GAYFEST NYC Returns
BY DAVID KENNERLEY | In 2007, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman hatched a plan to produce a theater festival dedicated to giving emerging gay playwrights a voice. A vital force in gay theater, the scrappy little festival emerged as a success on many levels. One of their productions was even nominated for a GLAAD Award.
After a hiatus of a couple of years due to scheduling glitches, GAYFEST NYC is back.
This year, out of about 50 entries received from around the US and beyond, GAYFEST NYC selected two original works and is also staging a revival of a provocative gay classic. The festival runs May 23 through June 16 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex. Craig Wesley Divino is the associate producer.
Nurturing exceptional gay-themed plays for a worthy cause
When asked if we still need such a festival when gay characters populate plenty of plays both Off and On Broadway, Harris insisted we do.
“When we first formulated the festival, we were trying to find gay playwrights with something to say about gay culture,” he said. “Now we are moving into diversity just like the gay community. We want to spotlight issues that are relevant, perhaps with gay leitmotifs, but not necessarily full-on gay plays. We are not all living in the same bubble. We want theatergoers to pause and discover something fresh about a hidden corner of the community.”
“In a challenging economy, it can be difficult to raise money for not-for-profit [gay theater], unless you’re Terrence McNally,” added Batman. “There’s a great pool of untapped talent who just can’t get their plays up. We want to give them a shot at a first-class production.”
According to Batman, the fest has grown because of support not only from sponsors, foundations, and individual donors, but also from local theater professionals. “We have major Broadway set, lighting, costume, and wig designers helping us do our little shows,” he said.
“The quality of the scripts is getting better,” said Harris. “The cream always rises to the top. This year, the work is particularly beautiful — and dangerous.”
First up is “Moonlight & Love Songs,” by Scott C. Sickles, about a steamy, same-sex affair between a lonely, 45-year-old architect and a much younger college student. A staggering revelation causes their idyllic romance to self-destruct, sending shock waves throughout the community.
“The play deals with themes found in relationships today,” said Harris. “Older men dating younger men — very relevant and not often explored in theater. It’s got real truth to it.”
The other original play is “The Loves of Mr. Lincoln” by David Brendan Hopes, a Pulitzer-nominated poet. Lincoln loved not only his wife Mary, his children, and the United States of America, but also his lifelong confidante, Joshua Speed. Based on letters said to be between Lincoln and Speed, this historical drama promises stunning costumes and language.
“This work is haunting and brilliantly written,” raved Harris. “It’s one of those gorgeous, words-fall-off-the-page type of plays we always look for. We believe that plays should not just entertain but also enlighten. And this does that.”
Also on tap is “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” by Moisés Kaufman. The fearless producers were so impressed with the high-octane staging by the BASiC Theatre Project, a New York-based company, that they wanted to give them more exposure. Directed by Zi Alikhan, this is the first revival since its Off Broadway premiere in 1997.
Why only two original shows? In defense of their limited slate of offerings, Harris explained that, when it came down to it, few plays met their exacting standards.
“We are trying to be discerning,” he explained. “We look at what’s going on in the world. We don’t want to stage anything that’s dated. Many playwrights create a work that’s cathartic for them, and that’s fine. But we also want what’s cathartic for audiences.”
Since the launch of GAYFEST NYC, Harris and Batman have made names for themselves in commercial theater, co-producing a string of hits including “Clybourne Park” (which won the Tony Award for Best Play), “Bonnie & Clyde,” and “Pippin.” They’re currently working to bring “Scottsboro Boys” to London and an immersive musical version of “Carrie” to LA.
“We like to live on the dangerous side,” Harris said of these works. “But they have been embraced and beloved. That’s our drug of choice — to find edgy, empowering plays. We use the same standards for not-for-profit as we do for our commercial work. Ideals and innovation are important. But we are also mindful of getting butts into seats.”
Giving exposure to new playwrights is only half the mission at GAYFEST NYC. From day one, all proceeds go directly to the Harvey Milk High School for LGBT youth. Harris and Batman have expanded the work they do with the school, holding fundraisers and providing scholarships (they’ve granted 40 and counting). They’ve added a playwriting class so kids can tell their stories and hired equity actors to bring the plays to life. Some students even do internships at GAYFEST NYC for school credit.
What’s more, they’ve instituted a mentoring program where out professionals from various creative fields come to speak to the students. The underlying message, explained Batman, is, “You can be gay and still have a fabulous career ahead of you.”
“We are the only not-for-profit that gives financial aid to the Harvey Milk School,” said Harris, adding that GAYFEST NYC always welcomes support from any business, gay or straight. “It’s a big responsibility. We present the festival because we want to stay close to our roots, but also to benefit the future of the gay community. After all, when we get older, these kids are going to be running everything.”
GAYFEST NYC 2013 | Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex | 312 W. 36th St. | $25 at theatermania.com or 212-352-3101
MOONLIGHT & LOVE SONGS | The June Havoc Theatre| May 23-25, 28-31, Jun. 1 at 8 p.m. | Jun. 1 at 2 p.m.; May 26, Jun. 2 at 3 p.m.
THE LOVES OF MR. LINCOLN | The June Havoc Theatre | Jun. 6-8, 11-15 at 7:30 p.m. | Jun. 15 at 2 p.m.; Jun. 9, 16 at 3 p.m.
GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE | Dorothy Strelsin Theatre | May 30-Jun. 1, 4-8, 11-15 at 8 p.m.; Jun. 8, 15 at 2 p.m.; Jun. 2, 9, 16 at 3 p.m.