In June 2019, the Pride Plays festival debuted at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater to honor Stonewall 50 during the World Pride celebration. The event made such a splash that creators Michael Urie, Doug Nevin, and Nick Mayo felt compelled to reprise the festival for Pride 2020.
Pride Plays was programmed and ready to move forward. But in March, when theaters in New York and beyond went dark due to the COVID crisis, plans were thrown into disarray — but the project was not abandoned. Event co-producers Urie and Nevin, along with director Mayo, sat down with Gay City News via Zoom to chat about the festival’s extraordinary rebirth.
Michael Urie, Doug Nevin, Nick Mayo return with Pride Plays, Zoom-style
“At the beginning of the pandemic we had high hopes that [the coronavirus] would be at least under control if not a memory,” said Urie, referring to their planned opening in late June. “We kept thinking we’d be the first ones back and we can still do this.”
For a solid month they thought the target date was still possible. But as the lockdown kept extending, it became clear the original plan had to be scuttled.
“The idea of packing the Rattlestick with people in masks and gloves wasn’t the spirit we wanted,” Urie said of the historic, intimate venue. “And yet we had engaged all these artists. Pride was going to be in the month of June, whether there was a parade or not.”
“I would say that the straw that broke the gay camel’s back was the canceling of the Pride Parade,” said Mayo. “Once we heard that, the curtain came down.”
So they set out devising a plan to move the entire shebang online. According to Nevin, they began to expand their vision beyond staging LGBTQ-themed plays.
“In addition to supporting new playwrights and plays selected through our submissions process, we also were thinking how to celebrate Pride in a larger way, in a more publicly available way, because events like the parade and the Garden Party and Broadway Bares would not be happening this year,” he explained. “What could we do to help the community gather in a virtual way?”
As they were struggling with this challenge, Playbill miraculously reached out offering a partnership.
“We were like, well yeah!” said Nevin. “That would give us a platform, it would give us deadlines, and it would help us with structure.”
They landed on a series of four prime time plays to be livestreamed on three Fridays and one Monday in June, in addition to nearly a dozen developmental productions (full casting yet to be announced). The festival will culminate in a Pride Spectacular Concert to livestream on the evening of Sunday, June 28.
According to Urie, the mission of Pride Plays is evolving. Last year they focused on telling stories that came from a place of pride, not a place of shame.
“When we looked back, we realized that so much material written for so many years had to do with the punishment of being gay,” he said. “You end up alone, in a sanitarium, or dead. We wanted to tell stories that were about the next step.”
In adjudicating this year, they tried to ensure the works were not only prideful, but also with a component of activism and standing up to our enemies and demons.
“Pride Plays is curious,” said Mayo. “We are lucky to be a part of the LGBTQ community, which is one of the more diverse communities there is. Where does your story fall within the lens of pride and activism? We want to be a culture of support. Our job is to give a platform for the stories to be told because they exist and they are worthy.”
The slate of prime time plays is impressive, a potent mix reflecting large swaths of the LGBTQ spectrum. Up until this week, the festival had been scheduled to debut on June 5 with “Brave Smiles… Another Lesbian Tragedy” written by and starring The Five Lesbian Brothers. However, because of the grief and outrage sparked by the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, “Braves Smiles…” was rescheduled for June 22.
“#BlackLivesMatter is the only thing that matters right now,” Nevin, Urie, and Mayo said in a written statement.
When “Braves Smiles…,” a biting satire, premiered in 1992 at the WOW Café Theatre in the East Village, the piece was groundbreaking for skewering the myth of the lonely, doomed lesbian typically portrayed in literature. Amazingly, The Five Lesbian Brothers are reprising their original roles, directed by Leigh Silverman. The event will be hosted by Judy Gold.
One goal of Pride Plays is to introduce audiences to playwrights they might not know. That’s why they chose “One in Two,” an electrifying drama about Black men living with the stigma of being HIV-positive, written by Donja R. Love. The piece, which had a sensational run at The New Group earlier this year, promises to resonate anew since it speaks to coping in a pandemic.
They also selected “Masculinity Max,” an irreverent comedy about a trans man, because the playwright MJ Kaufman is one of the most exciting LGBTQ writers emerging now and deserves wider exposure.
The fourth prime time offering is “The Men from the Boys,” Mart Crowley’s 2002 sequel to the iconic “The Boys in the Band.” This revival will be directed by Zachary Quinto, who wowed audiences as Harold in the Broadway revival of “Boys” a couple of years back. Sadly, Crowley’s sequel was not well received.
