The energy behind TOSOS, gay theatre in New York

A good deal of the gay theater in New York City is produced under the auspices of two Off-Off-Broadway figures – Doric Wilson, artistic director of The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS), 257 Church St., and John Glines, director of The Glines Theatre, 260 West Broadway. To discover something about the past, present, and future of gay theatre, GCN recently interviewed both men. What emerged was an unadorned look at the personalities behind gay theatre. Mr. Wilson is profiled below; the interview with Mr. Glines will be featured in an upcoming issue of GCN. Neither would discuss the other on the record. 
TOSOS, Inc., is a non-profit workshop of the performing and visual arts committed to an open and honest exploration of the many expressions of the gay life style. The purpose of TOSOS is a pursuit of self-identity and respect, and a broadening of gay and straight attitudes through the creative process. TOSOS began Feb. 6, 1974; it is dedicated to Joe Cino.
Since his play And He Made a Her opened at the Caffe Cino in 1960, Wilson has been a well-known playwright and director in the Off-Off-Broadway (OOB) community. As a person, Wilson is not “sort of” anything – he is extremely intelligent, well-read, opinionated, headstrong, garrulous, and energetic. And even though I got him out of bed at the ungodly hour of 12 noon, he managed to speak vigorously and with great interest on a variety of topics from Shaw to lesbian separatism. What follows is a severely truncated sample of the conversation.

DW: We haven’t been able to find many new scripts. We either get scripts that are “Boys in the Band Meets Tubstrip and Goes to the Caribbean on a Vacation,” or not very well-written heavy dramas. For the theatre to survive as a gay theatre – we have the audience, we have the actor support, we have the support of the OOB community, but we do not have the scripts, which puts us in the situation of looking at what there is to revive, but there isn’t really very much, and we’ve hit most of them. The next line down is to do gay playwrights even if the play isn’t gay, and ultimately we may have to do just straight plays if nothing else is available. Even if for the next three years we only did things like Shaw’s Man and Superman, we would still do it as gay theatre – there’s no reason why a gay theatre has to do only gay plays…

It’s a lot of hard work putting on our productions. They cost a lot of money which we don’t have. We’re broke like all of OOB, and we’re doubly broke because we’re gay. There are a lot of people that fund OOB on small levels, a lot of whom are gay, who are not going to have their names involved with a gay organization. And though I object to that, I can certainly see where it comes from.

You see, we’ve got a long way to go. When you say gay theatre, the girl word that goes down is “gay.” If you said black theatre, the first word would be “theatre,” defined by “black.” For instance, we run into an irony down at the theatre – we’re dealing with mainly actors who have some professional background who use showcase theatres either to work and keep busy or to showcase themselves for their professional careers. And now, once we’ve established our theatre as legit, most of the actors who come in and try out to gay parts are straight actors. Their gay equivalent is petrified of what happens to you usually in the business when you do a gay role and you’re not straight. The irony of that is that the agents and the producers are almost exclusively gay in this city. Their own self-hatred, for want of a better term, makes them dismiss their gay brothers…

As far as I’m concerned the only real oppression – and I’m not dismissing the laws and the states and the small towns and the kind of oppression that gays have been through – but to me the real, most viable oppression that gays go through is the oppression of other gays. For instance, we had no trouble trying to find a straight funnel organization, but none of the gay organizations that had tax-exemption was willing to funnel to us – that sort of resentment, the sexual politics that come up. I’ve always thought, and it’s always been my experience, that if your first response to yourself is a negative response, “oh-oh, the world is straight and I am gay,” that somehow subtly you carry along that essential negativism in everything you do. I think it’s changing, it will change. The reason that TOSOS and all the other gay organizations exist is to come to some sort of solution of this.

To go back to what we were saying about theatre – most of Broadway is gay-produced, gay theatre. Take Chorus Line – that’s basically the work of a number of gay people. Those same gay people, if you say gay theatre to them, immediately it means second-rate, because somehow gay is second-rate. When I first started this theatre, the first response from many people was, “Gay has nothing to do with my art, gay is what I do when I go to bed.” This is exactly what I mean – and I’m not dismissing sex at all, I like it a great deal, I’m very promiscuous – but as long as we define ourselves only sexually, then we are also going to have a slight Puritanism about sex and so a slight dismissal of any public statement of our gayness.

