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Doric Wilson, Theater Great (1939-2011)|
by Patricia Nell Warren
© August 26, 2011, Patricia Nell Warren
When the curly-haired ranch kid from Washington state got off the train in New York City in 1958, nobody would have predicted what a theater great he would become - inspired for decades by that wittiest of urban playwrights, Oscar Wilde. Doric had wit, true, but it had more of a barbed-wire zing than a British zing.
Born in 1939, he had grown up on his grandfather’s hardscrabble ranch in eastern Washington, located on the Columbia River. He was never much of a cowboy, he confessed to me later — in fact, he was afraid of horses. He sent me a jpg of his mom on horseback, claiming that she was the family equestrian. Doric never got to see movies, but he somehow discovered theater in the thin air around him in the small town of Kennewick, WA. Live performance was already driving Doric as if it was unfinished business from a previous life. In high school, he was already writing plays and producing them in a barn with his cousins. “Mostly Westerns and King Arthur,” he remembered in his last interview earlier this year.
But Doric’s bent for theater, and his emerging gay consciousness, were not welcome in his home state.
First, his high-school English teacher flunked him for writing a play. Her reason: he must have plagarized it, because (she said) no student of hers was capable of such a feat. Next, at the University of Washington, after a brief stint in the drama department, he was kicked out of the school for organizing an early-day gay rights protest.
It was time to make that journey that so many young Western artists have made — the next train “back east.” He was 19. But he took his western grit with him. It would stand him in good stead as he faced several decades of hard knocks in the New York theater world.
Broadway did not attract the Columbia River kid. It was more natural for Doric to gravitate towards the smoky post-beatnik Off-Broadway world in downtown Greenwich Village. OB had started in the ’50s, as a reaction against commercialized theater.
First he struggled to work as an actor. But inevitably he veered back to his first love - writing, producing and directing. In 1961 his first play And He Made a Her opened at Manhattan’s answer to a barn - Caffe Cino, a tiny experimental theater in a coffeehouse. It was a type of performance that came to be called “Off-Off Broadway.”
Rural Westerners have always known how to adopt urban camouflage, so Doric showed up for performances in a classy suit. But he found a new use for the childhood ranch leather and Levis as he gravitated towards the downtown leather community, and completed his coming out. As a life-long atheist, Doric was never troubled by religious guilts about his sexual orientation. To me, he proudly pointed out that his first name is an ancient Greek word, that was dabbed on him as a symptom of free-thinking in his family. But I always wondered if “Doric” was his mother’s silent comment on his Greekish head of curly hair.
He kept writing. Many of the plays had a strong personal streak where his western roots could be glimpsed. Now She Dances!, started in 1961 as a send-up of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, opened at the Caffe Cino. He rewrote it and reshaped it many times afterwards. In a Lodestar Quarterly interview many years later, he would describe it as “my most fiercely autobiographical play. Painfully private and highly sensitive details of my youth are shattered, stitched back together, and scattered liberally throughout the play.” Now She Dances! would become his most popular and enduring work.
The Perfect Relationship was another play where he harked back, creating a conservative wannabe cowboy type, complete with Stetson hat.
In 1969, when the Stonewall riot happened right in his neighborhood, Doric jumped into the fray. But explicit activism was never to be his main event. He always aimed to do his activism onstage.
By the time I met Doric, in around 1974, he was established as a pioneer of Off-Off-Broadway, with a string of successful productions.
That year, Doric and several associates (Billy Blackwell, Peter del Valle and John McSpadden) had just launched The Other Side of Silence — TOSOS for short. TOSOS was the first professional theater to be devoted expressly to the LGBT experience.
I had just published my novel The Front Runner, and was being raked by some gay literary critics for having broken their “rule” that women aren’t supposed to write about men, and vice versa. But Doric liked what I had written, and said so in public. That was how we met — and we had an instant mutual recognition as two ranch kids. I had made that train ride to New York myself. Indeed, I had grown up on those same riverbanks as he did, but farther upstream — the Clark’s Fork River, which winds through my own family ranch, is the headwaters of the Columbia.
For a few years, I hung out with the TOSOS crowd, driving into the city from my home in northern Westchester County. I remember being there when Now She Dances! opened at the Basement Theater in 1975. After a rehearsal or performance, serious partying took place. Doric was always the center of laughs and wild stories, as he knocked back a few of his favorite Brandy Alexanders.
