Learn a 'Secret'

A GLBT theater company moves to Tucson and struggles to find an audience

Joe Marshall's back in town, and he's looking for company.

Specifically, he's looking for an audience for The Alternative Theatre Company, which he's transplanting from Phoenix. He's also looking for enough appropriate actors to support a full season of gay and lesbian theater.

In the past few months, he's found both audience and actors to be in shorter supply than he'd hoped.

Marshall graduated from Sunnyside High in 1976, and quickly left town. Over the next 30 years, he returned only for reunions and family visits. Family matters brought him back to Tucson early this year, and now he's ready to stay.

Fifteen years ago, Marshall, who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, co-founded The Alternative Theatre Company, which mounted productions in Phoenix and San Diego. It's a group that, according to its mission statement, produces plays and musicals that "engage an audience in a conversation about specific feelings ... reflecting the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community."

The company was a quick and surprising success, considering that Phoenix is such a haven for withered old reactionaries who believe that if homosexuals come out of the closet, it should only be to go straight to hell. Marshall was willing to take a chance, because he'd recently discovered that there are, indeed, plays that feature nonstereotypical gay characters who aren't necessarily dying of AIDS.

He'd been in New York when he'd seen his first gay-themed play just a few months before. "It wasn't sugar-coated or apologetic," he recalls. "I saw my life on stage. It was the first time I knew how straight people feel when they come out of the theater."

Despite audience acceptance, in the early 1990s, Marshall did find it slightly difficult to start a GLBT-themed theater company in Phoenix, but not for the reasons you might expect. Marshall was having trouble renting theaters.

"We couldn't even find a venue that would let us come in until we took 'gay' off our literature," he says. "If I were running a Jewish theater company, would they ask me to take 'Jewish' off my literature?" Reason eventually prevailed. "Today, I can go anywhere," Marshall says. "Thank god for Brokeback Mountain."

Marshall started out as an actor, but he's become a playwright, too. He introduced his company to Tucson this past August with his script A Night in Vegas, addressing the issue of gay marriage. Next up is another Joe Marshall original, a dark comedy about infidelity called Dirty Secrets. It opens Friday, Oct. 13, for a two-week run.

For A Night in Vegas, TATC rented Beowulf Alley, a small theater but one nevertheless too big for a new-to-Tucson group making a summer debut. "Our largest audience was 20," Marshall says ruefully. "That was the smallest audience we ever had in Phoenix. If this is what it's going to be like in Tucson, we might have to scale back to one production a year." For now, Marshall is forging ahead with a fuller season, moving at least for the upcoming show to the more intimate space at ArtFare.

Exactly what the rest of the season may hold, though, is still up in the air. Marshall didn't intend to produce nothing but his own scripts this year; he'd planned to follow up A Night in Vegas with Paul Rudnick's popular Jeffrey, in which a young man decides to go celibate, just before meeting Mr. Right--who is, yes, HIV-positive. "When we did auditions in Phoenix, we could choose from 35 to 100 actors for any show," Marshall says. "But for Jeffrey, only five guys showed up, and they were all between the ages of 50 and 80. So we had to cancel that production."

It isn't that Marshall hires only gay actors. He's produced plays in which more than half the gay characters were played by straight actors, and, although his mission is to give the GLBT community something to talk and think about, he welcomes heterosexuals to the box office. "All I ask is that they are open-minded," he says. "If they don't have any issues, we don't, either."

Marshall says he wants to offer a balance of new works and more established theater pieces, all of which take up GLBT issues realistically, though not necessarily dead-seriously. Right now, he's writing a holiday show called The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever, about a guy who runs a gay theater company who turns the annual holiday show into a disastrous gay pageant. Let's hope for Marshall's sake that this will be a case of art imitating life, rather than vice versa.

"We want to take a chance with some shows," Marshall says. "What Stephen (Elton) is doing at Beowulf Alley is what I'd eventually love to be doing, but producing only gay and lesbian work. But to support that, we have to do more popular gay and lesbian work, too. It's like any other theater company that finances the rest of its season with a production of Oklahoma! Except for us, it would have to be Oklahomo! Imagine what we could do with those songs! But I refuse to wear gingham. At least for now."

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