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From a Distance 

Documentary filmmaker Marc Spano finds his center at the edge of town

It takes a little effort to find Mark Spano's place. Drive a few miles west of Carrboro, past some forks in the road, and you'll eventually find his prairie-style home, surrounded on all sides by green pasture. "I don't ever see my neighbors, I see their cows," Spano jokes as he scans the horizon.

This remoteness is pastoral, quieting and intentional. "I built a life at the edge of town," Spano says later in his home office, one half tidily organized with desk and PC, the other filled with stacks of books and decorated with several original paintings and pottery, all made by friends. "It's not an accident. I'm not a joiner. I was told early on that I was unwelcome, so I moved out of that."

Spano, 51, is a man of many interests and abilities. A one-time playwright who made films for hire to support himself, he now lists motion-media production, marketing, and strategic planning on his business card. The world at large may call him a producer of films and videos for public television and private clients, but, as he notes, the budgets of the productions he works on necessitate wearing many hats--as he puts it, "writer, director, janitor." There is no one term to describe what he does; Spano lives his life in many directions at once, and seems to like it that way.

Sitting in his office, pasture visible through large windows, Spano reveals that he's felt like an outsider many times in his life: as a kid growing up in an Italian neighborhood in inner Kansas City, separated from the other ethnic groups by strict customary boundaries; in the late '60s, when he was an aspiring playwright at Webster College in St. Louis, interested in the gay theater scene but ultimately disappointed by its more political, less artistic bent; later on, when pursuing master's degrees in both creative writing and business; and as a gay man in the culture at large.

So Spano's characteristically uncomfortable about appearing in an issue about "gay artists"--first, he's not sure he qualifies as an artist, but more to the point, he greatly dislikes the notion of a "gay" one.

"I remember reading an article that was a dialogue between Edmund White and Edward Albee, both writers I admire," Spano says, leg draped over the arm of an easy chair. "White was saying 'I'm a gay writer,' and Albee was saying 'I'm a writer who happens to be gay.' We could debate this until the cows come home. But in a way, I have to go with Edward Albee."

Spano explains that he fears that labeling an artist is too limiting, using as examples some of his literary heroes, Albee, Christopher Isherwood, and Tennessee Williams. "Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire is an image of the deceptiveness of desire. Not the deceptiveness of desire in homosexuals, the deceptiveness of desire in human beings. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Albee was writing about the lethalness of self-loathing. He may have been able to call upon the self-loathing sometimes felt by homosexuals, but he was writing about America. And that's really more important, I think."

That said, Spano's not about to jump into the mainstream. After all, when choosing a place to live he didn't pick the center of town. After 20 years in Washington, D.C., producing film and television projects, he moved to Orange County a decade ago, following a long period of loss. Between 1983 and 1992, Spano says, he lost many friends and loved ones, to AIDS and cancer and accidents. Feeling the weight of their absence, he felt the need to start again in a new place with a new perspective.

Perhaps it's ironic that he's come to know North Carolina, the place in which he chose to live as an outsider, in a way few people have. Through his company, Mark Spano Productions, he's produced television programs dealing with the state's history, architecture, agricultural industry and artists. A common thread running through this work seems to be a desire to look beyond the popular conceptions of the state and uncover the interesting, unexpected stories beneath. Or, as Spano puts it, "Finding what's there, not what you think is there."

A UNC-TV series he produced, Carolina Countryside, explored the impact on North Carolina of the state's fourth largest industry, agriculture--something which touches everyone but is increasingly remote to our growing urban population. Far Fetched and Dear Bought, one of a trio of films he produced for Preservation North Carolina, examined the influence of major architects from outside the state who were hired to build some of North Carolina's most historic buildings. He's also imparted some of his unique perspective by teaching the occasional university class at East Carolina University and N.C. State.

Spano even characterizes himself as a North Carolina, not national, filmmaker. But although his outsider's perspective has aided him in his work by affording him a view of things from a distance, he eschews both halves of the label "gay artist."

"All of the work that I have done has always been for hire, for general audiences. I've never made a 'gay film.' And if you want to interview an artist," he says, laughing, "interview my camera operator, my editor, my graphic designer. I'm kind of at the center of a lot of activity. I communicate with a lot of different people. I think that's the strength of what I do, but I don't think it has a damn thing to do with me being gay. It's more about the ability to internalize a great deal of detail about a project and carry it around with you. Eventually, by the grace of God, it might look and sound like you had hoped. That's why I do what I do."

Spano is clearly in this for the long run. A series he's pitching to the Discovery Health channel, The Lasting Life, is all about aging and what makes up the facets of character. It's a dream project for the filmmaker, one which he hopes will allow him to interview people like octagenarian psychologist James Hillman, whom Spano admires as much for his cantankerousness as for his dogged criticism of the psychological community.

And it's understandable why longevity is on Spano's mind in this phase of his life. The losses he's endured personally have made him wonder about the ability of his generation of gay men to pass on a legacy to the next. "I'm the last living queer that still likes opera," he says at least half-jokingly. "Today it's techno gay boys with pink and purple hair. They've never heard of Sarah Vaughn or Puccini." He tries to encourage younger gay friends to find out about opera and writers like Isherwood, who had a big impact on Spano as he was exploring his identity. "I feel like I had some models, other people that I could say, 'They're gay men and they're doing these things and they're living in the world in this certain way.' I feel like that with all of these guys from my generation gone that something's gone. There's sort of a valley or something. The continuity's gone."

There's no doubt the edge of town can be an isolating place. But Spano has also proven that it can provide enough distance to see things clearly. Staying engaged with the people around him and his work are his priorities. And if, as he fears, the land around him will soon fall prey to the suburban sprawl creeping ever closer, Spano says he and his partner will just move out a little farther. He knows himself too well, lived too much, to think he'd do otherwise.

"In this age of Will & Grace, where we're all welcome and people are all waving their flags and saying 'come in, come in,' I'm not so quick to jump in," Spano says. "Maybe being gay does not mean being an outsider anymore. But I'm still one. Like it or not, I'm one."EndBlock

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