By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
When it comes to LGBT milestones, I think we can argue that the West Coast is “where it’s at.” From the “The Daughters of Bilitis” lesbian civil rights group, founded in San Francisco in 1955, to the pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian uprisings at Los Angeles’ Cooper’s Donuts, and of course, our history of out LGBT elected officials, the allure of the West Coast has proven a bastion for the LGBT community.
San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, founded in 1986 and the third oldest operating LGBT theater in the U.S., is an important part of that heritage.
The 1980s marked tumultuous times for the LGBT community. We were still reeling from the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978. LGBT civil rights legislation was stagnant under the Reagan administration. AIDS was decimating the gay male community. Over a decade would pass before a major celebrity would come out of the closet.
Founding artistic director, Thom Vegh realized that we needed a creative outlet to tell our stories; hence Diversionary Theatre was born.
A perfect play on “diversity” and “visionary,” the San Diego LGBT community has supported and kept the theater alive for nearly 30 years. Starting as an itinerant company, the plays were held where room could be found, from bars to junior high schools and even the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre. Never shying away from controversial topics, including the ongoing AIDS crisis, Diversionary cast and crew found themselves ousted from more mainstream venues, but they remained true to the vision of telling our stories.
Board member and long-time patron, Scott Williford, has been actively collecting Diversionary’s history, and he shared some of his personal memories and findings with me.
“The first ten years of the theater were an especially tumultuous time and reflected the crises in our community,” Williford said. “The theater started in 1986 when our first artistic director, Thom Vegh, recognized the need to have a forum to tell the Gay and Lesbian stories in the mid-1980s, when leaders in government from the President on down had yet to publicly acknowledge the AIDS crisis. Many of those early stories such as ‘Disappearing Act’ and ‘Remember My Name’ depicted the stories of people with AIDS and even used actors who were themselves struggling with the illness during their performance. It was a painful and raw time in our community and many of the stories we told reflected these struggles.”
In 1994, Diversionary moved into the space with which many San Diegans identify the theater, 4545 Park Blvd. In 2006 this became more permanent as the estate of Dr. Fritz Klein, longtime board member, gifted the building to Diversionary Theater.
Since its inception, the theater has produced nearly 140 mainstage shows, not to mention other artistic and cultural events, which resonate with the LGBT community.
As Diversionary prepares to celebrate 30 years of LGBT theater and performing arts, we find artistic director, Matt Morrow at the creative helm. Morrow joined Diversionary in November of 2014, and has wasted no time finding his footing and making his mark. We had some time to discuss his transition, his goals and what drew him to Diversionary.
“My first thought was ‘Wow’, this theater is just so beloved by the San Diego community; 30 years of support is a true testament to how much this community values their art and stories,” Morrow said.
Helming his first season as Artistic Director as the 30th anniversary of the theater draws near, Matt had a choice to follow a standard script and do a “Diversionary’s Greatest Hits” season, but instead he wanted to stay true to the ongoing mission.
“I’m asking people to take a “leap of faith” with me,” he said. “Let’s focus on new, relevant shows by the writers who are the future of LGBT theater!”
His first directed show of the season was the challenging, poignant and sometimes humorous “Amazons and Their Men,” a complex play that required finesse of both acting and production. Through a grant from Las Patronas Foundation, Diversionary was able to upgrade the lighting and production capability of the theater space, making for one of the most nuanced and sophisticated productions to grace the stage.
Next we will have the chance to see the West Coast premiere and first regional production of “Bright Half Life,” by playwright Tanya Barfield. Fresh from its well-lauded Off Broadway production, the play explores the interracial love between two women over a 40-year period and officially opens on Nov. 6.
In addition to a full season of performances, Diversionary continues to make space and time for emerging artists in multiple areas of the performing and visual arts as well as the greater community. Matt was thrilled to see the revival of the student matinee series, connecting San Diego’s youth to free show performances and providing both a “talk back” after the show and pre/post education in their classrooms.
Additionally, programs like Word Play Tuesday provide a monthly forum for up-and-coming playwrights to present readings of portions of their works.
Matt looks forward to thoughtful and pragmatic growth as Diversionary finds its “sweet spot,” as he envisions a “neighborhood theater with an international reach.” Purpose, impact, and ultimately, illumination, are the goals for another 30 years.
To learn more about Diversionary Theatre, its shows and community programs, visit diversionary.org.
—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.