“‘The Boys in the Band’ was indisputably the original Pride play,” said Mayo. “One of the joys of that revival, and of revisiting all the LGBT works, is hearing what those plays have to say about the world we are now living in. Zach will be approaching the sequel from the perspective of the artists who recently lived in the original work.”
Urie concurs that the highly acclaimed “Boys” Broadway revival, which featured an out-and-proud cast including Jim Parsons, Tuc Watkins, Matt Bomer, and Andrew Rannells, will be on viewers’ minds — and will inform Quinto’s approach to directing.
“Now that so many of us are familiar of the recent revival, it will be a really fun lens to watch this through, imagining Zach and Andrew, oh actually not Andrew, because that character is dead — spoiler alert! — and all of those guys will be delightful,” Urie explained.
That’s where the idea of doing “The Men from the Boys” came from, he added. The plot finds many of the same characters at a post-funeral gathering for one of their own. We learn what Mart had to say about these characters 34 years later, and what that might tell us about ourselves.
Nevin admitted that it was not easy whittling down 11 plays from more than 250 submissions from all over the US for the developmental readings portion of the festival.
“We feel very fortunate to have people entrust their work to us,” Nevin explained. “There is so much good queer theater content out there. You’ll see lots of different plays on the spectrum of the developmental process. We really do have a great lineup, and I can’t wait for people to hear these stories.”
As Urie sees it, there’s no lack of queer theater. But traditional theater companies are not able to offer the breadth and depth that a dedicated LGBTQ festival like Pride Plays can provide. They have the opportunity to show a stunning range of themes side by side.
“We are doing a farce about a lesbian wedding and a play about a queer man in Syria who is attacked and dragged to a roof to be thrown off,” said Urie. “These two plays could not be more different, except that the central characters are queer. We have a couple of romances, a couple of comedies, a couple of human rights plays, but no two plays are the same. They are very diverse and the writers all come from different walks of life.”
On the last Sunday in June, the date the parade was scheduled, Pride Plays is staging a virtual Pride Spectacular Concert, hosted by Urie. The evening will celebrate both classic and entirely new musical numbers that tell LGBTQ stories. Stars slated to perform include John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), Michael R. Jackson (“Strange Loop”), and Mj Rodriquez (“Pose”), performing songs from or inspired by their respective shows.
“The musical aspect brings a whole different lightness,” Mayo enthused. “We are not at Marie’s Crisis this year, but we are virtually going to Marie’s Crisis. I would hope that people would have the same sort of feeling as when one of their favorite showtunes is played at Marie’s Crisis.”
According to Nevin, they are looking forward to involving many artists from the Broadway community. A lot of folks who would normally make their living singing and dancing eight times a week have been hit hard during this harrowing time.
“It is very hard for people to create right now and to hone their craft in this period,” Nevin said. “We are excited to give an opportunity to so many performers this June.”
The prime time events and the Pride Spectacular Concert will benefit Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS. The performances are free to watch but there will be prompts to donate.
“We are very happy to have Broadway Cares as one of the sponsors of Pride Plays,” said Mayo. “It feels only right that, in this year when the organization is not able to be in theaters and garner support, it’s time to give back. It’s an honor to partner with them.”
Given that the Pride Parade, parties, and other physical events are shut down this year, what does it mean to be able to celebrate with Pride Plays?
“I’m so glad you asked that,” said Mayo. “Parades won’t happen but Pride can. There’s no reason why we can’t use this time to come together and look inside ourselves and examine pride from a different lens. We are such a colorful spectrum of expression.”
“We don’t just parade, we do many different things as a culture,” he continued. “We tell stories, we contemplate, we get inward, we share outward. We gather in many different ways. And this is the year for us to explore other ways of expressing that. For the month of June, 150 artists will be in Zoom rooms telling stories about the LGBTQ community. There will be pride in every one of those rooms.
“We will be coming together to celebrate what we have in common, and in a tough year, to remember,” said Nevin. “The LGBT community has many times been such a source of strength for so many people, and has had to overcome so many obstacles, including in an earlier pandemic. This is the moment that we’ve lost so many leaders, particularly arts leaders — Larry Kramer, Mart Crowley, Terrence McNally, Jerry Herman. How do honor their legacy, how do we pick up the baton and move forward? I think that’s what Pride is.”
“There’s a real joy in the affirmation of that,” he continued. “That doesn’t have to be about a parade. That can be about what we are able to do in our apartments, on our laptops, in our social distance. In that sense, Pride will be alive and well this year.”
PRIDE PLAYS 2020 FESTIVAL | In partnership with Playbill and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater | Access on Playbill.com | Free livestream events Fri., Jun. 12, 19, 22 & 26 at 7 p.m. | Free Pride Spectacular Concert on Sun., Jun. 28
To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.