Theater companies take a chance on gay shows and find success 

Risky Business

Before the first production of The Little Dog Laughed last month, the Village Playhouse's artistic director, Keely Enright made a plea for support. The playhouse does some edgy stuff, but the show about a lesbian L.A. talent agent, a closeted gay actor, and the bi New York hustler he falls for isn't your typical Mt. Pleasant theater fare.

If they wanted to see more shows like Little Dog, Enright encouraged the audience to let her know and to tell their friends.

It turns out there was little reason to worry. The show was a hit. And the Village wasn't alone. Meanwhile, the Footlight Players, a community theater downtown, had a string of shows with gay themes this spring that provided their biggest crowds of the season.

The Footlight season included Match, about a gay dancer; Del Shore's Sordid Lives, with its own closeted Hollywood actor as well as a southern Tammy Wynette drag queen; and Tony-winning La Cage aux Folles, a story of a drag cabaret owner and his partner, the cabaret's star attraction. And the Footlight's late-night season included Dog Sees God, a story about the Peanuts gang in high school that includes a blossoming gay romance between two iconic characters.

"It wasn't until the season started that we realized there was that theme in each of the shows," says Footlight Executive Director Jocelyn Edwards.

But the response was almost all positive. Fans of Sordid Lives came out to belt out lines from the film of the same name. And La Cage offered a discount night for audience members in drag. Those two shows provided the biggest box office takes of the season. Dog Sees God returned for a run during Picollo Spolleto, and you can find a shot from La Cage, with a bevy of drag queens, on the Footlight's new billboard on I-26.

The success of the Footlight shows shouldn't be marginalized, but Little Dog Laughed is, in many ways, a different animal. La Cage is a 20-year-old Tony winner with long legs, pun intended, and Sordid Lives is itself a cult classic. They're both full of laughs, making the ancillary gay content a little easier to digest for audience members who might not be comfortable with it. Little Dog is funny — hilarious, at times — but the love story between the two men is the show's strength and it's achingly intimate.

"This is realism on the stage that the audience hasn't seen before," says Enright.

Little Dog director Steve Lepre says that bringing the popular Broadway show to Charleston was Enright's idea.

"She likes edgy comedies," he says. "She likes to be the plow."

Considering the Village's location — cuddled next to a Food Lion in the suburbs, Enright says the show was a crapshoot. As far as she knows, this was the first production of Little Dog in South Carolina and likely one of the first in the region.

"It's kind of an unknown for this area," she says. "Even from the perspective of being in the Southeast, there was a concern that people wouldn't come."

Because of the theater's location, Enright says she occasionally has to field concerns that she wouldn't get in Los Angeles.

"We have wonderful support, but, because we're in the suburbs, we get a little pushback," she says. "We get so much grief when there's language in a play, it becomes a bigger deal than it should be."

And Little Dog not only had a gay plotline, it also had prominent nudity, including a scene with the two lead actors in bed together.

"At the end of the day, you still have to do the shows that grab you," Enright says. "I personally loved this play."

To avoid problems, the Village kept the play out of its fall lineup that's offered to season ticket holders, not wanting members to feel compelled to come to something that they didn't want to see. But, by doing that, it increased the theater's risk that the show wouldn't pay for itself.

However, Little Dog was a success, and audience members told Enright they definitely wanted more shows like it — unique personal stories. The success of the show has Enright hopeful that the next one like it will end up in the regular season.

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