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The Gay Theater of Daniel Curzon
Interview and biography by John W. Gettys
© February 28, 2008, John W. Gettys

Daniel Curzon
When did you write your first gay theater piece?

I was asked to write a pro-gay piece by the Concerned Mothers of Arkansas in 1977, and naturally I couldn’t refuse. The difficult part was in deciding which part of sodomy to depict on stage. There are so many, you know! I couldn’t make up my mind whether simulated fellatio or simulated anal sex would be better.

The Concerned Mothers and I argued and argued about which to use, but finally we agreed to disagree and the project never got off the ground. I don’t believe Concerned Mothers of Arkansas has done any gay plays since that rancorous time, and I am sorry if it was my fault.

There are some people out there who might think you are being serious.

I realize that. Believe me, in 1977 it was a different world, but there was something in the air. I was living in San Francisco then and produced and directed my own series of sketches called “Sex Show.” I believe my plays even opened before Theater Rhinoceros’s first production, which started around the same time.

I begged the man who ran the Gay Community Center on Grove Street (now torn down) if I could do a show, even though none had been performed there. He said yes — for rent! I put up audition notices and cast the five men who showed up. One of them was Dan Turner, who later went on to fame as a spokesman for the AIDS crisis.

It played in three venues, including at the Mabuhay Gardens, as the opening show for loud Punk Rock groups like Devo; yikes, not a good idea! Earlier it had gotten excellent reviews and even a Critics Circle nomination for “Best Script.” Not all the skits were “gay” but I guess there was a “gay sensibility” present. It was a breath of fresh air at the time.

What was your connection with Theater Rhinoceros, which is celebrating its 30th year in San Francisco?

Do you want the truth, or nostalgic claptrap?

The truth is I saw some early Rhino shows and thought they were lousy; totally amateurish. I was a reviewer then, and needless to say my comments did not go over well with Allan Estes, the artistic director. Since I was also submitting scripts for consideration by Rhino, I was in a very awkward position. I never did click with the people running the theater then, although they eventually did some of my one-acts to great acclaim (especially “Beer and Rhubarb Pie”).

I think my play was the first, or one of the first, where a nice-looking man removed his shirt on stage. So you have me to thank for all the naked boys singing since! May God have mercy on my soul.

Was Theatre Rhinoceros the only game in town in San Francisco then?

I suppose I could have just kept on producing my own shows, but it’s a terrible drain to have to do everything yourself. I joined up with a small group of people to form the Earnest Players (in 1978, if memory serves). We did a number of shows and apparently Cal Yeomans, of growing posthumous fame, was involved, though I don’t think I ever spoke privately to him.

I didn’t particularly get along with the people in this theater company either. (Could it possibly be me?) We did a bill of one-acts in a former funeral home, with mine being “Your Town,” a scathing take-off on “family values.” After the initial honeymoon, my cohorts turned on me, especially when I forced them to do a midnight show about “minorities” trapped on a BART train, where they all turn on each other and their rivalries and dislikes emerge (“Beneath the Surface”). A gay man and a lesbian were on the train. Trust me; that play was way ahead of its time! It’s still ahead of its time!

How long did you continue with Earnest Players?

Until they kicked me off the board of directors. I learned a valuable lesson here. Never, ever allow a vote about who get to run the theater company you have founded. You might get blindsided. The egos, the Egos! The EGOS!

Earnest Players then began to produce the plays of those who had ousted me. Quelle surprise! Eventually, the Earnest Players died the death of most theater companies, this time aided by my use of a voodoo doll. To be honest, most of my theatrical experiences have been painful.

Did you know Robert Chesley during these years? There is a playwriting contest named after him now.

Bob and I became very good friends. He saw my BART train play, and I think it offended his “progressive” sensibilities, but I somehow managed to wrest sort of a positive review out of him. Bob was from a wealthy mother who was a bleeding heart Communist or something. I grew up working class. We didn’t have similar tastes on many things, but we knew we were part of an Important Movement, and that felt inspiring.

I went with Chesley when his first play was performed at Rhino, after he turned from being a theater critic to being a playwright. It was only so-so, but he got better.

What I learned from Chesley — besides his absolute gall in promoting his own work — was how making “donations” to a theater company opens more doors than the writing of bad reviews. Who knew? I was shocked then and not very happy about it even now. Maybe I will fund a playwriting contest named after me too.