His success hadn’t exactly made him rich, so he was working as a bartender at the Spike, TY’s and other noted leather bars in that part of town. In his mid 30s, he cut an athletic and charismatic figure behind the bar — always the cow-country Apollo in T-shirt and tight faded Levis, as he deftly served up drinks and wisecracks. When he was on duty, it was cool for me to drop by the Spike — early in the evening, of course, before things got wild. I wore a leather coat and my own Levis — respect for the dress code. Doric would slide my own drink of choice (bourbon, straight up) across the bar, and introduce me to other leather men. Thanks to Doric and his friends, the leather world would make its appearance in a later novel of mine, The Beauty Queen (1978).
As the ’70s closed its riotous cultural run, and the problematical ’80s came in, TOSOS went into hiatus. Economic and artistic clouds were hovering over the theater world, from Broadway to OOB. After I moved to California in 1980, and started battling the research challenges of a new book, I lost touch with Doric for a while.
When we finally reconnected in the ’90s, Doric confided how deeply the AIDS epidemic had hacked into his world, leaving him emotionally devastated. So many of his closest associates and friends had died that he abandoned the Village and moved to midtown — a Hell’s Kitchen walk-up on 39th Street and 9th Avenue. There, when I found him next, he had barricaded himself with his books, scripts, pet cats and — as the digital age came onstage — his PC.
“I don’t go downtown much any more,” he told me. “Too many ghosts there.”
That once-roaring river of his life was temporarily dammed up — many of his cohorts gone, his talent and achievements apparently forgotten. He had even stopped writing, and struggled to keep bills paid. He was heavier now, slower, blond hair gone silver, Apollo turning to Chronos. The party days were over — he was more health-conscious because of heart trouble. He told me he was living on borrowed time. But he still cut an imposing figure in his leathers — and he still had that barbed-wire sense of humor as he cooked us a perfect veggie meal in his microwave.
The coming of e-mail made it easier for us to stay in touch.
By the early ’90s, according to Doric in an interview, off-off-Broadway “seemed to have deteriorated to vanity productions and actor showcases. There seemed to be no hope. But even before I began to mourn, there was a sudden and astonishing revitalization, and thanks to the high standard of actors, directors and playwrights, and institutions like the IT Awards, United Stages, and nytheater.com, OOB is now more important than ever.”
By the end of that decade, Doric’s career reflected the positive change. His life-river had burst that dam, and flowed out into a sunlit afternoon of new creative challenges, of being newly appreciated. His 11 plays — described by Edward Albee as “tough, funny, no pussyfooting,” were finally being published as a collection. In 2001, with the support of directors Mark Finley and Barry Childs, he launched TOSOS II. The theater started a long run of successful OOB productions that continue today, and get major critical notice in the mainstream theater world. They included revivals of Doric’s own works, notably Now She Dances!, which also premiered in Europe.
So Doric emerged from his Hell’s Kitchen cave, to do his producer and director work, attend openings, receive awards and tributes, and even be grand marshal of New York Pride.
Most importantly, Doric started writing again, for the first time since the 1980s. In the last interview he did, early in 2011 with playwright and educator William Hoffman, he mentioned working on a new play, titled The Boy Next Door.
Always an activist on the side, he launched his own blog. The last time he and I exchanged e-mails was over a posting of his about the recent wave of young gay suicides — he had told the story of a childhood friend’s suicide that had affected him deeply.
On May 7, the borrowed time ended suddenly and quietly, at his Manhattan home. He had just turned 72.
Doric’s passing generated acres of ink from the New York newspapers, Playbill and older personages in the gay media.
A question echoed that had been asked by performance artist Jay Reisberg in his review of a 50-years-as-a-playwright tribute to Doric on March 23. “I ask you,” Reisberg wanted to know from the public, “does your own experience of the trends of our culture give you any confidence that we will have someone like Doric Wilson to celebrate fifty years hence?” I wonder. For a younger generation of LGBTs who are mostly focused on TV, movies, gaming, iPods, texting and pop celebrities like Lady Gaga, the vanishing of a pioneering theater great from an older time — one who was inspired by Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward and other greats they never heard of — is hardly noted by these kids. I have to hope that this sad fact will change — that more and more creative spirits among our youth will rediscover cutting-edge contemporary theater, and the bold spirits in its history.
So I can’t imagine Doric Wilson resting in peace. Whatever awaits him on the other side of that river that we all must cross someday, I have a feeling it will include unfinished scripts and unbridled humor, and maybe a few shots of brandy.
Copyright 2011 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved