Arts & Culture » Theater

Five Lesbian Brothers in the mix

by Jim Gladstone

Lisa Kron, one of The Five Lesbian Brothers: "When we started, we were utterly invisible." Photo: Joan Marcus
Lisa Kron, one of The Five Lesbian Brothers: "When we started, we were utterly invisible." Photo: Joan Marcus  

"Oedipus in Palm Springs," a play by The Five Lesbian Brothers, a writing collaborative that includes Lisa Kron, was in rehearsals for a rare revival at Theater Rhinoceros (opening July 12 at the Gateway Theatre, with a local cast). "Fun Home," the Tony-winning musical for which Kron wrote libretto and lyrics, had just opened to terrific reviews on London's West End. But last week, when the Bay Area Reporter spoke to Kron in New York, it was neither of these projects that she seemed most excited about. In fact, the work she repeatedly returned to, with generous praise and a slight sense of awe, wasn't her own.

"I need to point to 'Nanette,'" a typically modest Kron said early in our conversation. "For every lesbian I know, seeing Hannah Gadsby's show has been an epic event."

The Tasmanian-born Gadsby's one-woman stand-up act cum spiritual awakening was filmed at the Sydney Opera House and debuted on Netflix last month. It's a complex, layered examination of the otherness felt by women, and particularly lesbians, in the culture of comedy, a sometimes devastating demonstration that female humorists have been culturally required to beat themselves with their own punchlines. And an urgent call to lay down the gloves.

"She's broken open and smashed down the wall that so many of us have been running against for all of our careers," said Kron. But there's little question that the road toward Hannah Gadsby was paved in part by Kron and her colleagues in The Five Lesbian Brothers. Their five full-length works - "Voyage to Lesbos," "Brave Smiles," "The Secretaries," "Brides of the Moon," and "Oedipus..." - each whip wit, literary references and feminist consciousness into a delectably tart, barb-garnished mousse.

Kron, now 57, majored in theater as an undergraduate and was performing autobiographical solo works in New York while working as a temp when the women first collaborated in 1988.

"When we started," Kron recalled of the quintet's early days at the DIY-spirited WOW Café Theatre in late-1980s Manhattan, "we were utterly invisible. Except for a couple of critics at The Village Voice, C. Carr and Alyssa Solomon, nobody was paying attention to lesbian theater. We all had other jobs. I worked as a temp. The idea of a professional theater career doing lesbian material in New York was just not an option." The Brothers collaborative was hatched as a plan to potentially create a less-marginalized career.

"Mo and I decided to explore the idea of making a show that could tour small theaters and campuses after we performed at WOW," said Kron. The pair enlisted the remaining three Brothers and hoped that, by serving as both creators and performers, they might build something sustainable and allow them to set other jobs aside to work only in theater for a stretch. Along with achieving that goal (at least sporadically), said Kron, the group's creative process was critical in sharpening her own skills as a dramatist.

"I'm uncomfortable being pulled out of the collaborative to talk about this," Kron admitted with typical modesty. "But I will say that our work together is what really turned me into a writer. It's been some of the most rewarding and transformational of my creative life.

"The essential tool in our process is free writing," said Kron. "We get into a room together and prompt each other with the germ of an idea, then riff. One of the earliest prompts we ever worked with was this ridiculous SlimFast television commercial where Elizabeth Ashley said, 'A delicious shake for breakfast, a delicious shake for lunch, and a sensible dinner.'

"At the same time, we'd be talking about what's been going on in our lives. The death of a parent. Losing a job. A political situation. We'll be pulling in and out of writing and talking until things are moving in the direction of a play.

"Then, at some point, we'll say, 'OK, let's all write an outline of the whole plot,' or, 'What are the five things we want to accomplish in this scene?' and then, 'Now draft the dialogue for that scene.' We'll write, then read aloud, and write and read, repeatedly. Eventually images, jokes and characters start to cross-pollinate. Sometimes we'll do improvs." The group then splits up to do "homework," and later reconvenes for further collective efforts.

"The depth of collaboration that the Brothers have with each other is a type that even collaborators don't imagine is possible," said Kron. "In many groups, ultimately there is some kind of hierarchy. But we have really been a five-headed hydra in the process of making these plays. For me, it's been a revelation to see what's possible."

Kron said her work with the Brothers was essential preparation for "Fun Home." "Music theater," she explained, "is inherently collaborative. It's often practiced by people with incredible specific talents, but no skills or faith in collaboration. But 'Fun Home' ended up feeling amazingly harmonious. It was the hardest thing I've ever worked on, but the team worked together so beautifully."

"Oedipus in Palm Springs," the group's most recent work, began with a desire to build something that started with Greek mythology: "What would it mean to have a butch lesbian take the place of the seminal protagonist of Western drama?"

"At first," said Kron, "we just knew we wanted to do something called 'Oedipussy.' We were riffing about having it set in The House of Pancoccus, a spin on the House of Pancakes. So we were going to set it in a Greek diner. Then we went and read a bunch of the original Greek plays, which led us to thinking, 'What if a woman found out that her girlfriend was really her daughter?'"

The New York Times described the resulting 2005 work as "brave, funny and quite lovable," full of "ribald jokes, flagrant nudity and voluptuous doses of sexual play." Remarkably, it's only now, as the play reaches its bat mitzvah year, that "Oedipus in Palm Springs" is making its regional debut at Theatre Rhinoceros.

"The world is so divided right now," said Kron. "There is one kind of person who feels that they are the only ones who matter and will crush any pretenders under our boots. On the other hand, we're living at a time when so many people are standing up to insist on visibility, dignity and humanity. It's amazing to be at a point where Netflix is picking up Hannah Gadsby, and that so many people are watching it. I've talked to so many men who have watched it. It's very gratifying to have our play be in the mix at this particular moment."

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