Uptown Players co-founders Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch reflect on 15 years of changing the landscape of theater in North Texas
In the summer of 2001, two friends, both local actors — Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch — decided they were tired of looking for good theater; they wanted to create their own. They planned and raised money to produce a play with a gay sensibility called When Pigs Fly. Then 9/11 happened, but that didn’t discourage them. Why would it? This was a one-off, a toe-in-the-water production.
“We wanted to do one show — maybe one every year or two,” Rane recalls.
They gave their production company a name: Uptown Players. They were just playin’, after all. It’s not like this would become a career or anything.
Fifteen years later, it has become far more than they could have imagined.
“The second week into When Pigs Fly is when our patrons were saying, ‘You have to do more,’” Rane says. “So we put together a season, a budget and found funding very quickly. And it has just sort of continued to grow.”
“I think we fell in a really good time when there wasn’t a GLBT-dedicated theater here in Dallas, and the GLBT community was thriving. The Turtle Creek Chorale was becoming big, the Cathedral of Hope had record membership, the community was just gelling back then,” adds Lynch.
“There was just a large need that had not been met, but I don’t think either of us knew how large the need was,” Rane says. “Everything’s happened so quickly. The growth and the interest and the response was amazing.”
They hesitate to speculate about how and why they tapped into a Zeitgeist. Maybe it was a desire of people to get away from going to the bars. Maybe it was because the gay rights movement had hit a sweet spot of empowerment. Maybe it was because they were putting on a comedy around Christmastime, after the whole nation had been weighed down by the sadness of the previous three months.
“We as a community were starting to be accepted more,” says Lynch. “Gay characters were onstage and on TV. It was important in our first year to have fun, but also to cover some history about the GLBT community.”
And while they won’t say it aloud, maybe they were just that damn good at what they were doing.
“I think people very quickly realized that we were doing things that hadn’t been seen. And that was intentional,” Rane concedes. “We weren’t interested in doing Naked Boys Singing and Making Porn — we wanted to do real theater that appealed to a gay audience, and they appreciated that. And that’s what drew so many of them in initially.”
The theater landscape in North Texas has never been the same.
Uptown Players, quite literally, reconfigured what audiences in one of America’s largest cities would become accustomed to. Established troupes like the Dallas Theater Center and Theatre 3 took notice, including more racy, adult content (full-frontal nudity! Men kissing!) and expanding the scope of their seasons.
“I felt like when WaterTower did The Laramie Project was the first show we thought would be really good for us that went to someone else. That’s when we saw other theaters were applying for titles [they probably wouldn’t have before],” Rane says.
That hasn’t deterred Lynch and Rane from compiling seasons — usually comprised of two musicals, a comedy, a drama, their fundraising Broadway Our Way revue, as well as the Pride Performing Arts Festival and occasional concert-version shows and drag comedies at the Rose Room — that speak directly to the gay community… and a wider audience as well.
“Initially we ended up with a majority of the audience as gay men in that first season. This was another thing to do other than go to bars at night,” says Lynch. “It’s a social outing. “Phillip [Hearne, Lynch’s husband] has a cult following behind the bar — I could plop a cute boy up there, and his regulars will still come to get a drink from him.”
“It has become a four-times-a -year social thing — seven or eight couples will plan their [trips to the theater together],” Rane says. And not just gay men, either.
“People think, ‘I can go to the theater and take my girlfriend from work.’ They bring their friends and their moms and their aunts,” Lynch says. UP’s manager of patron services, in fact, is Nancy Rubin — a married straight lady.
Gay plays aren’t that difficult to come by — heck, they would spend a lifetime just doing plays by Paul Rudnick, Terrence McNally, Del Shores and Charles Busch, all of whom have been represented multiple times. Musicals are sometimes more difficult to curate. Lyric Stage does wonders recreating the classics of past decades; newer, gayer musicals (Fun Home, Kinky Boots, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Book of Mormon) are harder (and more expensive) to get the rights to… and more challenging to do justice.
“I would say Next to Normal [the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a family coping with mental illness] was the first one we said, ‘We have to do this one right,’” says Rane. “We were the first regional theater to get to do it and the first time, and it was pretty massive: A three story set, etc.” (No surprise: the production was a stunning success.)
He and Lynch agree, however, that one show stands out as the hugest of the huge: The Producers, which came with more costumes than they’d ever seen.
That could be eclipsed in their upcoming 16th season, however, by two shows. First, their production of Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner’s seminal work about gay issues in the 1980s. It’s a perfect fit for their mission, and the first time the show will be presented at the Kalita Humphreys Theater since DTC’s controversial staging in 1996. (Reaction from their subscribers was so incensed, a planned production of Part Two: Perestroika, never took place; UP says they fully intend to mount Part Two in their 2018 season.)
Then next summer, La Cage aux Folles should rival The Producers for grandiosity… and once again, dovetail perfectly with the company’s mission to bring art by, of and about the queer experience to their audience.
The question may soon become: How can Uptown up itself?
They haven’t done many repeats — Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pageant are the only shows they have mounted full productions of in separate seasons. But that could happen more in the future. And they are always looking to create an overall experience for their patrons from show to show.
“There are things that, over time, audiences have come to expect. I don’t know that we are necessarily targeting [the works of specific playwrights, for instance], but we are always looking for the freshest things — even if they are older plays,” Rane says.
“We concentrate on developing a season that isn’t all one thing — it has to follow [an arc],” Lynch says. Sometimes they are able to “snatch up” a show that has just become available.
And after 15 years, they are no longer low-troupe-on-the-totem-pole for winning production rights to some primo shows. Their reputation, it seems, has grown with them beyond Texas. They may be called Uptown Players, but the sky’s the limit.
The Toxic Avenger, Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Aug. 26–Sept. 11. UptownPlayers.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 12, 2016.