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Theater Companies  
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Since the earliest days of theatrical production, most of those involved in theater have seen the stage as a mirror held up to life. Through the mirror of theater, playwrights and actors reflect the real world, showing the audience aspects of its own human nature. This reflection usually has multiple purposes, including entertainment, education, and satire, often with an ultimate goal of improving the world that is reflected through theater's mirror.

The world of theater has always attracted large numbers of gay men and lesbians, made expert in the arts of disguise and illusion by the necessity of hiding their identities. However, ironically, just as in other areas of society, pre-liberation glbtq people usually found themselves left out of the mirror that theater held up to society.

Drag Troupes

Probably the earliest gay theater companies were drag troupes.

The Jewel Box Revue, an interracial group that billed itself as "Twenty-five Men and a Girl," was founded in 1939 in a Miami nightclub. It differed from earlier drag acts in that it offered a unified production, not merely a succession of solo acts. Moreover, the show featured dance routines, original music, and comic sketches, but not lip synching.

The revue began touring the United States in the 1940s, appearing mostly in gay bars and nightclubs, but in some theaters as well. The extensive circuit of bars and other performing venues is some indication that the glbtq population in the 1940s and 1950s was larger and somewhat more organized than often realized.

The original Jewel Box Revue ceased performing in 1975, but it spawned other traveling troupes of female impersonators.

Perhaps the most important drag theater company is that formed by actor, playwright, director, and producer Charles Ludlam in 1967 in New York. Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company combines parody, camp theatricality, popular culture, and drag with serious--often wrenchingly moving--acting to create a unique dramatic experience. The Ridiculous Theater Company survived Ludlam's death in 1987 and is now directed by Ludlam's former lover and colleague, Everett Quinton.

Other notable drag shows include the very influential Hot Peaches, who performed in New York in the early 1970s, and San Francisco's Cockettes, a 1970s-era gender-bending group that added outrageous performance art to the traditional bump and grind of drag performance.

Lesbians and female-to-male performers began to popularize drag king shows in the late 1990s. Drag king troupes such as Victoria, British Columbia's 5 O'Clock Shadow have joined the drag tradition.

Pre-Stonewall Gay Theater

Modern non-drag gay theater had its beginnings in the mid-1960s. Indeed, one might date the origins of gay theater quite precisely to the production of Lanford Wilson's one-act play about a drag queen, The Madness of Lady Bright, at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse run by an openly gay theater producer, Joe Cino. Caffe Cino produced the early works of Robert Patrick, Jean Claude van Itallie, Doric Wilson, Tom Eyen, and William M. Hoffman, among many others.

The mid-1960s explosion of theater in unlikely venues, such as coffehouses, churches, and bars, came to be known as the beginnings of off-off-Broadway. What is sometimes not recognized is that much of this theater was gay theater.

Theater in the Aftermath of Stonewall

The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 gave additional impetus to what became a more self-conscious gay theater movement. Theatrical began to create art that illuminated gay life and gay experience, both to validate that experience among glbtq people themselves and to educate straight society about those they had long ignored.

One of the goals of the gay liberation movement was to end the isolation of gays and lesbians. Not surprisingly, community has been one of the most important ideals of queer life. Theater companies attempt both to create their own communities and to foster a sense of the community at large. They are activist organizations that attempt both to educate the larger society and to inculcate a feeling of solidarity among members of the glbtq communities.

During the formative years of gay liberation, grassroots queer organizations sprang up in communities all over the country, and dozens of theater companies were among them. In Seattle, for example, one such grassroots lesbian theater group took its name, Front Room Theater, from its first venue, the front room of the director's house. Such groups created original works and produced works of local playwrights.

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A poster for a Wings Theatre Company production of Cowboys.
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