Tonight marks the sophomore effort of one of the least subtly named new theater companies in D.C.: the Rainbow Theatre Project. It’s a new LGBT performing arts company finding its footing in its very first season. If the name seems like a throwback to the early symbols and slogans of the gay rights movement, well, that’s basically the point, says Artistic Director H. Lee Gable.
“We want a name so no one has any doubt what we’re doing,” says Gable, a Kennedy Center staffer who has been involved with D.C.’s theater scene for more than two decades. Unlike D.C.’s most recent (and now-dissolved) LGBT theater company, Ganymede Arts, Rainbow’s name puts it all out there. “Ganymede is a great name for a theater company, but does everyone know what Ganymede means? We need to be a little bit more obvious. It’s like branding. …It’s right there in your face.”
But while it’s already figured out how to brand itself, Rainbow is still working on developing fully staged plays. Tonight, the troupe holds a reading of Charles Busch‘s campy Die Mommie Die at Source on 14th Street NW, and all of its season’s plays will be performed as readings, one held each month. (The next one, after tonight’s, takes place on Feb. 24.) Why readings? “It’s low budget, it allows us to raise money,” Gable says. In the meantime, he’s thinking about how Rainbow can shake up LGBT theater.
Citing a 2013 New York Times article about inertia in gay theater, Gable says his approach is different from other troupes’. He wants to dig deeply into work that goes beyond the standard rotation of LGBT plays. “I saw The Normal Heart and I just said, ‘I don’t need to do that play anymore. I’ve seen the play that was in my head, and someone else did it and that’s fine.’ I’m not interested in doing Angels in America. I’m not interested in doing Torch Song Trilogy,” Gable says. “There are too many other places that are doing [those] well. If we did it, it would be like, ‘Of course we’re doing it, we have to do it.’ It would be like doing La Cage aux Folles. There are other things we could do…that may be just a little bit below the radar for a Studio Theatre or a Signature Theatre.”
Last fall, Rainbow debuted with a reading of The Drag, written in 1927 by icon/sex symbol/comedian Mae West (who wrote under her pen name, Jane Mast). The readings each coincide with a 10-minute play (the final six of which were chosen from more than 400 submissions); one of them is about a transgender woman coming out to her employer. In March, instead of doing Private Lives again (Gable directed that Noel Coward play in 2007 for Washington Shakespeare Company), he’s looking at doing Long Island Sound, a lesser-known Coward work. He wants to make sure the company doesn’t put itself in its own box, too, which means seeking out voices from people other than gay, white, middle-aged men, like himself.
Gable has a spreadsheet of the hundreds of plays he’d like to do, in fact. But his partners in the company keep him realistic. Of his managing director Michael Kelley, Gable says, “He looked at my list and was like, ‘Well this is a really good list… [but] it’s a little dark, don’t you think?’ Nothing like a managing director to say, ‘Yeah, how are you going to sell some of these?'”
Beyond a discussion of ticket sales, though, is a larger question about the relevance of LGBT theater today. In a theater world that’s no stranger to LGBT artists, is expressly gay theater necessary? When they founded the company, Lee says he and Kelly thought that over. Gable concluded there are still numerous important stories to tell. Having served for eight years in the U.S. Air Force, Gable says he had similar experiences to the ones depicted in the musical Rainbow plans to stage next season, about gay men in the army during World War II. “We’re much more of a worldwide community because of the Internet, I recognize that, but we’re no longer to the point where we can afford to just say, ‘OK, we don’t have to worry about that,'” he says. “Is it a niche theater? Yes. We’re going to revel in that.”
Exploring LGBT experiences is a big part of Rainbow’s mission, of course, but it’s also about examining culture in a different light. “I’m like, we’re gay men and women and we have wicked senses of humor,” Gable says, “and we have ways of looking at things that sometimes turn things on their head.”
Rainbow Theatre Project hosts a reading of Die Mommie Die! tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Source. Free.