theaters in Carolinas offer LGBT entertainment
Actor’s Theatre and Columbia’s Trustus offer cutting
by David Moore
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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.”