GayFest Turns 5! But How!?

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Making it to season 5 is a huge deal in the world of TV, but it's a BIGGER deal in the theatre community where money, time, and resources always seem to be tight. Philadelphia has an amazingly evolved theater scene that includes a fairly large number of large performance houses. More exciting though is the seemingly unlimited number of small theater companies who maintain a strong foothold in the "scene." So congratulations is in order to Quince Production's "GAYFEST!" This year's line up marks their 5th season of bringing gay theater to the area. 

Season 1 of "GayFest" took place at The Shubin theatre on it's stage that is barely over 10 feet wide. Before a performance, during season 1, Rich Rubin stood up to announce that due to the seasons success, "GayFest" would return for a second season. His announcment was greated with standing ovation and over-the-top excitment and as the festival grew, the location had to change to it's current home at Plays & Players. 

I recently sat down with Rich Rubin, Producing Artistic Director of Quince Productions for some insight into how "GayFest" has been so successful. He attributes the longevity of the festival to the dedication of the actors, designers, directors, stage managers, and to the art over the money. With total pride Rich filled me in on more about his feelings towards Gayfest…

"Most importantly, LGBT lives are something one sees onstage only occasionally in Philadelphia. So I think a lot of people who love theater are eager to something that represents their lives. And the concentration of the festival setting helps – for 3 weeks in August, any night they might want to go to the theater, there's something focusing on some aspect of our community; This applies to straight people as well. We've had a healthy share of straight audience members who have commented on how enlightening it is to see something about issues they'd never really thought about.

A little history: after two years of all four mainstage plays happening in one space (first the Shubin, then Plays & Players), I said "enough of this craziness" and they now are split between two theaters (this year for the first time, we're venturing to South Philly – at Studio X, 13th and Reed).

I think it helps that on just about any given night of the festival, there are plays or one-night stands in two theaters, so if one isn't to your taste there's another option. There's such a wide variety of stuff being presented – especially when you consider the one-night stands, which have included everything from a trans* comic hosting an evening of burlesque to cabarets to a reading of a new play considering lesbian and trans* issues to…well, R. Eric Thomas.

Funny story in this regard: one year of the festival, a gentleman had seen three out of the four mainstage plays – all but the lesbian play. I kept telling him how good that one was, and he said, "I don't want to see a play that's not about my life." I responded, "Well, you do that all the time when you see a play about straight people." One night I happened to be at the lesbian play and sure enough, there he was. He came up to me after the show and said, "Man, I want to thank you for badgering me into see that, it was great!"

Because we've been around five years now, people KNOW the festival. They know that in August they're going to have a GayFest! with a million events happening. It's gone from being an experiment to being a tradition. Many companies will do an occasional LGBT-themed show (and two–Mauckingbird and Truth Be Told Productions–focus exclusively on LGBT-themed shows, and do a great job of it). What makes the festival different is that people don't have to search around for who might be doing what when. If it's August, it's GayFest!.

In that sense, it has become a tradition. I get emails from people asking me, "When are you going to announce the lineup for GayFest!?" It's something of a social event, a place where groups of friends can go, and I think to some degree a place people feel they might meet someone. I was so excited when I saw the first Craigslist ad that read something like, "Saw you in the second row of GayFest! the other night. We chatted briefly but I wish I'd gotten your number." My friends accused me of making it up myself but I swear I didn't!

I do think a major reason for the success of the festival is the quality of people we get working for it: actors, directors, designers. I believe they do it out of a commitment to having a festival like this (it sure ain't the money), and of course a festival about gay lives is going to have some awfully interesting roles in it! (I remember one actress saying, "I've done a lot of roles in my life, but I've never gotten to play a character named Garnet McClit before!") I can think of productions at just about every major theater in town that have featured GayFest! alumni in one capacity or other: this is the quality of people the festival is attracting.

There's also been a national slant to the festival, which is something exciting for audiences – with companies like The Bang Group coming in from New York, or Cirque du Gay from Kansas City, or Iron Crow Theatre from Baltimore, there's been an influx of talent throughout the history of the festival, and an opportunity for audiences to see something a little broader in scope.

I think people are drawn to the fact that most of the work is new to Philadelphia, and sometimes it's a world premiere we commissioned, as with the amazing "Mike and Seth" by Daniel Talbott, one of the plays I'm most proud of in decades of directing. It never failed to move audiences to tears, the actors did such remarkable work, and when I think that beautiful play might not have existed if not for GayFest! and our efforts to commission it, that alone is almost enough to make all the work of five years of this festival worth it. Of course, the world premiere thing isn't always the case–witness the 50th anniversary production of "The Haunted Host" (but even that, I bet, was new to 99% of the audience). "

To get another perspective I talked to some of the cast from the past. 

From R. Eric Thomas, he's been in more "GayFest" productions than any other actor.  "I love that 'GayFest' exists and continues to evolve. Rich does a great job of curating a program that mixes exciting new voices like, Phillip Dawkins, with tried and true gay classics. It's a great addition to the diverse theatre scene in Philly and I'm proud to have been a part of it."

From Daniel Talbott, the major New York playwright whose work has been in four GayFest! festivals: "Slipping" in 2011, "Mike and Seth" in 2012, "Someone Brought Me" in 2013, and "You Know My Name: A Daniel Talbott Trio" in 2014: "I love Philly, and I love GayFest! and the man who has made the whole thing possible with a ton of heart, hard work, and vision – Rich Rubin. I think the festival works so beautifully and continues to grow because of the diversity of the work being shown and the wonderful grass roots feel of the whole festival. For what the Fest lacks in huge budgets and teams of staff, it makes it up infinitely with what's most important: a love of theater and an open arms approach to sharing beautiful work with the city. Seeing a show at GayFest! is always a blast and always has such a joyful open quality to it. I'm so proud that I've gotten to be a part of this festival and I really hope I get to again."

From Sarah J. Gafgen, who appeared in "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" (2012) and directed "The Homosexuals" (2013) and "The Haunted Host" (2014): "I have loved participating in 3 years of Gayfest! Each year Quince Productions selects evocative work that gets people thinking, and more importantly, gets people talking. My favorite part of participating in GayFest! (aside from the incredible artists I've had the privilege to work with) is hearing the conversation amongst audiences after the shows; with this festival we get to start meaningful, transformative conversations and I'm so proud of that work."

From Frank Schierloh, who starred in 2013's "The Homosexuals" and returns to GayFest! this year as the star of "From White Plains": "I think GayFest! is so successful because Philly has a vibrant LGBT community who love theatre, and who want to see shows that represent them and the community.  That's why, as a gay actor, I came back for my second GayFest!."  The stories and characters are relatable, and they're the stuff I want to see more of, and am lucky to perform.

The entire list of performances, dates and synopsis can be found here!



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