Tuesday, December 07, 2021

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Madison Lyric Stage To Bring Personal, Groundbreaking Off-Broadway ‘Boys in the Band’ to Deacon John Grave House


3d illustration of a single empty red chair under a spotlight in anotherwise dark room or on a stage.

3d illustration of a single empty red chair under a spotlight in anotherwise dark room or on a stage.)

Originally set to run in July at the John Deacon Grave House, the Madison Lyric Stage has moved its production of The Boys in the Band—the iconic 1968 off-Broadway play that explores themes of friendship, social isolation, and very prominently, sexuality in the context of pre-Stonewall America—to next year.

The timing of the production would have shortly followed LGBT Pride Month in June, a month that commemorates the Stonewall riots of 1969 in which a police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan sparked violent demonstrations of protest by the LGBTQ community—just one year after The Boys in the Band debuted off-Broadway.

Marc Deaton, artistic director for Madison Lyric Stage, says the dialogue-driven, darkly humorous play fits wonderfully for what the organization strives for stylistically as well as thematically.

Like many great artistic endeavors, the Madison Lyric Stage was born from the dedication and passion of a handful of people. From somewhat humble beginnings putting on unique theater and operatic productions in an almost 200-year-old barn off Boston Post Road in Madison, co-founders Deaton and John Johmann have grown through the powerful grass-roots following of these earliest days to create a distinctive and unusual theater company, with both the talent and the desire to explore disparate genres and emotions through their shows.

Now, almost a decade after their first performances, Deaton and executive director Johmann were planning what is possibly their most personal project yet.

"It's all about intimate characters and what they have to say," Deaton says. "It's a piece that I've just always loved, and has always meant a lot to me as a gay man, and gay men of a certain age."

"I'm so glad that we're doing it," he adds.

Absolutely groundbreaking at its premiere, the play focuses on a small community of gay men living in New York, whose connections and relationships unwind over the course of a single evening. Through the tangled relationships and contrasting personalities, The Boys in the Band was one of the first plays to feature predominantly gay characters presented in a candid way, and has been lauded for its wit and sympathetic, complex characters.

The Deacon John Grave House, a relatively small venue with some unique characteristics, has offered Deaton and Johmann a bevy of opportunities to mold productions along the lines that they want, and this holds true for The Boys in the Band.

The intimacy of their upcoming production fits perfectly in this venue, Deaton says, with actors and audience close physically. Productions often have to depend on the creativity of stage designers and sets, without complicated effects or lighting arrays.

"The bar gets higher and higher," Deaton says. "You have to be very innovative, because you have very little space...it has eight-foot ceilings, you have to be very creative."

One very trendy and exciting way they have adapted to the space is to literally move audiences during the show—something Deaton says is becoming common in some New York City theater circles, but hasn't reached much of the rest of the area.

During an interlude and intermission, the audience might actually stand up and file into a separate room, space, or even outside, depending on the production, which both helps immersion as well as creating a dynamic aspect to a show, Deaton says.

"The audience is used to having their own space that's theirs, their little safe area," says Deaton. "We've been trying to do all sorts of different things in space."

Deaton describes the barn where Madison Lyric Stage was birthed as having a simultaneous intimacy and sense of space, due to high roofs, and says he and Johmann actively sought this same experience in their next permanent space.

Deacon John Grave, though very different in structure, exudes the same kind of feeling, according to Deaton.

"The Grave house is quite different, but it has that same kind of interesting, special quality," he says.

The Boys in the Band takes place almost entirely in a single apartment, and though Deaton didn't share details of how he would present the play technically, he did say that he and Johmann were committed to staying true to the source material.

Staying true to what The Boys in the Band is all about—its message and social impact—is also a huge part of this endeavor, Deaton and Johmann say. Rather than update the time period, which is something they have done with a number of other productions, Johmann says he felt it was very important to maintain the 1968 setting of the play.

Part of the reason is The Boys in the Band captures a very specific slice of history and culture, and gay culture in particular, which Deaton says has been somewhat forgotten over the last several decades.

Knowing the impact of the material and hoping specifically to share it with a new generation of LGBTQ folks, Madison Lyric Stage was partnering with the New Haven Pride Center and the New Haven LGBTQ+ Youth Task Force for educational events, including a special performance of the show and conversations with the cast.

"What's wonderful about it is it's putting gay men's lives on stage without judgment and unapologetically, and it's a look into their lives," Johmann says. "We have to keep in mind, this is before Stonewall...it's before AIDs, it's before marriage equality. I think the play holds an important place in gay history."

The "dysfunctional family" of the characters in The Boys in the Band not only captures a moment in time, but an experience Deaton says is universal—anger and cruelty and dishonesty among people who still truly, sincerely love each other.

"There is a particular style of friendship and loyalty that these friends have that I know certainly existed at that time," Deaton says. "That's because most of us were estranged from our families on a lot of different levels, and we had to go and create our own families."

As the various characters take turns needling each other or outright sabotaging friendships and relationships, Deaton and Johmann say they hope audiences find both poignancy and relatability in this cut-out of American life, full of imperfect people trying to find their way in the world.

"These people say and do the most vicious things to each other, and yet they're very close, and they love each other," Deaton says. "I feel like that's something that's really special about it."

For more information on Madison Lyric Stage, visit madisonlyricstage.org/index.html.

Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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