Whither Goeth the Rhino?

Doug Holsclaw talks of Theatre Rhinoceros

Doug_Holsclaw
Doug Holsclaw

On the map of gay San Francisco, Theatre Rhinoceros is a sacred community space. Five times a year in the old Redstone Building it calls home, the company mounts main-stage productions – with more shows in the downstairs Studio – and the faithful come to witness. At these times, the grizzled old gal radiates gay splendor.

For nearly 25 years, cutting-edge queer theater has found a home at Theatre Rhinoceros, beginning in times of heady optimism and fervent activism of the gay lib era, brazening through the dark years of the plague, lit by a spirit of defiance, and finally emerging again into the light of new hope. Or would that be the twilight of old hope?

This is the question of the moment as I meet with Theatre Rhinoceros Artistic Director Doug Holsclaw one recent afternoon at his Rhino turf in the Mission. We sit facing one another downstairs in the emptiness and shadows of the Studio, his chair perched on low stage platform, higher than mine, the difference in our heights emphasizing his regal nellyness. It’s just he and I, a microphone and digital device recording his every lisp, and a file-folder’s worth of images I’ve brought along, culled from a newspaper archive, documenting the many years of Theatre Rhinoceros productions. To get to the future, we’ll need to review the past.

“I don’t want to be an isolationist or separatist,” Holsclaw declares at the outset,” but I do think there is something to having our own home,” a place where queer stage artists can be themselves. He adds: “I feel like we’re not about straight approval.”

In his breathless, breathtaking way, Holsclaw justifies his theater’s existence: “If Theatre Rhinoceros didn’t exist, Barebacking wouldn’t have existed.” He adds an extra oomph: “I feel real strongly about that.”

John Fisher’s Barebacking, Holsclaw declares, “was a big production with great productions values and really controversial subject matter. Nobody else touched this show.” He beams with the pride of a proud parent, mother and father mixed in one.

He lives and breathes theater, you can tell, and the more in-your-face queer the play, the more he seems to like it: “I must say I don’t think we get a lot of credit for being as adventurous as we are.”

There’s a devilishness in him. He loves controversy. He also loves to tout the sheer variety of Rhino presentations: “We are not a theater that does just one thing,” he harrumphs, responding to invisible or imagined critics. “We just did Noel Coward, now we’re doing a women’s prison comedy, then we’re doing a gay version of Of Mice and Men. This is following Marga Gomez’s Twelve Days of Cochina, and Serina Queen of the Tango, about a drag queen tango dancer.” The last, he shakes his head, met with an unlucky fate, despite Matthew Martin delivering “the best performance he ever gave.” Alas, the play opened on September 9, 2001. It’s life was cut short by the bombing. The audience stayed home – a pity, he sighs, “because it was just wonderful!”

Doug_Holsclaw_1Continuing through the photos, Holsclaw comes upon yet another image of sexy guys baring all that counts to the Rhino audience: “This was a hot little comedy we did in the Studio,” he remarks of Out Calls Only. “When the first nudie boys shows started coming around, I said: ‘Let’s beat them at their own game. Let’s write something that’s really sexy, where sex isn’t the punch line. . . . It wasn’t like, oh, Naked Boys Singing: ‘Isn’t it funny when we wiggle our dicks?'”

Speaking of dicks brings him to Ronnie Larson, infamous director of 10 Naked Men and other controversies: “Ronnie Larson, you know, is a nut!” laughs Holsclaw, “but he’s talented, I’ve got to give it to him. I always say I’ll never work with him again, and I always do. He’s coming back next year.”

Holsclaw remains gently miffed at Larson for a nasty trick he pulled in the production of Girl Meets Girl: “He lied to me and told me it was [by] a woman playwright! It was really Ronnie using an assumed name. I took all sorts of heat. People wrote vicious things about me in the press, and I honestly got tricked!”

He recalls another play that caused a ruckus, and seems to revel in the memory, looking at the photographs: “This was Shopping & Fucking, which was one of my favorite productions ever. It caused all sorts of problems. We got hate mail. A major funder withdrew funding because the show was offensive to straight people. They said [the play presented] a very dark view of humanity.” Holsclaw sighs deeply, then replies: “Now, you step over people to come to this theater. Then you come inside and we’re supposed to be at a beach house at fire island? You know what I mean? Shouldn’t theater reflect the experience of the world?”

 

A dream come true

This place, this project, this dream called Theatre Rhinoceros, has been Holsclaw’s life and career and home for almost 20 years, almost since the time he moved to San Francisco from New York, in 1983. He never intended to become Artistic Director of a gay theater company, nor aimed for precisely the heights he’s achieved in the role, or the gravitas he carries with grace but can’t escape: “I never aspired to this, but now I’m the organizational history and memory of Theater Rhinoceros, because so many of my colleagues and dear friends before me are no longer here.”

It’s an awesome responsibility. If you want to do queer theater in San Francisco, you have a few choices: go the low-budget, anarchist/independent route, either in rental spaces or through workshopping at the Jon Sims Center and elsewhere; or plead with mainstream theaters to produce your gay-themed piece (thus currying the queer community’s gratitude); or turn to New Conservatory Theater Center or Theatre Rhinoceros, the two main homes plays and spectacles by, for and about queers.

“We recently started using Equity actors,” proclaims Holsclaw with pride. Rhino, he says, is “the first gay theater in the country to have a seasonal agreement with Equity. We pay our actors $125 a week.”

The amount is absurdly low, a mere token, and Holsclaw knows it: “Economics in the Bay Area have made it hard for young artists to live here because rents are so high. Young people are going to Portland and Seattle, not San Francisco, except the more professional ones. I don’t sense a rising class of younger artists in the volume there was when I started, because it’s a tough city to live in.”

Holsclaw describes finances at Theatre Rhinoceros as touch-and-go, but declares that thanks to his small, hard-working staff, and careful allocation of new grants, “At Rhino, you see the money on the stage.”

Just after he says this, Holsclaw drops the big news: “We’ve been in the planning process for our relocation; we’re in the process of negotiating an option to buy on a new building.”

The specific building Holsclaw has in mind for Theatre Rhinoceros is the old City Athletic Club smack dab in the center of the Castro. “If the homeless shelter moves out, it might become available,” Holsclaw says. “The location is beautiful. The idea of having a performing arts facility in the Castro would be a great thing for the community.”

Holsclaw feels the Castro location, for which they’ve already don an architectural feasibility study, would make GLBT theater accessible to a larger segment of the population: “What I hear from our audience is that while some people love the Mission District, some people don’t feel safe coming here. And people should feel safe coming to the theater. Once inside the theater, there should be an element of danger, because you don’t know what you’re going to see on stage.”

As for himself, says Holsclaw at interview’s end, “I’m not sure what the future holds, but in the next couple of years I would like to transition out of being to dog, and that will mean groom and coaching somebody.

Is anybody waiting in the wings?

“Well, that’s a top secret,” he winks, “just like my Boo Boo Bear.”

. . . . .

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.