Ask most anybody familiar with Houston stage about the state of gay theater here, and they'll tell you, "Talk to Joe Watts."
He admits a little wistfully, that yeah, he's the "grandfather of gay theater" in Houston. But Joe Watts hardly looks like anybody's grandpa, even though he has been one of the pioneers in a prolonged evolution of the production of gay plays in Houston.
Watts and other veterans of the gay stage here say they have seen mainstream theater increasingly broaden to include productions with gay and lesbian themes. However, he notes that there will always be room for cutting-edge theater for the gay community in Houston.
A good example of what is now available for audiences is contained in the fourth season of the Little Room Downstairs theater. Fresh from its season-opener, Mae West's Sex, the Little Room has been occupied most recently with Clive Barker's quirky Frankenstein in Love, which opened October 12.
Richard Laub, the theater's founder and artistic director, views Little Room Downstairs as very much a gay theater of the '90s. In fact, most of the original people in the theater were not gay.
"Nobody really cared so much whether you were or you weren't. It was definitely a different way of looking at gay theater," Laub said.
Still, the Little Room does try to do shows "by, about and of interest to gay people." And Laub, like Joe Watts, feels responsible to his sexual orientation. "There's been a lot of soul-searching around that issue for me -- around sexual identity. And so I wanted to do gay theater that wasn't just titillating stuff. You know: Put a naked man on a poster; that kind of thing."
He sees his role as "giving people an opportunity to see something that questions what they accept blindly, that pushes the norm or what's considered the limit of what you can be as far as your sexual identity, and even, in a broader sense, your gender identity -- what role you play. So much is dictated by society. I just wanted to explore that and hopefully find an audience that would want to explore that with me [and] maybe change their way of thinking."
Certainly, audiences do seem to be changing. The Little Room Downstairs has become successful enough to plan for an eight-show season. And the choices range from the outrageously campy Frankenstein, by Barker (the guy who wrote Hellraiser and Candy Man), to the odd Crosswords and Solitaire, about sex in an old-folks home, to the classic A Late Snow, by Jane Chambers.
Laub wants his theater to be complicated, and he wants a diverse audience. Mixed crowds are the best audiences, he argues. He acknowledges that attitudes are changing, that lots of theaters "touch on [gay themes]," but he still believes it's a "fringe thing."
Laub leads a Spartan existence in his effort to keep the productions going. His "apartment" is really just two tiny rooms upstairs from the Little Theater Downstairs. The man's got a bed, two fold-up chairs, a coffee pot and some old costumes hanging sadly from an aluminum rack in the middle of one room.
Everything goes to his theater -- time, money and energy. He even maxed out his credit card to help finance this season of performances.
Watts has been pushing the envelope for the past 15 years. The tall, thin man with the very strange eyes -- one's brown, the other green -- has a perspective that goes back to the 1980s, when he put together an all-male production of Noel Coward's Private Lives.
"It wasn't like a drag thing at all. It was two male couples," he recalls. "We just changed the names of the female characters. They staged the play at the old Pink Elephant bar downtown, at the time, the oldest gay bar in Texas. They wedged about 100 seats into the establishment. Houston, as it turned out, was ready for them.
"We were a smash. One of the reasons was because we were new and innovative and people were excited and thrilled. They came in droves."
Watts founded his homeless Group Theatre, devoted to theater with gay content, with the 1985 production of One, with Kent Johnson. It was the first benefit of that kind for the then fairly new AIDS Foundation of Houston.
He even did an early production of Chambers's all-female play A Late Snow. "There was so much gay theater for the men, but so little for the women, which I think for the most part is still true today."
Much, however, has changed. For one, Watts has lots of company these days. Indeed, most every major theater in Houston has done at least one production with a gay theme in the past. And some theaters, such as Theater LaB and New Heights Theatre, have done several. In fact, the season-opener at New Heights marked a 30-year revival of that old classic Boys in the Band.
"For years I was the only game in town," laments Watts. "It was a good feeling, because I felt like I was serving the community. I was giving them something they enjoyed and appreciated. And then with the advent of plays like Torch Song and Normal Heart, the other theaters started doing a lot of theater with gay content."
Despite the past, Watts is reluctant to predict the future of gay theater here. "I think it's a good thing that other theaters are doing gay and lesbian theater.... But some of the theater will remain on the fringe."
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He said he has plenty of scripts that will go untouched by mainstream theater, even though they are good. "They're just not general enough, or they don't appeal enough to the masses, I don't know. But there's some of these plays in my closet, which is a good way to explain it, I guess, that need to come out. I don't think any of [the mainstream theaters] have ever done so much in-your-face, get-down-and-be-queer theater as I have."
While gay theater has made significant advances, Laub notes that problems linger from the earlier, darker periods for that art.
He said mainstream theaters don't have to field calls from people demanding to be removed from their mailing list, for example, as do gay theaters.
"They're calling because of what it looks like.... They're receiving it someplace they don't want to be receiving it. It's the '90s, but there's still a stigma.