Proud Mary — a step for LGBTQ voices

Theatre group embodies devised performance as its operational model

Just when you’re set to assume Upstate South Carolina would hardly be a hub for LGBTQ community involvement: enter the Proud Mary Theatre Company. The Spartanburg-based 501(c)3 non-profit amateur company is a relatively new arrival — it unveiled the lineup for its sophomore season with a festive cabaret-style event only this past Saturday — but there’s little doubt it’s already made an impression.

The Palmetto State is, of course, no stranger to celebration of the arts, despite the friendly sibling rivalry that may lead its North Carolina neighbors to suggest otherwise. For more than four decades Spoleto Festival USA has drawn thousands of patrons to idyllic (well, except during storm season) Charleston, where offerings ranging from classical opera to experiential “physical theater” aim to provide something for everyone.

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Proud Mary’s founder and artistic director Sandy Staggs, though, had very different ideas about what constitutes “everyone.” What about the person who can’t make the 200-mile trip to the seaside city, or shell out hundreds of dollars a night for hotel rooms at hiked-up festival rates? What about the person for whom art is integral to daily life, and who isn’t satisfied with a few days of binge-watching meant to last all year? What about the person for whom an artist’s world-class curriculum vitae is incidental at best, but who would be enthralled by the appearance of their friends and neighbors onstage instead? And, perhaps most importantly, what about the person who longs to be the one holding the pen, or speaking the lines, or harnessing the movements of their body to convey what cannot be put into words? What about the person who is LGBTQ — who is, in fact, anything other than contentedly cis-het — and who has a story to tell? In Upstate South Carolina, as in every corner of the inhabited world, there is no shortage of stories.

The key leadership team behind Proud Mary, consisting of Staggs, Board President Darryl Harmon, and Board Vice President Katherine Rausch, recognized from the beginning the diversity inherent in these previously untapped resources — the well of talent in the Upstate LGBTQ community, and the wealth of personal narratives never shared. With that diversity in mind, the determinedly non-professional company has elected to curate each season with, as it declares in its official mission statement, “compelling dramas, rib-tickling comedies, campy musicals, and local original works and avant-garde pieces that celebrate diversity and tolerance.” Recent productions include Pulitzer- and Tony-winning one-man show “I Am My Own Wife,” NYC International Fringe Festival champion “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” and Proud Mary’s first Southern Fried Pride Play Festival.

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Among the festival’s most affecting works was “Movement,” an original composition portraying gay history and the ongoing quest for civil rights in a medium known as devised performance. What does that mean, exactly? Its alternate name will give you more than a clue. Devised performance, you see, is frequently known as ‘collective creation.’ The artists gather around the seed of an idea. Through exploration and improvisation they discover what they wish to share with their audience and how they wish to share it, both individually and as a whole. It’s easy to lose track of whose ideas were whose, because planned proposal followed by deliberation isn’t really how this works. And the process, the evolution, never ends.

Devised performance is a striking metaphor for the Proud Mary Theatre Company itself. There was the vital, enduring seed of an idea: that LGBTQI people in Upstate South Carolina have vital, enduring things to say — things that most of us have yet to hear. Everything else, everything Proud Mary is and everything it will become, has grown from that single truth. It is an entity of, by, and for the community. Together, that community has devised a joyful, sometimes painful, always meaningful way to raise its voice.

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