Arts Writing Is Dead: Rebirth And Renewal

Hi there! Welcome to the very first Arts Writing is Dead column. I’m Allie Fireel, a bipolar, queer, nonbinary theater-maker based here in good ol’ “Glitter Ball” city. This biweekly column covers the performing arts (and whatever else I have feelings about) but I’ll mostly eschew the standard preview/review format. Look here for big ideas, insider musings, call outs, call ins, shameless adoration of my faves, and yes, the occasional mention of the theater I’m doing. Moving on… It’s June! It’s Pride Month! So this week I’m focused on queer theater. 

The 1968 off-Broadway premiere of “Boys in the Band” is seen as the start of the modern queer theater movement. Before that, no one was making openly queer theater in the mainstream. Flash forward 45 years. We’re still fighting for basic human rights, but queer culture is a constant in mass media. There is now, happily, more queer theater in Louisville than I can fit in one column. But that means it’s in the difficult position of being almost passe in some circles, but still dangerous to make and perform. 

No one better illustrates this conundrum than Pandora Productions. (Full disclosure, they have produced my work as a writer-actor within the last year.) Pandora started up in 1995, and its queerness implicitly placed it to the far left of mainstream theater. Remember, this was before “Queer Eye,” “Drag Race”, “Will and Grace,” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Ellen was still in the closet. Pre-1995 queer plays in Louisville were few. So Pandora’s existence was radical. Now, almost 30 years later, they are downright respectable. A pillar of the theater community. Like many respected theater companies — Actors Theatre, Kentucky Shakespeare — Pandora is walking the Boomer v Gen Z tightrope, and, in my opinion, they’re doing it better than many companies. But what’s next? Given the recent announcement that longtime Artistic Director Michael Drury will be retiring at the end of the 23-24 season, we could see huge changes. I’ll talk about Drury more in September, closer to Pandora’s season opener, “Love! Valor! Compassion!,” but suffice to say as Pandora’s leader since 2000, Drury is likely the single person most responsible for Pandora’s growth and longevity. Of Pandora’s 109 productions, Drury has produced or co-produced 103, and directed 67. That is a lot of theater. They were the sole company focused exclusively on queer theater for roughly two decades. Now there are two other explicitly queer companies: Drag Daddy Productions, and Three Witches Shakespeare. 

I’m very interested in Drag Daddy Productions. Helmed by Tony Lewis, as the name suggests, Drag Daddy’s work is rooted in drag performance, but places drag in a theatrical context. Stories, characters, motivations. Stuff like that. What frequently emerges is essentially a musical with big camp energy, anchored by house performers at Play, which is home to many of Drag Daddy’s productions. They also create immersive and themed drag events, one person shows, and the occasional piece of traditional theater. (Shouts out to “Anita-Do Over,” an original one person show starring drag Queen May O’Nays, written by Ms. O’Nays and Eric Stephen Sharp. The show imagined hate monger Anita Bryant attempting to make amends to the queer community, and I LOVED it, so much) While I enjoy Drag Daddy’s work, artistically, I’m also fascinated by what they’re doing culturally. They are erasing the unnatural distance that often exists between theater and drag. Instead of trying to induce an audience to come in to a traditional theater space, by producing shows at the club, they are reaching out to the queer community, outside of the theater scene. It’s something theater struggles to do. One of Drag Daddy’s next shows is another experiment: They’re teaming with The Chicken Coop theater to produce a full on, large scale theatrical musical. Chicken Coop isn’t technically a queer theater company, but Artistic Director Jason Cooper brings an aesthetic of cultivated and intentional camp to much of their work. It feels queer, in the best possible way. The project? The beloved musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was subversive 52 years ago, not so much these days. Can Drag Daddy and Chicken Coop make it subversive again by casting (my crush) drag queen Gilda Wabbit as Jesus? Find out in early August.

And here’s one of those spots where my work can’t help but intrude on the conversation. Along with Tory Parker and Clarity Hagan, I’m one of the founders of the third company explicitly committed to queer theater: Three Witches Shakespeare, a queer, feminist company focused on innovative classical theater. (For short, I always just say ‘Queer Shakespeare.’) We’ve done one show. It was rad. We’ll be doing more. Come see it.

Three Witches is germane to this conversation because it helps show the breadth of what’s being done by companies explicitly devoted to the queer community, let alone the many other companies and entities that regularly feature queer plays. (Special shouts out to the trans-playwrights like Vidalia Unwin who are part of the creation of a new canon of trans-theater, on and offstage, where transgender people and stories are still underrepresented). We do still need more. There are still corners of the queer community that are underrepresented, including Black queer artists, Latin queer artists, and others. 

But, big picture? We’ve gone from a few furtive examples of queer theater pre-1995, two decades of only one queer theater company, now finally a diverse landscape of offerings that tell queer stories, and elevate queer artists. queer theater creates a place for the LGBTQ+ community to explore and celebrate our continued existence, contemplate our past, imagine our future, and even though we still struggle for true equality even inside our community, take pride in what we see.