’s just an incredible thing to see somebody who has that power in our community use it so well, so efficiently, and with such joy and an abundance of energy that I don’t have.
John Bwarie: Awesome. Well thanks, Rory. I appreciate it.
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