R.I.P.: Doric Wilson

May 10, 2011

Doric Wilson, who died Saturday May 7 at the age of 72, was virtually unknown to mainstream America, even to most theater people. But within the world of Off-Off-Broadway and post-Stonewall gay theater, he was a pioneer. He was one of the young out gay playwrights who made the legendary Caffe Cino his artistic home in the 1960s (along with Lanford Wilson and Robert Patrick), and in 1974 he founded the first gay theater in the United States, The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS). He had a tremendous influence on me as a young theater critic and baby gay liberationist hungry for historical touchstones.

We met in the summer of 1976, when I interviewed him and John Glines (separately) for a series of articles about gay theater for Boston’s Gay Community News. I was an earnest, starry-eyed 22-year-old Boston University student at the time, and I ended up publishing a rambling Q&A with Doric in GCN that strikes me now as embarrassingly naïve. But it was true that, as I wrote in the introduction, “As a person, Wilson is not ‘sort of’ anything – he is extremely intelligent, well-read, opinionated, headstrong, garrulous, and energetic.” Among the things that impressed me about Doric was his outspoken critique of gay homophobia, his willingness to describe himself unapologetically as “very promiscuous,” his openness as a leatherman, his refusal to distance himself from gay bar culture, and his frankness in articulating the subliminal ways that sexual attractiveness affects the way people interact professionally.

I don’t think anyone in the press had ever paid such close attention to Doric. I think he was flattered by my attention, as I was flattered by his openness (and his flirtatiousness, which led to the inevitable and inevitably anticlimactic one-night stand). Every time I saw him after that, he went right back into lengthy expostulation, as if I were still interviewing him, as if I were his personal historian, which was a little bit charming at first but quickly grew wearying. For all I know he did that with everyone. A large man physically and energetically, Doric spoke with a resonant, commanding voice as if addressing the multitudes, even in intimate circumstances.

In some ways, I was glad to take on the mantle of gay theater historian, because I had an ardent interest, particularly in the early days of Off-Off-Broadway. And I admired Doric’s plays (such as A Perfect Relationship and Forever After) for their willingness to depict the mundane aspects of gay life and romance with directness and humor as well as a sturdy but unpretentious theatricality. He liked to emulate the epigrammatic wit of Noel Coward but he also incorporated the casual way drag queens talk directly to the audience.

In 1977, I wrote a review of Doric’s play The West Street Gang for The Advocate, the national gay newsmagazine. (It was reprinted in Mark Thompson’s Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement.) The play addressed the topical issue of gay-bashing and was performed site-specifically at the Spike, a leather bar in the West 20s, an area quite vulnerable to late-night attacks by marauding haters. Similarly, his play about the Stonewall uprising, Street Theater, premiered at the notorious Mineshaft and has a history of productions staged in funky gay bars. I was proud to include Street Theater in my anthology of gay and lesbian plays, Out Front, published in 1987 by Grove Press.

At a Queer Theater Conference in 1995, I moderated a panel discussion among several ground-breaking artists about the emergence of an out theater aesthetic. (A redacted transcript of this discussion appeared in The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater, edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla, who convened the conference for CLAGS.)  Doric was the grand old man on the panel, and he spoke very personally about his background with details I had never encountered anywhere else:

“I came to New York in 1958 from a ranch in Washington State. I did not come to New York in the cowboy style of the seventies. In the fifties, if you came from a ranch in Washington State, you came to New York trying to look like Noel Coward, and I looked as much like Noel Coward as I could. I’ve always been out. I grew up in a sort of pioneer family in a very unpopulated pioneer country, at that time, in Washington, the Five Cities.
There weren’t any five cities when I grew up. There were only two cities. But my grandfather had more or less founded the county, and built the roads and what-have-you.
So, I had that wonderful old-time American arrogance of pioneers, that it didn’t matter what I did, nobody had a right to say anything to me. So I came out in school. I came out because a friend who was gay killed himself when he realized that he was about to be discovered, and I decided I wasn’t a good enough shot to kill myself, so I’d better come out…
I came to New York to be a set and costume designer, but I was so naïve, I had no idea where one studies set and costume design. So I was used as an actor. I did any number of stock productions of Auntie Mame as young Patrick Dennis. My roommate at the time was a straight English actor and I wrote a play for a little theater workshop that we were in, an Adam and Eve play called And He Made a Her.
An actress in that company had just done a Tennessee Williams play at this coffeehouse on Cornelia Street in the Village. Now those of you who know New York City and know Cornelia Street know that it runs for one block. In the early sixties, what is now the West Village was almost part of Little Italy. It was not part of Bohemia.
So, the Caffe Cino was really more in Little Italy environment than New Bohemia. This actress, Regina Oliver, took me down to the Cino, introduced me to this short, impish, round man behind the counter: Joe Cino, who always had one hand on the arm of the cappuccino machine or ringing a bell to start the performance, so I always see Joe Cino with one arm in the air. I started to hand him the play while he was making a sandwich and making cappuccino. He opened the notebook, and he said, “Three weeks from now, on Friday,” and closed the notebook and pushed the play away. I turned to Regina and said, “What does that mean?” She said, “That’s when you open.” From that point on, we all just did plays at the Cino. Lanford [Wilson], myself, Tom Eyen – we all wrote gay plays there, but it never occurred to us that’s what we were doing. We also wrote bad plays there. Joe was completely open.
The other side of the coin was critics. In the sixties it was a problem if you were known as an out gay playwright. There were theaters that would not do your work. The most important of them was the Public Theater. Most of the Cino playwrights were not done at the Public. But we had the Cino.”

3 Responses to “R.I.P.: Doric Wilson”

  1. Steve V. Says:

    I didn’t know how well you knew Doric Wilson, Don, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. I thought you were a little too young to remember TOSOS, but I forgot that you started out as a baby journalist. Glad you were around for All That.

    Anyway, with all your lore, maybe you can remember the title of a Wilson play that I saw which came after West Street Gang. It had Billy and Tiffany (Doric’s favorite drag performers) as Thalia and Melpomene, who commented on the action that took place in the present day. I don’t remember it as being an especially interesting play, but it certainly was memorable, at least from the conceptual standpoint. I wish I could remember the title. Can you?


  2. “Every time I saw him after that, he went right back into lengthy expostulation, as if I were still interviewing him, as if I were his personal historian, which was a little bit charming at first but quickly grew wearying.” That’s funny.

  3. Josie Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further post thhanks once again.


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