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America’s Lesbian & Gay Theater
Companies — Then and Now

by Erik Haagensen
June, 2001

On Sunday, June 5, 1983, during a Tony Awards ceremony on the stage of Broadway’s Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre, a critical mass was reached. Though powerfully fueled by Harvey Fierstein’s twin triumphs as author and star of the play “Torch Song Trilogy,” the plutonium particle that finally set the irreversible chain reaction in motion was a smaller, more personal act: producer John Glines’ simple but unprecedented public acknowledgment-live and on national television — of his partner in life, love, and business, Lawrence Lane. It set a lot of tongues tut-tutting in the press (and even among the theatre community) the next day. But with those awards and that act, a fringe theatrical movement that had begun 19 years earlier in the communal coffeehouses and bleeding heart churches of New York’s Greenwich Village broke through into the American mainstream — and nothing would ever be quite the same in the American theatre, on stage or off, again.

For Gay Pride Week, we examine the state of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgendered (GLBT) theatre companies across the country. At first glance, the challenge facing queer theatre today seems to be its very success. When “Angels in America” wins the Pulitzer Prize, when “Love! Valour! Compassion!” is a commercial Broadway hit, when the number of openly gay performers, directors, writers, producers, etc. regularly expands, and gay-themed work graces the stages of the most respected regional theatres in the country, the knee jerk reaction for many is to question whether there is even a need for theatre companies specifically devoted to producing works by and/or about the GLBT community.

“You wouldn’t even ask that question if it were posed about African-Americans or women,” chides Doric Wilson, author of “The West Street Gang,” “A Perfect Relationship,” “Street Theatre,” and other early classic gay plays. True enough. Those groups have always been underrepresented in the American theatre. But what about gay men, particularly in the last 20 years or so? “Strike all the Broadway plays where someone gay dies of AIDS by the final curtain and see what you have left,” challenges Wilson. Go ahead — try it. It’s quite instructive.

In the Beginning: The Caffe Cino

Wilson was there at the birth of the modern gay theatre. It happened in Greenwich Village on May 18, 1964, when Lanford Wilson’s (no relation) one-act about a drag queen in crisis, “The Madness of Lady Bright,” opened at the Caffe Cino, a coffeehouse named for its owner/operator, the 30-ish, openly gay Joe Cino. As Robert Patrick, another Cino playwright (and originally its doorman), puts it, “The first modern gay play in the world, where gays weren’t portrayed as villains who deserved to die, was ‘Lady Bright.’ That’s as far as anyone knows, because if there was gay theatre before that, it was all secret and closeted. My play, ‘The Haunted Host,’ was the second, opening in November. We were writing at the same time, but Lanford got his dates before I did.”

The Cino was the cradle of Off-Off-Broadway, operating from 1960-68. It produced the early works of Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Jean Claude van Itallie, Tom Eyen, and William M. Hoffman, among many others. Work ranged from rethought productions of the classics to new plays — experimental and traditional in form — and even to musicals, such as the spoof “Dames at Sea,” which went on to run for years Off-Broadway and launched the career of Bernadette Peters. Marshall W. Mason began his directing career at the Cino, and the subsequent 1969 founding of Circle Rep included many Cino veterans.

Most of the artists who worked at the Cino were gay men (though there was also a small group of women involved, as well as the occasional straight man like Shepard). Playwright Maria Irene Fornes, a regular audience member, says “it was not an exclusive thing, like today you would have a gay theatre that does gay plays. It was just that Joe Cino was gay, and [so were] most of his friends, and the whole place had this very wonderful atmosphere.” Remarks van Itallie, “Gay men [were] gallantly trying to express their individuality at least 10 years before gay consciousness became an active movement.”

Robert Patrick claims that, to understand what made these first gay plays happen, “You have to understand what the ’50s were really like. People nowadays, when they think of the ’50s, they think of [the TV sitcom] ‘Happy Days.’ The ’50s were perfectly awful. And we all ran away from them to go to New York. And once we got there, we discovered the New York of our fantasies didn’t exist. So we just stamped our little feet and created it. And that’s largely what the Cino was about. We’d all seen these Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show movies and the Cino was a place where we could do that. And we were so suppressed, so frustrated, so crushed by a culture where intelligence was forbidden — and being gay was forbidden even more — we finally found our own place at the Cino. It didn’t occur to any of us to restrain ourselves in any way. And that’s the nearest to a program or a manifesto there was. We just wrote what we saw around us, and Joe Cino let us put it on.”

