Sunday, August 30, 2009

More Central than Christopher Street

From Headrack to Claude

I do not remember not knowing Howard Cruse. He has always seemed more central to queer life in NYC than Christopher Street. His art work personifies the gay world from the joyous high of Stonewall to the lower depths of Log Cabin Republicans. Since the very beginning of TOSOS back in 1974, Howard has been our main and most generous supporter, contributing his amazing talent to countless productions, including title graphics for all but three of my major plays. ( He has just published a new collection of some of his greatest cartoon strips. I asked David Stern, Webmaster for TOSOS, and a huge fan of Howard’s, to review From Headrack to Claude for my blog site:

David Stern:

I came out over the first collection of Howard Cruse’s Wendel.

It belonged to Yolanda, my oldest friend and one-time girlfriend. I was visiting her in Boston in 1987, the summer after I came out as bisexual at college with the requisite awkward preliminary adventures. I was devouring this book of hers that had caught my eye, a wonderful book of comics whose characters were somehow more real -- no, more possible for me-- than any other gay representation I’d seen before. I hadn’t known how hungry I’d been for a picture of a real gay life—how much I’d been trying to find some sense of who I could be, surrounded as we all were by the old jokes and the new plague. I marked my place in the book without thinking, looked up at Yolanda, and blurted out, “you know, I think I’m actually gay.”

She said, “I know.”

I’ve read a lot more of Howard Cruse’s work since then, and I could say a lot of amateurish things about how much I admire his technique, how the whole space is used but the page never seems crowded. (Could he help me with my apartment?) Nothing is “just background” in his world, not the panels, not the speech balloons. Thoughts become solid; cartoonish characters become startlingly three-dimensional …you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

But what’s stuck with me about his work is what I saw that first time—it’s that he gets our lives right. He gets to what’s important, what we have in common, what we’ve been through in one moment of history or another, however different our stories are. When he’s outraged, he always shows the real and vulnerable minds who feel the outrage. It’s what his work and Doric’s share, an allergy to characters who are just talking points in disguise. Even in a work as emotionally and politically wrenching as Stuck Rubber Baby, Cruse never lets his characters become less than humans you could know, and probably do.

From Headrack to Claude is the latest collection of Cruse’s work, and it’s a wonderful set of mostly self-contained works originally published in anthologies of gay comics, from 1972’s “Gravy on Gay” to his most recent, “My Hypnotist” and “Then There Was Claude.” Some were old friends to me; others, like “Penceworth” and “The Woeful World of Winnie and Walt” were great stylistic surprises and intensely funny and disturbing.

Cruse gives some background for each of the pieces, and his introduction tells his artistic coming-out story, starting with his forbears, and sampling his earliest approaches to gay subjects. Nice to read from the artist who nudged me out.

To purchase From Headrack to Claude:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In Honor of Loraine Larson

2009 ATHE Career Achievement in Professional Theatre Award

August 10th, I received the ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) Career Achievement in Professional Theatre Award. I shared the honor with Judith Malina, the founder of the Living Theater.

Robert Schanke’s introduction:.

Marshall Mason calls him “a pioneer of the alternative theater movement.” Craig Lucas remarks that “Wilson has devoted his life to the once-radical notion that gay lives deserved true representation.” Bud Coleman: “This trailblazer literally changed the trajectory of American Theatre.” Sameer Thakur in India writes "We chose to bring [Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship] to the Indian stage [in 2009] because it is relevant in the context of a litigation at the Delhi high court." The production had an impact. On July 2, New Delhi’s highest court decriminalized homosexuality. I am thrilled to present this award to Doric Wilson for his career achievement in professional theatre.

My acceptance speech:

In Minnesota in the early years of the last century, a young woman named Loraine Larson, enrolled in a University Law School. The dean of the school informed her that no woman would ever graduate from HIS school with a law degree. Four years later after graduating with top honors, she walked back into the dean’s office, tossed her degree on his desk, and walked out. She never did practice law.

