In memory of Angelica DeVil, without whom these things I remember would not have been possible.
In November 1999, I suddenly found myself getting the hell out of Atlanta and moving into very strange quarters on Printers' Alley in Nashville. Needless to say, the first thing I did after getting settled was to locate my watering hole.
Fortunately for me, this turned out to be a bar which deserves to go down in history. Called The Gaslight, it was located on 8th Avenue, North between Commerce and Church Streets in what was and still is the only remaining pre Civil War residence in down town Nashville. The Smith House, as it is called, started out as a private residence which was, over the years, home to some prominent Nashville families, but it had other lives too - in the 1890s it was The Jewish Mens' Club and they had added a ballroom to the back of the house (and, I believe, a bowling alley in the basement.)
By the time I got here, the main house was a bed and breakfast and the ballroom was this wonderful speakeasy of a smoky bar with a horseshoe bar, a balcony and a deerhead behind the bar named Reba.
To get to the bar from the street you went up a little brick walkway to the right side of the building. There was a bit of a door there - very "Alice In Wonderland" - that took you into a narrow brick alley that smacked more of New Orleans than anything else and was, over the years, a setting for many a dramatic moment involving drag queens, bad boys and all degrees of "the inebriated."
The first time I stepped from that alley into the bar itself, all I could see was this awesome Shakespearean stage that took up the center of the room and was used for drag shows and other entertainments of that ilk. I'm pretty sure I'm the first person that ever looked at that stage and thought "Chekov - yes, let's do Chekov."
Two years later, I had weeded out the folks in the mix who seemed to have the "theatre gene" and we WERE doing Chekov - and Tennessee Williams and Edgar Allan Poe - as The Southern Writers Theatre in a show called AT HOME AND ABROAD; AN EVENING WITH TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, ANTON CHEKOV AND EDGAR ALLAN POE. In addition to working with the fabulous Jack and Sally Hoke, there were also two ladies in the cast who made the production special. One was Amy Chomsky, Noam Chomsky's niece, and the other was Rebecca Holden, who counts among her credits the TV show KNIGHT RIDER. Rebecca was our torch singer and when she closed the show with Dixie, the regulars at the bar wept into their whiskies.
Angelica DeVil was in awe of the fact that we had Rebecca Holden in our show and Angelica became a driving force of The Southern Writers' Theatre, going so far, in 2003, as to put down her cocktail and pick up a script and hit the stage in the role of Melodius Flowe in my satirical look at Atlanta society, CAFE ESCARGOT. You can find Angelica and the Buckhead-Dunwoody Diet Brigade doing their thing on YouTube below:
Angelica was also on board two months later when we broke some local box office records with our production of TORCH SONG TRILOGY at The Darkhorse Theatre. The entire three week run sold out entirely three weeks before we opened at $25.00 at ticket (not one single comp did I give) because the production starred Mark Middleton, who was better known around these parts as Bianca Paige.
Because of these various factors and because - let me come out of the closet here - I'm gay and so is my boyfriend, Jamie (10 years this year) - we got niched as "gay theatre." That wasn't exactly true, because our artistic mission was good plays, good actors and a good time - for everybody. We did Strindberg (MISS JULIE; THE MUSICAL) and Strindberg is like the poster child for heterosexuality. Tortured heterosexuality.
We did a Halloween Vaudeville called GHOSTS OF NASHVILLE that had a lot of dead Nashvillians singing, dancing and dueling. We worked on Brian Pedersen's musical adaptation of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. Not so gay plays, some of them. So, at that level, not "gay theatre."
But at another level, at the level of aesthetics and at the level of community energy and an approach to getting things done (it's not easy to be a drag queen - it takes a lot of work and a few cocktails, at least) - yes, you could say it was "gay theatre." And "gay theatre" is the one thing that's missing in the Nashville theatre mix at this time. Why are there no theatres on Church Street?
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One of the joys of NYC is that in any bar - gay, straight or other - as likely as not, anyone you strike up a conversation with is either in the theatre or has just come from a show. I have had some very interesting conversations with some very significant theatre folks in some very bizarre establishments in New York. Here if you say you're in the theatre, 90% of the time the response will be "Oh - do you work at TPAC."
Here shortly we are going to revisit a bit of Nashville's gay theatre history with a new look at TORCH SONG starring Veronika Elektronika and Malachi Taylor. We'll be tweeting about this, no doubt.
Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!