Another crucial element, insists Patrick, was that “nobody was paid anything. We passed the basket. The Caffe Cino was the first time theatre had been done without money playing any part at all. And the reason we could do that was we did it in places that made their money another way. Coffeehouses, churches, art galleries, bowling alleys, bars. We did it for free and we gave it away. Nobody had to think about success or audiences or critics or anything. For the first time, theatre achieved the same autonomy that painting and sculpture and literature and music had achieved starting in the middle of the 19th century. It took 100 years for theatre to happen that way. It was a totally brand new idea. And of that we were very conscious. It changed the entire concept of what theatre is: from being something to please some crowd or Academy or press or paying audience, we made it the personal, responsible expression of the playwright. We just wanted to be free.”

Post-Stonewall: TOSOS and The Glines

Though Doric Wilson had written four plays for the Cino, none contained modern gay characters, though “Now She Dances” did revisit the trials of Oscar Wilde through characters from his plays. Broadway producer Richard Barr (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and many others) discovered Wilson at the Cino and soon announced to the press “that he had found the next Edward Albee,” remembers Wilson. “I had been christened as the next white hope of the American theatre by the number one playwright producer of the American theatre.” But Wilson, who is a social satirist, demurred. “Anyone who reads my plays knows that I could have had a commercial comedy career. I just wasn’t particularly interested. I met those people, I got involved with it, I was around it, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this.’ But it never occurred to me to write gay theatre. Had there been a gay theatre to write for, I might have done it. Instead, I got more involved with early gay politics.”

One night, however, he had an epiphany after returning home from seeing the singer Alaina Reed perform in a backroom cabaret on West 46th St. “Alaina was brilliant and a big star on the cabaret circuit. She changed all of the pronouns in the songs so that she didn’t sing a single heterosexual song. They were all gay or gender non-specific. At first you didn’t notice it, but she was singing standards, so soon you did. Walking out of that, I was humming this Gershwin tune. I was humming it all night. And I said to myself, ‘What is that I’m humming?’ And finally the words came into my head: ‘They’re writing songs of love/But not for me.’ And then I said, ‘Holy shit!’ And that was it.”

Wilson, along with friends Peter del Valle and Bill Blackwell, started an Off-Off-Broadway company in 1972 known as “The Other Side of Silence” (TOSOS), the first specifically gay theatre company ever formed in the U.S., funded from Wilson’s earnings as a gay bartender. There was, however, a dearth of product. According to Wilson, “When we started, I did not have a new play for TOSOS. In fact, I had not planned ever to do a play of mine at TOSOS.”

That changed quickly once Wilson realized there were few available plays that met his standards. “With all due respect, TOSOS was fairly snobby. I wanted the plays to be good, literary plays. We turned down a lot of things that other people were quite happy to have.” He also had some trouble persuading writers to let him produce their plays. Fearful of hurting their chances of moving into the mainstream, “some gay playwrights didn’t want their gay plays done in gay theatres.” It was the same with actors. “I never had a straight actor turn down TOSOS. Only gay.”

TOSOS had some early hits — among them the musical revue “Lovers” and Wilson’s “The West Street Gang,” a site-specific production at the Spike Bar — but it ultimately came to a halt after a mere four years. Still, Wilson remains proud of the effort. “Every play we did at TOSOS still has a life. And some had a life before TOSOS. But it was too early, and we didn’t last long enough. And my literary standards were pretty high.”

John Glines, Barry Laine, and Jerry Tobin founded The Glines in 1976 as a theatre “devoted to creating and presenting gay art in order to develop positive self-images and dispel negative stereotyping,” according to their web site. Initially, they were happy to produce many of the scripts that Doric Wilson was turning down. And perhaps in part because of that, The Glines survived for the long haul. Their breakthrough came, of course, with Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.” Other hits included William M. Hoffman’s “As Is,” co-produced with Circle Rep; Jane Chambers’ “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” and “My Blue Heaven”; Sydney Morris’ “If This Isn’t Love”; Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop’s “Whoop-Dee-Doo!”; and many others, among them two Doric Wilson plays (“A Perfect Relationship” and “Forever After”) and Robert Patrick’s “T-Shirts” and “Untold Decades,” the last an ambitious cycle of seven one-acts looking at gay private lives in the first seven decades of the 20th century.

