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Pioneering theaters in Carolinas offer LGBT entertainment
Charlotte’s Actor’s Theatre and Columbia’s Trustus offer cutting edge fare

by David Moore
Q-Notes staff
Dan Shoemaker sounds like he’s talking about his son or daughter growing up when he recalls the history of Charlotte’s Actor’s Theatre. Now celebrating their 17th anniversary, Actor’s Theater has captured national acclaim over the years for the many cutting edge productions they’ve brought to the Queen City.

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“We formed in 1989 to present Charlotte audiences with bold and innovative new works by contemporary playwrights,” Shoemaker recalls. “Our first production was at the Afro-American Cultural Center. “It was called ‘Holy Ghost’ and it dealt with charismatic snake handlers from the Appalachian area of North Carolina and East Tennessee.
“We brought in live snakes for that one and several people actually bolted for the door,” Shoemaker chuckles.

After starting out with a bang, the fledgling production company moved in to Spirit Square’s 60-seat studio theater in 1990.

“In 1994 we became a resident theater company and moved into the Duke Power Theater. Two years later we were granted funding by the Arts & Science Council (ASC).”
Thirteen years later, Actor’s Theatre finally moved in to their current space on Stonewall Ave. Once a dinner theater in the 1960s, it seems only fitting that the revitalized building would now be home to Actor’s Theatre.

Next up at Actor’s Theatre is Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”
Clive Barnes of the New York Post described the play as thus:

“Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee’s most provocative, daring, and controversial play since ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’ ‘The Goat’ won four major awards for best new play of the year (Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle). In the play, Martin, a successful architect who has just turned fifty, leads an ostensibly ideal life with his loving wife and gay teenage son. But when he confides to his best friend that he is also in love with a goat (named Sylvia), he sets in motion events that will destroy his family and leave his life in tatters.”

Actor’s Theatre’s productions of ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’

With a plot like that, there’s no doubt a few eyebrows will be raised. These days, Charlotte’s much more of a cosmopolitan and progressive city — it appreciates the arts.
In the past, however, Actor’s Theatre has experienced controversy over theatrical productions on more than one occasion. Most recently it was the reaction from right-wing, anti-gay conservative Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James over the gay-themed play “Take Me Out.”

An ode to baseball and the story of an enormously popular player who at the height of his game sends a tremor through America’s pastime when he announces at a press conference he’s gay. “Take Me Out” explores the ripple effect this has on his teammates, the media and his adoring fans.

After reading about the play’s content, James contacted the Arts & Science Council, insisting that it wasn’t acceptable for public money to be used for a play if the premise was about being gay and included nudity.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for taxpayers to have to fund naked art,” James said at the time. “Homosexuality is immoral and sinful and ought not be endorsed by government.”
At James behest, the ASC met with representatives from Actor’s Theatre to make sure the play adhered to funding guidelines, later issuing a statement that the play didn’t violate any guidelines and that the performance wasn’t breaking any public nudity laws.
“We got a little bit of controversy with that one,” Shoemaker recalls. “”But that ended up making it all the more successful at the box office.”

Shoemaker points to Charlotte’s gay and lesbian theater audience as a driving factor in Actor’s Theatre’s continuing success. “They are more supportive of contemporary theater regardless of its content,” he explains. “If it’s good, if it speaks to certain issues, be they gay or not — the gay community is supportive. They’re very discerning.”
Throughout its history, Actor’s Theatre has returned that support by consistently offering plays that appeal to a gay and lesbian audience.

“One of the first shows we did was “Independence” in 1990,” Shoemaker recalls.
That play featured a lesbian character. Another production in 1994, “Escape from Happiness” featured a lesbian lawyer as the lead character.

“We’ve always tried to find plays that had a bearing on contemporary issues,” says Shoemaker. “LGBT issues are at the forefront of current work. We’ve staged several positive portrayals of gay and lesbian characters.”

Other gay-angled plays Actor’s Theatre has produced during its long history include “Accomplice,” “The Laramie Project,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Bug,” just to name a few.

Columbia’s Trustus Theatre

Housed in a building originally constructed sometime in the 1930s, the 134-seat Trustus theater opened in Columbia in 1985.

Founder and artistic director Jim Thigpen is enthusiastic when he talks about the history behind the effort and the support of the LGBT community.

“The gay and lesbian community has always been committed and very supportive of Trustus,” says Thigpen.

“One of the earlier plays we produced here — in 1987 — was ‘Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.’ It was sort of a female Fire Island kind of story.”

At the time of the production, the play caught the attention of the owner of a now-defunct lesbian bar. “She saw the play, loved it and wanted to host a cast party for us. That started a history for us with the gay community right then,” Thigpen continues.
“Now we have Wednesday night for ‘family night.’ That’s a special night we set aside for the gay community and we’ve kept up that tradition for 20 years.”

Because of Thigpen’s close ties to the LGBT community, Trustus makes a concerted effort to offer productions that would appeal to those audience members.

“In our history we’ve tried to do at least one — and sometimes two — gay themed plays a season.

Scenes from Trustus theater’s ‘Rocky Horror’ and ‘Torch Song Trilogy.’
Over the years Trustus has produced such notable stage presentations as “Angels in America,” “Torch Song Trilogy,” “March of the Falsettos,” “Bent,” “Rocky Horror,” “Jeffrey,” “Boys in the Band” and “When Pigs Fly.”

While conservatives were in an uproar over “Angels in America” in Charlotte, Columbia’s presentation of Tony Kushner’s Tony Award winning play about gay men, AIDS and life in New York City went off without a hitch.

“In our first 10 years we would sometimes get calls from these redneck-sounding people who would ask stuff like ‘You still doin’ them queer plays? We ain’t comin’ to stuff if ya’ are.’

“Those weren’t the kind of people that wouldn’t have even come to see a production of ‘The Sound of Music’ so I wasn’t particularly concerned.

“The only time we’ve ever really had a problem was with ‘Bent,’” says Thigpen.
Martin Sherman’s hit play “Bent” explores how gays were arrested and interned at Nazi work camps prior to the genocide of Jews, gypsies and handicapped and continued to be imprisoned even after the fall of the Third Reich and liberation of the camps.

“I got a call from someone telling me we had a problem at the theater and that I had better get down there,” Thigpen recalls. “When I got there, swastikas were painted all over the building. Nobody ever determined who was responsible — but the police thought it was probably a bunch of kids because of the level they were painted at.

“It was disconcerting, but after that it sold out like mad, so it actually helped us.”
Currently Trustus is presenting “Strom in Limbo.” Coming up is “The Graduate,” and “Waxwork,” among others. In the near future Trustus hopes to remount the classic lesbian play that gave the theater its longstanding relationship with the LGBT community.

“We want to bring back ‘Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,’” says Thigpen. It was so successful, and it holds a lot of meaning for us.”

Actor’s Theater
650 E Stonewall St., Charlotte, N.C., 704-342-2251
520 Lady St., Columbia, S.C., 803-254-9732

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