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Diversionary Theatre: Telling the story of the LGBT community to an ever-expanding audience

An interview with John E. Alexander, Diversionary Theatre’s executive director

I’m a theater fag. I admit it. I love live theater. I enjoy viewing new productions at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe, and then following their success or failure on Broadway.

For me, there’s nothing like the moment when the lights dim and the murmur of the crowd becomes an expectant hush.

So when I was asked to interview John E. Alexander, Diversionary Theatre’s executive director, I jumped at the opportunity.

Diversionary Theatre was founded in 1986, provides quality theater for and about the LGBT community and is recognized as one of the most vibrant showcases of talent in the city. Their mission is to produce plays with “LGBT themes that portray characters in their complexity and diversity.”

I met John on a recent Saturday night as final preparations were being made for the evening’s performance, and we spoke in his small memorabilia-filled office. There were times during the interview when his lively brown eyes glistened with tears that welled up but did not fall. Diversionary and LGBT theater is obviously his passion, and with Alexander at the helm, Diversionary Theatre’s got nothing to hit but the heights.

Lance Ryder: Tell us about your background and how your experience makes you the right fit for Diversionary.

John E. Alexander: It was a couple of things. It was partially my long involvement with the San Diego nonprofit community. Like many Arizonans, I came out to visit the beach and stayed to finish college at UCSD. I wound up working in fundraising, first for Scripps Hospital, then for a small group of people who began feeding people with AIDS from the back of a kitchen that eventually became Mama’s Kitchen. So between Scripps and Mama’s Kitchen I had a strong background in the nonprofit community.

I left San Diego for a year and a half and came back and worked at the Old Globe Theatre. In 2000, I made the conscious decision that I wanted a career in theater. I was then recruited for a job in Boston at the North Shore Music Theatre. I went to school in New York (Columbia) and earned a master’s degree in theater management and producing, and while I was there I got to work for Daryl Roth and a Charles Busch production. I also began working for Naked Angels, an off-Broadway theater company, and was their managing director for a little more than two years.

I had never planned to make New York a full-time thing. The graduate program was initially two years, and then it became three years, and then four years.

One day my husband and I were sitting in our New York apartment saying we can’t live here anymore when I received a phone call from a long-time friend of mine and former board chair of Diversionary, telling me the executive director position was open, and one thing led to another.

You’ve been with Diversionary Theatre for a couple of years now and grabbed the reins at a transformative time. What did you inherit and what are the challenges?

My predecessor Dan (Kirsch) did an amazing job at two things that attracted me to Diversionary. He got the ball rolling on producing new works. They had a program funded by the (ASCAP Foundation) Irving Caesar Fund to develop new plays which led to world premieres of works such as Yank, which was a very popular musical here and went on to become a very popular off-Broadway musical. It was that transformation into a theater that was about producing “new” theater instead of just producing “theater.”

The challenges are the same that all small theaters are facing. Diversionary was based on the nonprofit model and dependent on donations and fundraising, and really trying to do something different. I was very excited based on the theatre’s strong track record for producing shows that were both entertainment and great art that people would want to pay to see.

And the other big challenge I faced is similar to that of what a lot of LGBT organizations are facing. We’ve spent the last 50 years fighting very hard to be a part of the community and not have to hide in the shadows, and legally we’ve reached a lot of those goals. But our mission is still very relevant. Look at what’s still going on with young people, or hate crimes happening on the streets of New York. I think the mission of Diversionary, to tell the story of the LGBT community, is stronger than ever. I think we need to continue telling those stories and to tell those stories to an ever-expanding audience. That to me is one of the most exciting things about being here right now.

John E. Alexander

LGBT people have a very unique story to tell, but it’s not just gay white male coming out stories any more. Our mission is to celebrate the LGBT community and all its complexities and diversity, and I want to tell the stories from all the different parts of our community and show how they weave into the fabric of San Diego.

I want to explore that aspect a little deeper. Last years’ annual report stated that the big challenge for Diversionary is to build wider audiences beyond the LGBT community and tell stories that connect with the broader community. With all the historic gains made in LGBT civil rights, have we become mainstream? Is LGBT theater no longer on the fringe?

I think a part of us is on the fringe. I just don’t think that’s the only thing that defines us. Our City Council President (Todd Gloria) is an openly gay man who is as well-known for his general politics as he is known for being a gay man. We’ve got elected officials in almost every branch of office. We’ve got well-known celebrities from Hollywood, and politicians and people generally involved with the community who are out and very proud of who they are. The challenge now is to celebrate what is uniquely gay about our lives, but still be an engaged part of the community as a whole.

I left San Diego for 10 years and moved back, and my husband, who never lived here before, really wanted to live near the beach and became fixated on moving to Point Loma. We can’t live there, I said. There are no gay people. We’ll be alone. Nobody will come visit. We eventually found a beautiful home there, and we now have not just amazing wonderful straight friends, but also a whole collection of what we call “The Point Loma Boys Club.” I mean there are people who see the word “mainstream” as a pejorative, and I’m not saying that is what we need to do, but we also don’t have to live in some little two square block area of Hillcrest.

I think we can be out and proud and celebrate our culture anywhere we live. I think we’re a very colorful culture. We don’t need to be locked inside some sort of place where you have to have your gay card in order to get in and that we’re only going to tell our stories to other gay people.

There’s a strong relationship between San Diego and Broadway. Plays work out the kinks here before moving to the Great White Way. What is the relationship between Diversionary and Broadway? Do you miss the bright lights?

I don’t miss the lights because what’s happened is that San Diego is really developing this growing niche that goes beyond just the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse, to developing not only Broadway shows, but excellent actors, excellent writers, excellent theater designers and creative people. And that’s an amazing role that Diversionary plays.

First of all we are producing new works. We did the world premiere of the musical Harmony, Kansas last year. I don’t know if the show will go to Broadway, but that musical will be performed everywhere.

Dear Harvey which we also premiered is being produced all over the country. And that, to me, is really exciting. I get the best of both worlds. I get to work with really amazing talent and help create new plays, but I don’t have to live in Manhattan.

What do you look for in a new production? What lights your fire?

There are a couple of things and it goes back to our mission. It has to tell some sort of LGBT story in an interesting way, or it has to look at a story through the prism of the LGBT experience.

Plays that are entertaining and thought-provoking, that’s what I really want to see. To me the perfect musical is Book of Mormon because on the surface, it’s just silly and fun, but behind it is the amazing message of perception and self-acceptance.

Where is Diversionary going? What can theatergoers expect in the upcoming season?

We’ve had a couple of really successful years with shows like When Last We Flew which really looked at the modern coming out story, what it is like to be a high-schooler today. Stories that give the perspective of the things we can’t imagine because we haven’t experienced them, that’s what really excites me to put on stage.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in San Diego. For more information about performances, times and tickets, please visit diversionary.org or call the box office at 619-220-0097.



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Posted by on Jun 20, 2013. Filed under Bottom Highlights, Entertainment Feature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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