Anybody who practices theater knows that it is a nickel and dime industry, walking at any given moment on a razor’s edge, surviving by a hair’s breadth.
Beginning something from nothing and then sustaining it and watching it grow for a decade is a monumental act of will, talent and luck. This is what Fuse Theatre Ensemble has accomplished with its nationally renowned OUTwright Theatre Festival, which continues through June 26, and reaches its 10-year anniversary this Pride month.
“At this stage in the game,” says Rusty Tennant, Fuse’s artistic director and one of the most multi-faceted and gifted theater artists in Portland, “I’m pretty certain we’re the longest running queer theater festival on the West Coast, and maybe in the whole country.”
OUTwright, says Tennant, is powered by the twin engines of preserving history on the one hand, and creating the future one wants to see, on the other.
“Our community is without a generation of mentors,” says Tennant, “which is something we’re strongly addressing this year in our festival, because of the AIDS crisis. It left this weird, historical vacuum. I saw a lot of younger queers not actually engaging with their history as queer people.”
It is, then, the self-appointed task of the OUTwright Festival to step into that void and remember, actively and aesthetically, the path the Queer community has walked, what challenges it’s overcome, what victories have been hard won. “The initial desire,” says Tennant, “was to create a festival that celebrates the queer canon.”
For Tennant, theater is uniquely positioned to serve as the keeper of the historical record of the Queer community. “Theater,” Tennant points out, “has largely been the greatest repository of stories of the queer rights movement.”
The OUTwright Theatre Festival was begun by Tennant, Sara Fay Goldman, Kate Mura, and Nikolas Hoback, with a technical assist from Mike Cino, and was initially just a series of play readings that Fuse called the Gay Pride Reading Series.
“It was one week long,” Tennant recalls, “and it was a different reading every night of the week. It was pretty low-impact for us. And to our surprise, we sold out all of the nights. We just kept selling out, bam bam bam, for readings. And we thought, ‘Hmm, we should listen to this.’ We took a year off and came back with what was now called The OUTwright Theatre Festival in 2012.”
Over the course of the past decade the OUTwright Festival arguably became even more well-known as an incubator and nurturer of new work – a place for playwrights to have their plays read, workshopped, and maybe even produced. “Those are the three phases of our festival. That was the mode for (Ernie Lijoi’s) Pursuit of Happiness; that was the mode for Under the Influence (also by Lijoi) and for (Robert O’Hara’s) Bootycandy.” Mikki Gillette’s The Queers, which Fuse produced fully early this year, also had its start as an OUTwright Festival baby.
Not all the plays follow this same path. Some go on to other theater lives in other cities. Eleanor O’Brien’s workshop entry to this year’s festival, Plan V: The Joyful Cult of Pussy Worship, already has a planned next destination, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest fringe theater festival in the world.
Fuse decided to take the feature production of this year’s OUTwright Festival, The God Cluster, straight to full production. The God Cluster is written by Ernie Lijoi, long-time Fuse Theatre actor, board member, and playwright. People familiar with Lijoi’s work, such as Under the Influence, will know that Lijoi is not one to walk to the edge and take a peek at what’s on the other side. The God Cluster falls squarely within this tradition.
“It’s a challenging script,” says Tennant. “It does a really hard thing that a lot of people don’t want to do right now, and that is criticize religion.” Though The God Cluster is critical of all religion, the most devout person in the play happens to be Islamic. To that end, Tennant and Fuse thought it was of paramount importance to have someone with a Muslim background on the creative team. Enter: Melory J. Mirashrafi.
Mirashrafi, who directs The God Cluster, is a recent graduate of Linfield College and is the associate director of DNA: Oxygen at Artists Repertory. A practicing Muslim, they never shied away from the script. “They were very into it,” recalls Tennant, “very open to this idea of this highly critical script. They offered Ernie a lot in terms of writing and understanding [the Muslim] character. They really know how to run a room. We could not have asked for a better director on this piece. They gave the piece a real backbone, a real validity.”
This is yet another principle of the OUTwright Festival giving new and emerging artists their shot. A few years ago, James Dixon was shopping Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy around Portland theaters. No one would touch it. No one, that is, except for Fuse. “Who else would do that script?” Tennant laughs. “Are you kidding me?”
Fuse didn’t just produce it, it also had Dixon direct it, his first time. The gamble proved worth it: Bootycandy was a critical and commercial darling of its Portland theater season. “If we’re actually serious about having more women directors, more nonbinary directors, more directors of color,” says Tennant, “then we have to start giving these people their first opportunities.”
The God Cluster also offers Tennant, who is in the play, an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often: He gets to play a character closer to himself. “I haven’t done realism in forever,” he says. “It’s nice to sink my teeth into a part that I really can identify with. I’m constantly playing parts that are just not me. My insides don’t match my outsides, and people cast my outside so I’m constantly playing farmers and cops and all these other things I don’t identify with. I never get to play queer characters.”
This, then, becomes another focal point of the OUTwright Theatre Festival. “We don’t do any service,” says Tennant, “if we don’t expand the definition of what queer looks like.”
If Fuse had a two-word mission, it might be “expanding definitions.” When you look back at the history of the company’s work, Bootycandy, Under the Influence, Nikolas Hoback’s Virgin in Neverland, The Queers, C. Julian Jiménez’s Locusts Have No King (and all of Jiménez’s work – like Gillette and Lijoi, he’s a festival favorite), and a host of others constantly push, probe and punch at the limits and boundaries of our biases and hangups.
Even Fuse’s production of the musical theater classic Cabaret, a feature production of OUTwright, felt ground-breaking, taking the show out of its glitzy, glamorous, Broadway/Liza Minnelli mode and back to its grungy, desperate, city-on-the-brink-of-horror roots. That vision, that daring, led to Cabaret winning six Drammy Awards, including Outstanding Production of a Musical.
In addition to The God Cluster and Plan V, OUTwright is still seeking to blow up the parameters of our prejudices. You’ll find Ajai Tripathi, a writer of remarkable intelligence and fluidity, presenting a workshop production of his play Great White Gets Off, which follows an Indian-American man and a white man as they hook up, and “racial politics lead them down a path of terror, and self-realization.” (Tripathi talks about the play and its implications in a Writers Guild Initiative interview.)
Mikki Gillette returns with a reading of her play American Girl, based on the true story of a 17-year-old transgender girl, Nikki Kuhnhausen, who was murdered in a hate crime. And in a reading of his play Ronald Reagan Killed My Mentors, the nationally renowned playwright C. Julian Jimenez addresses directly the lost generation of queer mentors due to the AIDS crisis.
If it sounds like the OUTwright Theatre Festival is not for the faint of heart, that’s by design. Fuse likes “things that challenge us and challenge our audience,” says Tennant. “Part of our mission is to ask our audiences to exit their comfort zone. We’re intrigued and even titillated by things that are provocative and that might take us into darker corners. I feel like that’s what queer theater can do well. It can go into those dark corners that much more straight audiences aren’t willing to go into.”
For ten years, the OUTwright Festival has done just that.
- Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival continues through June 26 at the Back Door Theatre, behind the Common Grounds Coffee Shop at 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland. Find schedule and ticket information here.