Entertainment » Theatre

New GAY STAGE: The Curators

by John Russell .
Friday Apr 23, 2010

It's hardly a secret that New York is home to some of the most vibrant and eclectic queer performers and playwrights in the world. From emerging talent to the avant-garde, gay material is thriving in New York, and much of that is due to the city's dedicated performance spaces and theater festivals that cultivate gay art.

"The queer performance scene has been an enormous part of what we do and who we are, how we are identified, how we have self-identified," says Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of Performance Space 122. He's quick to point out, however, that he and his colleagues never specifically seek out gay artists or gay-themed programs. They don't have to; much of the work that comes Gantner's way is created by gay artists anyway.

The same is true of many of the city's performance spaces, so entrenched are queer artists in New York's theater scene. FringeNYC's producing artistic director, Elena K. Holy, echoes Gantner. "We've been lucky, honestly, that we haven't had to seek out gay-themed work, or work from gay playwrights," she says. "They are among the applications that we receive every year."

Here Arts Center even did away with their gay-specific performance festival years ago, opting instead to feature queer programming year-round. "I think that that's very reflective of what's happening in New York in general," says Here's producing director Kim Whitener. "Queer work is just something that we feel is more integrated into the lexicon."

Still, Gantner says he often wonders if PS 122 should have a queer-specific festival, and Whitener says she's seen more queer events pop up, perhaps in reaction to this greater integration, where the focus is more on the community. There's no question that queer performance festivals still play a vital role in this city's theatrical landscape.

"Doing a festival can garner mainstream attention for an underrepresented community," says Ellie Covan, founder of Dixon Place's Hot Festival, the world's longest-running annual queer performance festival. "When I started the festival in 1992, there weren't a lot of performance opportunities for out GLBTQ artists," says Covan. Visibility is certainly key to all of New York's queer theater festivals. Jack W. Batman and Bruce Robert Harris focus on getting gay playwrights exposure even beyond New York with GayFest NYC. "We are thrilled that so many new works are coming to Broadway and off-Broadway," says Batman, "But we realize that this is still New York and there are thousands of places both in this country and around the world where LGBT plays have never been seen. We develop new work so that LGBT plays can be seen on other stages around the world."

But queer theater isn't limited to Manhattan's downtown scene. BAAD's annual Out Like That festival gives voice to the Bronx's queer community as well. "One of our unique qualities is that we've carved out and hold down a queer space in a community that is not a gay ghetto," says BAAD's executive director, Charles Rice-Gonzalez. "We are in [an area] that is primarily Latino and black and we have engaged our community in a dialogue about a whole list of issues, including queer issues."

But as visibility grows, so does the scope of the work these festivals present. Almost everyone agrees that in recent years there has been a general shift away from identity politics in theater-as Holy describes it, an "I'm here, I'm queer," mentality. "I think we're actually seeing stuff that's reflective of even deeper issues, beyond just sexuality and gender identity," she says.

Cheryl King, founder and producer of Stage Left's Left Out Festival, also thinks that progress in AIDS research has shifted the type of queer plays she sees. "Now many people are living with the disease, so we have been able to shift our attention away from life-or-death issues to quality-of-life issues." And that includes topics like marriage equality, raising children, poverty, unemployment- the sort of issues that affect all Americans, but from the perspective of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

As gay theater becomes more visible and broadens its focus, there are those who resist the label. Director and curator Travis Chamberlain finds the term limiting. "It allows those who are not part of a 'gay theater' community to easily dismiss the whole thing as a genre that is not relevant to their lives. There is very little potential for change in that sort of terminology." Chamberlain says he's not interested in creating alternative narratives of gay life, but rather, "enriching the mainstream narrative by queering it."

Still, he's encouraged. "There's no one type of queerness being represented in art anymore. It feels like there's more room to play these days."

And the play's the thing.

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Left Out Fest runs through April 24th at Stage Left Studio (438 W 37th St 5A, 212-838-2134). GayFest NYC runs May 6-June 6 at various locations. The Hot! Festival NYC runs July 1-Aug 7. The Out Like That festival will be held in June. Visit PS122.org, Here.org, GayFestNYCcom, LeftOutFestival.com, HotFestival.org and BronxAcademyOfArtsAndDance.org for more info.

Copyright Next Magazine. For more articles from New York's hippest gay guide, visit www.nextmagazine.net


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