In the 1940s in Eastern Washington Miss Larson was stranded by the Chautauqua unit she was performing with - she specialized in Scandinavian monologues. The town she ended up in was a small wheat town called Kennewick. She got a job in the local high school teaching English and Speech and directing the school plays.

My earliest years were spent about thirty miles away from Kennewick on my grandfather’s ranch in the Columbia River Basin. My first theater ventures took place in the barn on the ranch where I staged my younger cousins in plays based mainly on two books I had read. King Arthur and a book about the Vikings. Lots of sword action. I also costumed the productions. I also made and sold the tickets. A penny each. You could almost say I was born for off-off-Broadway.

At the end of World War II, I moved into Kennewick to live with my mother. My father had died in the war. I really didn’t play with the other neighborhood kids so much as organize them into performances and pageants. One Saturday afternoon when my radio programs were over, I was turning the dial and I stumbled upon this strange, wonderful, extremely dramatic singing. And in that instant I became - to avoid the common more derogatory term - an opera enthusiast of regal personage. I even built a model of the Met stage in our garage. I think I learned dramaturgy from Milton Cross.

By 16 I attached myself to the Richland Players, a local amateur theater. I was busy building sets, making costumes, and acting. I was a bad actor. Tall and not necessarily bad looking, and eager, and orange-red haired, but bad. Although near the end of my acting career I did play Valère in Moliere’s Tartuffe opposite the Mariane of Dawn Wells later of “Gilligan’s Island” fame.

I started high school and signed up for the debate team and met Miss Larson. And she did what most of you do, she proceeded to teach me everything I would ever need to know about theater. After High School, she got me into the Drama Department of University of Washington during the last days of Glen Hughes.

I was hardly there a month before there was a bit of a fracas over my one-person demonstration protesting the shootings of gays in a near-by park. (this was 1958) The U was not happy with my political action (the stench of the McCarthy era still lingered) so we agreed I should leave after one semester. It was Miss Larson who convinced my Mom that it would be best for all concerned for me to move to New York City as fast as I could pack.

Had I not been forceably removed from academia, I would not have been in this city the night an actress took me down to a coffee house in the Village to introduce me to Joe Cino. I offered him my play, he politely turned it away, handed me my first cappuccino and asked me my astrological sign. He then gave me a date for the opening night of And He Made a Her. He wouldn’t read the script. My Cino success introduced me to the great producer Richard Barr who in turn introduced me to “uptown” theater. But the more I was around “show biz,” the more I realized it probably was not for me.

Walking along Christopher Street one night I suddenly found myself in the middle of yet another fracas - this one in front of the Stonewall Inn - and the rest, as they say, is the main reason that each year in the last weekend in June many residents of the Village desert this city. I was involved with Circle Rep at the time when it suddenly occurred to me that I could use the Cino experience to combine my talents with my politics. I could focus my life and abilities to promote a theatre dedicated “to an honest and open exploration of the GLBT life experience and cultural sensibility.” (I really do prefer the term Queer) TOSOS - The Other Side of Silence was born. And because of Mark Finley and Barry Childs and a long list of playwrights and actors and directors, TOSOS is now going stronger than ever.

People are forever asking me - rather smugly if not snidely - why there even is a need for gay theater any longer. And I suppose in a way they are right. I mean just think back over this last season on Broadway. All those wonderful lesbian plays. And all the positive depictions of transsexuals. Seems to me there are still a lot of untold stories out there and someone has to make a space for them to be heard.

In the meantime, my least political play, A Perfect Relationship, is a HUGE hit in India where it is being used to promote gay liberation. And Street Theater, my play about Stonewall, is more or less constantly in production somewhere - next month it opens in Wichita almost under the nose of the good Reverend Phelps. Street Theater is also beginning to make inroads into in the collage and university circuit with a very successful recent production at Oregon State University at Corvallis.

