Theatre Rhinoceros: Queer theatre’s enduring home
San Francisco is host to the world’s longest-running queer theatre company. Paul Vale finds out about its fight to give gay voices a platform, from spreading awareness of the Aids epidemic to promoting transgender rights
It will probably come as no surprise that the world’s longest-running queer theatre company is based in San Francisco. Theatre Rhinoceros has long been a mainstay of cultural life in the city since its founding in 1977, when its first production was staged at the Black and Blue, a leather bar south of Market Street.
Since those pioneering days, the San Francisco gay community has undergone major changes, not least the devastating effect of Aids.
In its early years, the company produced work from New York writers such as Terrence McNally and Harvey Fierstein, including out-of-town tryouts for one-act plays such as The International Stud and Fugue in a Nursery, which later became part of Fierstein’s 1983 Tony award-winning Torch Song Trilogy.
The success of the company led to the move in 1981 to its current venue in the Mission District, where it continues to produce an eclectic mix of theatre exploring both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of the queer community.
Artistic director John Fisher took the helm in 2003 and explains how the artist policy has evolved over the years to reflect the changes in audience. “In the 1970s, you have to remember that there was no queer representation in film or television, even if there was a little on stage.
“There was the British play Staircase (1966, by Charles Dyer) and the American play The Boys in the Band (1968, by Mart Crowley). The original artistic director Allan B Estes Jr came from Boston and he started the theatre to put gay men’s lives on stage. It really was the first time in the country that there was that kind of representation consistently. Like a season of plays about gay life.”
As the seasons progressed, so did Estes’ ambition and, following a string of revivals, the company began to develop a reputation for new writing. By 1980, it was portraying gay and lesbian lives but, of course, the big change came with the rise of Aids in the community. There was a huge shift in focus to portraying the epidemic and Rhinoceros produced the first stage portrayal of people living with Aids.
‘Rhinoceros has embraced portrayals of transgender laws, transvestite laws and the lives of queer youth’
Artistic director John Fisher
The Aids Show premiered in San Francisco and then toured the country. “It was a means of educating gay people on the Aids phenomenon because the word was not getting out,” says Fisher. “Newspapers weren’t writing about it. Only the queer press was covering it. A lot of what was portrayed was just pure information on what was safe. In that way, it was a symbiosis of activism and instruction for the gay community.
“Since then, it has embraced portrayals of transgender laws, transvestite laws and the lives of queer youth. The most recent new play talked about the Trump administration and anxieties about attitudes towards transgender issues and the rollback of queer legislation in this country that’s been going on with the new administration and the rise of Republican vehemence in Congress.”
5 things you need to know about Theatre Rhinoceros
1. The name of the company comes from the animal – a harmless vegetarian until provoked and then extremely dangerous. The founders thought this to be a good inspiration for the queer movement.
2. The first ever Aids-related play was performed at the Rhino – The Aids Show, in 1981. The Aids epidemic killed off the theatre’s entire artistic staff of the time.
3. Theatre Rhinoceros had the first African-American artistic director of a non-black theatre – Kenneth Dixon, who held the post from 1988-1990.
4. Rhino is the longest-running queer theatre in the world, continuously producing since 1977, and the first queer theatre to hire Equity actors.
5. In 2008, the theatre won a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media award for its landmark work as the longest-running professional queer theatre in the US.
Since touring The Aids Show in the 1980s, Rhinoceros has tended to produce plays in its current home, the 200-seat Eureka Theatre in downtown San Francisco. The company also shares the space with the 42nd Street Moon, which mainly produces lost or maligned musicals.
“There’s a huge phenomenon for flop musicals and 42nd Street is dedicated to putting on shows that have been lost,” says Fisher. “We share the theatre with them. They’re there half of the year, we’re there the other half. We alternate.
“I feel like there’s a lot of overlap in the audience. It’s a good overlay for the two companies. Right now, we’re doing a production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical. It has never been done here, except as the private touring production, so this is a first local production of the musical. We’re also doing an open-air production of King Lear. During the summer, we tend to do a musical. It really isn’t our core mission but it’s something fun that the audiences enjoy. We throw them a bone.”
The production of King Lear is a bit of a breakout for Rhinoceros. It’s certainly not the first time it has tackled Shakespeare, having staged both Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens before, albeit these were much-adapted queer productions complete with musical score, a cast of 40 and loads of camp, queer humour.
“That was our intention with Lear, to make it gay, to make it into a musical. Then, as I worked on it, I kind of decided, you know, this is such a wonderful play – why not just do it straight in every sense of the word? Just do it the way it’s written. That’s how we’re doing it, which is totally different for us.
“It’s not going to be a musical. All of the text is Shakespeare’s. It’s not going to be queered. We’ll have gender-blind casting, of course, but this is unique for us. I really decided, the work transcended the political need to be gay. The only thing gay about it is all of us acting it.”
‘A lot of other minority theatres have folded. Our audiences are supportive, but we can’t survive on ticket sales.’
Artistic director John Fisher
Aside from his work with Theatre Rhinoceros, Fisher is also an author of both plays and musicals. Reflecting on the differences between British and American theatre, his experiences are something of a surprise. “I’ve submitted plays to the UK’s National Theatre and to Cameron Macintosh. They’ve been read and responded to. In the United States, it’s very different. You submit to big producers or big theatres, you often never hear from them.
“I was amazed when I submitted two plays to the National that they were both read and detailed responses were given to them. And Cameron Macintosh said of the musical I wrote: ‘Well, I liked it, but this is why I’m not going to do it.’ That would never happen in the United States. This is one difference where I’ve thought, actually, we could learn from you. But I’m not sure that playwriting in this country is always taken as seriously as it could be.”
There may well be a good deal of funding for non-profit arts organisations in San Francisco, but there are also a lot of people contending for that money. Per capita, there are more theatre and arts institutions than anywhere else in the US, and yet at one point there were four gay theatres operating in the city. Currently only Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory remain.
“A lot of other minority theatres have folded. The Jewish theatre in town went out of business. The Asian-American theatre went out of business. Our audiences are supportive, but we can’t survive on ticket sales. It’s impossible. We do professional work, it just costs a lot. The thing that’s so tough here – it’s probably even more so in London – is that it’s getting very hard for artists to live in San Francisco since the rise of Silicon Valley and the tech boom.
“Even competition from queer funding is ferocious. We’ve had some angels. We’ve had some donors who have died and left us very generous endowments. We get funding from the city and various foundations. We are always getting out and meeting people and applying for stuff, but we get nothing from the federal government. Nothing. And I don’t imagine that’s going to change under the current administration.”
Theatre Rhinoceros profile
Artistic director: John Fisher
Based in: San Francisco, US
Number of performances: Seven productions a year featuring 125 performances
Audience figures: Approx. 10,000 pa
Number of employees: Two salaried, plus 30-40 per show
Number of members: 150 members and growing
Turnover: This is a not-for-profit company
Funding levels: Annual budget is upwards of £300,000
Key contacts: John Fisher or Joseph Tally, +1 415 552 4100, email@example.com