Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reel Thoughts Interview: The Marshall Plan

Arizona’s Joe Marshall is taking New York by snowstorm this Christmas. Marshall was a fixture on Valley stages, but now he’s finding success Off Broadway after moving to New York City earlier this year. In June, he staged his play Dirty Secrets, and now, he is opening his newest show, The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! It’s a title Kathy Griffin loves, and recently, Margaret Cho stopped by to show her support.

The show concerns a strapped West Hollywood gay theater that is thrown into a tizzy when their eccentric playwright storms off before their big holiday show. Can the group of drama queens don their gay apparel fast enough to open on time? Does Liza wear false lashes?

A Tucson native, Marshall founded the Alternative Theatre Company in 1991 in Phoenix to fill the void for GLBT theater after the closing of the landmark Janus Theatre. He focused on producing modern gay plays by John Glines, such as Chicken Delight and Men of Manhattan, and later, Marshall’s own gay-themed plays. Dirty Secrets, about a twisted trio of gay men, and the gay Neil Simon-esque antics of A Night in Vegas were hits about a decade ago.

For a few seasons, the Alternative Theatre Company had a home in the gayest strip mall in Phoenix near the queer boutique Unique on Central, and Marshall grew a loyal fan base that he treasured. But disputes with the landlord shuttered the theater and the company went into hibernation. Marshall moved to Tucson in 2006.

NC: What has been happening since you left Arizona?
JM: Ohmigod! I left Arizona? Oh wait, it’s becoming clear to me now. I did leave Arizona. Well, needless to say, I moved to New York. Shortly after arriving, I approached Lawrence Page, the new owner of The Actors Playhouse, about producing my play The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! We work shopped it last December in Tucson, resulting in a rewritten/reworked production. After holding a staged reading, with 37 actors, and a big enthusiastic audience, we got the green light to move forward.

The Actors Playhouse, steeped in gay history, was always secretly my first choice. Productions at the venue have included Howard Crabtree's Whoop-Dee-Doo, Harvey Fierstein’s Safe Sex and Torch Song Trilogy, Ten Percent Revue, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, Boy Meets Boy, Fortune and Men's Eyes, among many others.

The theater is located in New York's Greenwich Village. The typical 'black box' decor is no longer. The walls were stripped down to its original brick and imported tri-colored slate stone. New flooring was installed, the stage was reinforced and mahogany wood trimming was installed with a new landmark-approved marquee. Needless to say, this is the perfect location for a gay Christmas play, conveniently located right near Christopher Street and the original Stonewall Inn.

Similar to Phoenix, the talent pool here is amazing, but a thousand times larger. I no longer have to ask strangers walking down the street "Hey, want to be in a play?" We just listed our auditions and received over 300 submissions within a couple of days.

NC: I hear that Dirty Secrets had a well-received production Off Broadway. Tell me all about it?
JM: Yeah! Can you believe it? It was the first of my works to open Off Broadway. I remember opening in Phoenix to scathing reviews. At last I’m feeling justified. Dirty Secrets is always fun to revisit – hard to believe I wrote it over 10 years ago. Some rewrites, but all in all, the play is pretty solid. However, the ending changed again, and two weeks prior to opening, the actor playing Tom had to drop out due to family issues in LA. The producer told me I would have to step into the role. This time around, I found it emotionally draining to perform five times a week.

NC: Do you miss Arizona?
JM: In many ways, yes. I miss the guerrilla theater process we had in Phoenix, throwing a full-scale production up with little or no financial support. The loyal audiences who respectfully attended many of my productions, good, bad or indifferent. Friendships I’ve held for over 20 years. Phoenix will always be the city that allowed me to achieve many of my goals, something I’ll never forget.

NC: What kind of star encounters have you had since hitting the Big Apple?
JM: Good Lord, unlimited encounters; unlike California, actors actually use mass transit here. I’ve seen many a celebrity on the subway, walking down a busy street, eating in crowded restaurants. And the strange thing is, for the most part, they’re left alone.

I have to say the most impressive encounter was John Glines, who attended a performance of Dirty Secrets and after the performance sharing dinner with my partner, his partner and our director. Shortly after the show, my partner Adrian Maynard, and I were invited for cocktails at John’s home where he shared many stories about famous people he either worked with or had the opportunity to meet.

John Glines has always been a mentor for me. The Alternative Theatre was founded by actually producing a season of John’s plays. One claim to fame of his was winning a Tony for producing Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway. And you can’t overlook his groundbreaking acceptance speech, where he was the first person to ever thank their same-sex partner on national TV. I got to actually hold his Tony Award at the end of the evening. Of course, it took six cocktails for me to actually get the nerve to ask. “Hey, John, can I hold your Tony?”

NC: Other than your play and celebrities, any amazing things happen to you in New York?
JM: I live in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn with Adrian. Every Thursday we take a 20-minute subway to Coney Island for the free summer concert series. We’ve seen Frankie Valli, Connie Francis, Hall and Oates, Blondie, Pat Benatar and Donna Summer. Talk about amazing. Each week the crowd gets more and more gay. We’re expecting next week to just be a big gay disco party with 25,000 of our closest friends.

The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! is now playing in previews and officially opens November 29 at The Actors’ Playhouse in New York. Performances continue through January 3. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit their official website.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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