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2007: A fabulously queer year in theater

By |2018-01-15T17:23:30-05:00January 3rd, 2008|Entertainment|

Gays and theater: You can’t have one without the other. Whether it’s behind the scenes or in the spotlight, we can be found in pretty much every theater – oftentimes unbeknownst to the people around us. Yet there we are – building sets, making costumes, directing the action, promoting the shows, dancing in the chorus and, of course, fabulously entertaining the crowds with our God-given talent.
Since this special issue of BTL highlights the people, places and events that made 2007 a gay ol’ year, this edition of Curtain Calls focuses on and celebrates Michigan theaters that braved Christian conservative backlash and proudly staged plays with LGBT-themes and characters. And there were plenty in 2007!
Then we’ll announce our first-ever 2007 Fabulously Gay-Friendly Theater of the Year.

Community theaters rock

Not too surprisingly, theaters today still risk a significant loss of paying customers anytime they produce plays with LGBT themes and characters. Although recent polls indicate America is becoming more accepting of us, it’s the fear generated by the very vocal Righteous Right that still keeps some theaters cowering in the closet.
That doesn’t stop many of Michigan’s community theaters from presenting our stories, however.
One veteran in the battle against religious conservatives is Grand Rapids-based Actors’ Theatre, which earned the scorn of area Christians five seasons ago when it staged the controversial “Corpus Christi.” The huffing and puffing eventually blew over – and more seats were sold than otherwise would have. This past September, the theater did one better: It produced an original work, “Seven Passages: The Story of Gay Christians.” We braced ourselves for any possibility,” the theater’s managing director Kyle Amanda Dutkiewicz told Curtain Calls earlier this month. “But it exceeded all box office records.” In fact, six performances were added to the schedule to meet the demand – and each sold out. In total, 2,500 people saw the show. “It was a fantastic experience,” Dutkiewicz said.
The theater’s next show also contained gay themes. “Dog Meets God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” is an authorized parody of the Peanuts gang in which one familiar character explores his sexuality. “He realizes he might be gay,” Dutkiewicz said.
In Lansing, Peppermint Creek Theatre also did double-duty with the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” followed by “I Am My Own Wife.”
Not to be outdone, Kalamazoo’s Whole Art Theatre – another longtime LGBT-friendly troupe – staged the regional premiere of Kim Carney’s “The Home Team” as part of this fall’s Third Coast Playwrights Festival. And box office and critical response was so strong that it was extended to become part of the theater’s regular season.
In Metro Detroit, no fuss was apparently raised when the Players Guild of Dearborn presented “Breaking the Code,” the tragic story of British mathematician Alan Turing, nor when St. Dunstan’s Guild of Cranbrook brought “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to life. In fact, according to St. Dunstan’s publicity chairman Jamie Richards, it’s the edgier fare and gay-themed shows that are his theater’s hottest sellers. “People look forward to the fact that we’re doing them,” he told BTL a few months back.

Angels in Saginaw

Saginaw Valley State University wasn’t so lucky, however. Religious conservatives went apoplectic in late April when the school’s theater department staged the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” The opposition was led by the American Family Association’s Gary Glenn, who called the play’s nudity “tax funded porn.” Yet despite more than 1,000 angry letters of protest and threats by State Rep. Jack Brandenburg (R-Macomb County) to yank the school’s funding, the show went on as scheduled. And no funding was ultimately withheld.
The school’s unwavering support of the show earned it a 2007 Wilde Award. Accepting the honors at Detroit’s Gem Theatre, SVSU President Dr. Eric Gilbertson said, “University presidents don’t usually go out looking for controversy. But if it’s going to come, better that it come over something that matters. We couldn’t have been true to our institution had we done anything else.”

The professionals

A handful of professional theaters briefly went gay as well this year. The Actors’ Company ramped up the sizzle and the LGBT factor in its fall production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” which featured Affirmations’ Leslie Thompson as the Narrator. Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre, always an LGBT ally, tickled our sensibilities with “Dirty Blonde,” while the touring production of “Rent” breezed into Detroit’s Masonic Temple and Lansing’s Wharton Center.
But it was Metro Detroit’s improv community that served up some of the freshest LGBT fare.
Ann Arbor’s Improv Inferno, currently in hibernation, generated plenty of laughs with a queer version of its popular unscripted comedy, “Uncoupled.”
The Second City had us all over the stage in 2007, thanks in part to two straight guys who aren’t afraid of walking the lighter side of the street – Brett Guennel and Tim Robinson. And the Sunday comedy “To Catch a President” featured a sharply written and funny gay subplot that included one of the hottest same-sex smooches seen on a local stage in a very long time.
Finally, Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre scored plenty of laughs with the 2007 Wilde Award-nominated original comedies “Before and Laughter” and “Out of the Running.”

Fabulous, simply fabulous

LGBT theater found a home in fabulous Ferndale this spring when Joe Bailey and Joe Plambeck – partners in life and business who co-founded Who Wants Cake? Theatre in 2005 – moved their vagabond troupe to a storefront on Woodward Avenue.
Called The Ringwald, the two stage more than just gay plays in their cozy, renovated space. “We’re interested in doing dynamic, new shows; reinterpretations of classics; and doing shows that blur the lines between sexual identity, race and class,” artistic director Bailey explained this past April. “My main focus is doing stuff that’s relevant, that’s fun, that’s challenging – and that doesn’t necessarily get done here, either ever or often.”
The theater has adopted an aggressive schedule – a new show is mounted monthly – and response from both critics and patrons alike has been positive. “Southern Baptist Sissies” was especially popular, and “Betty’s Summer Vacation” set an opening weekend record. This January will see the regional premiere of Terrence McNally’s “Some Men,” and Plambeck is excited about it. “It will be very interesting to see how another gay show does,” he said.
Opening a new theater is never easy – especially in a state in the midst of an economic upheaval. And offering a slate of LGBT-friendly shows is risky – which might explain why few local producers have considered opening an exclusively gay theater.
But quality counts – and Bailey and Plambeck have shown that there is indeed a market for thoughtful, well-staged and often funny plays that explore our lives. And they are to be commended for it.
So not only do we wish them a long and creatively prosperous existence, we’re also naming The Ringwald our 2007 Fabulously Gay-Friendly Theater of the Year!

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