Photographs by Michael Brosilow
At a time of rapid change in the gay-rights movement, from marriage to the military, the purpose of a strictly gay theater company isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago. Andrew Volkoff, now in his fourth month as the artistic director of About Face Theater, is about to discover what it might turn out to be.
He’s doing so in a highly competitive theater market where “Angels in America” — Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “gay fantasia on national themes” — is more likely to be mounted by a general-interest company than in his own auditorium.
His answer so far: Stick with us.
“There’s always going to be somebody’s first year coming out,” said Mr. Volkoff, 45, in an recent interview in the lobby of the Biograph Theater on the North Side here. “There are always going to be men in their 30s or 40s divorcing their wives because they are comfortable enough to come out, or women leaving their husbands because they’re in love with other women. You’re always going to have people at different points in their lives who need to hear these stories.”
That Mr. Volkoff was speaking in the lobby of a theater where About Face rents space, however, points to the challenges ahead — as does his first full season, announced last week. It marks a carefully shaped but scaled-back lineup that includes “Brahman/i,” a solo show about an Indian intersex person, as well as a youth theater play, readings and a holiday musical.
“For us to stay healthy enough to continue to make art in the future requires us to — and I hate this word — right-size the budget,” he said. “We really took a close look at the last two seasons in terms of budgeting and wanted to make sure that we were able to deliver something that satisfied audiences and made sense financially.” Part of that means keeping cast sizes small and theater rental costs low.
Founded in 1995 by Kyle Hall and Eric Rosen, About Face is a relative newcomer to the gay theater world. Troupes that formed in the years after the 1969 Stonewall uprising, likeTheater Rhinoceros in San Francisco and the Other Side of Silence in New York, celebrated sexual difference, challenged gender roles and rallied the political troops. When AIDS surfaced in the 1980s gay companies offered rage and solace with polemical plays.
Over time, gay-themed works broke into the mainstream, including Broadway. While the Tony-winning “Torch Song Trilogy,” had its roots at La MaMa E.T.C., a gay-friendly downtown Manhattan space, many other popular gay shows were not nurtured at gay theaters. “Angels in America” first emerged at two nongay theaters, through a commission by the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, and with further development at the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles.
“What was a very clear genre of gay play — one that had a clear message of we’re here and we deserve our rights — I think we’ve moved on from that,” said the playwright Jonathan Tolins, whose comedy “Buyer & Cellar,” about a gay man who works for Barbra Streisand, is having a successful commercial Off Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theater in New York. “I think everyone knows we’re here now.”
Yet gay theaters helped launch the careers of writers who were not quickly championed otherwise.
Christopher Shinn had his first full-length play produced in the United States in 2000 when About Face mounted his drama “Four,” which had been staged in London two years earlier. (It played New York in 2001.) What sets gay theaters apart, Mr. Shinn said, is their eagerness “to explore things that are difficult.”
“There may be elements of gay experience, no matter how integrated gay people get, that remain different, that don’t have enough mainstream appeal to be programmed at regular nonprofit theaters,” he said.
But like other playwrights, he is glad to see his work reach the widest possible audience. The Goodman Theater here produced his latest play, the gay-bullying-themed “Teddy Ferrara,” earlier this year. “I think a lot of people felt there was a validation of the queer experience to be at a big mainstream theater, and to be dealing with those issues,” he said.
Now the artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theater in Missouri (a general-interest theater), Mr. Rosen remembers the early days of About Face as “largely the community talking to itself about itself in a safe space.” The first productions “weren’t for a larger audience,” he said, “but they stood metaphorically for the larger world.”
Since then the theater has mounted widely done works by Neil LaBute (“Bash”) and Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”) as well as first-time and teen playwrights. About Face’s 2012-13 season ended this summer with an extended run of “The Pride,” Alexi Kaye Campbell’s era-jumping drama about sexual identity and infidelity. (The show played Off Broadway in 2010 with a cast that included Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw.)
The financial health of About Face, which like many theaters has suffered in the economic downturn, offers a snapshot of the challenges ahead for gay theaters. Attendance in the last five years has fluctuated, from a low of about 5,600 when it presented only two main stage shows, to a high of almost 25,000 last season, when it partnered with commercial producers to mount Paul Oakley Stovall’s gay drama “Immediate Family” in costly rented space at the Goodman.
The company’s current budget is down from a high of $1.2 million in the early 2000s, but at $700,000 is up 9 percent over the year before. While About Face has been in the black the last two years, Mr. Volkoff attributed its budget decline to “a shrinking of donor bases, individual giving, foundations and grant makers, corporate giving and giving, period.”
He succeeded Bonnie Metzgar, who during her five-year tenure initiated a strategic planning and rebranding effort that included a search for a permanent home. The company has been itinerant since it was kicked out of its first and only home in 2002, when a gym moved into the building. Mr. Volkoff said he hoped to “put down roots” in three years.
“Audiences need to know where to find you,” he said.
That includes straight attendees, too. John Alexander, the executive director of San Diego’s gay Diversionary Theater, said 45 percent of its roughly 475 subscribers do not identify as gay. The way to reach a wider audience, he said, is to “not just do the same old white gay coming-out story anymore.”
And when in doubt, camp sells. Diversionary’s new season includes “She-Rantulas From Outer Space” and the cross-dressing Christmas show “Scrooge in Rouge.”
It’s a lesson Mr. Volkoff has learned quickly. In November About Face will remount last year’s holiday hit “We Three Lizas.”
“Doing lighter fare allows us to attract an audience that will see the strength of our work,” he said. “It’s a gateway drug to more challenging fare. Both are what keep us going.”