“While we may be trying to have all these lofty ideals, we still want people to have a good time.”
H. Lee Gable, Producing Artistic Director for the Rainbow Theatre Project, knows that putting on a pleasing theatre production is about much more than the final product you see onstage, or even the rehearsal that went into it. Before he and Managing Director/co-founder Michael Kelley announced the birth of the Project to the world, via Twitter on September 14 of last year, it had been two years in gestation. All that planning and forethought shows, both in Gable’s ability to articulate his company’s thoughtful, self-aware mission, and in the positive results so far.
The company debuted at Source last year on October 28 with the first in what will be a series of six staged readings. That premiere reading – of The Drag, a little-known play penned by legendary actress Mae West, paired with a ten-minute piece called Midnight Psychic by Elizabeth Pringle – attracted a nearly sellout crowd.
“We got butts in seats,” says Gable, enough that theatre artists in attendance were asking, “‘How the hell did you get all these people here?’”
Between the ten-minute curtain raiser and the main reading, Gable gave a brief speech to the inaugural audience. “Now more than ever we should be looking at where we came from and where we’re going,” he said and, looking a little choked up, concluded, “These are our voices. Because I really do believe that this is our time.”
The message must have connected. The second reading, of Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die!, on January 27, had a similarly full house. So altogether, it has been an auspicious and inspiring beginning for the upstart company – but it is just the beginning. Gable is aware that a lot of baggage comes with what they are trying to do, and he knows that good intentions alone will not help them achieve their goals.
“A lot of people feel they may have gotten burnt,” he says, referencing the complicated history of LGBT theatre in DC, including the shuttering of Ganymede Arts three years ago, and the fading away of Trumpet Vine a few years before that. “So it’s a wait and see.” The longer they are around, he said, the more local LGBT institutions like the DC Center, Metro Weekly, the Blade, and others will pay attention, and the more Gable hopes they’ll earn the respect and engagement of the community.
“The people I’ve talked to,” Gable says, “have been very positive, have been very excited… But it’s a wait and see.”
For a company with such a long road ahead of it, it’s no surprise that there’s a great deal of history behind it.
Starting a theatre company right
In his 25 years in the DC theatre scene, Gable has seen a lot of small companies come and go.
“[These theatres] got together really fast, rushed to put a show on, and had taken no time to set up an infrastructure, or to look at the business side of… what their goals were,” says Gable. “We said, ‘we’re going to take our time doing it.’”
Gable and Michael Kelley conceived of the company together back in July 2011.
“We got into a conversation,” recalls Gable. “His comment was he always actually wanted to start a gay theatre.” Gable leaped at the suggestion. A week later, the pair sat down over lunch, and Gable brought out a list of potential plays to produce and a proposal for how to put the company together.
With the idea that 2013-2014 would be their debut season, Gable says he “wanted the first season to be kind of spread out. It’s always hard for a new theatre to get attention, if you do one play, then you have to wait a whole ‘nother year to do another play.” Gable and Kelley wanted to give audiences a chance to see the breadth of the kind of work they were looking to put on. Thus the concept of a series of staged readings was born – with the first (the Mae West piece) in October, a short break following, and then picking up monthly starting in January, until the series completes in May.
The two veterans – who, between them, have put in time at everywhere from the Kennedy Center and Studio Theatre to the Helen Hayes Awards and the DC Arts Center –have been patiently taking their time in setting up this first season and the company’s infrastructure. They filed with the DC government and set up bank accounts back in 2012; a year later, in 2013, they completed their contract with CulturalDC to put on the reading series at Source. And the building process continues:
“We’re trying to put a Board together,” says Gable. “We’re trying to put together and file for our 5013c status for our nonprofit. We’re under Fractured Atlas,” an artist-assistance nonprofit.
“Me and Mike feel like we want to very much make sure our business structure is strong,” he continues. “Sometimes when you’re dealing with artistic people, they don’t understand the business… If you don’t have the business, you’re not going to have the theatre.”