Among the thousands of artists who have appeared with The Glines are Matthew Broderick, Charles Busch, Quentin Crisp, Andrea Dworkin, Harvey Fierstein, Estelle Getty, Allen Ginsberg, Judy Grahn, Jonathan Hadary, Audré Lorde, Dan Luria, Armistead Maupin, Mark Morris, Park Overall, Felice Picano, James Purdy, John Rechy, Ned Rorem, Mercedes Ruehl, Vito Russo, Jean Smart, Robin Tyler, Edmund White, and Jack Wrangler. The Glines still maintain an office today, but rarely produce, and did not return our phone plea for an interview.

From Sea to Shining Sea

The 1970s and ’80s saw gay and lesbian theatre companies spring up across North America. As William M. Hoffman put it in his 1978 preface to the first published anthology of gay plays, “Gay theatres are a phenomenon.” A partial list includes New York City’s Medusa’s Revenge (a lesbian company founded in 1976) and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company (which had an unmistakable gay sensibility, even if the work usually eschewed overtly gay characters). Further afield were Rochester’s Pink Satin Bombers, Minneapolis’ Out-and-About Theatre, Phoenix’s Janus Theatre, Baltimore’s Theatre Closet, Chicago’s Speak Its Name, Toronto’s Harbor Front, the Actor’s Workshop of West Palm Beach, Seattle’s Alice B. Theatre, Los Angeles’ Theatre of the Other Window and Lambda Theatre, and San Francisco’s Gay Men’s Theatre Collective, Lavender Star Theatre, and Theatre Rhinoceros. (This last is the only one of the above still in operation today. Founded in 1977, they are now the nation’s longest-running GLBT theatre regularly producing.)

These companies were undoubtedly bolstered by the increasing appearance of sympathetic gay characters in such commercial theatre hits as Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadow Box,” Albert Innaurato’s “Gemini,” Terrence McNally’s “The Ritz,” David Rabe’s “Streamers,” and, of course, the mega-hit Michael Bennett musical, “A Chorus Line.” Which is why the 1983 breakthrough of “Torch Song Trilogy,” a gay man uncompromisingly writing a gay man’s story, produced such euphoria. “Torch Song” was born and nurtured in the world of gay theatre companies by The Glines. If America accepted that, a corner had truly been turned, and future possibilities for other works nurtured in gay theatres were limitless. (One friend of this writer said at the time that when he saw Helen Hayes praise a show including the onstage presentation of sexual activity in the backroom of a gay bar, he knew the world had shifted.)

But the AIDS epidemic was overwhelming the gay community just as the breakthrough was being made. Soon, gay theatre companies would be presenting work largely split into two categories: AIDS plays, and what were deemed “cute boys in underpants” plays (sex comedies with dollops of nudity — the Vortex Theatre Company even produced a series of plays with “Cute Boys in Their Underpants” in every title), with the latter providing an understandable respite from the grim realities of the former. (Robert Patrick left New York and the theatre for Los Angeles and the world of television in 1991, in part, he says, because he felt one could only write about AIDS and, though he had done so in plays like “Pouf Positive,” he did not wish to continually address the subject.)

Audiences who were living with AIDS on a daily basis resisted extending that experience to the theatre, despite some strong playwriting, including William M. Hoffman’s “As Is,” Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” and “The Destiny of Me,” and Robert Chesley’s “Jerker.” AIDS itself, of course, took its toll on some artists running theatre companies. Other companies found their audiences dwindling and closed up shop. But new companies started up to take their place, often with the express mission of educating audiences about the plague sweeping through the community. Still, a burgeoning theatre network that had been starting to present a wide variety of subject matter (historical plays, coming out plays, musical spoofs, sex farces, political dramas, drag comedies, and more) suddenly found its artistic palette significantly constricted. It was inevitable and necessary, no doubt. But also a tough challenge for what were largely small companies that lived life on the financial edge even in the best of times.

The Landscape Today — On the Purple Circuit

The 1990s saw unprecedented progress in the acceptance of gays and lesbians into the fabric of American society. Gay characters are ubiquitous in TV and film today, as well as in the theatre. At the same time, AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it used to be, with new drugs allowing people to live, however imperfectly and uncertainly, with the disease. AIDS has gone from obscuring the landscape to being a part of it. Theoretically, gay and lesbian theatres should be freer than ever to produce a wide range of work.