GCN: How did you actually start TOSOS?

DW: I was always in OOB, and I was always planning someday to start my own theatre. I got into the bar business, as a bartender, to get the money to support a theatre. When Stonewall happened, I was helping to start the Circle Repertory Theatre, which is probably the most important theatre in NYC at the moment. There were a lot of gays up at Circle, and finally there was a viable, visible gay movement starting, and I got involved in it. I would run back and forth from the Circle to GLF and then GAA, and I began to realize I didn’t like the schizophrenia that was going down. No, we didn’t like Boys in the Band, but on the other hand those of us who were creative did not like the idea of censorship, particularly in a society that is as essentially free as this one. The more I thought about the problem of Boys in the Band, the more I wondered, “Why aren’t gay who are creative making some gay statement?” I thought that there should be a place that authors and artists who want to deal with their gayness can have it done, and done well, and done away from the marketplace where sensationalism is the rule of the day.

You know, Broadway has done plenty of gay plays, not one of which in the last couple of seasons I would do at my theatre. I don’t consider them that healthy. Like Find Your Way Home – I have no intention of doing that at TOSOS. Staircase, a very good play. Maybe sometime, when there’s a library of good gay work, you can go back and do Staircase or Find Your Way Home objectively, and then it’s not going to hurt so much.

GCN: Because presumably better statements would have been made.

DW: Yeah, I mean, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a very valid statement. But if that was the only play about heterosexuality, then you’d have a right to cry foul.

GCN: So you and Peter del Valle basically started TOSOS?

DW: Yeah, Peter’s contribution was basically writing Lovers, which was a big hit, which helped us in one way and hurt us in another. Musical comedies draw a large audience, but they are audiences for musical comedy only, and very little of what went into Lovers came back to us; in fact it made us some enemies. A lot of serious theatre people considered Lovers trite and silly. I mean, I’m still trying to get Martin Duberman to let us do a play because he hated Lovers, and he’s never seen anything else that we’ve done. Yet he’s yelling about how nobody does his plays, and there’s a play of his we want to do this season. In fact, someone recently was doing an article on gay theater for Christopher Street and was interviewing me, and in the middle of the interview they said, “Do you know that Martin Duberman says that you’re not a gay theatre?” (Laughs) And I said, “Oh?”

GCN: Why did he say that?

DW: I asked exactly the same question. And I felt like writing Marty a letter saying, “We may not be your kind of gay theatre, but like it or not we are a gay theatre.”

But it seems as we get older, we are treated better and better by our peers. We are one of 200 OOB theatres, and last year we were only in our third year, but when all the OOB theatres were meeting with Equity, to try a create a new code, there was a panel of seven, and I was chosen to be on that committee representing all the big-gun theatres, and little TOSOS like a rowboat coming behind. It was a real sign of respect. But you see, OOB is alternative theatre, its own version of the gay movement, as a protest against commercial theatre. A lot of us didn’t even admit it at the time. But it is an alternative theatre, and its views on this are much more radical than the commercial theatre.

GCN: How does that go together with your feelings that gays oppress other gays?

DW: No, I’m not talking about alternative people. I’m talking about the agents and producers who run theatre itself in terms of gay oppressing gays. It’s the straights in OOB that deal with TOSOS. The gay I know in the upper strata of OOB have to treat us with respect because we’ve done very well, but it’s always a slight joke and a slight dismissal because we’re a gay theatre.

I think what I mean when I say that gays oppress gays – I don’t like slogans, and that’s one of my own, and it’s just as bankrupt as all the others – what I mean is our own self-hate, suspicion, our own tendency to deal with people from a purely sexual point of view – “you interest me because I’m also slightly turned on to you”/”you don’t interest me because I’m not turned on to you.” Or the reverse of that – “Oh-oh, are you turned on to be? Therefore I’m going to be defensive.” Until that’s cleared out, we’re never going to be able to fight the real battle, which will be straight oppression.

