2012 Straight for Equality Entertainment Award:
A former Mormon missionary who grew up in a prominent community theater family in Utah, Will Swenson is a performer who is endlessly challenging expectations and stereotypes. In doing so, he has proven himself not only a remarkable talent, but also a committed advocate for GLBT equality.
As the grandson of Nathan and Ruth Hale, a playwright and actress,and with parents who owned a theatre in SaltLake City, Will spent much of his youth living in different places across the United States. He attended Brigham Young University and later served as a Mormon missionary in Ecuador. This upbringing provided him with unique insight into the role that faith can play in instilling values as well as causing damage in some communities.
In his professional life, Will has won critical acclaim, receiving both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his performance as Berger in the Broadway revival of HAIR. He also played the role on London’s West End.
His other Broadway credits include 110 In the Shade, Lestat, and Brooklyn: The Musical. He is currently starring in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, playing the role of Tick (also known as Mitzi), the core in a trio of drag performers who take to the road amidst a disco soundtrack and family drama. The show has been nominated for a 2012 GLAAD Media Award and made the list of the top five shows of 2011 according to Broaday.com readers and editors.
Off -Broadway Will most recently originated the role of Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. His other Off-Broadway credits include Two Gentlemen of Verona for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, Christopher Durang’s Adrift in Macao and Ben Katchor’s The Slugbearers of Kayrol Island. Will also performed with the New York Philharmonic as Sir Sagramore in the PBS Concert version of Camelot.
On the road, he has been part of touring productions of Miss Saigon, We Will Rock You, and Fame.
His film and television credits demonstrate even more diversity and depth. He has held roles in Gods Behaving Badly, The Switch, The Singles Ward, Law & Order, 6 Degrees, The Beautiful Life, and, in his own words, “lots of soaps.”
As a film director, Will has drawn on his own experiences to tell stories. His first film, which he directed, co-wrote and starred in, was Sons of Provo, and told the tale of a clueless Mormon boy-band. It won honors in several film festivals. This summer, he’ll direct a new feature, Facing East, which deals with a Mormon couple who must learn to cope with the suicide of their gay son.
Swenson has publicly discussed the relationship between the faith tradition in which he was raised and his advocacy for GLBT equality, most recently with National Public Radio.
“When I was growing up, my best friend was gay, and he really, really suffered,” Swenson explained. “He attempted suicide, but thank God he didn't succeed. Sadly, it's epidemic in the [Mormon] culture that gay kids grow up being told they're unnatural and an abhorrence before God. I can't think of anything worse to say to a child.”
“When I left the church, I never felt I had to attack it, because I gained so much good from it,” he said. “The values that they teach in general are so important and beautiful. But it becomes a problem when all of that turns to righteous indignation and hypocrisy, and the ugly result is kids killing themselves.”
He has backed up his passion for GLBT rights and marriage equality with a number of advocacy efforts.
He spoke out against bullying—and in support of GLBT youth—as part of an “It Gets Better” video in 2011, along with Priscilla co-stars Nick Adams and Tony Sheldon. And, in partnership with fiancée Audra McDonald, he has advocated for marriage equality in a wide variety of venues, from Broadway to their participation in the NO H8 photo project. Along with Ms. McDonald, Will currently sits on the Board of Advisors for Broadway Impact, a non-profit organization that works for GLBT equality.
>>Learn more about Will Swenson's co-honoree, Audra McDonald.