Over time, Bob and I drifted apart. (I have written up my memoirs of both Theatre Rhinoceros and Bob Chesley in “Dropping Names: The Delicious Memoirs of Daniel Curzon”) It’s all so rich and marvelous; now that it’s over!

After Earnest Players, what?

I became the token gay playwright at the One Act Theatre Company of San Francisco. It was a choice between C.D. Arnold and me. Do you remember him? This time I won. Yay!

It was nice because there were eight or so selected writers whose work could get produced in downtown San Francisco. The theater even had a second, smaller space just for us, until a disgruntled actor squealed and the fire marshal shut it down. May they both burn in Hell for all eternity!

I did some non-gay plays here. Some reviewers expressed shock and amazement that I was writing about heterosexuals. Jesus, we’re not two different species, for god’s sake! I always wanted to be able to write about gay or not-gay, as needed.

My biggest success at the One Act Theatre Company was “Last Call,” set in a gay bar, a cruising duel between a handsome man and an … un-handsome one. The One Act was hot in San Francisco in that period, but, alas, it too died the death. Are people still going to the theater?

Did you ever work with the Cockettes?

No, I didn’t even see the Cockettes. However, I did see a show by the Angels of Light, the successor to the Cockettes, and thought they needed better scripts. I mean, costumes aren’t everything, are they?

So I pitched “Cinderella II” (the sequel) to the artistic directors, Rodney Price and Beaver Bauer, and they accepted. I wrote the book and the lyrics, with Dan Turner writing the music.

I wish I could say it was a Love Feast, but, in truth, it was a nightmare of financial trouble and backstage rivalries from beginning to end. Despite some weak voices, at least it was a terrific show (1984 at Theatre Artaud, a huge barn of a place), and won some awards.

My mother and father both died during its run, and I was marginally employed. But, as they say, the show must go on!

It was the last show the Angels of Light ever did. Rodney Price died of AIDS and Beaver Bauer went on to design her outrageous costumes for mainstream theaters.

Many people said “Cinderella II” could have played on Broadway, but so far it hasn’t. There is no explicit gay content, but Prince Charming does wind up in Cinderella’s clothes and she in his. It was over the top then, but today I suppose even the Concerned Mothers of Arkansas cross-dress! I know they do. Just look at those pants suits.

You were part of the original “AIDS Show” (1984), were you not?

I was, though I didn’t pay much attention to it after my piece was selected. It was called “Rev. What’s His Name,” a Jerry Falwell spoof, (if that isn’t redundant I don’t know what is!).

I was caught up in the fights connected with “Cinderella II,” and “The AIDS Show” was supposed to play for only four performances, but it became this Big Hit and even toured the US with “Rev. What’s His/Her Name” played by a woman. I even got royalties!

What most people don’t know is that the film version is of the second version of “The AIDS Show,” not the original; and not as good either. None of my pieces were included in the second show, so I’m not in the movie.

It was the time of the Great Lesbian Unrest, and enormous pressure was being exerted to have lesbian content in “The AIDS Show,” whether warranted or not. The atmosphere at Rhino then was unpleasantly female vs. male (tribal war) and the closest thing to a P.C. gulag as you’d ever want to experience.

The Left can be as censorious and narrow-minded as the Right. It makes it difficult for those of us who can’t give that much allegiance to somebody else’s version of The Holy Truth. I’ve met Muslim fundamentalists who were less rigid!

I found the atmosphere so toxic that I did not go back to Theatre Rhinoceros until last year, more than 20 years later. My last plays there were about crazy playwrights (“The Murder of Gonzago: A Comedy”) and about a gay man wanting to have a child with a woman, which was something I did in real life. Unfortunately the director didn’t invite me to a single rehearsal and cast a man so neurotic you didn’t want him to reproduce! Ah, theater! Don’t you want to run right out and put on a show!

Did you ever do shows in New York?

I got my big chance in 1987 when the Circle Rep Lab fully staged my play about the son I had sired with a lesbian, a child I had never seen.(“My Unknown Son”). I envisioned how he might turn out in various theatrical styles, Greek tragedy, Shakespearean comedy, Oscar Wilde, and Sam Shepard. It was picked up by a producer and opened off-Broadway in October, 1988.

It was terrific at one performance and off at the next, because of the actor who played the son. I have never seen such fluctuation in a performance before or since. When the critics came, he was off, and we closed.

It was done again in Los Angeles in 1997 with a more consistent cast, at least the first cast, who all resigned when they fought with the producer. I don’t think many people realize how important a first-rate cast is, always, but especially with a new play. It’s hard to tell the difference between the script and the performance. How many high school Shakespeares have you seen that would have been that playwright’s last play if that’s all you knew about his work?