According to “On the Purple Circuit,” an invaluable online newsletter about gay and lesbian theatres published by Bill Kaiser, there are, conservatively, more than 60 producing organizations all across America with a commitment to GLBT work. Some have an exclusive commitment, others mix in non-gay work, still others largely import guest artists. But all maintain a regular flow of GLBT shows, distinguishing them from the many other theatres across the country that do gay work only if a property interests them.

Here are representatives from eight of these, with a diverse cross-section in terms of size, location, and artistic interests:

Bailiwick Repertory Theater, Chicago, Ill.

Bailiwick claims to be “the largest festival of GLBT theatre and performance in America,” operating two spaces (150-seat Mainstage and 75-seat Studio) and having over 1,200 households on their subscription list. In operation for 18 years, they produce both gay and non-gay work. (They have an unusual relationship with Equity; their “Primary Series,” running fall to spring and mixing gay and non-gay work, is an Equity Tier Three contract. But due to the great amount of experimental work they do during the summer, their “Pride Series” is allowed to be non-Equity.) Bailiwick casts from the Chicago area and accepts unsolicited scripts. This is their 13th summer-long Pride Series, offering 13 productions, running the gamut from heavy drama (Stephen House’s “Go By Night,” “a shocking look at teens at risk”) to sexcapades (“Posing Strap Pirates,” “a riotous romp about a sexy sailor who is captured and taken prisoner by a devilish pirate crew”). The line-up includes three world premieres, one American premiere, and the Midwest premieres of “Naked Boys Singing” and Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi.”

Artistic Director David Zak says that the hallmark of Bailiwick is its “diversity,” offering lesbian and multicultural works as well as the plays of gay white males. They are “a directors’ company,” says Zak, “interested in achieving the director’s vision,” and currently have about seven directors who work there regularly. Their audience is “left of center and willing to tackle unusual projects,” and Zak sees a real overlap between straight and gay audiences during the year.

Bailiwick was the first theatre to throw David Dillon’s “Party,” which generated some controversy. “There were a couple of years here in town when we got a lot of criticism for still doing ‘boys in their underwear’ plays or plays that really were celebrational in their terms of dealing with sexuality. But, frankly, it’s a part of the community, and now people go ‘it’s really great you’re doing that’ as one component in a festival that includes the African-American experience, parents and children, lesbian issues, politics — a lot of serious and weighty stuff.” Zak is proud of the wide range of material, but does lament that audiences “only pursue the shows that they’re most interested in.” Still, he adds, “Some will go on the whole journey with us, and that’s exciting.”

Curiously, it was the suggestion of a marketing firm that moved Bailiwick toward gay work, in order to gain a profile in the crowded Chicago theatre scene by “reaching audiences that were underserved,” recounted Zak. “And we were located right in the heart of ‘Boys’ Town’ [Chicago’s gay neighborhood]. It was a good match of location and company and work and audience.” Ultimately, says Zak, Bailiwick is “a blue collar democratic theatre. You can walk in off the street with an idea.”

Richmond Triangle Players, Richmond, Va.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Richmond’s Triangle Players is completely non-Equity. Technically, it’s a community theatre, but they do pay their actors and crew, who tend to come from the local area, which boasts four professional theatre companies and three universities. Situated, according to Managing Director Michael Gooding, “in a gay, after-hours nightclub, in the upstairs club lounge” seating 65-75, they were born in 1992 with the production of three Harvey Fierstein one-acts (the first two acts of “Safe Sex” coupled with “Forget Him”) and produced their first full season in 1993. They do four to five shows a year for about 10 performances each. Gooding says, “Getting word out about AIDS was the impetus. Richmond was at least eight years behind the rest of the country.”

Like Bailiwick, Triangle Players, which has no artistic director, looks to directors to bring them projects, most of which are works that have been done elsewhere first. Successes have included “The Secretaries,” “When Pigs Fly,” and “Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens.” “If it’s not a gay and lesbian theme,” says Gooding, “then it must be something that the other theatre companies in Richmond would not do. We call our work entertaining, adventuresome, and progressive.” Despite their Bible Belt location, a full 25-40% of their audience is non-gay, and they have received considerable support from the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch. In a bow to the prevailing cultural attitudes around them, they have stayed away from shows that are highly sexual (“we haven’t done some things we’d like to, like ‘Jerker,’” admits Gooding) or involve children (which is why they replaced Act III of “Safe Sex”). Still, they’ve had full frontal nudity in Jack Heifner’s “Key West” and nobody blinked an eye. More recently, they had a tremendous success with Jonathan Harvey’s “Beautiful Thing,” even though it offered two adolescent boys kissing on stage. “Nobody ever said a word about it,” says Gooding.

