Sunday, June 6, 2010

Developing LGBT audiences, women writers and diversity

Dustin Lance Black (c) won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Milk. With him are Tina Fey (l) and Steve Martin (r).

Wresting a great play or movie script from the germ of an idea may be tough, but after that is done comes the really hard part. Getting it produced. If you are a woman or a gay man, it often becomes the challenge of a lifetime. Giving up booze and butts is easier.

Trying to figure out which films and plays might be of interest to women, or to those of us who are "out" is not easy either. There are plenty of films and plays to interest the LGBT and feminist communities, but the news seems to be mostly locked tightly in the publicist's closet. Over the years I have become an expert at reading between the lines, but then I deconstruct words for a living.

There seems to be a fear that by revealing the gay element, that mainstream ticket buyers will run the other way. Perhaps promoters lie awake at night having visions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro picketers parading around with signs that say "God Hates Jerry Herman" or "Actors Burn in Hell", but of course that would sell a ton of tickets.

While women writers have been hard to find on screen or stage, gay writers have been a staple of theatre for decades. From Noel Coward to Tennessee Williams they have been with us - but only by writing about the usual boy meet girl stories. Only in recent years have we seen playwrights such as Tony Kushner with his Angels in America - soon to get an off-Broadway revival - and Love! Valour! Compassion! by the brilliant Terrence McNally which was presented by the Berkshire Theatre Festival a couple of seasons ago complete with its nude scene.

Theresa Rebeck found a warm welcome in Boston before her fame spread.

For women, the battle is equally difficult, though in the Berkshires we have become familiar with the wonderful Theresa Rebeck whose Bad Dates at Shakespeare & Company and The Understudy at Williamstown Theatre Festival drew both raves and big audiences. This conversation, quoted from the introduction to her complete plays says it all:

“Maybe you can tell me. Why can’t women ever transcend their identities as women and just write as playwrights?” I said, “Do you mean, why can’t we write like men?” and he said No, that wasn’t what he meant at all. “Yes it is,” said his wife, but he persisted in his position and went on to explain that male playwrights somehow, innately, are able to transcend their gender and write about the human condition, while women playwrights, also innately, are not. As a side note, let me add, this gentleman had never seen or read any of my plays. I was merely the woman playwright who happened to be at the dinner table."

In the Berkshires it is still a man's world when it comes to plays, and even the films currently being shown as part of BIFFMA. My LGBT picks were rather slim this year, and "women's films" were not even featured or pointed out in promotional materials. Not that that proves there is any sort of bias, just the usual state of obliviousness that lulls local artistic and entertainment planners to forget there is a diverse world out there.

The Berkshire's cultural and arts organizations should make sure that works by women or LGBT writers is highlighted, One group that is doing this is the Berkshire Playwright's Lab which has a series of staged readings at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The opening gala had plays pretty evenly divided by gender, and one of the upcoming new plays is by a gay playwright. We hope to soon write about him in Berkshire On

Love! Valour! Compassion! at the Berkshire Theatre Festival several years ago.

The problem is that the general public is so used to a white male, hetero-centric world and unless told otherwise expects their next show to also be based on this conceit. Sometimes they are surprised to stumble into a different world. If it wasn't for Gail Burns pointing them out in her writing for the Women's Times and that publication's Berkshire Women's Festival of the Arts, many of these artists would be invisible. So too does the Berkshire Fringe Festival which constantly finds artists to more completely reflect our world.

One of the wonderful trends has been an increasing number of programs and contests to find and nurture writers who are evolving.

The Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for West Side Story and Gypsy recently established the Laurents-Hatcher Award for a major award to be given to the writer of a play of social relevance. Named for Tom Hatcher, his partner of 52 years who died in 2006, the award consists of $150,000 for the playwright and $100,000 towards the production costs of the play's premiere at a nonprofit theatre. It is a generous award, similar to a MacArthur, and the Pulitzer's $10,000 pales in comparison, though still carries enormous prestige.

