SF's LGBTQ theater brings diverse voices to the stage

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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Playwright Nick Malakhow. Photo: Courtesy NCTC
Playwright Nick Malakhow. Photo: Courtesy NCTC

In October, San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center will mount the world premiere of Nick Malakhow's new play "A Picture of Two Boys." It is the first time the queer Dominican and Ukrainian American writer and theater educator has worked with the LGBTQ nonprofit theater.

The work features queer characters but delves more into their different racial backgrounds and other aspects of their identities. Their sexual orientations are not central to the plot, noted Malakhow in a recent phone interview from Boulder, Colorado where he lives and teaches English at a nearby private school.

"It is super amazing, honestly, to be working with a theater especially focused on LGBTQ issues with a story that centers LGBTQ characters but at the same time approaches these characters from a holistic, intersectional point of view," said Malakhow, 38, whose father emigrated from Ukraine in the 1950s at the age of 10. "It is exciting to be working with a queer theater on a play that, at first glance, one might not think is a 'gay' play. NCTC sees the intersectional value of bringing this story to their stage."

Richard Mosqueda, New Conservatory's new director of residence, chose Malakhow's work as one of the two plays they are directing as part of NCTC's 2022-2023 season. The other is the West Coast premiere in April of "Locusts Have No King" by queer Puerto Rican and Dominican playwright C. Julian Jiménez.

"I can safely say most theaters still have a difficult time programming queer voices, period. It is surprising to say in 2022," said Mosqueda, 32, who is queer, Mexican American and gender fluid. "When I look at it deeper, it's not a surprise. There are lots of queer folks in the theater industry but almost always they are doing plays heteronormative in nature or parading around as cisgender heterosexual folks or parading around in a musical where they have no voice."

Also the producer in residence for the Marin Theatre Company in the North Bay, Mosqueda looks to produce works where queer people aren't the butt of the joke but are written as real people who love and have real relationships. For years, they have wanted to work with New Conservatory for that reason.

"What NCTC does so well is they pride themselves — no pun intended — on putting those stories first. I knew NCTC was such a good fit for me as an artist because I almost exclusively do queer work," said Mosqueda, who grew up in Stockton in California's Central Valley and for two years worked as the box office manager for NCTC.

NCTC's early beginnings

The theater was founded in 1981 by and continues to be led by its artistic director, Ed Decker. In the beginning its audiences skewed toward that of gay white men and its productions primarily focused on telling stories from those patrons' point of view.

"In the earlier days I think that we all know the white, gay male audience was a focus, especially during the HIV pandemic," said Decker, 65, who has mounted more than 560 productions at New Conservatory. "I started realizing... wait a minute, this is not a white gay male thing, every community is impacted by this in our queer community. It really necessitates us to examine that and move the story forward."

The theater early on had earned the nickname of "Nude Conservatory Theatre Company" for the multitude of its productions that featured full frontal male nudity on stage. Such scenes are now far less common, as the old trope hasn't been the case for at least 15 years, said Andrew Jordan Nance, a gay man who this month stepped down from the theater's board of directors and performed in his first NCTC play in 1995.

"We certainly aren't doing that anymore at all," said Nance, 56, who has either performed in or directed at least 20 plays at New Conservatory. "Certainly, I think we have all evolved in our community around what is gay theater."

At the time of New Conservatory's founding, depicting gay intimacy on stage needed to be seen by the theater's patrons, said Nance, as it wasn't often shown on mainstream stages or in movie or television shows.

"In the beginning, especially for older men who had been through the ringer, I think it was just very comforting to see gay men and their relationships celebrated finally," said Nance.

Nudity as a storytelling device is no longer as necessary, he added, similar to how the stories being told on stage have moved beyond a central focus of a character's coming out of the closet.

"I think, at first, it was an opportunity to see gay men in sensual situations because it reminded us of our own coming out stories, and the trauma a lot of us went through to be out," said Nance. "So it was somehow comforting to see often success stories around the coming out process. If that meant seeing two men in bed together that was very calming to our nervous system."