Hag Theatre, Buffalo, N.Y.

Organized as “a multicultural collective of theatre artists,” according to Artistic Director Margaret Smith, Hag Theatre is “a non-Equity professional theatre. We pay ourselves last; we pay all the bills first.” They have “a primary focus on presenting the lesbian voice and story on stage.” Works are chosen “based on our own collective of theatre artists, knowing what talents and resources we have available. Men we audition outside of the company when necessary, and we have guest artists perform with us often.” Playwrights they’ve produced include Carolyn Gage, Sarah Dreyer, and Claire Chaffee. Recently, they did what was only the second production of Emma Donohue’s “Kissing the Witch,” “a great play,” says Smith. Upcoming are one-acts by Linda Eisenstein, and Dorothy Dittrich’s sung-through musical, “When We Were Singing.”

The company was founded “to bring notice and light to lesbians and women, who remain invisible in our culture,” and to provide production opportunities for established lesbian writers “desperately looking” for them. Smith believes that, “although the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered theatres are supposed to be doing the work of all of the members of our community, most of the queer theatre in America is boy queer theatre. Run by boys, cast by boys — it’s a boy game.” Hag’s audience is mostly female, though it does have a loyal male component, and is drawn from the healthy alternative arts scene in Buffalo, fueled by several surrounding universities, arts centers, and regional theatres.

Despite her plainspoken sentiments, Smith is not a separatist artist. Hag is planning to collaborate with “another queer theatre company in town — Buffalo United Artists [also a collective]. They do predominantly boy work and we do predominantly girl work. On occasion, we exchange artists with one another, and will be doing projects together in the future.” Hag also hopes to present more self-created work in the future. Vows the passionate Smith, “For seven years now, we’re changing the world one audience at a time in a 100-seat theatre.”

New Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, Cal.

Although New Conservatory Theatre is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it is only on its seventh Pride Season of gay programming. The theatre was founded, says Artistic Director Ed Decker, “primarily as a youth conservatory and educational theatre company.” The company is a non-union one, using mostly San Francisco actors, but with an occasional Equity guest artist.

New Conservatory has a facility with three theatres (55, 75, and 125 seats) and programming consists of three separate series: “We do seven projects in the gay Pride Series, four in the Musicals-in-Concert series, and another six or seven in our Youth Series,” rattles off Decker. “We also have a co-production program working with individual artists or smaller, nomad companies that don’t have a home.” These days, they primarily target the gay male audience. (Even the Youth Series offers works about “issues of tolerance.”) But that isn’t completely by choice. “Our Celebrating Women program no longer exists,” laments Decker. “We tried that for three years, but we had a hard time capturing that audience. Our most vocal critics never set foot in here. There seemed to be this lingering doubt in peoples’ minds that, as a man, I must have this secret agenda of exploitation of women.”

The religious right behaved similarly over New Conservatory’s production of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi.” “The few protesters that we had out front had never read or seen the play,” comments Decker. “It was the idea of it that was so upsetting to them.” Interestingly, “Corpus Christi,” unlike McNally’s other plays, is finding most of its productions in gay theatre companies and universities. “If ACT or Berkeley Rep had wanted it, I wouldn’t have gotten the Bay Area premiere. It would have gone where the money was,” opines Decker.

Decker programs mostly new work. “New work to us includes work new to San Francisco. I really try to bring together what’s happening in Toronto, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London, the places that have major gay theatre markets.” The upcoming season includes West Coast premieres of Bill C. Davis’ “Avow” and Buddy Thomas’ “The Crumple Zone.” But it also features a world premiere: “Legion,” by Hal Corley, exploring “the secret legion of suburban husbands whose worlds blur the boundaries of sexual orientation.” And Decker is also commissioning two new plays based on popular gay novels, one of which will be penned by playwright-in-residence, Prince Gomolvilas, whose “Debunking Love,” about an Asian-American love triangle, premiered there earlier this season. “The repertoire is limited in terms of revivals,” warns Decker. “We need to be making new contributions to the field.”

