It's a chilly night in late January. Inside the snow-smothered Bartell Theatre, the cast of StageQ's spring comedy, The Gays of Our Lives, has gathered onstage for a first read-through. The collected actors give the impression of a group of friends at a casual get-together, passing around the sparkling cider and Twizzlers. Artistic director Tara Ayres completes the circle. A tall, square-jawed woman with hair the shade of Lucille Ball's, she has a presence that is authoritative but warm. While the cast quiets down, Ayres asks her first penetrating directorial question: 'Does anybody want chocolate?'
As Madison's only self-identified queer theater company, StageQ has the potential for tremendous impact on the community ' a fact of which Ayres is acutely aware. With an entire adult life devoted to socially conscious cultural events, including WORT broadcasts and feminist dances, Ayres knows how vital the arts scene is to Madison. But as deeply as she values the societal impact of the arts, Ayres doesn't underestimate the importance of enjoyment.
'Other than the malady that makes some of us want to get up and be the center of attention, the only reason to do this is because you're going to have fun doing it,' says Ayres of working in theater. 'The wanting-to-change-the-world stuff is not going to sustain you indefinitely. People have to really be enjoying what they're doing. That's part of my job as the director.'
After a toast ('To health!' shout a few sniffling cast members), Ayres begins the read-through as she begins every StageQ production: with the request that cast and crew members confront any conflict that might arise by addressing it honestly and directly.
'When you ask people to be responsible in that way, it really does make a difference,' she says. 'If you're trying to build community and to build access to the theater, there are all kinds of tools you need to provide. StageQ has a commitment to training and supporting our volunteers. Every show is a brand-new experiment.'
Ayres concludes her short speech, and cast and crew members introduce themselves. One actress cheerfully announces, 'And now we're family.'
Ayres is clearly thrilled to hear The Gays of Our Lives read for the first time. No one laughs louder or longer. The show, written by StageQ favorite Claudia Allen (author of Dutch Love and Hannah Free), is hilarious. And it has many of the qualities Ayres values: It is new to Madison, it challenges expectations, and it is full of roles for women and men of all ages. (The production is now running at the Bartell Theatre through March 31.)
'I want shows that have artistic integrity, first and foremost,' says Ayres. 'I want shows that bring a range of people in to work on them. I want to have a variety of ages ' one of my pet peeves with theater is how much harder it is for older women to find roles. And I want to make sure that women and lesbian topics are well-represented.'
Bringing people together through culture is nothing new for Ayres, but her current position as StageQ's artistic director may be her most comprehensive challenge yet.
Tara Ayres was born in Kansas City in 1957 and attended college at Yale before arriving in Madison in 1981. 'I moved here for love,' she recalls with a smile. But she was soon in love with the city itself.
As an arts activist and a lesbian, Ayres appreciated Madison's lively arts scene and vibrant LGBT community. Within months she was on-air at WORT in programs including 'Her Infinite Variety' and 'Queery.' (She can still be heard every Sunday afternoon on 'Better Living Through Show Tunes.') Singing with local ensembles and producing multigenerational women's dances for SPRAWL kept Ayres busy until 1999, when the comedy-improv troupe Flaming Dykasaurus announced auditions for a new musical. Oblivia featured an ill-fated lesbian cruise on lakes Monona and Mendota. Ayres took the plunge.
Since then, she has worked with the gamut of Madison theater companies, producing, performing, writing and directing, while always keeping an eye on the mission that motivates her.
'Almost anything I do in this town is in large part about creating community,' Ayres says of her widely varying cultural work. 'That's one of the things I love about WORT. It's providing people with resources they wouldn't have otherwise.'
Thus, the chance to lead StageQ gave Ayres a golden opportunity.
Gay and lesbian theater had been well represented in Madison for some time, thanks to companies like Broom Street Theater and Mercury Players Theatre. In fact, it was while acting in Mercury's 1999 production of Bent, which deals with the Nazis' persecution of homosexuals, that StageQ founder Thomas McClurg felt inspired to begin something new. 'Acting in Bent had a profound effect on me,' McClurg recalls. 'It made me realize that, as an out gay man, I had to be more actively involved in the gay and lesbian community.'
Later that year, McClurg produced and performed in Mercury's production of Jeffrey. The show's success made him even more certain that Madison was hungry for gay-themed theater. In 2001, StageQ was born.