He speaks of artistic directors in town such as Joy Zinoman and Michael Kahn, and claims their mastery of the financial side of the art world has been a large part of their companies’ success. “They can both talk money,” Gable says, and he clearly intends to take after them in that respect. “I’m one of those people who can walk both sides of the street. I can punch numbers with the best of them. I can put together a mean spreadsheet.”
Accordingly, the Project has also been building out their production team. “This is not a two-man show. It won’t succeed if it’s just the two of us,” he says. Indeed, Gable hasn’t taken on any of the directing duties for the individual staged readings this season because he considers producing to be a full-time gig.
“We’re always looking for people,” he says. “We want people to be involved.”
The staggered approach to introducing the company, allowing word-of-mouth to build, has already worked toward that end – the team has grown from two to seven. One of the new recruits, a theatre student at UDC named David A. Richardson, joined up and became Gable’s assistant after seeing the reading of The Drag.
“I loved the reading so much after the show I talked to the team and offered to volunteer in any capacity needed in the future,” writes Richardson in an email. “The performance of The Drag wasn’t a drag.”
If Gable and team have not slacked in developing their business thoroughly, they have an equally shrewd understanding of their mission. Not content to simply be an “LGBT theatre” (whatever that could mean), their public mission statement states they are “committed to being the premiere theatre for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in the Nation’s Capital by presenting plays and musicals that reflect the unique experiences, interests and history of the LGBT community.”
As well, they have adopted the pithier “Our stories. Our voices. Our time,” as their slogan of sorts. As well, Rainbow Theatre Project promises it “will produce theatre productions with the highest standards marketed to the entire Washington, D.C. arts community both straight and queer.”
And if all that’s not enough, we can begin to get an idea of what they are looking to produce from their listed criteria for play submissions: “[Submitted plays] should deal directly with the LGBT experience or deal obliquely with the LGBT experience or have a kinship with the LGBT experience or [be] a work by a LGBT playwright, ideally relating to the LGBT experience.”
Gable begins to elaborate on all this.
“We are trying to go for an aesthetic,” he says. “We’re trying to go for a certain level of sophistication.”
Richardson articulates this further, writing “The Rainbow Theatre Project will show our LGBT family that we can have entertainment that is modest and professional. It is my opinion that many artists and audience members want to support LGBT Arts that [do] not involve drag, bars, or over sexualized performers. It is a reflection that people still enjoy the arts in its traditional form.”
Gable feels that the Project has to reach for something more than just populist LGBT-related work or political statement plays. During their original discussions, Kelley wondered whether someone would ask why they were even putting such a company together. “Arena does Normal Heart, Studio does their plays [such as Torch Song Trilogy and 2-2 Tango],” notes Gable. “It’s no longer the case that it’s taboo for other theatres to do a gay play or a lesbian play.”
So Gable knows “it will just be ‘we’ve seen all this before’” if they revisit Normal Heart, for instance, or Angels in America for that matter. He wants to tackle, for starters, high-quality, important, but less-often revived works by the likes of Charles Ludlum and Charles Busch (such as with January’s reading of Busch’s Die Mommie Die!). And to go further than that, Rainbow Theatre Project aims to cultivate a keen sense of where the art form has trod in the past.
A Sense of History
“For every two steps we get forward, or three steps, we get pushed back one. And we’ve come a lot further than I thought we’d come, that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” says the 53-year-old Gable. “I get a sense that a younger generation might not be aware of that history. I think there’s an audience there.”
The reading of Mae West’s piece was a demonstration of the company’s hindsight and historical awareness. “This is something that’s a part of our LGBT history,” says Gable of her work. “There’s a whole younger generation who doesn’t know who [Mae West] is, what kind of person she was, how neat she was. …She did what she wanted to do, and people respected her for it, at a time when women just weren’t given that opportunity.”
Gable returns to the idea of the long and underproduced history of LGBT drama multiple times in our discussion, and describes how much things have changed and continue to change.
“Plays of [the early 20th century] era, if they had a gay character, the gay character had to die. There weren’t overly, out front gay characters” in the plays of “icons of the community” like Noel Coward or Tennessee Williams, he says; “this was a closet with the door open, everyone knew, but no one talked about it.”
He contrasts that with the nature of the upcoming reading on February 24 of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Say You Love Satan. In that play, characters “just happen to be gay,” he says, “because Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is gay.”
