15 Regional Companies Leading the Charge in Gay Theatre
by Aaron Grunfeld at Playbill
Check out these pioneers who champion the LGBT cause through art.
Gay culture is, in part, about the rejection of conformity. So how does a theatre company define itself as queer when gay drama has become an essential part of the American canon? If white, cisgendered companies can mount Rent and high schools can stage Angels in America, what role do queer theatres have in American theatre today? Success is an ironic problem.
Unlike the theatre industry, which is still dominated by New York, the gay community has no center. Maybe one way to answer the question “What is LGBT theatre?” is to look at companies across the country who self-identify as queer. Playbill looked at the dozens of “out” companies, from California to New York Island, to examine queer-run troupes in an era when larger, general-interest theatres are proud allies.
Queer theatres, on the whole, are far more likely to stage plays about women, race and poverty than their mainstream counterparts. This programming enhances those themes in even the most canonical works: mount a play about a femme Latina dealing with body issues, and Angels in America’s Louis gains significance as well.
But predictably, the alternative spirit of LGBT culture makes a uniform conclusion impossible. Instead, the sheer diversity inspires us. These companies embrace the young, old and in-between, accept gay, straight and non-binary sexualities and identities and invent new modes of production and organization. As the LGBT community gains acceptance in America, it rewrites definitions of normality and lifts other marginalized groups as well. Here are eight queer companies who help to suggest the dazzling variety of contemporary queer theatre and seven others making their mark across the country.
About Face Theatre
Andrew Volkoff, artistic director
“About Face Theatre creates exceptional, innovative, and adventurous theatre and educational programming that advances the national dialogue on sexual and gender identity, and challenges and entertains audiences in Chicago and beyond.”
About the company
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this equity theatre in Chicago displays a staying power that eludes most young companies, gay or straight. Though it occasionally presents the local premieres and revivals, About Face mainly develops and mounts new plays. This focus has been present since the company’s inception. Then, in response to the 1999 murder of Matthew Shepard, the company formed About Face Youth Theatre (AFYT). This program engages with Chicagoland’s queer youth by fusing theatre with activism and community. Nearly every season since has staged a show created by the AFYT program. Subsequently About Face inaugurated the XYZ Festival of New Work, and presents developmental readings to the public (the Out Front Series) and to artistic associates (First Draaft).
Among local institutions, the company has also collaborated with the Goodman, Lookingglass, and American Theatre Company. But About Face reached a new level of acclaim in collaboration with the Tectonic Theater Project. The play that the two companies developed, I Am My Own Wife, would elevate About Face to a national arena when the show reached Broadway and won a Tony and Pulitzer (the company will revive this drama for its 21st season). In just two decades, About Face has earned over 60 Jeff nominations and won over a dozen. Not satisfied to coast on its reputation, About Face recently announced a plan to open new offices and rehearsal space for other theatres in the Chicago area.
San Francisco, CA
John Fisher, artistic director
“Theatre Rhinoceros develops and produces works of theatre that enlighten, enrich, and explore both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of our queer community.”
About the Company
If Theatre Rhinoceros had only premiered The AIDS Show in 1984, they’d deserve a place in queer theatre history. Co-authored by 20 Bay-area artists, this was the first work by any company to deal with the epidemic. That same year, sadly, the company’s founder, Allan Estes, died from AIDS-related illness. Estes had founded the Rhino in 1977 with a play staged at a leather bar, The Black and Blue. The company found a permanent space in 1981, settling in the historic Redstone Building in the Mission District. For seven years, Estes staged work by local playwrights and brought established, out New York writers to the West Coast. Harvey Fierstein provided the theatre with a set of one-acts that would become the Tony-winningTorch Song Trilogy. The long post-Estes era of the Rhino has solidified a reputation for intersectionality and inclusiveness, collaborating with local Latino and African-American arts organizations. Even as the tech industry is gentrifying the City by the Bay, Theatre Rhinoceros continues to produce queer theatre, a throwback to the city of Harvey Milk and the original rainbow flags.
San Diego, CA
Matt Morrow, artistic director
“Diversionary Theatre was founded in 1986 to provide quality theatre for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. The mission of the theatre is to provide an inspiring and thought-provoking theatrical platform to explore complex and diverse LGBT stories, which influence the larger cultural discussion. Our vision is to foster and amplify the next generation of LGBT voices providing live entertainment in a dynamic, inclusive, and provocative environment that celebrates and preserves our unique culture.”
