By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
To coincide with Pride, Portland’s Defunkt Theatre will present “Herstory/History,” a coupling of two landmark plays: “The Children’s Hour,” by Lillian Hellman, and “The Boys in the Band,” by Mart Crowley.
The plays are notable for being the first successful mainstream theater projects to address, respectively, lesbian and gay life. Matthew Kern, one of Defunkt’s three artistic directors, says the productions are also in keeping with the company’s explorations of gay content and gender politics — such as their staging of a mixed gender version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and last year’s mounting of Chuck Mee’s “Fire Island.”
“We don’t necessarily consciously seek out gay content, but as our artistic directors are two women and a gay man, we tend to be drawn to material that explores those issues,” Kern says. “It’s been really gratifying to see increasing numbers of folks from the LGBTQ community attending Defunkt shows over the past couple of years. This project is one that we feel will really speak to a lot of us.”
The productions will run through Portland’s Pride Week, with extra performances of “Boys in the Band” during that time.
To help fund this event, Defunkt has started a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com, where donors can help out while receiving prizes ranging from signed posters to karaoke nights with cast members.
“The Children’s Hour,” the older of the two plays, revolves around a rumor that two headmistresses at a boarding school are involved in a lesbian affair, upending the women’s careers and lives.
The play — Hellman’s first to be staged — debuted on Broadway in 1934, a time when even mentioning homosexuality on stage was a criminal offense in New York.
“It was rare enough to have a play by a female playwright succeed in the commercial theater in those days,” Kern says, “and if you add the provocative subject matter, it’s amazing that she was able to make it happen.”
Despite its incendiary content, the play was a success, running two years on Broadway. It was banned in several cities — including Boston, Chicago, and London — but went on to be adapted several times on film.
“The Boys in the Band” was first staged off-Broadway in 1968. It dramatizes a group of gay men attending a birthday party in Manhattan. While the subject matter might sound unremarkable today, at the time it was revolutionary.
“Here, right out in the open, were a cross-section of out gay men who had formed a kind of family of choice while facing the challenges of being gay in that time,” Kern says. “It was right on the eve of Stonewall.”
“The Boys in the Band” also inspired a movie in 1970, directed by William Friedkin.
“Herstory/History,” running May 10-June 15, offers a unique opportunity to see these groundbreaking works in person — and reflect on our history.
“These are plays that many of us know of,” Kern says, “but are rarely produced these days, and yet without them so much of what has followed would not have been possible…. They are plays that are sometimes dismissed by younger gay people because they are of another era, and we like to think that we’ve moved beyond the challenges that the characters in these plays face. And yes, it is much easier to live as an out person in 2013 than it was in 1934 or 1968. But some of the self loathing and the shame that these characters struggle to overcome is alive and well, whether [or not] it’s always comfortable for us to admit it.”
The program also offers audiences the chance to have two distinct theater-going experiences. “The Children’s Hour” will be staged at Defunkt’s home venue, The Backdoor Theater, on SE Hawthorne. “The Boys in the Band,” however, will be mounted at a “site specific” venue, which has yet to be determined.
Kern credits director Jon Kretzu with the idea to produce the plays in tandem and at different venues.
“Jon’s decision to stage ‘The Boys in the Band’ in an alternate, site-specific location is also going to have an impact on audiences,” Kern says. “You will be a guest at the party, not just an audience sitting in a theater. It’s an experience unlike most of us have ever had before, and a really exciting style of performance to bring to Portland.”
While “Herstory/History” offers audiences a rich cultural experience, Kern believes it will be an emotionally enriching one, as well.
“I think audiences of all kinds — gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc. — will see a lot of themselves in these characters,” he says. “The plays offer a wonderful chance to come together as a community and look at and promote a discussion of how far we’ve come, how some things remain unchanged, and what kind of world we want to build for ourselves in the future.”
“Herstory/History” runs May 10-June 15 in Portland. For more information about the plays and the fundraising campaign, visit defunktheatre.com.