When he thinks of canonical LGBTQ plays, particularly those from the 1990s, Malakhow said most are centered around HIV and AIDS or tell coming out stories. They aren't "necessarily representative" of his personal experience, he noted.

"I understand them on an intellectual level, but at the same time, I am really interested in telling stories that zero in on slightly more specific positions of people," said Malakhow, who grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey and began writing plays five years ago.

More expansive worldview

Today's queer plays have a more expansive worldview in terms of the stories the playwrights are telling, Malakhow noted. He finds it exciting that New Conservatory is "eager and looking to expand what 'queer theater' means" by mounting plays like his own.

"They are looking to populate the world of queer theater with different voices, which is very exciting for me," he said.

Mosqueda said that it took a while for New Conservatory to move beyond its past reputation as being a theater primarily for white gay men. Today, they said, that would no longer be a fair assessment of the theater.

"I think they are making really bold strides on improving that image, as exemplified in appointing me as director of residence," said Mosqueda. "The work I try to champion is the work of queer artists of color."

A commitment to diversifying the works it presents and the audiences it attracts has been a part of New Conservatory's mission for years. Whereas more mainstream theater companies, both in the Bay Area and other parts of the country, reexamined the type of productions they were mounting following the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, NCTC had begun to do so years prior.

"The concept of diversity, that has just been in our DNA for a long, long time," said Decker.

Over the last two decades New Conservatory has moved from seeing itself as being a gay theater to one that is a queer and allied theater, said Decker, who is gay. It is a progression that continues to this day, he added.

"I think our audiences — our older audience that helped found the theater that were gay, white males — also understood that they have been at the vanguard of sharing resources to help the queer and allied mission of NCTC advance both generationally, both culturally, and for gender identity wise," said Decker. "They, because of their own experiences, sort of whenever they were sidelined back in the day when they were growing up, I think they understand the power of making sure everybody gets to move forward."

Not everyone approved of the shift in programming, Decker acknowledged, but it opened the doors to bring in new audience members and supporters of the theater.

"Did we lose some folks along the way? Yes, sadly yes," he said. "However, we have made more space at the table and replaced those folks with new audiences and new stories."

And New Conservatory has recommitted itself to mounting works that present an expansive view of LGBTQ storytelling as it emerges from the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and presents a full season of shows once again. As its 2022-2027 strategic plan released earlier this year pledges, the nonprofit theater will "remain committed to building a sustainable organizational capacity with an emphasis on diversity."

In the 24-page document, which can be downloaded from its website, New Conservatory describes itself as a "queer-positive and anti-racist organization that aims to be intentional at every turn."

Decker said his "primary objective" in developing a new season of shows "is to lead the conversation" through the works that are selected.

"Since we started 40 years ago ... much has changed in the world around queer rights and human rights and politics and criminalization of homosexuality. Unfortunately, that still exists in far too many places in the world," he said. "For me, the common thread that runs through it all is this activist energy in my bones. I feel a responsibility to be leading with curiosity and empathy and humility in helping to advance the human rights conversation overall through a particular lens on the queer community because that is our mission."

In addition to commissioning one to two queer-themed new works each year, the theater has also pledged to increase its queer diverse and allied Black, Indigenous, people of color audiences by 25% within the next five years. It wants to see that its board and staff have a "balanced composition" of BIPOC, queer, and allied people. All board members and employees will take part in anti-racism, queer-positivity and inclusiveness trainings.

"It is a large but important target," said Decker, who has confidence it can be met. "Raising the bar and making sure to work toward these really aggressive goals helps to fuel the momentum."

Of the plan's five specific goals, number one pledges the theater will "continue to lead in telling the stories from a full spectrum of LGBTQ+ and Allied voices, with a special focus on centering the BIPOC Queer community, elevating new work, and welcoming new audiences."

