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Past, Present And Future Of San Diego’s LGBT Theater

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that "The Kids Are Alright" won an Oscar. KPBS regrets the error.

Above: Cast members of "Dooley," currently running at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. (l-r) Robert Borzych, Reed Willard and Jesse McKinnon.

Audio

Aired 5/13/11

San Diego’s gay and lesbian theater is at a crossroads. Diversionary Theatre just celebrated its 25th anniversary and will soon have a new director. Angela Carone looks at how San Diego’s LGBT theater has changed with the times.

It’s no longer unusual to find a gay or lesbian character on television or in movies.

"The Kids Are Alright" featured lesbian parents and won a Golden Globe. "Glee" is one of the most popular shows on television. The character of Kurt is gay and out to his peers. He's also one of the most popular characters on the show and, one could argue, gets all the best lines.

A flyer from one of the first plays staged by Diversionary at the gay disco West Coast Production Company.
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Above: A flyer from one of the first plays staged by Diversionary at the gay disco West Coast Production Company.

More gay characters in mainstream media certainly represents progress. And yet, an argument is still being made for a theater devoted exclusively to telling the stories of the queer (LGBT) community. In San Diego, that theater exists in the form of Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.

Playwright and composer Thomas Hodges, 22, says that "Glee's" Kurt doesn't represent the whole of the LGBT community. "I think Kurt is a very important part of our culture right now and it's doing a lot of good. He’s a strong gay character. But not everyone is as strong as him and not everyone is SO OUT as him. So there are other struggles."

Hodges says those other struggles are often depicted on Diversionary’s stage. Hodges works with the theater on Park Blvd. in University Heights on a regular basis.

"A lot of times theaters don’t want to do gay plays or they don’t want to do a play that is just gay or just lesbian. So to have a theater that comes from that focus is important. Those plays often speak for not just the queer community, but for all minorities."

Diversionary is currently staging a world premiere called "Dooley." It is based on the real life experiences of Dr. Tom Dooley, a charismatic naval officer who was forced out of the Navy in the 1950s, long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

I visited a tech rehearsal of "Dooley" just before opening night. The actors were running a few scenes while a professional photographer snapped publicity photos.

Thom Vegh founded Diversionary 25 years ago. He said a professional photographer is a luxury he couldn’t afford then. "We were itinerant. We had to carry our props and our costumes and go from one inhospitable place to another, playing in non-air-conditioned theaters in heavy, period costumes."

Vegh staged Diversionary’s first show on the floor of a gay disco called West Coast Production Company. Vegh directed, helped build the sets, made homemade tickets and even worked the box office. He said opening night was packed. "It was electric. The people were hearing themselves and hearing about their experiences -- some of them for the first time and some for the first time in the theater."

John Alexander is the new executive director of Diversionary Theatre.
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Above: John Alexander is the new executive director of Diversionary Theatre.

Today, Diversionary is a solid mid-level theater, with a permanent home and an annual budget of roughly $500,000. John Alexander was recently appointed executive director.

While every theater is struggling to attract audiences, Alexander said Diversionary must attract audiences beyond the LGBT community. "I have so much respect for the people who were fighting this in the '70s, when it wasn’t an accepted cause. But I have to say that I’m excited we can make these themes universal and that we don’t have to limit ourselves to gay stereotypes."

Alexander believes that one of the ways to reach broader audiences is through the use of pop culture.

"Popular culture is not a derogatory term. I think what happened in the '60s with the growth of the regional theater movement, was this need to create important theater that is serious, and navel gazing, and they forgot that you can reach people more with pop culture."

Alexander may be on to something. Currently the hottest ticket on Broadway is “The Book of Mormon,” a musical about an ancient religious debate told by the creators of the irreverent TV show “South Park.”

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