Theater in the Gay 90s

There are few sure things in show business, but theater producers are increasingly betting on gay-themed plays to attract audiences. Recently the Organic Touchstone Company closed an extended run of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, a three-hour serious comedy about a group of gay New Yorkers. The production, which included plenty of male nudity, was one of the company’s biggest hits. Now it looks as if Belmont Avenue will become a mecca for gay theater this summer.

Next month plays with gay themes will occupy two of the three stages in the Theatre Building. About Face Theatre’s production of Mart Crowley’s landmark drama The Boys in the Band opens June 2. Then, ten days later, Ronnie Larsen’s comedy Making Porn will return to the Theatre Building, where it enjoyed an extended run in the summer of 1995. Making Porn is about a straight man who starts appearing in gay porn movies to make money and in the process becomes a star. The show has been playing off-Broadway for more than a year with a succession of well-known male porn stars in the lead roles. Though the play didn’t feature famous porn actors during its initial engagement here, Los Angeles-based producer Caryn Horwitz plans to bring the show back with one of the real McCoys–porn star Ryan Idol. While The Boys in the Band and Making Porn are at the Theatre Building, Bailiwick Repertory’s annual gay- and lesbian-oriented Pride Series will be in full swing next door through the end of August.

All these shows are being produced by people who’ve discovered that gay theater sells tickets. “Let’s face it,” says Horwitz, “the gay and Jewish audiences are what have traditionally driven the theater business.” Horwitz, a transplanted New Jersey native and former university professor, tried her hand at producing Shakespeare in San Francisco, but she quickly discovered theater was a risky business. Then she teamed up with Ronnie Larsen, a former student with a proclivity for penning amusing plays about sex and pornography. One of Larsen’s first plays–Scenes From My Sex Life, a work about phone sex, personal ads, and sex clubs–was a modest success here in 1995, when it ran in repertory with Making Porn.

But the pair hit pay dirt with Making Porn. After the show ran in Chicago, Horwitz and Larsen took it to Los Angeles, where it became a favorite among insiders in the gay porn industry. They talked some big names into appearing in their show, and the porn stars’ marquee value helped boost the box office. Horwitz estimates that over the past two years Making Porn has netted nearly $1 million in profit from its various incarnations in Los Angeles, New York, and almost a dozen other markets.

In the two years since its founding, About Face Theatre has realized nothing like Horwitz and Larsen’s windfall. But Eric Rosen, one of the company’s two artistic directors, says the relatively small not-for-profit has managed to raise a “staggering amount of money.” The Boys in the Band will cost about $32,000, four times the price tag of About Face’s first production, Dream Boy. Unlike Horwitz, who aims to attract audiences with highly commercial fare and stars, About Face is dedicated to producing serious works dealing with gay themes.

Rosen wasn’t even born when The Boys in the Band was originally produced off-Broadway in the late 60s, but he says the play still speaks to contemporary concerns. “It’s sort of hilarious and dark at the same time and very compelling.” He learned only late last week that his production would be sharing the Theatre Building with Making Porn. “I think it’s great because it will bring more traffic through,” he says. But Rosen also points out that his company owes more to groundbreaking theater companies like Bailiwick than to producers like Horwitz. “Bailiwick has created an audience for serious gay theater.”

When the Pride Series started eight years ago, Bailiwick executive director David Zak didn’t realize it would become so influential. “We were very much in the wilderness back then,” he says. But Zak responded to the popularity of the series. “When we started the Pride Series, gay-oriented theater accounted for about 10 percent of our total programming, and now it comprises nearly 40 percent.”

Zak includes a few titillating plays in the festival, but he’s also mounted more substantive fare, including My Night With Reg, a British import, and Before I Disappear, an autobiographical solo piece by transsexual singer-actor Alexandra Billings. “When Alex’s piece opened, I thought maybe 12 people would want to see it, but it wound up running for more than six months,” Zak says. What’s more, Billings’s play proved to Zak that straight audiences will attend openly gay theater. “About 30 percent of the audience for Before I Disappear was straight,” he says. This year Zak is trying to expand and highlight the lesbian component of the Pride Series by breaking it out as a separate entity called HerVoice. Zak also says he looks forward to having The Boys in the Band next door at the Theatre Building while his festival is in progress. “I think people will be able to get a real sense of how gay theater has progressed if they see The Boys in the Band and then come to some of our shows as well.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of David Zak by Nathan Mandell.