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Playwrights on Playwriting, 2017

A panel ostensibly about gay theater resounds with universal themes

By Paul Birchall

L-R: Donald Jolly, Robert Patrick, Michael Kearns, Mary Casey, Tom Jacobson, Odylys Nanin, Dee Jae Cox, Victor Bumbalo (Photo by Paul Birchall)

Last Wednesday night, West Hollywood was all a-glitter, as an LA Fashion Week show was taking place in the Pacific Design Center courtyard. In front of the famous blue glass-walled skyscraper, models stomped behind splashing fountains and a gigantic neon screen flashed gorgeous blue-glowing images of butterflies, while a siren-voiced songstress warbled a haunting ditty. However, as it turns out, the real fireworks were across the street, in a humble meeting room at the West Hollywood Library, where a panel of locally and nationally renowned playwrights came together to discuss the history and the future of LGBT theater.

(Note: The West Hollywood Library is part of the Los Angeles County Library system, where the writer of this article is on staff.)

Hosted by playwright and TV writer Victor Bumbalo, the panel, entitled “Gay Theatre, Its History and Its Future,” boasted a who’s who of local theater queer royalty, from legendary godfather of gay theater Robert Patrick to figures such as Tom Jacobson, Mary Casey, and, of course, Michael Kearns. Also on the bill were impresario and writer Dee Jae Cox (LA Women’s Theater Project) and Macha Theater’s Odalys Nanin.

The younger generation was represented by Donald Jolly, author of Riot/Rebellion (about the Watts Riots) and Bonded (about the scandalous love affair between two male slaves in pre-Civil War Virginia).

Beginning with accounts of how they got started writing, the general theme was one of breaking boundaries in an undiscovered area. And although the mood of the panel was upbeat and amiable, their actual views, informed by the current political/social climate and its relationship to the arts, was pessimistic.

Patrick noted that what was once edgy and challenging has become increasingly mainstreamed.  “It is much harder today to get noticed,” he lamented. “There are today more small gay theaters than anyone can imagine.  Did you know that there’s a gay theater in Kankakee? I get offers to cover gay festivals every day – some of them earn ten prizes and still they’re just on a list of plays getting sit-down readings in a room in the afternoon.”

Interestingly, as the talk commenced, the LGBT aspect of the panel almost became secondary:  What was important was that the panelists were all playwrights, and, as playwrights, their considerations, fears, and hopes were essentially the same as playwrights working in any genre – e.g., how do we get our plays performed, and how do we grow great theater?

Bumbalo sagely suggested that the trend these days is actually to avoid putting on full on productions of plays that might be too challenging for a mainstream audience. “Nowadays, the works are put into ‘development,’ with new plays being presented only for readings or for ‘development’ – it’s because they can get a grant [to develop] the new work, there’s no real plan to put the show on!”

There’s also been this rise of five- or 10-minute play festivals, Bumbalo continued.  “If you have 25 plays, you have at least 25 sets of friends who will come and see each show.  And you can tell the grant givers that you served 25 different playwrights, even though each play is only 10 minutes long.”

Cox confirmed some of these complaints, claiming, “One of the ways theater has changed is in its cost.  The cost to produce a show is astronomical. Yes, you can do staged readings and development, but people simply don’t want to put money into a play.”

An equally grim impression was offered by Nanin, who, while discussing the phenomenon of gentrification, by which a theater moves into an area, boosting real estate values, before being shuttered because the theater company can’t afford the increasing rents,  mused, “Small theaters are disappearing because so many of them are being demolished and turned into condos!”  Nanin announced that her Macha Theater, the former Kings Row Theater, has been sold for condos.  Nanin mentioned that she is currently petitioning to have the theater declared a historical landmark in an attempt to prevent this from happening.

The discussion turned to how LGBT playwrights can reach an audience. Kearns took the lead here, noting that his recent production of Queerwise, just completing a successful run at the Skylight, had utilized non-professional performers telling their own stories about the AIDS crisis and legacy. This, to him, suggests that LGBT theater is expanding into different niches.  “Gay theater has burst open in so many hybrids,” he noted.

He also suggested taking a good strong look at the market — advice useful for any playwright, not just one laboring in the LGBT field.  “What audiences are not being served?  What isn’t being done?  If you feel invisible, and you hear of a show and your story is being told, you will go and see it.”

Jacobson mentioned that productions of his ferocious Walking to Buchenwald and a trilogy he is writing about a neighborhood bathhouse of his youth will be expected in the seasons ahead. He noted that it isn’t ticket cash that will save a show. “What I’d suggest is not to entirely depend on the audience (to fund the show),” he explained.  “Cornerstone Theater, for example, gets great grant funding and foundation funding — their shows are chosen to plan for that.”

Added Patrick, “One of the reasons Off-Off Broadway worked was because people put on the shows in places that made their money by other means — coffeehouses, bars — they weren’t dependent on the play for their living.

Mentioned, almost as an aside, was the local omnipresent 99-seat issue, with the discussion of how Equity’s decision to demand that small theaters pay its union actors minimum wage will affect the creative scene.  Jacobson suggested that the LA scene might wind up echoing Chicago’s scene, where there’s an exciting fringe theater circuit, but made up mostly of non-Equity actors.  “Once you turn to Equity, you have to stop performing.  The truth is, you can do theater anywhere with non-union performers.”

In the end, though, much of the concern came down to money — how to make it and how to sustain the theater that puts on LGBT plays.  Cackled Patrick, “Two companies I go to regularly sell booze!” to which almost all members of the panel nodded sagely.