It’s important to Gable to recognize that despite major strides, the struggles of people in the LGBT community are not over. He recalls an encounter he had some years ago, talking with a then-sixteen year old about the history of oppression and silencing. Gable reports, “he was like, ‘Oh, it’s not like that anymore.’ And another year later Matthew Shepard happened.”
Anyone who has paid attention to unhappy news of late, and not just what’s coming out of Russia or Uganda, but also to the incidents of attacks right here in DC on transgender persons, knows that Gable’s words are still distressingly accurate.
“It would be very nice if RTP would become the kind of theatre company… [where] there’s nothing political in it,” Gable says. “But we’re not there yet. Everything that comes out of our mouths right now… our name… there’s a political aspect to it.”
“This is the history of the gay community, from an artistic side,” he continues. “There were a lot of things going on that were expressed in a way that they couldn’t just come out and say it on the street, but they could say it on a stage. I want the younger generation, the younger members of the community, to understand that. …We have a lot of history.”
If the younger Richardson is any indication, perhaps Gable is already beginning to succeed in this goal. Richardson writes, “The DC community can benefit from a bona fide theatre company whose main goal is to produce our stories written by our community both past and present.”
A Sense of Community
“I could be wrong, someone there could say it’s not like that… [but] we could not have this conversation in Clarksburg, West Virginia, that’s how I feel,” Gable remarks, looking around Ted’s Bulletin on 14th Street, where we’re openly conducting our interview at a table during a weekday brunch hour that’s well-attended but not loud enough to prevent eavesdropping.
He considers the diversity and prominence of the LGBT community in DC, which he describes as “very open.”
“Someone said we were going to be the only gay theatre in town,” he says. “We’re not.”
Indeed, the company aims to be integrated with the existing artistic structure in the city. Referring again to the somewhat contentious end of Ganymede, Gable says, “I’m not going to say anything against Ganymede, or Actor’s Theatre of Washington. I’m hoping to work with [Jeffrey] Johnson [the former Artistic Director of Ganymede] down the road.”
Gable is also happy to talk about the currently active DC Queer Theatre Festival, founded in 2012.
“I know they’re looking to expand. I know a lot of people don’t put us in the same category.” He adds, “I’m hoping we will work together. I’m hoping they’ll come work with us… We’re sharing the same audience. We can feed off of each other.”
It’s always worthwhile to observe that a community as large as the LGBT one – both everywhere and specifically in DC – is not monolithic, and there is room for varied approaches. One meaningful difference between Rainbow Theatre Project and the DC Queer Theatre Festival lies within just one letter of the alphabet.
“A lot of LGBTQ arts that you see in Washington focus on the ‘G’ and not so much on the ‘Q,’” said DC Queer Theatre Festival co-founder Matthew Ripa in a City Paper interview last year, in advance of their second festival. (Their third will be this coming May.) “We want to represent the whole community and give voice to stories that haven’t been told,” Ripa said.
“We talked about putting the Q on ours. …I get it. It’s empowering,” says Gable, talking about the reclaiming of the word ‘queer’ by many in the community. “But there’s a whole older generation who still find that term offensive… it makes them cringe. We haven’t added the Q to our mission statement.”
As well, Gable admits the company has some way to go before adequately reflecting all four letters of the LGBT acronym. “We’re a little heavy on the G, that’s right,” he admits. “We’re trying to diversify it.”
To that end, the company took advantage of the length of their six-play opening series to be as inclusive as possible. Gable mentions that the Noel Coward reading on March 17 of Long Island Sound “covers B” or the bisexual community; the series contains plays by and about members of the transgender and lesbian communities as well.
“I know there’s more to the canon that I have not found,” says Gable. “Big piles of plays by or about gay men. Smaller piles by or about women. Smaller pile for this and then a really tiny pile for this. I’m hoping [plays by or about transgender people] come up because that’s becoming more and more topical…”
“Those four letters, those four parts of the community… It’s not always easy,” Gable adds. “We’re trying to reach out. We’re conscious of where we’re trying to go to. I also recognize the reality of where we’re at. At some point… we just have to go with what we got.”