About the Company
San Diego doesn’t get enough credit for its theatre scene—nearly 40 professional troupes, led by La Jolla and the Old Globe. Any top-ten list would probably include the Diversionary Theatre, led by Matt Morrow. The company has its roots in the AIDS epidemic, part of the nationwide swell of LGBT activism that broke the silence surrounding the disease and gay rights. As the crisis and the closet fell off, the theater stayed at the vanguard of gay issues by putting subjects like workplace discrimination, military service and marriage equality onstage.
The company also demystifies the process of dramatic creation with its remarkable open-door attitude. Thursday ticketholders are invited backstage, while subscribers get to kibbitz with the cast and creative team of upcoming shows. A monthly event, open to all, offers staged readings of new and classic works of LGBT theatre. Student matinees, a summer acting camp and an arts company in residence may follow the straight model of institutional theatre, but Diversionary shows its colors with “The Silver Squad,” an amateur ensemble of LGBT seniors from the San Diego community. A vital company in an unsung metropolis, Diversionary bridges two San Diego groups: a modern LGBT community and a vibrant theatre industry.
The Theater Offensive
Abe Rybeck, artistic director
“The Theater Offensive’s mission is to present the diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lives in art so bold it breaks through personal isolation, challenges the status quo, and builds thriving communities.”
About the Company
The Theater Offensive has been through a metamorphosis since its debut in 1989. That year, a group of artist-activists decided to build on the success of their gay men’s guerrilla troupe, United Fruit Company. Members of UFC wanted to showcase queer theatre from all over New England. Partly, the Offensive did this by staging individual productions. But increasingly, they found festivals fit their street-theatre approach better, and established the Out on the Edge Festival of Queer Theatre. The inaugural festival reads like a who’s who of queer American theatre in 1992, attracting legends like Quentin Crisp, the Five Lesbian Brothers, Holly Hughes, BlooLips and many more.
The Offensive built on this success by starting True Colors: Out Youth Theater, addressing the concerns of LGBT youth and straight allies in the Boston area. True Colors provides a year-round program so that young, queer Bostonians can use theatrical techniques to tell their stories. In addition to offering a creative outlet, the program trains its students in community activism. In 2010, the company began OUT in Your Neighborhood, which engages with the disadvantaged communities that many of its young members live in. With True Colors, the Theater Offensive pioneered an approach to queer youth theatre that companies around the country have emulated.
Michael Simpson, artistic director
“To provide educational and humanistic support and to promote understanding and acceptance of all members of the community through artistic expression.”
About the Company
Its mission dodges words like “gay,” “queer” and “LGBT,” but that may be because SNAP! is located in the notoriously conservative state of Nebraska. But in its inaugural season (1993-94), the company showed its allegiance: Bent, Jeffrey, The Normal Heart, and a one-act by Harvey Fierstein called Safe Sex. SNAP! continues to debut the latest LGBT dramas for its Midwest audience. One show from its 2015-2016 season, Cock, had premiered at London’s famously in-yer-face Royal Court Theatre and treated locals to a provocative ad depicting everyday objects as phallic symbols. Though its scripts are mostly imported from New York, the company hires plenty of local actors. It stages its shows at a small space in Omaha’s midtown, which it shares with the Shelterbelt Theatre. Theatergoers from bigger cities may turn their noses up at SNAP!’s long history of “conventional” queer work— Angels in America, Rent, even The Boys in the Band. But for two decades, this company has brought the queer experience to a city and state that needs to hear those stories.
WOW Café Theatre
New York, NY
“WOW Café Theatre is a women’s theater collective in NYC’s East Village, which promotes the empowerment of women through the performing arts. Historically, WOW has been a majority lesbian woman’s space. WOW welcomes the full participation of all women and transpeople in solidarity with women.…”
About the Company
What began as an international women’s theatre festival in 1980 has become a year-round celebration of women’s performance. Initially funded by an onsite café, the organization moved to its current home on East 4th Street, the same block as La Mama, New York Theatre Workshop, and a dozen other arts groups. In the 1980s, WOW Café Theatre made essential contributions to the East Village arts scene, breaking ground in the then-new format of performance art. Troupes like Split Britches (who get their own entry in our list), and works like the “dyke noir” Dress Suits for Hire, helped to define the venue’s lesbian feminism by satirizing mainstream America.
