Paul Lynde Was Gay?

Hold me, Tony Danza. Photo by Darcy Lythgoe/Hunger Artists

The first question posed to Jack Millis, artistic director of Theatre Out, Orange County's first gay and lesbian theater company, is obvious: Isn't theater gay enough already? Actors dress up, pretend they're someone else and bare their souls in front of other people. If that isn't gay, what is?

(In more sophisticated parlance, theater's live dimension renders it incapable of lying about its authenticity; every person involved, from performer to audience member, knows it's a put-on. And that makes it a paradox: though unpredictable and chaotic, it's also a safe place to expose and announce one's self. And that's totallygay.)

Then there's politics. Theater is a marginalized and overlooked medium, and that's catnip to the dispossessed, frustrated and closeted. It's the most immediate artistic way of trumpeting one's views, opinions and screeds. Which is a big reason why many of the most popular, and political, playwrights of the 20th century were gay.

So, if theater is already rainbow-hued, why launch a company billing itself as gay and lesbian?

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"Our mission is to present shows that are gay- and lesbian-themed, or written by gay and lesbian artists," said Millis, whose troupe launches its debut production, Thrill Me, a musical version of the Nietzsche-inspired 1920s "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb Friday at the Hunger Artists Theater Company. "There is a theater like that in San Diego and one in Los Angeles but nothing in between. We decided this would be a good niche."

Rare is the local theater that's never touched a Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde or Stephen Sondheim production. But Theatre Out is the first theater company dedicated to staging nothing but plays from gay or lesbian writers.

The closest would be Rude Guerrilla, which, by founding member Dave Barton's estimate, has produced 47 plays written by gay, lesbian or bisexual artists. But Barton makes a huge distinction between gay theater and queer theater.

"Gay theater is obsessed with camp, drag, coming-out stories, beautiful bodies and the limitations of white male gay experience," Barton said. "Queer theater is far more provocative, less insular and thus more interested in critiquing the world around it, as well as pointing out the shortcomings of 'gay' life. Its political focus is more inclusive—the blurring of sexual identity, the varieties of physical expression and power dynamics.

"A decade ago, a gay theater like the Celebration in Hollywood was needed. Now it's simply redundant. We're way past circling the wagons and waving the rainbow flag and badly in need of art forms that ask more difficult questions."

Millis thinks there's room for both.

"I think queer theater has more of a political undertone than gay and lesbian, but there are so many aspects to the gay and lesbian culture that aren't [necessarily reflected] by Queer Nation," he said. "When you go to a gay pride parade in Los Angeles, or San Diego or Long Beach, you see all kinds and all types. Our material will reflect that spectrum.

"We'll obviously look at more political things like Angels in America or the Corpus Christi-type of shows, but not all gay theater has to be in your face. We've looked at gay romantic comedies and classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As long as we're capable of doing it, we'll consider it."

Millis says he isn't concerned about inherently marginalizing his theater by brandishing its gay and lesbian focus.

"You don't have to be gay to act in our shows, and we're hoping all kinds of audiences will support us," he said. "And by doing some more mainstream gay theater, maybe we'll wind up serving as a gateway into more politically gay theater. Maybe someone will see one of our shows and think 'Wow, I really loved that gay or lesbian play, maybe I'll like Shopping or Fucking or Love and Human Remains.' Maybe we'll be the Paul Lynde of Orange County theater: 'I don't like them gays, but I sure like that Paul Lynde guy.' I'm not sure how that will come off in a quote, but you get the idea."

Thrill Me plays at the Hunger Artists Theater Company, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Sept. 24. $15-$18.

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