How a grandmother's 1950s friendship with a gay photographer wound up on a Chicago stage | Bleader

How a grandmother's 1950s friendship with a gay photographer wound up on a Chicago stage

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Chicago director Jake Fruend holding a photo of John, a mysterious friend from his grandmothers past.
  • Chloe Riley
  • Chicago director Jake Fruend holding a photo of John, a mysterious friend from his grandmother's past
Sometimes, like the trumpets on Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," great art is born of dreams. But other times it's happenstance—you throw back one too many glasses of champagne with your grandma, and the next thing you know, you're staging a play about her life. Just ask Chicago-based director Jake Fruend. Several months ago and after several glasses of bubbly, Fruend's grandmother Diana opened up to him about a friendship she shared with an openly gay neighbor as a teen in San Diego in the 1950s. The neighbor, John—a photographer and dabbler in short film—ultimately became ill and mysteriously vanished from Diana's childhood neighborhood.

That story prompted a collaboration between Fruend, playwright Liz Ellison, and Cold Basement Dramatics. In just under four weeks, the team wrote and produced Point and Shoot, an exploration of that time in Diana's life that includes musings on the mysterious John, and is complemented by beautiful projections and video from Paul Deziel and Christopher Semel; it's running at Den Theatre through Sun 12/7. In researching the story, Fruend revealed plenty about his own family—he discovered a grandmother who put aside her dreams of being a pilot, a grandfather who harbored repressed anger toward John, and a great-grandfather who used to film the sunset, then make his family sit and watch the grainy black-and-white slice of life.

We spoke with Diana Fruend, 73, over the phone about what it was like to be an observer at the play of her life.

Chloe Riley: You first spilled this story at the Saint Louis Art Museum over a few glasses of champagne, according to Jake.

Diana Fruend: The Saint Louis Art Museum's got a beautiful restaurant overlooking the lake there, and Jake came down about a year or so ago, and we met at the art museum and had lunch. And, I don’t know, I think he'd had one glass of champagne, I don't think he was drunk or anything, but we got to chitchatting about stuff. I don't even know how the subject got brought up, but I just started telling him a little bit about this one guy that I knew for about five years when I was in junior high. And he was just a really good guy; he was a best friend to my family. I guess what started it is that I said, my family and I have always believed that he died of AIDS before there was AIDS because of the way my mom described how bad he went. He'd come over and she'd say that he just looked so awful and gaunt. And Jake thought that was kind of intriguing, and he went and turned that into a story.

What was your reaction, when you came to Chicago to see the play, to seeing someone portray a version of you? How did it make you feel, sitting there, watching some of these details of your life play out?

Well, it was kind of embarrassing a little bit, to be honest with you. But not that it's bad. It's not 100 percent the way everything happened, but those characters and the personalities of those characters are very much the same as real life. Like John—the fact that he didn't show up for my wedding is true. It wasn't because he was angry at me for getting married so young, it really was because he was sick. But most of what Jake wrote was true and at the same time, I was really proud of him, because it was so well done. He took the elements, like using the 8mm movies as a major part of the story, and that was really cute. He put a lot of little pieces of story into a small setting. They had me sitting in the front row, which was a little weird, and I was busy thinking, "Oh my gosh, what are the actors thinking about? Am I making it hard for them?" But they all said, no, that didn't really bother them. It was a really good experience and I told Jake what a treasure he gave me. That's something I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Who was John? How did he first come into your life?

My dad, he was a machinist. He didn't have a lot of money or anything, but the first house he bought was in this little town called Ocean Beach [California]. And back then, it was a working man's town. You know, you took a bus to get to the city. What he did was, in the year of buying his first house, he bought the house next door and that was the house that John lived in. John rented that house. And actually my dad got interested in making 8mm movies because John was a photographer. And that was the first hobby I ever knew that my dad had outside of work. So they would show their movies to each other. They were about the same age I guess. It's hard to realize that when you're an older person, that at one point your dad was actually young. I have one picture of John. It was a self-portrait that he took and I would say he was in his midthirties.

In the play, the character based on your father films the sunset and makes his family watch the movies. Did that really happen?

It was true. He did that every Sunday night for a long time. My dad would set up the projector and he would film these movies and it was always seagulls flying and watching the sun go down. It was so boring [laughs], but my dad was just so proud of what he was doing with his camera.

Talking with Jake that day at the art museum, what prompted you to share this part of your life?

You know, as your grandchildren get older, they become your friends. And Jake's a very conversational kind of guy—I think he's prompted a lot of stories from me. And he met my parents. My dad retired at 55, and my dad and my mom moved in with us, so he [Jake] knew my dad and my mom. He knew their personalities. And so the play isn't just talking about that one story, he wrote it about my family. You know, sometimes, being an old lady now, I understand that very often you may not be as close to your own children growing up as you are to your grandchildren when they're growing up. Because you're responsible for your children and, for me, with all my grandchildren, I have never been a parent to them, I'm strictly the good guy and it makes for more fun.

Point and Shoot, Thu 12/4 through Sat 12/6 at 7:30 PM, and Sun 12/7 at 3:30 PM, Den Theatre, 1329-1333 N. Milwaukee, 773-609-2336, coldbasement.org

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