SNAP! Productions, Omaha, Neb.

This is the ninth year of SNAP! Productions, which opened with a 1992 production of “Bent,” and the fourth year for SNAP!fest, their annual summer theatre repertory festival. A non-Equity, all-volunteer organization, utilizing local talent, SNAP! was started to raise money for and educate people about AIDS. “But there are better ways to go about raising money than putting on theatre productions, at least in this area,” says producer Tom Bertino, so education is now the sole focus and “our mission has moved from strictly AIDS-related education pieces to AIDS, domestic violence, women’s issues, gay and lesbian issues — and if we find another issue, we’ll tackle that!”

Despite their conservative surroundings, President Roxanne Wach and Bertino both insist they have “a broad audience, as many gay as straight. It’s a really diverse group, from high school students to senior citizens. We get a chunk of the Jewish community. And a lot of theatre people come. There are around 40 producing theatre companies in the surrounding area.” Some of those will do the occasional gay play (Chanticleer Theatre did “The Boys in the Band” in the mid-’70s!), but only SNAP! does such work on a regular basis, trying hard to include multicultural and lesbian voices in the mix.

The three-weekend SNAP!fest, according to Wach, focuses on “pieces that have never been done in Omaha. We’ve even done some world premieres.” And they bring in authors to interact with their audience. This year brings Doric Wilson’s “Street Theatre,” a play about the Stonewall riots (Wilson was present for them all three nights) and Dory Apple’s “Mothertree Cat,” which, according to Bertino, “centers around a young woman growing up in a Jewish family and her relationship with her lesbian aunt and the aunt’s lover.” The regular season will offer, among others, Noël Coward’s “A Song at Twilight,” the musical “Splendora,” Paul Rudnick’s “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” and “Corpus Christi.” “We’re hoping to get protesters. It’s an easy drive for the Rev. Fred Phelps to come from Topeka to Omaha,” says Bertino. SNAP! believes that part of its mission is to generate controversy.

The itinerant SNAP! has just acquired its first permanent space, to be shared with the Shelterbelt Theatre. Says Wach, “We feel that there will be a good amount of crossover in our patrons, which will really benefit both groups.”

Ivy Theatre, Los Angeles, Cal.

The Ivy is the youngest of the theatres profiled here. The first of its three Equity 99-seat Theatre Plan productions to date was done in 1998, and they cast from the local talent pool. “We put our ads in Back Stage West,” says Artistic Director Marian Jones brightly. “Our main focus,” she continues, “has been to produce lesbian playwrights. The piece itself doesn’t have to be lesbian-focused, although all three of ours have been.” But Jones is now altering her company’s focus. “People get irritated with this, but it’s just the truth for me. I found I was boxing myself in. I had gotten some submissions from men with very strong lesbian focus that were absolutely beautiful. And I couldn’t produce them. So I’m broadening the focus to plays that, in some way, relate to the lesbian experience, no matter who writes it. My primary desire is to hit a community of people — lesbians — who don’t have the opportunity to see themselves on a stage and hear themselves speak.”

Jones is interested in as broad a range of work as possible, and Ivy’s productions have been radically different. “The first was a mystical Latina love story, ‘Shame on the Moon,’ by Alicia Madrid, very culturally rich,” she enumerates. “The second, ‘The Rape of Djuna Barnes,’ by Dee Jae Cox, told the story of the famous author and other women from the Left Bank [of Paris]. The third, ‘Letters Home,’ also by Cox, was about women in the military.” Back Stage West chose “Moon” as a Critics Pick. The Los Angeles Times called “Djuna Barnes” “poignant and mind-exploring. A PBS docudrama couldn’t have done a better job.” “Letters” won a 1999 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Playwriting Grant.

Ivy Theatre’s funding initially came from individuals, predominantly lesbians, who formed a membership base. “But it eventually petered out,” says Jones. “It just stopped coming in on a regular basis,” which is one reason why Ivy is in the process of regrouping. Jones has toyed with the idea of doing theatre in coffeehouses, churches, etc, not unlike the early days of Off-Off-Broadway. “That was my initial intention; and then it just got bigger, and all of a sudden we were in 99-seat houses. It just adds so much stress to what it is you’re trying to do. To tell you the truth, in the whole coffeehouse, smaller church kind of environment, you can do what you want to do and get the same response. But you don’t get the critics.”

