"What I thought was going to be a fairly simple romp of a show," says director Tara Ayres, "has turned into something a lot more ambitious." The show, Riot Acts, is a two-act commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City - generally considered the first gay-rights protests in American history.
A collaboration by three Madison queer groups - theater company StageQ, the Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus and youth troupe Proud Theater - Riot Acts follows its characters through the decade leading up to Stonewall, where their stories converge, and on through the decade after. The two-hour show, running next week at the Bartell Theatre, mixes drama and comedy with live and recorded music from the era.
Back in December, though, when Perfect Harmony's John Steines and Kyle Richmond first approached Ayres, StageQ's artistic director, with the idea to mark the anniversary with an original performance, it looked a little different.
"We originally envisioned a variety show, and with two theater troupes and a chorus, it seemed like that would be pretty easy," Ayres says. "But once we started working on it, it turned into a full-length musical." Highlights include choreography by Cindy Severt (in charge of the dancing for Mercury Players' The Full Monty last year) set to live renditions of Sly & the Family Stone's "Stand!" and "Everyday People" at the end of the first act, just before the riots (which the show doesn't depict).
The characters are fictional, but often amalgams of the writers' friends and the subjects of historian Martin Duberman's book Stonewall, which Steines and Richmond drew from.
"He writes from the perspective of six or eight people whose paths kind of met at Stonewall, but who come from very different places," Richmond says. That element of diversity within a community is a major theme of Riot Acts, whose players include gay men, lesbians and a fierce drag-queen presence. Says Ayres, "Part of what we're trying to show is that even when we don't agree with each other within the queer movement, we're stronger because of the diversity of viewpoints."
"We do reference a couple of Wisconsin characters," says Steines, "specifically with a piece that references electroshock therapy, which was quite common at the time as a way to treat homosexuality."
"We're aiming at a wide audience," says Richmond, who says they've been approached about putting on Riot Acts in Jefferson County and Milwaukee. "We're not doing this show just for the LGBT community of downtown Madison. We're hoping we get young people, old people, straight people, whoever, to come."