But for the WOW collective, performance art wasn’t simply a trend to be chased by lesbian hipsters. It provided an alternative to traditional, hierarchical structures of contemporary companies, a “safe space” for women to create their own work without interference. To this day, WOW is run as a collective. Instead of an artistic director, decisions are made by consensus. Any woman or transgender person is invited to participate in the company’s weekly meeting. Producers have complete artistic liberty. Though the model hasn’t taken off, its subversive nature and sheer longevity is a reminder that queer theatre often finds allies in the avant-garde.
20% Theatre Company
Claire Avitabile, artistic director
“20% Theatre Company Twin Cities is committed to supporting and vigorously promoting the work of female and transgender theatre artists, and celebrating the unique contribution of these artists to social justice and human rights.”
About the Company
Relative newcomers to the vibrant theatre scene of Minneapolis-St. Paul, 20% Theatre dates its inspiration to a landmark 2002 report on women in professional theatre. That report, sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts, sent shockwaves through the community by noting the disproportion of men to women—and of straight artists to queer ones—in a field considered welcoming to outsiders. One prominent statistic revealed that only 20% of professional theatre artists were women (the ratio has risen since the study, but not much and certainly not enough). Struck by the need for social change, Claire Avitabile decided to give the Twin Cities an LGBT feminist theatre. For eight seasons, her itinerant troupe has produced new plays and local premieres by rising female playwrights. In recent years, 20% has expanded their season with Q-Stage, a reading series of local queer writers and performers. Nearly every position in their productions—actor, designer, sound operator, house manager—is filled by a self-identified woman. Coming out in an age marked by remarkable legal gains and contentious social battles, 20% Theatre is part of the vanguard for a new era of queer theatre.
Itinerant, formed in NYC
Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, collaborators
“Split Britches creates new forms by exploiting old conventions.… It is about a community of outsiders, queers, eccentrics—feminist because it encourages the imaginative potential in everyone, and lesbian because it takes the presence of a lesbian on stage as a given.”
About the Company
A dominant force in the legendary East Village scene of the 1980s, Split Britches has inspired lesbians and the avant garde for almost four decades. The groundbreaking work of Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver and (for a time) Deb Margolin grew out of the experimental theatre of the ’60s and ’70s. But the catalyst was the Women’s One World (WOW) Festival, which quickly turned into the WOW Café Theatre (important enough to merit its own entry on our list). Shaw and Weaver premiered Split Britches, which pioneered the collaborators’ aesthetic of playful, self-aware theatricality with a deep inquiry into lesbian identities. That approach provided an alternative to the coming-out narrative, which had dominated (mostly male) gay theatre in the 1970s. Split Britches shaped the infant model of performance art—its most famous piece is probably Dress Suits for Hire by Holly Hughes, one of the infamous NEA Four castigated by bigoted culture warriors in the early 1990s. By that time, Split Britches itself had moved on to new modes of performance, even as it inspired academics to create the field of performance studies. Shaw and Weaver continue to produce their pieces under the Split Britches umbrella, most recently with a tour of RUFF, Shaw’s solo show about mortality. Though they have matured from puckish iconoclasts to aging icons, Split Britches continues to innovate.
We can’t limit this look at America’s “out” theatres to eight, so we offer a set of honorable mentions. Check out a queer company near you!
Los Angeles, CA
Celebration provides Hollywood with its only professional theatre dedicated to queer voices.
Defunkt stages provocative material and draws from the vibrant Portland arts scene.
Emerald Theatre Company
Now in its second decade, ETC produces local playwrights as well as works from the gay canon.
Fantastic.Z Theatre Company
The youngest ensemble we found, Fantastic.Z provides theatre and outreach for LGBT Seattle.
Richmond Triangle Players
For 23 seasons, the Players have brought queer theatre to the capital of the Confederacy.
This community theatre is still strong after its 2004 censure by the local Catholic bishop!
This mid-size company has provided Portland with 26 seasons of queer classics and kitsch.
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