I thought I knew a lot when I went in, but now I have no idea what gay theatre is, what it will be, if it will be. I’m not sure this will be anything but a genre-type place like murder-mystery plays or Jewish commercial comedies for Broadway. In other words, you can run a repertory theatre if you have 500 years of culture and history to draw from that’s straight. We don’t have 500 years of culture that is gay, and maybe what we’re trying to do won’t exist really for another 500 years.

GCN: Do you have any idea what the ideal gay play would be?

DW: It’s up to the writer what that is.

GCN: Do you have any guidelines for it?

DW: Yes. I would like to have a gay Shakespeare, a gay Chekhov, a gay Brecht, a gay Beckett, a gay Ionesco – and I could go down the list, have them write me their gay experience to the best of their writing ability and let me do it. 

GCN: What would the plays be like?

DW: I have no idea. Shakespeare’s would have a lot of action, and Beckett’s wouldn’t. (Laughs) What can I say? We’re not talking about formula. I would love, for instance, to have a Russian writer write me a play about what it’s like to be gay in Russia right now in the Chekhov style. England has – it makes me jealous – an awful lot of interesting plays, it’s been dealt with better. That’s one reason to them Staircase isn’t such a shitty thing because they have an awful lot of gay theatre. Every time we turn around, we find an English script. Our second play this season was very gay, Christopher Hampton’s When Did You Last See My Mother. And take Joe Orton. What the Butler Saw is the first play we’ve done so far that has absolutely no gay characters. Yet in a very funny way it’s one of the gayest things we’ve done. The consciousness behind the writing is very homosexual, and I don’t mean because it’s witty; Dryden was witty and he was not gay. I get so bored with, “Oh well, it’s gay because it’s funny.” I’ve never accepted that. But some people were furious at us for doing it, they said it wasn’t gay. 

GCN: Who picks the plays you do?

DW: I do.

GCN: What considerations do you use – commercial, balance of season?

DW: Well, at this point we don’t have enough o choose from for me to have the luxury of making that kind of decision. If we had 500 scripts, 40 of which I wanted to do, then things like balance of the season, production problems would enter into the choice. Production problems do get involved now with dismissals, if there are things that just can’t be done off-Broadway…

We’ve only turned down two scripts. Oh yes, and one lesbian script, and this is a particular subject I’d just as soon we didn’t get into. We rather naively thought that we could be very open but the more I realize it, I think that inevitably we’re going to be slightly male-oriented. The best way I can explain this without getting into male-female trips is that the same phenomenon would happen – look, the Puerto Ricans in the city live in almost the same conditions as the blacks in this city, but a black theatre is not really going to express Puerto Rican problems, or the other way around, and they will have to be separate for reasons of language, if for nothing else. Well, in a funny way, that’s what happens at TOSOS. For reasons of language, yes, we can do a lesbian play; it would be token. And we will go on doing them…

I think you’re noticing that there is no specific answer to any of the questions you’re asking me, and that’s one of our biggest problem in that everybody down there wants a very specific theatre. They want a show-biz theatre, they want a male theatre, a male and female theatre, a drag theatre, and from their point of view they’re right. But when I operate as artistic director, I look at a play we’re going to do down there, I look at it in two ways. First, is this going to be an affirmative experience for the community that we’re presenting it to? (Not to the point of being Pollyanna, because we’re not going to do Pollyanna.) The second thing is, since I am a writer, I am very concerned that it be good literary theatre.

GCN: From the time you started TOSOS to now, what lessons have you learned about your original ideals?

DW: Well, I think the main lesson I’ve learned is that there has go to be, to go back to my original statement, that what we’re trying to do will never be done until there are writers – gay or straight – willing to write well on the subject, not only on the subject itself, but to include gays as viable characters in whatever they’re writing. Because we’re stymied until that happens. Until I start getting 10 or 12 plays on the level of The Haunted Host or When Did You Last See My Mother, we are going to be a rather impoverished gay theatre. 

GCN: What is the difference between TOSOS and the Glines Theatre?

DW: Turn that off. (Mysterious 18-minute gap in the tape.) [NB: The rivalry between the two theater producers revolved around differences of opinions about what constitutes gay theater. Glines, like Duberman, looked askance at Wilson's producing shows without gay content, such as Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe and Noel Coward's Hay Fever.] The Glines itself is of value to the gay theatre, to keep it going. He’s not going to compete with us, because he doesn’t like the kind of plays we’ve done. And there should be 10 or 15 gay theatres – that’s not going to hurt…

GCN: How about competing for scripts?