Unfortunately, it takes good reviews to bring in the audiences in a city like L.A. “The people in this city who are major theatregoers read reviews,” Jones analyzes. “‘Djuna Barnes’ was a very mixed audience, straight and gay, men and women, due to outstanding reviews, which brought in the straight theatregoing audience. I saw people in that theatre that I was stunned to see there.”

Triangle Productions, Portland, Ore.

Triangle Productions is undoubtedly the theatre with the most radically mixed programming of those profiled here. Artistic Director Don Horn alternates material as diverse as the heterosexual mating ritual musical, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” with Tony Valenzuela’s one-man show, “The Bad Boy Next Door,” a coming-of-age story about an HIV-positive man, barebacking, pornography, and prostitution. Horn’s Mainstage Series offers five shows at Theatre! Theatre!’s Arena Stage (which contains two 120-seat spaces), while his Musical Series consists of three shows, performed in the larger, 223-seat auditorium at World Trade Center Portland Conference Center. All are cast locally, Equity and non-Equity, under an umbrella contract.

Triangle is on a high, having just won seven of Portland’s Drammy Awards — including Best Production — given by the Portland Drama Critics Circle, largely for their recent productions of “Perfect/Change” and “When Pigs Fly.” Horn is adamant about his mixed programming approach. “There aren’t a lot of theatres that do 100 percent gay work because the audience is not there anymore. They can get the video or the DVD. You can’t keep preaching to the choir. You’ve got to keep bringing more people in. Portland is a problem because we’re not a tourist town.” He has a new idea for reaching out to his gay audience. “We’ll do strictly gay-themed shows, two gay and two lesbian, during a certain period of time [this summer] where the boys from Seattle drive down, and the boys from San Francisco drive up.”

Triangle’s core audience is made up of gay males. And they can be very fussy. “If I tell my subscribers I want to do a play about AIDS, they literally say, ‘Do not put that on stage. We don’t want to know about AIDS anymore; we already live it.’ They don’t want message shows; they want to be entertained. [And yet] they ask me, ‘How come you didn’t get the rights to these shows? — like ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ and ‘The Laramie Project’ — and then another theatre in town is doing it and people are mad at me for not doing it. And I can’t because of budget, Equity status, etc. But the gay community doesn’t understand.”

Funding also presents problems. “[Funding sources] ask, ‘Is it all gonna be gay? Because, you know, we have older people that are on our board and they don’t understand gay issues.’ So they have this whole dichotomy of we want to fund you, but… It’s very tough to get dollars for gay theatre. So that’s why you do other pieces of work, to get funding for those so that you can also do gay theatre.”

But despite the frustrations, Horn clearly believes passionately in what he does. “I have a lot of gays and lesbians around me that work in the theatre company simply because they want to be touched, somehow, to make sure theatre is good for the community. So it’s not just what happens on stage for me, it’s what happens backstage: costumers, lighting designers, people like that who want to still be involved.”

Wings Theatre Company, New York, N.Y.

With The Glines all but closed down, Wings Theatre, founded in 1986, has become NYC’s longest-running theatre with an ongoing commitment to gay work, operating under an Equity Tier Three Code Agreement from their 71-seat basement theatre on Christopher Street. They place their casting notices in Back Stage and “keep enormous files,” says Artistic Director Jeff Corrick. Their contract allows them to use non-union actors as well. Production budgets are minimal, in the $2,000 range.

Wings began “simply doing American plays by American playwrights,” says Corrick, including gay plays. “It became confusing to people,” he continues. “Since 1987, we’ve done a gay play series alongside a variety of other series.” Those have included “a children’s theatre series, a women’s/lesbian series, and, for the last three years, a musicals series. There’s a lot of crossover audience there, about 30 percent, so it works well for us. It also gives us more of a focus in the New York market. Our audiences are really diverse. The gay play audience is only slightly over half gay.”

