Plays and musicals with characters who fall within the LGBTQ spectrum appear all over Chicago stages, from Equity flagships like the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company to the tiniest of storefronts like The Side Project or the Apollo Studio. But there's also something to be said about targeting LGBTQ audiences precisely where they like to hang out.
This explains why certain theater companies are more than willing to produce shows in gay bars, despite the many hassles of performing in venues that weren't initially designed with much ( if any ) backstage space and having to strike scenery and move costumes away immediately after each performance so the club can revert back to being a discotheque. Oh sure, there are plenty of bars that can accommodate weekly drag shows or benefit events, but we're talking about full-fledged plays and musicals.
Currently, musical-theater fans can head over to The Call in Andersonville to see the New American Folk Theatre's world premiere of Witches Among Us, which features an original score by Scott Free and a book by Rick Karlin. And for those more inclined to see drag queens performing pop music and showtune parodies, Hydrate is hosting a once-a-month return of Mid-Tangent Theatre's fifth anniversary-staging of Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens ( which was revived earlier this spring in another critically acclaimed rendition ). And once the holiday season rolls around, Hell in a Handbag Productions is bringing back Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer for another run at Mary's Attic after taking a break last year with its Joan Crawford-inspired show Christmas Dearest.
"I don't understand why all gay bars aren't doing this," said Free. "You're getting a crowd into your bar earlier, and then they hang out, drink, and so to me, it really makes sense."
Indeed, MidTangent Theatre Artistic Director Tony Lewis has forged a very successful relationship with Hydrate producing queer-centric and drag-filled shows over the past five years, bringing in drinking theater audiences to the bar earlier in the evening before the late-night dance crowd.
"I was renting theaters that were near Boystown, but they weren't in necessarily in Boystown," Lewis said, adding how difficult it was as a young theater company to attract LGBTQ audiences and pay the steep rents for theaters. "So when we first produced Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens five years ago at Hydrate, it was a night and day difference at how many more people were willing to come to the show just because it was right in the neighborhood."
And as anyone who has seen a MidTangent show at Hydrate can attest, the lighting designs are always spectacular because they can draw upon the sophisticated dance floor lighting to spruce up each production.
The significantly lower rents involved in producing in bars versus dedicated theater venues is a definite plus, though New American Folk Theatre artistic director Anthony Whitaker stresses that the show really has to be tailored to suit the bar that it is playing. For example, New American Folk Theatre recently produced Kennedy's Children by gay playwright Robert Patrick at Chief O'Neill's Pub and Restaurant at 3471 N. Elston Ave., because the play is literally set in a bar. The same is true of Witches Like Us, which takes place in the fictional "Mambo Voodoo Lounge" and serves as a gathering place for lounge music-loving "witches"an allegory for LGBTQ people living under the radar in an age of McCarthyism and homophobia during the 1950s and '60s.
"We knew our audience for this show, and we knew we definitely wanted to be in a gay neighborhood," said Whitaker, adding that Witches Among Us was originally intended to be produced at the bar Parlour which closed in August in the middle of the company's rehearsals. Luckily Whitaker and company were able to relocate to The Call, following up on advice from Quest Theatre Ensemble and other sketch comedy troupes that have previously performed at the bar.
"It's also been a great relief for our budget, because rental of the theater is generally the biggest thing that we have to pay for," Whitaker said. "So it allows this show to have better costumes and better props and a larger cast."
New American Folk Theatre's Witches Among Us plays 7:30 p.m. Fridays through Nov. 7 at The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets are $15 general admission and $20 for VIP seating ( for ages 21 and older only ). For more information, visit www.newamericanfolktheatre.org .
MidTangent Theater's Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens continues at 8 p.m. Nov. 7, Dec. 5 and Jan. 2, at Hydrate, 3458 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit www.hydratechicago.com or www.midtangent.com .
Hell in a Handbag Productions' revival of Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer is scheduled on the Mary's Attic online calendar from Thursday, Nov. 29, through Saturday, Jan. 3, at N. Clark St. Performances are mainly at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday ( no show Dec. 25 ), with select 3:30 p.m. matinees on select Sundays. For more information on tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.handbagproductions.org or www.hamburgermarys.com/chicago .