DW: Well, that’s going to happen.

GCN: Do you get a sense of the media attitude toward TOSOS or gay theatres in general? Is there more or less attention?

DW: There’s none. But that’s the problem in NYC. OOB only gets so many inches anyway in the media, and those inches have to be spread over a number of theatres, and they are spread primarily to new material. The more new plays we do, the more chance we’re going to get straight media. But generally the straight media has dismissed our concept of gay theatre. The Voice, every time they review us, they spend half the time discussing their view on gayness, you know…

OOB audiences come mostly by word-of-mouth, and the media don’t have much effect. But there is one liberation that I truly believe in and this is, quote unquote, the liberation of the arts, the right of the artist to make a statement, and for that statement to be judged from the artist’s point of view…I do not like reviews that approach things from a political point of view – don’t review them! That’s the political stance, as far as I’m concerned. If they feel they are only interested in those things that are socially responsible, then let them concentrate on those and ignore the rest.

It really pisses me off – there were a number of plays done OOB last year that had either direct or indirect gay visibility, [Christopher Durang's] Titanic, [George Whitmore's] The Caseworker, probably more. The straight press ignores it because they don’t have the space. The gay press is filled with critics who do not get much money, who may possibly get press passes to see Broadway shows on the third night or whatever, and spend most of their time giving us reviews of Chorus Line or whatever with no responsibility to their gay community, so the plays went by. We get a lot of the gay press, they cover us thoroughly, certainly that is available in NYC. We don’t have that with The Advocate – we’ve had a fight with them for about a year and a half, so they haven’t reviewed us. But there is an area for good specialized gay criticism in this city if there was an outlet for it.
But it would mean that someone would really have to be into OOB and have some background in it. People who come down to reviews us and claim to be intelligent do not know Robert Patrick’s plays or realize that Lanford Wilson is one of the most outfront gay writers who’s ever written. In every one of his plays where it’s possible, there’s a gay character visible. But most of the critics who review gay theatre are unaware of what little is there…

I have a funny feeling that no gay theatre is ever going to be deadly serious. I’ve never thought this through, and I’m trying something out that I have no defense for, but I have an instinct that treating things so seriously is essentially born out of heterosexual phenomena, and has to do with the kind of lives that have to be created if you’re going to have a society built on the nuclear family living in a social structure which includes poverty and other things. Then any friction that those things cause is going to be treated very, very dramatically by the people involved. And in fact gays, from their freedom of choice – if you have a lover today, maybe tomorrow you won’t want to have a lover, and it’s up to you and your lover to decide what kind of a relationship you’re going to develop, what kind of sex act you will have, or whatever – that freedom of choice, independence, gives gays the right of a sense of objectivity. Gays are not so subject to the culture. We are bothered by the culture, we hide from the culture, we sometimes have to become invisible to that culture, but when we get away to the parts of the world we take over for ourselves, we have a freedom which allows us to have an objectivity, which allows us to have a sense of humor.

That’s why Lanford Wilson’s plays, no matter how heterosexual they get, always have a warm, cheerful sense of humor. I would hate it if gays ever, every, ever become integrated into society, just like I think blacks and a number of other people would be wise not to be integrated into heterosexual society. They must get their rights and their equal opportunity but work very, very hard to protect their cultural identity.

But going back to this humor thing, I think subjectivity in the arts is essentially a heterosexual phenomenon, even when it’s done by a homosexual such as Tennessee Williams, and that the artist, even if he’s not gay, who draws back from the society, is not part of the society, has an objective and a comic affirmative, because he has to develop a sense of humor.

That’s why Shakespeare is neither gay nor straight – the objectivity that goes down in Shakespeare is that of a man not trapped in society, who left and got away from the nuclear family.

I don’t know what all that has to do with – I guess it does have to do with gay theatre. What the perfect gay play is, it’s a very objective play, a play that does not take for granted sexual roles or society roles, and therefore is ironic, if not comic. Almost has to be. 

Gay Community News, January 1977