The artistic focus is on brand new work, says Corrick. “We tend toward plays that are traditionally structured and generally realistic. We’re not a particularly avant-garde company. We also try to do things that are distinct from what’s being done in television and film.” In the gay plays series, “We try to do things a little bit outside the norm.” One example is “The Jocker,” which studied forced sexual relationships between hoboes and teenage boys during the Great Depression. Another is “Cowboys,” a big hit last year, a sweet-tempered musical, “sort of a gay version of a Roy Rogers movie,” now running at a mainstream suburban theatre in Dallas. Corrick avoids “generic coming out plays, generic AIDS plays, coming-home-from-the-holidays plays. Unless, of course, a really superb script in one of those forms comes in.”

Wings’ most recent play, “Strange Bedfellows,” is another example. Written by house playwright Clint Jeffries, it’s set in a trailer park in Oklahoma, and tells a wrenching, gripping story of a sexually uncertain, drug-addled adolescent, his pregnant prostitute fiancée, his controlling, judgmental mother, and the mother’s best friend since high school, now a 40-ish Chelsea party boy who has returned to his hometown fleeing an unhappy gay relationship. The play examines emotional damage inflicted in the name of love, and how such damage may be addressed. Written for the four fine actors who performed it — all Wings veterans — it contained an amazingly visceral performance by Daniel Carlton as the adolescent son.

Unfortunately, few people saw it. Wings has little or no money for advertising, and has always had trouble attracting the critics. Notes Corrick matter-of-factly, “We even have to fight for coverage in the gay press. And in 16 years, The New York Times has been here once — it was a mixed review — the Daily News twice, and the Post never.”

In the Future — A Much Louder Voice

“[GLBT theatre] has a much louder voice than it’s ever had,” boasts Ivy Theatre’s Marian Jones, and an artistic resurgence for GLBT companies does seem to be underway, with more new work being generated on a greater variety of subjects: political, historical, and personal. Challenges also lie ahead. Ways must be found to bring gay male and lesbian audiences together. Women are still underrepresented in positions of authority, and multicultural voices need considerable amplification. Still, with larger, more mainstream institutions more open than ever to GLBT work, companies can now serve as a launching pad, suggests Jones, “a stepping stone for new playwrights and for new audiences. [They’re] a safe environment for experimenting, allowing artists to express themselves in a way that they might not otherwise get a chance to do their first time out. Then something hits from these smaller companies and suddenly it’s work that everybody can relate to.”

Much of this resurgence has been fueled by the Internet. “The Internet has brought us plays from all over,” says Bailiwick’s David Zak. All those interviewed cite Bill Kaiser’s “On the Purple Circuit” as a resource that has allowed them to collaborate and communicate, bringing tiny, far-flung companies together into a more focused movement, and connecting individual writers and artists with production opportunities. “Now, suddenly, theatres are popping up all over again,” crows playwright Doric Wilson. “The Internet is facilitating this beyond belief. I get close to 100 hits a day on my web site. Thirty percent of them are all over the world. There is not a country in the world that has not hit it — even Iran, Iraq, four or five African downloads. Yesterday, I had five downloads to somebody in Manila. Build yourself a web site and let the plays download. I have at least five productions right now happening from the Internet.” Wilson allows free downloads, though people must sign a copyright agreement, much like the agreements required before downloading free software from the Internet. “Forget about publishing. You get no real money from it,” insists Wilson. “And the plays aren’t available in most bookstores, so you don’t get any circulation. Put up a web site and cut out the middleman.”

One of the most generally agreed-upon truisms about writing is that the more specific and particular it is, the more universal will be its impact. A famous example of this phenomenon is “A Chorus Line.” Though incredibly specific about the world of Broadway, and what dancers go through to get a job, it spoke to millions all over the world for whom such a world and its inhabitants were utterly and completely foreign. GLBT theatres continue to present work that explores the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered experience of life with specificity, detail, intelligence, humanity, and invention. On the day that non-GLBT audiences all over the world respond to the best of that work with the same universal embrace that greeted “A Chorus Line,” then, perhaps, specifically GLBT theatres will no longer be needed. Until then, they fulfill a vital function as they, in the words of Marian Jones, “present the human experience from our place in that experience.”

Erik Haagensen is a Richard Rodgers Award-winning playwright/lyricist whose
most recent show is the Obie Award-winning off-Broadway musical revue,
“Taking a Chance on Love,” which tells the life story of openly gay Broadway
lyricist John Latouche (1914-56) through his lyrics, journals, and letters.

Article © 2001, BPI Communications Inc.
Originally published in Back Stage, June 22, 2001
Reprinted by permission of Back Stage

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