Gable hopes, for instance, that a female director will approach him after the April 28 reading of The Postcard by Gloria Joyce Dickler and ask him why it wasn’t directed by a female director.
“Have to let people know our doors are open,” Gable emphasized. “I don’t necessarily know where to go look for them, but [we have] to let people know our doors are open.”
A Sense of Identity
“It’s no longer a question, it’s not about us being gay,” Gable says, when questioned about the nature of putting together an LGBT theatre.
In his viewpoint and his desire to reach beyond the niche, he reflects the history of other such theatres in town. Directors of Ganymede and Trumpet Vine both, in the past, discussed wanting to expand beyond the community and to speak to the universal human experience.
“[The plays Rainbow Theatre Project is producing] don’t necessarily deal with what it’s like to be gay,” Gable says. “We don’t have an AIDS play in the season, we don’t have a coming out play. …We don’t need to do that. There’s other things I’m trying to show people.”
Asked if one of the company’s missions is to expand the definition of an LGBT play, Gable replies, “Oh yeah. After I wrote the criteria,” for what kinds of submissions the company would accept, he realized, “this is pretty much any play.”
“Sometimes a play by a gay playwright will have nothing to do with the gay experience,” he continues. “There’s more to me as a person than just being gay. Gay just happens to be what I identify as.”
There is a natural push-and-pull in promoting art by and for a particular, historically marginalized community. Gable wants to reach for the time in the future where “people just – don’t – care. ‘Oh, you date guys, and I date girls, okay.’ …[That] point where it does become blasé.” But at the same time, he and the Rainbow Theatre Project are aware that they need to do the community-focused work they are doing because, as Gable also recognizes, “I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
He imagines a conversation wherein an optimistic LGBT person proudly declares that they are past defining themselves by their sexuality: “I’m really glad you feel that way,” a thoughtful critic might say to such a person, “but what about the next generation?”
What’s Coming Next
With the reading series off to a strong start, RTP remains in pursuit of their complex mission, while still trying to ensure, as Gable puts it, that “when [audiences] leave, [they’ll say] ‘I had this amazing evening.’”
Next up is Aguirre-Sacasa’s aforementioned Say You Love Satan, directed by John Moletress, on February 24, preceded, as all the staged readings are, with a short play, namely White Room w/ Red Door by Frank Anthony Polito. The Coward play (Long Island Sound), directed by Delia Taylor and matched with Epiphany III by Dr. Samantha M. McDermitt, will be presented on March 17. Following that, on April 28, will be The Postcard by Dickler, directed by Jay Hardee, paired with A Quick Stop at the Florist by Steven Kobar. Finally, the series will close out on May 5 with something a little different – Yank! The Musical, book and lyrics by David Zellnick and music by Joseph Zellnick, under the direction of Rick Hammerly, with Jon Heron’s Me and My Gun as the curtain raiser.
All of these staged readings will be performed at Source on 14th Street, on Monday nights at 7:30, and all are free with donations encouraged. All of the short plays are directed by Christopher Janson.
Gable and Kelley, of course, are well into planning their first season of productions. After a fundraising campaign, they intend for Charles Ludlum’s Big Hotel to be their fully staged debut. However, Gable claims to be unsure what the second performance of the two-show season will be, although he mentions talk of doing a musical. The company is looking to be able to announce in April.
“[We’re] hoping our audience will come along,” Gable says. “We accomplished this, now just keep it going.”
Richardson – who with any luck will be only one of the first of many converts to the Rainbow Theatre Project’s cause and vision – dreams of a joyous response from audiences and the community.
“I hope that they are so moved they will reach in their pockets and give accordingly so we can continue to produce great works,” he writes, pragmatically; but also, “Whether it is to laugh or cry… I hope the reaction will be that we entertained them in whatever capacity that resonates in their spirit.”
RAINBOW THEATRE PROJECT . Next show: staged reading of Say You Love Satan by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa . directed by John Moletress with White Room w/ Red Door by Frank Anthony Polito . directed by Christopher Janson . Monday, Feb 24 at 7:30pm . Source . 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC . Free admission.