My introduction to lesbian theater occurred in 1980 when John Glines asked me to look at a play called “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” by Jane Chambers. He asked if I’d be interested in publicizing it, along with “T Shirts,” the Bob Patrick play I was promoting for them.
After accepting the job, helping to move the play off-Broadway, my younger daughter went to a rehearsal at the Actor’s Playhouse. She ran up to Jane after the show and declared, “I now know I’m a lesbian!” Jane replied, “Your mother will kill me!”
I was glad my kid could come out in such an embracing environment.
It’s hard to believe “Last Summer” is soon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its move Off-Broadway. It’s even harder to believe how few new productions there have been of this landmark play in the last few years.
These days, Broadway primarily produces revivals of plays produced 20, or more, years ago! Regional theaters mostly produce previously successful Broadway plays. What about the gay theaters? They appear to always be seeking the New! NEW! NEW!
The old saw about those who forget history being doomed to repeat it, holds no warning signals for most gay theaters. They’ll throw out “Torch Song Trilogy,” “As Is,” “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” as easily as they discard old news.
But the landmark plays are not yesterday’s news — they represent our gay heritage.
These are the voices that made the change in gay literature and the world’s perception of gay people. Ignoring or burying them is tantamount to killing again all those brave, bold authors who told it like it was, many of whom AIDS physically demolished. Do we dare kill them again through neglect?
The Purple Circuit publishes a list of the Most Influential Gay & Lesbian Plays. How many of them is your theater producing this year or next? If not you, who will keep these plays alive? I was privileged to work on many of those golden plays. I hate to see them languishing in drawers.
John Glines used “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” as a trial balloon, to see if a gay play could make it into the mainstream. Audiences and critical raves proved it could. A year later, he hired me to help maneuver “Torch Song Trilogy” through the same scenario, starting with an Off-Off-Broadway opening, and then into a mini-contract. After that, it moved to the Actor’s Playhouse in Greenwich Village, and then finally a move to Broadway, his ultimate goal. Gay theater became mainstream.
Later, John’s theater produced “As Is” on Broadway. Other companies in this and other countries presented “The Normal Heart” among many other “breakthrough” plays.
The big change from the old gay theater to the new cross-over theater was the authors’ approach. Gay writers had come out, boldly, to show their lives and loves as they experienced them. No more mere naked-boys-playing romps. These works had substantial, fully-realized characters and situations. They spoke not only for the gay community, but humanity as a whole. And they still speak to us, if you let them.
“Boy Meets Boy” is a light-hearted musical, which shows the normality and commonality of gay love, and includes a marriage of gays. This was almost a prediction, since it is happening around the world, and now legal in Ontario, Canada, the third government to do so.
“Torch Song Trilogy” is primarily about family, and a man having enough respect for himself to demand it from his lover, friends and his mother. Anyone can relate to that, as 98 percent of the New York critics did!
Other ground-breaking plays, such as “If This Isn’t Love!” are not dated, as so many theaters seem to think. These plays still commanded large attendance in recent New York revivals. They are historic evocations of their time, showing it as it was, and as it might be again, if the gay community does not keep its own fine culture alive and well on their stages.
Many young people have no idea what the over-50s gays went through to assure the amount of freedom now enjoyed. Careers were lost, families embarrassed and estranged, friends horrified by the misconception that gayness was a choice one made, rather than one made by genes.
Dorothy Allison, an openly lesbian, and much admired author wrote, “Talking to 20-year-olds these days, I find it difficult to get them to understand what it was like, being part of the early liberation movements that so impacted this country in the 60s and 70s.”
Gay plays such as “Street Theater” show exactly how it was.
Plays such as “Stray Dog Story,” “A Safe Light” and “Boys in the Band” help people re-experience those days.
If gay theaters continue to ignore these seminal plays, we’ll take a step backwards in gay literature. Our theaters will disappear. Mainstreaming was important. Preserving the history of how we got from the hidden agendas of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde to the out-front honesty of today’s gay plays is important to a full understanding of how to go forward.
Can they still work? The enormous success of Doric Wilson’s “A Perfect Relationship” and “Street Theater” in New York, in the spring of 2003, prove that they do.
Want to make an impact? A great revival can move mainstream audiences just as surely as a great new play. Check out gay plays on various web sites. There are thousands of them! Get them from libraries, bookstores or online. Read them. Find those that communicate with you and your audiences, and present them with the new perceptions and possibilities available today.
Broadway doesn’t let its great playwrights die or fade away. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill are constantly revived. Even less admired playwrights get revived. Let’s see to it the gay community preserves and presents its theatrical history. After all, you want gay people to know the past to deal with the present, and understand how to face the future.