A drama festival celebrating the lives of gay and lesbian people wouldn’t seem out of place in Burlington. But in Randolph? The rural, central Vermont hamlet isn’t exactly Chelsea or the Castro. But for two weekends in July, the tiny town will do its best to depict the LGBT experience faithfully during its inaugural Summer Pride Festival at Chandler Center for the Arts.
The festival, which coincides with traditional gay pride celebrations held during June and July, came about as a way to start a conversation on LGBT issues while making use of the venue during a downtime. Typically, the Chandler’s historic 575-seat theater is busy at the beginning of the summer but hits a lull in July before activity picks back up again in August, says executive director Becky McMeekin.
More than just needing to fill the theater’s empty space, McMeekin wanted to produce a pride festival unique to Randolph. To that end, she invited Chicago-based director David Zak to produce shows that would provide a window into the queer experience. Zak’s company, Pride Films and Plays, is dedicated to developing new stage work on LGBT themes. His sister, Sharon Rives, is on the Chandler board of directors.
“We didn’t want to duplicate other efforts,” McMeekin says. Accordingly, you won’t see leather daddies or dykes on bikes parading through the center of town. The Randolph Summer Pride Festival is about plays and playwrights writing about contemporary queer life.
The festival begins on July 8 with a staged reading of The Boys in the Band, the seminal and controversial play written by Mart Crowley in 1968 and adapted for the big screen in 1970. The play, which will be read by local actors including Jason Lorber, Richard Waterhouse, Jeff Tolbert and Gene Heinrich, centers on a birthday gathering of a group of gay friends. During the party, the characters explore issues of love, acceptance, self-loathing and homophobia to often-explosive effect.
For years, the critically acclaimed play was considered too incendiary to be staged. However, during the past decade the play has enjoyed a revival, says festival director Zak. He picked Crowley’s play to kick off the festival as a way to lay the event’s foundation. “It’s helpful to take a look back and then say, ‘Here’s where we are today,’” he says.
The festival continues on July 9 and 10 with a new work called The Times, by Mark S. Watson. The piece, about a gay man whose college lover ends up marrying a woman, was one of five finalists in the Great Gay Play Contest, sponsored by Zak’s production company. Zak began the contest last year as a way to connect artistic directors looking for LGBT programming with new voices; it received more than 100 entries.
The final piece in the festival is Shelby’s Vacation, a screenplay by Nancy Beverly about a harried businesswoman who happens on a lesbian camp in the woods. The screenplay was a finalist in Pride Films and Plays Women’s Work, a writing contest for women focused on lesbian themes. Finding dramatic work written by or about lesbians has historically been a challenge; it’s been much easier to stage work by gay men, Zak says, since they have had a “long and consistent history in theater.”
The festival closes on July 17 with an open mic night. McMeekin says that, while the theater has received some blowback for hosting an LGBT event — one program advertiser pulled his sponsorship, and a Randolph resident complained to the town selectboard — overall support for the festival has been overwhelming.
“People have said it’s so important that this pride festival is embraced,” McMeekin says. “I’m hoping the positive will outweigh the negative.”