The people of "Purple Stages" are a varied lot.
"Not only do some of us have AIDS," began Michael Kearns, "we're fathers, mothers, sons, hospice workers, businessmen, nurses, men who wear dresses--all who'll be represented in these 30-odd events." The vehicle is "Purple Stages: A Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Culture," kicking off its monthlong program tonight with "Flying Colors" at the John Anson Ford Theatre. The benefit, hosted by Kearns and Liz Torres, features the Great American Yankee Freedom Band and a sampler of Purple Stages fare, including scenes from "Dire Straights," "Desserts," "Jackie," "Mad Ludwig" and "The Fairy Garden."
Purple Stages is sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Theatre Alliance (GALTA), a year-old local arts networking organization. "We formed the alliance," explained actor/director Kearns, "because the climate here has been so nurturing, so vital in regards to gay and lesbian theater. It took me a long time to figure out why Los Angeles was the forerunner. I think it's in direct proportion to the homophobia which is so inherent in this town, saying, in effect, 'You don't exist.' So it's almost like a reaction to that: The gay/lesbian spirit is not going to be silenced. And here--in theater--we have a sanctuary, a place to speak."
"I think that's one of the most important things," echoed Susan Bell, who's coordinated the lesbian pieces and was the assistant director for "Pursuit of Happiness" (which opened Aug. 21 at the Celebration). "It's kind of parallel to the upcoming March on Washington. The purpose is to show visibility: to show our own community, and hopefully the heterosexual community, that we are here. I don't want to turn this into a political event, but the fact that we exist and are doing this is implicitly political. So filling up the John Anson Ford Theatre really shows solidarity for a gay/lesbian event."
"I hope we do sell out all 1,200 seats," seconded Kearns, "but the fact is that these artists are not doing performances just to attract an audience. The artist needs to express him or herself--and that can be done in any size audience. Communication always comes down to one artist and one audience member; it doesn't matter if you're on a street corner or in the gorgeous Ahmanson Theatre. It's the audience's need to hear and the artist's need to be heard. So we can't gauge our success on how many people attend each event. Obviously, we've worked our brains out preparing this--and I think we're going to be fine. But in many ways, we're already a success. Because it's happening."
And happening big. The first week alone offers New York poet Perry Brass' "All Men," the San Francisco lesbian sendup "Pulp and Circumstance," Kearns' solo turn in "Dream Man," Christopher Beck Dance Company, the Latino Ensemble, a play-reading by Southerner Cal Yeomans and "Water From the Moon," a Hawaiian AIDS play.
"All the writing is topical," emphasized co-coordinator Bill Kaiser. "You can see it most in the AIDS plays. At first, they were all cathartic and gut-wrenching, because it was such a shock. Now they're writing comedies, soon they'll have an AIDS musical." Added Kearns, "When we look back at AIDS years from now, we will see how beautifully it's been documented in the theater. But it doesn't mean that's all we're going to talk about. We've got lots of stories--about AIDS, homophobia, alcoholism, all sorts of issues. There will also be a lot of comedy. After all, this is a celebration. We are celebrating who we are, where we've been, where we're going."
Ideally, that will involve some getting-to-know-you among performers ("In the past, gays and lesbians haven't often come to each other's work," Bell admits) and the surrounding community.
"Some gay people are assimilationists," Kaiser said. "The only difference between them and everyone else is who they sleep with. Others of us feel that we do have a culture, a gay spirit and sensibility. That's not to say we're not humanists; naturally we share those common threads. But this is something unique--and we're just starting to define it." Stressed Kearns, "Within our community, this needs to be heard. I don't know how far-reaching it will be, I don't know how many heterosexuals will come. I hope they do, because as gays and lesbians in 1987, we have to redefine ourselves. In a lot of ways, this is an image-making festival for us."