I am very happy to say the real-life child I had has turned out splendidly. Yes, he is straight, but you have to love them anyway!

Anything else in New York? Does New York matter the most or not?

Absolutely New York matters the most. It’s virtually impossible to go from San Francisco to other places, but you can often go from New York to other places, but the work isn’t necessarily superior by any means. It shouldn’t be, but it’s New York or London.

If I had been more serious about theater instead of GAY LIBERATION in those years, I would have moved to New York. I did live in London from 1970-1972, but I was writing fiction, not plays, then. I was in a bill called “Homosexual Acts” in 1991 with a couple of dark pieces and one about Eddie Murphy and the Pope with AIDS that was cut after we opened because it was “offensive.” Offensive? Me?

What one learns is that there is Safely Offensive and Not Acceptably Offensive, and you’d damned well better know the difference. One puts butts on seats, and the other makes you have to apologize until you’re blue in the face. (America, the Land of Free Speech?) What glaring contradictions we have in our beloved nation.

Somebody did my one-act about two Air Force lovers dancing together in the officers’ club on Christmas Eve in a bill in NYC in 2000 (“A Christmas Miracle”). I didn’t see it, but apparently it was quite good. I’d be happy to go back to New York, sometime, for an opening of a play of mine.

Was it all struggle and strife?

Actually, I started winning contests and wrote plays without gay content, or plays with only one gay character. In Los Angeles, for example, I did “So Middle Class,” an answer to Albee’s “Zoo Story.” In other cities, I won the 1999 “National New Play Contest” for “Godot Arrives,” a sequel. It played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2000, and is having another production in 2008 at the Orlando Fringe Festival. I doubt that I will fly across the country to see it, though.

Baker’s Plays, which is pretty big, published my non-gay “A Fool’s Audition” in 2004, and I keep winning contests.

I just wrote a play about Princess Margaret of Great Britain, who was the Princess Diana of her day. It’s with a London agent. Who knows?

I guess I hope what all playwrights hope, that this play will be a Major Smash, and that will open the door for all the other plays I have written since 1977 and I will be so embarrassed by the flood or fabulous productions and unending praise that even I will be satisfied. How’s that for an optimistic attitude?

© 2008, John W. Gettys
John W. Gettys and Daniel Curzon have been partners since 1981.
John W. Gettys may be contacted at 415-269-8249.

Many of the Curzon’s plays are contained in
the “Collected Plays of Daniel Curzon,”
a set of eight volumes published by IGNA Books, 2004-07.
They are available via
Click here for a list of all Daniel Curzon books carried by Amazon.

Biography of Daniel Curzon

Daniel Curzon (the pen name of Daniel R. Brown) was born in Litchfield, Illinois, and grew up in Detroit. He holds a M.A. in English from Kent State and a Ph.D. in English from Wayne State U. He has taught at Wayne State, University of Maryland, California State, and City College of San Francisco.

Daniel Curzon has written plays on a variety of subjects. His “My Unknown Son” was produced in New York at the Circle Rep Lab (1987), and later in an Equity production at the Kaufman Theater off-Broadway (1988). Two of his plays were included in “Homosexual Acts,” produced off-Broadway at the Theater Off Square, New York (1991). “My Unknown Son” premiered in the West Coast in Los Angeles (1997).

He was awarded the “National New Play Contest Award” for “Godot Arrives” by the Southwest Theatre Association (1999).

He won one-act contests for “The Hit” at the Attic Theater of Hollywood (1997), for “Sour Grapes” at the Actors Theater of Santa Cruz (1997). He won a first prize place in the One-Act Marathon of the Attic Theatre, Hollywood (1998).

Curzon won a second prize place for his one-act “A Fool’s Audition” at the Great Platte River Playwrights Festival, University of Nebraska (2001), which was produced in 2001. This same one-act also won an honorable mention in the Kernodle New Play Competition at the University of Arkansas (2001). It was published by Baker’s Plays in 2004.

He has written a Shakespearean sequel (Henry II; Part III), a Maugham/Coward-like down-for-the-weekend comedy called “When Bertha was a Pretty Name,” as well as several musicals with composer Dan Turner, which includes “Cinderella II” (about what happens to Cinderella and her prince after they live happily ever after), and “No Mince Pies” (about Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, with parallels to our own times).

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