Guest Column | October 2015

Why is there no LGBT theatre group in Phoenix?

By Steve Schemmel, October 2015 Issue.

In August of 1979, Bud Guiles asked his Philly high-school friend and NYC roommate, me, to join him in presenting a production of three one-act plays, written by Robert Patrick, as a benefit for Dignity Phoenix.

As publicity and word-of-mouth spread, we received a call from Helen K. Mason, head of the Black Theatre Troupe, offering the use of BLT’s stage. That warm, wonderful lady opened her arms to “The Boys,” as she called us, saying “We’re both still fighting discrimination, let’s help each other.”

Planned for two performances, the first show sold out and extended for three more. Alerted that someone was going to present “gay theater” in then-largely homophobic Phoenix, local critics saw the show and loved it. Robert Patrick attended the Oct. 12 performance, afterward praising cast and crew. Tucson called and asked for two performances there. They sold out three and said they could have sold out another three.

After much persuasion, I finally convinced Bud we should start a group. Bud had produced theater in LA and I had produced in New York City. Dignity gave us $300 from the initial production and we formed the group Theatre For Gays, complete with a board of directors.

The following April, I presented a Theatre for Gays check to a Central Avenue church for rehearsal space. The church said they couldn’t accept a check with the word “gay” on it, so I wrote a personal check. As a result, the group changed its name to Janus Theatre Company. Janus was a mythological god whose temple had no doors, remaining open at all times to those who wished to enter, stay as long as they wished and leave when they were ready. Janus is also the symbol used for the masks of comedy and tragedy.

Janus Theatre Company set by-laws and filed for incorporation. It also decided Janus should not be limited to strictly LGBT members, under the philosophy that “If gays complain they are discriminated against, how can we discriminate against others?”

As word of the group spread throughout the Valley, there were many threats of arson, physical violence and death. When these threats were presented to Phoenix’s Chief of Police in 1980, he responded with “Whadda you expect? Bunch of f*cking faggots.” And the police took no action.

As a result, Bud and I spoke with Helen and advised her that we didn’t want to endanger her personnel or theater and would move our production elsewhere. Helen refused our offer, saying, “We’re all fighting for equality, boys. Together we’ll face them down.”

The show opened in June 1980, and again sold out – without incident from the cowardly homophobes. In 1983, Janus finally leased a building from the city and received a very nice welcoming letter from then Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

It must be noted that Janus was always a strictly volunteer group. The only monies paid were royalties to playwrights, theater rentals, printing and such. No one else – actors, directors, crew, ushers, staff or boardmembers – received payment for their much-appreciated services.

What two friends started with $300, blind optimism and hard work went on to produce 35 critically acclaimed and successful productions over the course of eight years.

Bud relocated to California, after his seventh attempt to resign from the board. He passed away Nov. 29, 2006. I resigned in late 1986, when I relocated to Los Angeles. Janus’ last production was took place in October 1987, after it was discovered that the treasurer allegedly embezzled all the funds.

In the ‘90s, Joe Marshall picked up the torch and created The Alternative Theatre Company, eventually moving to New York around 2007. And, in 2000, Damon Daring took his 1999 tax return and created Nearly Naked Theatre Company which is still producing “off-beat” theater and an occasional LGBT production.

But the question still remains: With the plethora of LGBT plays and musicals still being written and produced all over the country, and with Phoenix being the sixth largest city in the U.S., why is there no LGBT theater group in the Valley?

 


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