And all of this, because Loraine Larson decided not to practice law. And all of this because of all you sitting in this room who also try to teach all you know to someone like me.

It was suggested that we not thank people in our speeches today. I intend to slightly ignore that suggestion. This award belongs to you, all the Larry and Loraines here and everywhere AND I thank you for making me who and what I am.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It’s a Hit

Top: Elizabeth Whitney; L to R: Katherine Williams, Jacqueline Sydney & Birgit Darby. Photo: Kelly Campbell

The TOSOS production of Meryl Cohn’s And Sophie Comes Too in the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival sold out all of it’s performances and have been invited to be part of the Fringe Encore series in September. Directed by Mark Finley with Birgit Darby, Lué McWilliams, Karen Stanion, Jacqueline Sydney, Susan Barnes Walker, Elizabeth Whitney and Katherine Williams in the cast, the play was already a hit even before it opened.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Well-observed and Wise

Seth Numrich (left) and MacLeod Andrews in Slipping

I had intended to post a rave about Daniel Talbott’s Slipping but Erik Haagensen’s review in Back Stage says exactly what I would have said and says it a lot better that I would have:

Plays about dysfunctional families, abusive relationships, or gay youths dealing with their emerging sexuality are rampant, not to mention all those indie films and TV dramas. How do you reinvent such subject matter? Well, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new." And that is exactly what Daniel Talbott has done in the well-observed and wise "Slipping."

Set in a suburb of Des Moines in 2006 and also earlier in San Francisco, "Slipping" slips nimbly back and forth in time to follow the emotional trajectory of 17-year-old Eli, who is experiencing a critical mass of psychological damage. The boy's problems include the recent suicide of his beloved father; a troubled, distant relationship with his workaholic mother; a forced relocation from hip Frisco to the vast, unwashed Midwest; an abusive first-time Frisco affair with a closeted, self-hating jock; and a possible Iowa duplication of that affair with another closeted jock. The smart but sensitive Eli can't handle it all and copes by emotional shutdown, turning everything inward at great risk to himself.

None of this is new, yet all of it is compelling due to the specificity of character and emotional complexity of Talbott's script. The bifurcated structure helps enormously; we are only given pieces of the puzzle and must work to put them together. What is particularly gratifying is that when that puzzle fills in, it doesn't feel in any way pat or reductive, just true.

Kirsten Kelly's sharply focused direction guides us confidently, and she even manages to make a virtue out of a debit. "Slipping" is a bit hemmed in by the tiny Rattlestick space; it needs the ability to move away from Eli's suburban bedroom, however nicely realized by designer Lauren Helpern. With no place for that bed and room to go, Kelly is forced to rely on her actors to move set pieces to ch ange locales. They do this resolutely in character, so much so that the scene changes actually tell us more about them, keeping the action hurtling forward when it all too easily could have halted.

The four-person cast is ideal. Adam Driver is scary and heartbreaking as the Frisco jock, who will eventually marry and create his own damaged family. MacLeod Andrews makes the Iowa athlete's journey of self-discovery authentic and surprising. Meg Gibson excels at registering Eli's mother's confusion at her conflicting feelings regarding her son. Best of all is Seth Numrich's troubled teenager. Numrich's emotional transparency provides us intimate access to Eli, and he also convincingly captures the boy's restless physicality. Finally, his subtle differentiation between the 15-year-old and the 17-year-old is extremely effective.

One of the hallmarks of this production is its pitch-perfect use of pop music to underline and reinforce character. Talbott's stage directions specify many of these choices, and Kelly orchestrates them beautifully. They make a great team. All I can say is, "Give us more to see."

Presented by Piece by Piece Productions and Rising Phoenix Repertor y in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, NYC. Aug. 4–15. Mon.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 and 9 p.m. (No performance Wed., Aug. 5; first performance Sat., Aug. 15, at 6 p.m.) (212)
868-4444 or

Erik Haagensen’s review online: