Gay theater flourishes in South Florida

The provocatively titled play "Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night" had a run this summer at Rising Action Theatre that was so successful the show was held over. Twice. First for two weeks, and then for an additional three.

 

To even the totally uninitiated (read: heterosexual), the promotion for the comedy made it clear this play was about two gay men — mostly naked — hooking up in a one-night stand.

"It's our once-a-year show to pay the rent," said Jerry Jensen, managing director for Rising Action, a small theater company in Fort Lauderdale. "It was our top-grossing show this season."

Local professional theaters know the audience is there, and have been increasingly targeting productions that resonate with gays and lesbians. Census Bureau numbers released in August confirmed that same-sex households in South Florida soared over the past 10 years.

The Broward Center for the Performing Arts is attempting to capture the audience by introducing a Pride Series featuring gay-themed musical and comedy performances scheduled from October through June.

"Look at it this way: Who else is doing a Pride Series?" asked Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center. "Not a lot of other markets are doing this. I think that speaks to the strength of the gay and lesbian market in South Florida."

Though this is the inaugural season for the Pride Series, local theater companies were already there.

For business partners Garet Scott (playwright) and David Gordon (actor), the gay audience was definitely part of the business plan when the New York-based team took over Fort Lauderdale's Sol Theatre in 2010 and rechristened it Empire Stage. The inaugural play was Ron Larsen's "Making Porn," which chronicles the rise of a gay porn star. Gordon played the protagonist, which he had previously done on the national tour in the late 1990s

"Speaking strictly as a producer, you realize that we are so close to Wilton Manors it just makes sense as a businessman," said Gordon.

The company just came off an extremely successful run of the parody "Mommie Queerest." And now the cozy 48-seat black box space is bringing in a show titled "An Evening With Mister Johnson," which has a straight version on Thursdays and Saturdays and a gay version on Fridays and Sundays.

The Women's Theatre Project recently staged its third edition of Girl Play, a festival of short plays with lesbian themes produced for the Pride Center at Equality Park in Wilton Manors.

Meredith Lasher, a founding member of The Women's Theatre Project, said that the small company housed in the F.A.T. Village Arts District in downtown Fort Lauderdale didn't start out to produce plays aimed at a lesbian audience.

"There was no design to become a gay or lesbian theater," she said. "But because women are lesbian, it just worked out that way. We wanted to tell women's stories, and that includes lesbians as well.

"The [Gay and Lesbian Community Center] in Wilton Manors was having a real struggle doing outreach to the lesbian community," said Lasher, explaining the impetus for the lesbian-themed festival. "Now we're getting submissions from all over the world — from Europe, Asia, Africa — so obviously it struck a chord. We must get over 100 submissions a year."

Shows aimed at a gay male audience have it easier, according to Lela Elam, a local actress who is also an "out" lesbian.

"Gay guys will come out and support gay theater," Elam said. "Gays are just very community-oriented. I feel like girls will only hang out with this type of girl or that type of girl. I hope I'm wrong about that, but that's how I feel. But if I go out with one of my gay guy friends, he will know everyone in that bar."

Gordon said, "[Visiting]…so often I started to see how much more gay Fort Lauderdale had become. Garet is not gay specific in her plays, but gays like her writing more than straights. She has a real tongue-in-cheek humor that gays just get. And she usually has a man dressed as a woman."

But it's not all over-the-top campy humor. Empire Stage has also seen productions of "Pillowman," "The First Step: Diary of a Sex Addict" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

 

Rising Action has brought to South Florida serious fare and "dramedies" such as "Boys in the Band," "Bent," "Take Me Out," "The Sum of Us" and "The Killing of Sister George."

And yet executive artistic director David Goldyn is hesitant to classify Rising Action as a gay theater.

"We are and we're not," Goldyn said. "We do have a large gay following so we always have that in mind. But a lot of people are coming to see the shows that aren't gay. We do five or six shows a year, but I can only think of maybe four shows that we've done recently that you could call a 'gay' show. 'Grey Gardens,' 'Flora the Red Menace,' 'The Sisters Rosensweig' are not gay shows.

Lasher, of The Women's Theatre Project, observed, "South Florida is unique. People here are much more open-minded than some other places in the country. We just have big, open minds here. And I think Wilton Manors and the renaissance of that area is pretty significant too."

But this fare also often brings in an audience that might not otherwise support local plays, she said.

"Every company struggles to develop a new audience these days. I know for a fact that there are women who don't go to see any other theater, but they will come here if they see something that speaks to them. They may not be passionate about theater, but they are passionate about the message. I know this. They come in the door and say, 'I just saw Girl Play and I want to become a subscriber.'"

For some companies there have been whispers of exploitation.

"'Sordid Lives' did have the actor nude in the advertising," said Goldyn. "But he was never nude onstage. What can I say? Sex sells."

Empire Stage's Gordon, who lives in New York with his wife, Lucy Caracappa, has even read a blog that questioned whether a straight man had any business producing plays targeting a gay audience with some admittedly lurid advertising images.

"With 'Sex & Violence' the poster had a bare chest in high heels and fishnets with a chain saw and lots of blood," Gordon said. "Obviously we were targeting a specific audience. That was me by the way. With 'Making Porn' it had a photo of a clapper over my private parts and nothing else.

"Of course I know a lot of people think I'm just a straight guy taking advantage of the gay audience," he said. "But when I was first starting years ago in New York, I was a really novice actor. I had a nice body. Gay theater was there to give me an opportunity — mainly because of my body — when I needed one."

Elam, the actress, thinks there will come a time when "gay theater" will not be a separate category.

"As society changes, all these little things that divide us will go away, but it will take time. And we just have to wait."

This article originallyappeared in the Sun Sentinel. SFGN and the Sun Sentinel are media partners.


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