Other awards have been established. Jane Chambers Award, given annually since 1984 in memory of lesbian playwright Jane Chambers has supported the work of Wendy Kesselman, Madeleine George, Mery Cohn, Christine Evans, and Mary F. Casey among others. There is also the Robert Chesley Award for Lesbian and Gay Playwriting honors the memory of playwright Robert Chesley.

The first Laurents/Hatcher award will be made in 2011. Submissions for the inaugural award will be accepted from invited applicants only, between June 15, 2010, and Sept. 15, 2010, and reviewed by a panel chosen by the trustees of the foundation.

Pride Films and Plays Contest

In Chicago, the nation's second busiest theatre city, a contest has been started, with support from the local Pride group, to find and perform new works by out writers. Called Pride Films and Plays (PFP) it has just announced a new screenplay contest.

PFP is dedicated to fostering great writing for the stage and screen that is important to the GLBTQ community and relevant to our world.

"We are excited about fine writing for films like ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘Milk’, and “A Single Man” to name a few.
We hope to foster excellent writing with our Great Gay Screenplay Contest, produced in association with Chicago Filmmakers. Plays with GLBTQ themes have had a major impact on our cultural identity. To remind both our artists and our audiences of great gay writing throughout history, we launched our play reading series "Five Decades of Great Gay Plays" in May and June 2010. "

To check out the Chicago contest, you can find the rules, eligibility and links at

Featuring works from the '60s to the '00s, the series included Mart Crowley's Boys in the Band, Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, William M. Hoffman's As Is, and Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, and Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out.

Back in 1979 when Fifth of July was on Braodway it was quite a thrill to see "John-Boy" Richard Thomas get a gay kiss. A gay kiss was as controversial then as was the Vietnam War.

Now here is the strange thing. Fifth of July is part of the 2010 Williamstown Theatre Festival. But you would never know its main character was a gay vet unless you read between the lines of their official description:

"As friends and family gather to remember a lost loved one, a group of thirty-something prodigals from the rebellious post-Vietnam generation return to their rural Missouri home, finding themselves older and wiser, yet still searching. Long-buried rivalries and burning secrets reignite on a late summer evening as this motley tribe struggles to adapt to the changes wrought in their lives. Tony nominee Terry Kinney directs this gentle comic drama from Lanford Wilson’s beloved Talley trilogy."

I might have included this:

"Lanford Wilson's ground-breaking 1973 drama about a gay Vietnan vet and his family."

What the devil are they afraid of? People won't attend because it has a gay character? It is our hope that as Berkshire planners become more comfortable with the idea that there are many LGBT folks living here that they might take their promotional efforts out of the closet and let that community, and its supporters, know.

Here in the Berkshires we have seen three of our four theatre companies making efforts to reach out to the LGBT community, though the fourth is noted for its openness to women writers. A major step is being made this year by Barrington Stage Company with its three openly "out" nights which I write about here in Berkshire on Stage.

In cinema, both BIFFMA and the Williamstown Film Festival include films of interest to the LGBT community. (Compare our picks for BIFF with those for WFF) Of course women and "out" folks are interested in far more than just films that tell stories they can relate to. We all live in the larger world, and love the same great films and plays as does mainstream America. But letting us know we are welcomed and appreciated is important. Don't keep the fact that a film or play has a gay theme or character hidden in the PR closet.

Out with it. You'll sell more tickets. It's 2010, not 1950.


Anonymous said...

So, by your reckoning. LGBT audiences will only go see things that have gay characters?

Larry Murray said...

Of course not. LGBT folks buy tickets to a wide variety of events.,

But consider the decision making process. If someone is checking the listings, or internet, for something interesting, they might pick a play with a gay theme or character rather than sit at home on a given night. If they know about it. It's simply smart marketing.

It's sort of like the way certain events make sure they include "family friendly" in the description - to telegraph that it is ok to bring the kids.

For too long, LGBT folks have depended on word of mouth and gay media to let them in on what is of special interest. But by the time many Berkshire gays find out something was wonderful, it is long gone.