If you’re a longtime theater fan – especially an LGBTQ theater fan – one thing you may have noticed over the years is that what’s popular one season may not be the next. Or that trends disappear as quickly as they arrive. That’s especially true of plays with LGBTQ themes and characters, which rise and fall and ebb and flow from one year to the next for no apparent reason.
This year, however, Metro Detroit’s 2018-19 theater season appears to be one for the record books, as producers throughout the area are throwing caution, and bigot,s to the wind, doubling down — literally, for a handful of them — with one of the gayest seasons in recent memory.
For Guy Sanville, the longtime artistic director of the popular Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, it’s never an objective to either select or exclude a play simply because of the inclusion of LGBTQ themes or characters. It all comes down to the quality of the script.
“We didn’t pick the plays because there are gay characters in them. That was a bonus. We look for plays that are structurally strong, potentially timeless and epic, and speak on some level to the wide diversity of souls who call the Midwest home,” he explained.
That certainly includes his season opener, “Diva Royale,” which begins previews Sept. 20, as well as “Never Not Once” that begins previews Jan. 17, 2019.
“Both plays are extraordinary new works,” he said. “Both plays are very, very different. One is a comedy, one is not. Both plays contain a gay character. I will say that in both plays the gay characters serve as a metaphor for growth and courage.”
As the head of a well-regarded institution of higher learning, a somewhat different philosophy is espoused by John Wolf, chair of the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“Our goal is to produce plays that reflect our community while also providing students with unique experiences in their field of study, be that acting, dance, design, management, etc.,” he said. “Additionally, theater teaches empathy, something from which we can all benefit. By sharing stories that reflect diverse communities, we’re learning what it means to be compassionate human beings.”
Diversity and compassion are certainly hallmarks of his Hilberry Theatre’s LGBTQ-related plays this season, which begins Sept. 21 with the musical “Avenue Q,” and continues after the first of the year with both halves of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America” — Part 1, Feb. 8 and Part II, April 26.
“Particularly with ‘Angels in America,’ each of the characters in the play face a life-changing decision and everyone can relate to that, whether or not you’re a member of the LGBT community,” Wolf said. “Prior Walter is a gay man suffering from AIDS in the mid-1980s. Joe Pitt, a conservative Mormon husband, struggles with his own sexual identity. His wife, Harper, struggles with mental illness. Louis struggles with love and commitment. There’s a touch point in this story for every person.”
A different perspective is held by the artistic director of The Ringwald, who programed the new season specifically to include several LGBTQ-themed plays.
“We were light on LGBT themes last season, and I want to return to our roots,” Joe Bailey said. “It is important to me for a couple of reasons. As a gay man, I am naturally drawn to these stories, and there are a number of great plays that might not get done elsewhere in the area, and they’re shows or scripts that I love and want to share with audiences.”
Although The Ringwald has earned a reputation for doing camp – and deservedly so – Bailey’s objective is to tell stories from across the whole spectrum of gay life. His season will open Sept. 14 with “The Laramie Project” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the hate crime that stunned the world. It continues with “The Cake” on Nov. 16 that deals with a lesbian wedding and a baker who won’t make them a wedding cake, followed by “Significant Other” on Jan. 4, in which a young gay man tries to find his place in the world as all his friends are falling in love and getting married. And closing the season is the much-anticipated “Fun Home” on May 10, which tells a fascinating coming-out story. “I think five of our shows this upcoming season deal directly with LGBT themes, characters or sensibilities. They’re all such diverse scripts in and of themselves and really speak to the diversity of gay life. I’m very excited to share these stories with Detroit audiences,” he said.
Unlike most Equity theaters, The Purple Rose Theatre specializes in original works – so much so that more than half of the plays it’s produced since 1991 have been new scripts. And that now includes the upcoming world premieres of both “Diva Royale” by Jeff Daniels and “Never Not Once” by Carey Crim.
“They are damn good plays written by real playwrights,” Sanville said. “Doing new plays is the riskiest thing a company can do.”
And he should know. To date, Sanville has shepherded more than 40 original scripts from early drafts to opening night, likely more than any other director currently working in the industry — or, at the very least, close to it. What does he look for in a script?
“Plays that argue both sides of an issue with something like equal force and clarity,” he said. “There is a lot of propaganda out there designed to make liberals like me feel good about myself, masquerading as art. We try not to do propaganda. The themes and characters are in our season simply because they are critical elements in the stories we chose to tell this year.”
For Wolf, when considering a script for inclusion in the Hilberry’s season, he looks for two things: “How will this production enrich the educational experience of our students, and what does it bring to our audience? When those two criteria mesh, we have a show that we believe will be instrumental in our educational and community missions,” he said.
Bailey, who believes the country has taken a few steps backward over the past two years when it comes to social issues, felt it was important to emphasize three specific points when considering his upcoming season.
“To signal that we’re not going anywhere; we’re just like everyone else; and there’s simply nothing wrong with being gay,” he said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be hidden. And all of these shows don’t deal exclusively with being gay. There are plenty of commonalities in these shows that we share with our straight brothers and sisters – finding love, parent/child relationships. We’re all just people trying to make it through the day. There are just some of us who happen to love our same sex. Whoop-de-doo.”
But will they come?
Although one would hope the country has progressed to the point that plays with gay themes and characters won’t be shunned simply because of those themes and characters, nothing is guaranteed.
Except at The Ringwald, of course, where pushing boundaries theatrical and otherwise has been the norm since its founding in May 2007. “Including LGBT plays is not a risk for us at all,” Bailey said. “If anything, it is more important today. Our audiences are used to us pushing the envelope on a lot of different fronts, so I think we may have used up our shock factor by this point. Since we’ve announced our season, the feedback has been very positive and, I would even say, enthusiastic!”
The Hilberry’s Wolf isn’t too concerned about potential blowback to his choices this season. “There will, without a doubt, be a few people who choose not to attend ‘Angels in America.’ I believe our audience is progressive and they’re interested in stories about people who may be very different from them. Ironically, it’s the few people who choose not to attend who would benefit most from experiencing this play,” he said.
The always pragmatic Sanville isn’t worried, either. “We try to pick the best plays. We try and chase the best writing. Fascinating characters come from great plays. Gay characters, straight characters and everyone in between are all part of the human family. And that makes them all fair game!
“If the stories are strong and the plays well made, people will come,” he said.