McClurg wasn't the first to recognize this need. Founded in 1977, San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros (proudly known as America's oldest queer theater) has had the continuous enthusiastic support of its community as well as nationwide acclaim. Over the last few decades, other LGBT theater companies have sprung up in cities from Portland, Ore., to Richmond, Va. Gay and lesbian theater festivals have flourished in Philadelphia and Columbus. New York City has five theater companies that categorize themselves gay or lesbian; Los Angeles boasts four. Clearly, there is an audience for queer theater across the country.
For five years, McClurg served as StageQ's artistic director, selecting the shows that helped it to become a self-supporting member company at the Bartell Theatre. But in 2005, McClurg decided that the time had come to do as he had always planned: to give the reins to someone who would continue to build the company. That person turned out to be Tara Ayres.
'Tara's experience in the arts and her long-term commitment to the Madison community, especially to the LGBT community, impressed me,' says McClurg, who still serves on StageQ's board. 'She also pointed out that, although I started StageQ, it now belonged to the community, and she, for one, wanted to see it continue and succeed. While I knew this in my head, to hear someone else actually state it was very profound.'
Artistic temperaments are notoriously volatile, but the transition of power at StageQ was smooth.
'He's been so sweet to work with,' says Ayres of McClurg. 'Tom and I both have very strong personalities. He'd had very strong ideas about StageQ ' he'd run it since its inception ' and of course I had very strong ideas about StageQ. He actually stepped down from the board for nine months, just to make space for me.
'I have the utmost respect for him. The fact that he started this company and turned it into a working theater company at the Bartell is a miracle. It really speaks to his vision and his energy. And to his persistence!'
Ayres knows that theater companies can have a limited lifespan. Some become local fixtures, maintaining their viability for decades, while others appear and disappear in a blink. The fact that StageQ has found a permanent home at the Bartell bodes well for its continued success, as does the fact that it fills a unique niche.
'Specific lesbian and gay theater gives us the ability to present lesbian and gay characters in a variety of ways,' says Ayres. 'A company like this can explore the issues in more detail and in a way that doesn't have to idealize gay people. We get to see them warts and all, but also in a way that makes them more human. There are audience members who feel like they are being accurately reflected, or reflected in ways that make them feel at home but challenged at the same time.'
Ayres says that StageQ provides a rare chance to work in a predominantly gay milieu. 'I think it's good for the straight people who work with us, and it's good for us to experience that. In terms of building alliances and forming friendships, I think it's really vital.'
Ayres and the board of directors hope to further expand the StageQ family. With a grow-your-own philosophy, StageQ hosted three free (or low-cost) theater workshops in January, helping newbies to learn more about directing, producing and lighting design. More such events are planned for March. (See sidebar.)
Producing Queer Shorts is another way StageQ brings in new blood. Ayres credits board member Katy Conley with the idea for the limited run of short original plays.
'We wanted to put together a theatrical event that would be both good quality and give people who wanted to either get back into theater or try their hand at it for the first time the opportunity,' Ayres explains. 'It's such a marvelous way to bring people on board.'
2006's Queer Shorts was such a success that the board plans to make it an annual event.
With an LGBT-focused repertoire that has included pot-stirring titles like Mommies Can't Marry and Naked Boys Singing, StageQ frequently courts controversy. But public reaction to its work has been almost unanimously positive, with the exception of 2004's production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. Depicting Jesus Christ as a gay man, the play has drawn fire from Christian critics since its New York premiere in 1998, with some theaters experiencing bomb scares and death threats. StageQ received thousands of protesting e-mails and postcards in the Corpus Christi storm. Of course, controversy sparks interest. No one at StageQ minded when the show sold out.
'Frankly, I'm less likely to be thinking about what will be controversial with the right wing than I am of what's going to push hot buttons with our core audience,' says Ayres, noting that topics like domestic violence or gay stereotypes are more likely to bother StageQ patrons than questioning Christian morality. 'I'm not going out of my way looking for controversial properties, but I don't want to do sanitized theater. What I want is to be part of a community where we can have a healthy dialogue about it instead of chewing each other up and spitting each other out.'
As someone far more likely to build bridges than to burn them, Ayres has a vision for StageQ. 'Some people in the theater community tease me about trying to make StageQ the 'emotionally literate' theater company,' she says. 'But I strongly believe in theater as a force for social change. It can hold a mirror up to what's happening. It can provide alternative visions for how the world could be. There are lots of ways in which theater ' even really ridiculous comedic theater ' can have implications for social change.'
As the first read-through comes to an end, the cast of The Gays of Our Lives seems reluctant to leave the theater. It's not just the cold night outside that's keeping the actors in their seats long after the last line has been read. They really do feel like family ' Ayres has seen to that.