My ex-girlfriend (a former theater major) used to joke: “It’s redundant to say you’re gay and that you majored in theater.” The implication being: Duh. It’s a well-worn stereotype that theater (and the entertainment industry in general) is a field that’s very, very gay (particularly among men). We can probably blame Shakespeare for this, at least partially (thanks for all the cross-dressing, Billy!), but also theater’s penchant for unabashed singing, elaborate costumes, make-believe, and even the word “drama” itself — these are all tropes that have at one time or another been attributed to queer folks and queer lifestyles. Stereotypes aside, the Bay Area theater scene has a rich, diverse history of queer communities, sexualities, and gender expressions from which to draw.
Perhaps more than other artistic arenas, theater companies recognize the importance of celebrating LGBT artists, themes, and audiences. It’s not surprising, then, that East Bay theaters aren’t shy about letting queer folks know they are appreciated. The closet has not only been flung open, it has been well decorated.
“It just made sense to host something for our community,” said Star Valdez, operations manager at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, which hosts a recurring Pride Night for members and supporters of the queer community. “Many of our performers, staff, and crew are all part of the LGBTQ community.”
Pride Night started with Altarena’s last production, Boeing Boeing, and takes place on the first Saturday of each show’s run. The next Pride Night is Saturday, October 11, and happens in concurrence with the musical production Little Shop of Horrors. “Altarena has long been a supporter of the LGBTQ community and we wanted to encourage others to join us in our support,” said Valdez.
That support comes in the form of a costumed afterparty with sangria cocktails, light hors d’oeuvres, and mingling. “Bold attire is encouraged,” Valdez noted.
Berkeley Rep also used to host an LGBT-themed night called night/Out. While the theater no longer hosts that specific event, Voleine Amilcar, director of public relations, told me that Berkeley Rep now offers Represent, a show-by-show event targeting audiences who might find the show appealing. “With An Audience with Meow Meow, we heavily promoted the show at Pride events leading up to the opening and invited key influencers from the gay community to the Represent event, which featured a cocktail hour, a short speech by [director] Emma Rice and comp entry into the show,” Amilcar wrote in an email.
Berkeley Rep, like most contemporary Bay Area theater, also has never shied away from exploring queer themes and showcasing queer playwrights, such as with Tony Kushner’s recent The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Other examples include Shotgun Players’ upcoming Our Town, written by gay playwright Thornton Wilder; and due to the aforementioned gender-bendy plot devices in Shakespeare’s plays, almost everything at Cal Shakes touches on gay tropes. (Coincidentally, my review of this week’s Lovebirds, now playing at The Marsh Berkeley also involves queer love stories.)
“The LGBTQ community is welcomed to our theater at every performance,” wrote Aurora Theatre Company’s artistic director (and gay man) Tom Ross in an email. “Just as importantly, we’ve produced quite a few plays written by LGBTQ playwrights and plays featuring gay characters. This season we are doing the Talley trilogy written by Lanford Wilson, who was gay, as well as The Lyons by Nicky Silver, another gay writer. At our last Global Age Project new works festival, one of our prize-winners was a play dealing with genderqueer issues by MJ Kaufman, who is trans-identified. I feel this is more worthy of attention than turning on some disco music and party lights following a performance.”
Perhaps the most well-known entity commingling queer and theater is Theatre Rhinoceros, the world’s oldest continuously producing professional queer theater, which was founded in San Francisco in 1977. Its first play, The West Street Gang by Doric Wilson, was staged in a SOMA leather bar called The Black and Blue. And the New Conservatory Theatre Center, also San Francisco-based, prides itself on creating high-quality queer theater that “gives voice to, entertains, and promotes exploration in order to celebrate diversity and foster communication.”
“Gay people are hands on — and I’m not being smutty,” said Theatre Rhinoceros’ artistic director John Fisher, as to why theater is particularly well-suited to capturing the LGBT experience. “Watching someone onstage is like having an encounter with them, meeting them, there’s no hiding. That’s what gay life is about, encounters, openness, receptivity.” Fisher also noted that theater is active: “You laugh, you clap, you boo. … Gay people love that, the effect of the audience. My new show The Battle of Midway! Live! Onstage! is all about that. It’s about entertaining. It’s a musical, but it’s also a retelling of history in a fun, gay way. That’s not something I really see happening on TV.”
Due to its penchant for critical cultural examination, personal renderings of the political, and upending dominant paradigms, live theater has always been a potent lens through which to examine queer realities, and this is especially true today, as LGBT rights are increasingly thrust into the national and international spotlights.
“We would love to strengthen pride, dignity, and the expression of love between people of any gender, and what better way than through theater?,” as Altarena’s Valdez put it.
“I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms,” Thornton Wilder once said. “The most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” We tend to agree. Here’s hoping the lively, provocative tradition of queer theater continues to flourish in the “Gay Area.”