Every morning, Donald Horn takes a walk with Darcelle XV Showplace owner and headliner Walter Cole, the world’s oldest performing drag queen. “He’s 90,” Horn says. “I really want him to live.”
Fighting for survival comes naturally to Horn, who is the founder and artistic director of triangle productions!, the LGBTQ+-identified theater company based at The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza. While Portland’s theaters have heroically battled COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine many matching the vigilance of Horn, who has arguably made triangle—which is entering its thirty-second season—one of the safest places in the city to see a play.
When Oregon awakened to the realities of the pandemic in March 2020, Horn had to close triangle’s production of Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s musical about two twins separated at birth. “I had the set up here for six months, praying we would do the show again,” Horn says. “I had the costumes washed and dry cleaned; I was ready to put the show back up. I finally decided, ‘This is going to be with us forever, it’s like the flu. We just have to figure out a way to get through it.’”
When I visited The Sanctuary in August, I saw what “getting through it” looks like for triangle. The moment I entered the building, Horn took my temperature, a practice that is standard for anyone attending plays at the theater. It will also, like a broad consortium of theaters and performances spaces, require proof of vaccination.
“Doing this for so long, I kind of had to think, ‘What would feel right for me? What doesn’t feel right to me?’” Horn says. “Do you feel safe going and doing the windy toilet paper when you’re supposed to be hand sanitizing? No. I’d want to have something where I’d just put my hand under and let it come out.”
THE REBUILD: OREGON THEATERS COMING BACK
Horn hopes that his devotion to COVID-19 safety will sustain triangle through its ambitious new season, which begins September 9 with Raissa Fleming starring in the solo play In the Body of the World, Eve Ensler’s memoir about surviving uterine cancer. Horn is also masterminding The Umbrella Project, a multimedia chronicle of Oregon’s LGBTQ+ history that is something of a spiritual sequel to his 2019 musical and exhibit about Darcelle.
In other words, Horn is an epically busy man. Yet he still found time to sit across from me—socially distanced and masked—in the pews at The Sanctuary, where he explained his vision for triangle, The Umbrella Project and Portland theater in a post-pandemic world.
ARTS WATCH: Could you talk a little bit about the moment right when the pandemic hit? What were you working on at the time?
DONALD HORN: Here’s the deal. I will say up front—and I’ve said this to a lot of people—this pandemic almost feels like a normal thing to me because we’ve gone through so many things. We had the AIDS epidemic, which destroyed many of my friends and colleagues in the theater. So that pandemic was real to me, because the person I was onstage with was dead three weeks later. We were doing the play Jeffrey in 1995 and Rob Buckmaster was ill. I think he was taking 13 different kinds of [AIDS medication] so he could stay alive.
[In March 2020] we opened Blood Brothers and during the second weekend, on a Saturday night, there were rumblings that we were going to close. I told the cast, “Tomorrow, after Sunday matinee, we’re going to sit around and take a vote if we should continue or not,” because I thought that was diplomatic, as opposed to me saying, “We’re going to close,” or whatever. By the end, we all agreed we could do the show one more week. Then the governor said, “Lockdown,” so there was no choice but to lock down and we closed the show.
You were among the first theater companies in Portland to start doing in-person shows. What did you learn from doing those shows, both artistically and in terms of COVID-19 safety?
We will only probably be at 50 percent [capacity] for a long time. We’re not like most theaters. You go to CoHo, there’s one entrance. Milagro, there’s one entrance. We have two entrances and we have four exits. We also have great air ventilation. We leave these doors open during the show so there’s more air circulation. So a lot of theaters don’t have what we have in terms of a physical space, and that helps us tremendously.
I had a lot of people email me: “I want to take my mask off during the show. I am fully vaccinated.” And I said, “In my house, you will still keep your mask on,” and I got a lot of people mad at me, but I did the right thing. I’m not trying to be Daddy Don here. The thing is that I want to make sure that I’m safe, you’re safe and the audience member who’s never been here before feels safe. That’s a huge deal to me.
I wanted to ask you about the coming season. Can you talk about how you settled on the specific shows you chose?
I produced my first show—After the Rain, which was about AIDS—and it became a hit. And during the run of the show, a lady came up to me and she hit me in the stomach. She was that mad. I said, “What the fuck was that for?” and she said, ‘I’m pregnant, I’m HIV positive. Nobody talks about women and AIDS.” And I’m going, “You’re right. I know nothing about that,” because I had just come out as a gay man, I was worried about getting AIDS and I had all these friends in the community that I was in shows with that were dying.
Her name was Nancy and I got her telephone number and I called her and talked to her back and forth. The thing is that I wrote a play [called tell momma, goodbye…] about women and AIDS then. At that time—this is how my life has really been blessed—Cascade AIDS was doing a women’s and children’s HIV conference at the Red Lion at Jantzen Beach, and they asked us to do the show there in front of 500 people. So I now had a theater company and a show I didn’t think I needed to write became a big hit.
I think when I look at shows, they have to have something inside that clicks. To me, it has to have heart. You have to feel something for the characters. You saw [triangle’s production of] Erma Bombeck. Did you feel for her?
Absolutely, yeah. Of course.
See, that’s what I want. The first show [of our new season] is In the Body of the World. It’s heavy, it’s funny, it’s terrifying because of what she talks about. It’s about a woman’s journey with cancer. That’s not really something you want to go and see right now—it’s not uplifting—but her journey is amazing. My belief is that people can sit through this and say, “She had stage four cancer and she’s still alive today. That’s remarkable.” If she can get through that shit, then so can you.
Could you tell me about The Umbrella Project?
I started really saying, “What we want to do is the LGBTQ history of Oregon.” We’re talking about laws, we’re talking about politicians, we’re talking about bars … we’re talking about people who have been killed because of being gay, we’re talking about doctors and lawyers and all of that. There’s so much about the gay history that we need to talk about. And the gay history and the Asian history and the Black history are almost parallel in Oregon.
The City of Portland just got a grant for $50,000 to start this and I’ve been writing grants too, and we’re going to hire people to go out and do oral histories. Like yesterday, I did one, talking to people who were go-go boys in the seventies. The end result will be a walking tour, an oral history bank and a website where you can go click on a bar and read information about the bar—who owned it, the time period, what happened there. We’re also talking about having an Oregon Historical Society exhibit like I did for Darcelle, except bigger.
I think that covers all my questions, Don, but is there anything else you wanted to bring up?
I will say something, Ben. There’s a lot of theaters in town. I just gave you what I believe I can do here to make it happen and I feel proud that when you come here, you’ll feel as safe as possible. But there are people who don’t have the money or the resources or the logic. They shouldn’t open if they don’t have the logic, the resources or the money.
You’re younger than I am. I’m 66. This is the last part of my life. I have, what, 20 years left, maybe 30 if God really loves me? I have to spend it wisely, and I can’t wait until tomorrow. It has to happen today because this is all I have. I see my grandkids growing, I see life changing, I see Walter at 90. We keep going. We have to. This is it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Part of an occasional series on how Oregon theaters are emerging from shutdown. See also:
- The Rebuild: Broadway Rose. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks with the leaders of Tigard’s musical-theater company about its journey from shutdown to steamed performances to a live show.