In order to achieve that goal, the theater is committed to producing works each season "written, directed, performed, and designed by BIPOC artisans." Through its New Voices/New Work initiative, the theater also is devoted to "further expanding the storytelling of Trans, Nonbinary, non-western cultures and marginalized populations within the Queer community."

Playwright Nora Brigid Monahan. Photo: Courtesy NCTC  

One of the upcoming season's featured playwrights is Nora Brigid Monahan, 29, who lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as the manager of individual giving and special events at the Off-Broadway nonprofit theater company Primary Stages. The West Coast premiere of their play "Aunt Jack" kicks off New Conservatory's new season in September.

Speaking by phone Monahan said all the writers they know who have worked with NCTC "all had wonderful experiences." They've followed the works New Conservatory has been producing the past five years and were "absolutely thrilled when they picked up this play," said Monahan.

They said they're "really heartened" by the steps that Decker and NCTC have taken to be as "inclusive as possible" as they select plays and other productions to showcase each season.

"It definitely is really rewarding for me and exhilarating for me as a younger emerging nonbinary, transgender, polyamorous playwright to be given a space in this community and this kind of institution. It really means a lot," said Monahan.

First produced in 2018, their play has been mounted three times on the East Coast. It centers on a queer family comprised of a gay couple, a lesbian mother and the gay son they raised together.

"One of the things I loved is it is a family story that incorporates the notion of an expanding family that integrates gender fluidity as part of its dynamic," said Decker. "I think that one of the things I really liked about the play was there was an opportunity to sort of look at that aspect of queer identity, that fluid aspect of queer identity."

When Decker emailed them to say their play had been selected, Monahan said it was an "incredible surprise." They are excited for a Bay Area audience to see it.

"This play 'Aunt Jack' is sort of about the generational shift in what a gay and queer identity is. And so the questions that NCTC is wrestling with right now are ones I was personally wrestling with in writing this play," said Monahan, who grew up in New York and was a child actor.

They were cast in several plays by gay playwright Charles Busch, who "became an amazing mentor to me and dear friend," said Monahan. Thus, they are thrilled their play is opening the new season and the regional premiere of Busch's "The Confession of Lily Dare" will close it out next spring.

"I have known Charles since I was 11. I have spent my whole life being just like him," they said. "To have plays form both of us at NCTC is just beyond, beyond humbling and rewarding."

One initiative New Conservatory is working on is a national production network for rolling world premieres of LGBTQ+ plays. It would like to produce one to two such rolling premieres each season.

Hard conversations
After two years of dealing with forced closures or limited seasons due to COVID, Mosqueda said theaters across the country are having hard conversations about the types of works they plan to produce, as they need to attract audiences to help recoup their lost revenues and mount shows that will get people to leave their homes to attend the theater.

Those factors can make it a challenge for more mainstream theaters to produce queer plays, noted Mosqueda. Thus, it makes having New Conservatory even more necessary as a champion of queer theatrical works.

"It is a tricky time right now as we are entering, dare I say, a post-pandemic world. I hope we are," they said. "Everyone is struggling, whether at Marin or at NCTC. Small audiences are a thing we are having to contend with. What are they ready for and what are they excited to see at the theater? What are audiences hungry for at this moment?"

Of the plays Malakhow gravitates toward and reads, he said there is a greater focus on intersectional queer stories. The playwrights look at a queer person's identity, he said, from multiple aspects in their scripts.

"They are very much centering queerness in their storytelling while at the same time not ignoring a whole host of factors that impact the narrative or lives of the characters," said Malakhow. "We know by now the LGBTQ community's queerness is not a monolith. They are chipping away at the larger social assumptions, larger social practices and thought processes that make that assumption of that monolithic identity."

He added that he "hopes to see more plays examine not just queer characters and queerness in relation to heterosexuality but also look at issues within the queer community."

Richard Mosqueda is the New Conservatory Theatre Center's new director of residence. Photo: Courtesy NCTC  

Mosqueda praised Malakhow for his developing characters that are well balanced and honest.

"It doesn't feel forced, which is a rarity for a young writer," noted Mosqueda. "Their impulse is to dazzle and make up circumstances that are ridiculous just to prove something. With Nick, it feels like he has such an ease with his characters. They feel so real and the circumstances feel so truthful."

As for Jiménez, Mosqueda first met him in 2018 when the playwright answered a call they had posted on Facebook seeking new works Mosqueda could pitch to theaters to produce. They invited Jiménez to stay with them when he attended a retreat in Marin and the two became friends; they worked on Jiménez' highly praised "Bruise and Thorn" play produced Off Broadway earlier this year in New York.

"His voice is unapologetically queer and incredibly hilarious. It is irreverent and uniquely his," said Mosqueda, noting that this is the first time "Locusts Have No King" has been produced since it premiered off-off-Broadway in 2016. "His characters are social misfits who have so much heart, ambitions and dreams. They are incredibly realized."

New Conservatory's upcoming season is meant to not only deliver "challenging and provocative" works, said Decker, but also provide some "joy and celebration" to audiences.

"One of the things we wanted to be sure to do with the next season was to make sure we could have a little more fun together. It has been such a rough time for everybody and there is so much anxiety out there still," said Decker. "Being able to come into a room not only to connect with our hearts but also to laugh together is crucial."

Planning underway for leadership changes
The new strategic plan redoubles New Conservatory's efforts to bring LGBTQ theatrical productions to schoolchildren throughout Northern California. It aims to grow its student body of on-site and off-site programs by 15% and will look to commission three new works for its YouthAware initiative by 2027.

"We were always very clear that we needed to have a diverse cast so that students could see themselves on stage," said Nance, who ran the school program for 18 years and now heads the San Francisco Education Fund's Mindful Arts San Francisco program that uses performing arts and storytelling to teach local students the principles of mindfulness.

Also contained in the new plan is a call for the theater's board and leadership to begin succession planning for when both Decker and New Conservatory's executive director, Barbara Hodgen, decide to step down. In doing so, it calls for "a particular emphasis on equity and diversity to lead" the nonprofit the years ahead, with the plans cemented by 2026.

"It's been something on my mind. Nobody is going to be running an organization forever," said Decker, who will turn 66 in July. "I can say it is more than just on my mind. I am working with a consultant around understanding how this process of succession can and should unfold."

Nance said it makes sense that Decker is being "thoughtful" about what will be a "big transition" for the theater when he and Hodgen do decide to step down because Decker has always approached his work in such a thoughtful manner.

"It makes me sad to think about Ed leaving, and I want him to be able to kick his shoes off and relax because he has worked so hard and so consciously to really bring the best theater he can imagine for so many years," said Nance. "His ability to bring together kind, compassionate and creative people is really something he should be very proud of."

No matter who is at the helm of New Conservatory, LGBTQ playwrights and directors hope it will continue to thrive for decades to come. While LGBTQ people may no longer need to congregate in queer, urban neighborhoods as suburban communities become more welcoming for LGBTQ residents, they contend there will continue to be a need for queer theaters that produce and amplify the voices of queer playwrights such as NCTC does.

"I don't even want to imagine it," Mosqueda said of losing NCTC. "It is such a rarity for a theater to be focused entirely on a queer focus. Few theaters are willing to commit to those stories, period."

New Conservatory is that unique place, said Mosqueda, where queer people go in solidarity and to commune with another.

"I don't feel I have that at other theaters," said Mosqueda. "Where would queer people go to see themselves reflected?"

Monahan said, "I think NCTC provides space for us to do that; to live, laugh, cry, and know what it means to be one's authentic self. Now, more than ever, we need those spaces."

To learn more about New Conservatory and its upcoming season, click here.

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