A small central Vermont community might seem an unlikely venue for the Vermont Pride Theater Festival, but organizers say it's the perfect place to present a series of plays focused on LGBTQ themes.
The seventh annual festival runs for the next two weekends at Randolph’s Chandler Center for the Arts.
The plays this year range from Love Alone, a sober examination of how the death of a hospital patient affects her same-sex partner, biological daughter and doctor, to Family Holiday, a farce involving a family gathering where everyone has a secret about themselves.
The idea for the festival came from an experience Sharon Rives, of Braintree, had one year at town meeting.
Same-sex marriage was being debated in Vermont that year. Rives was handing out literature for the liveable wage campaign, but given the times, that's not what some people thought.
"Several people who were coming into the meeting passed me and cursed at me and called me all sorts of names because they thought I was passing out something about lesbian and gay rights," Rives recalls.
The experience shook Rives and afterward she talked about it with her brother David Zak, who runs Pride Films and Plays, an arts center in Chicago.
The idea for the Pride Theater Festival grew from their conversations and a desire to broaden understanding of LGBTQ life.
Rives approached the Chandler Center for the Arts, which decided to make the event part of its programming.
"It put us out there and raised some concern with community members," remembers Becky McMeekin, who was executive director of the center at the time.
McMeekin recalls that one local church called for a boycott, but it never materialized. There was some criticism but she says, on balance, the center was applauded.
"There was a segment of the population out there that really felt like, 'Alright, this is really important that they're standing up for this,'" says McMeekin.
Yet there were some who were puzzled about why the festival was happening in Randolph. Rives recalls being stopped on the street by someone who asked her that question and suggested the festival might be more appropriate for Burlington or Brattleboro.
"I said to him, 'It's here because this area needs it,'" says Rives.
Orange County, where Randolph is located, was at the center of the "Take Back Vermont" movement that rose in opposition to civil unions 17 years ago.
Bennett Law, who has lived in neighboring Bethel for 30 years, co-founded the Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont with his husband, Tom Bivins.
“My own experience was that Orange County was one of the more challenging places during civil unions and same-sex marriage debates. It became apparent that this was a community in need of some healing,” says Law, who serves on the festival's advisory committee.
The festivals have included art exhibits and film, but the plays are the centerpiece.
Law says over the years, the play selection process has evolved. Early in the festival’s history, organizers felt a need to include established, better known productions, in hopes of attracting larger audiences.
“Quickly it became apparent that the lesbian always dies in the end of any play written before 2007,” he says. “We just felt that was not the best messaging, so we became more ambitious about taking a chance on newer plays.”
There’s no shortage of material to choose from. The festival has received as many as 100 submissions for a single season, and each season the festival tries to balance comedy and drama. The festival has produced several regional premieres and even a world premiere.
That world premiere was a play commissioned by the festival from a young adult novel co-written by Chris Tebbetts of Hinesburg. M or F was presented during the annual January benefit put on by the festival, and the book was adapted by Gene Heinrich of St. Albans.
For the most part, the plays are produced and acted by Vermonters. And post-performance discussions provide people with an opportunity to talk about the work and their own experiences.
Law says attendance has grown gradually each year and the numbers reflect the challenge of drawing an audience to serious theater. Typically between 70 and 125 people attend a performance.
However while the event is well-established, it’s still not universally accepted. Two years ago, festival participants marched in Randolph's Fourth of July parade. Rives says their appearance elicited boos as well as cheers.
But Law say attitudes are changing in central Vermont, as they are elsewhere, and the festival is helping bring that about.
"Chandler Music Hall now has five gay pride flags hanging out front. It's not a secret that this festival happens here in Randolph. It has impact far beyond who attends a performance," he says.
The Vermont Pride Theater Festival runs Friday through Sunday, July 21-23 and July 28-30 at Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph.
Disclosure: Chandler Center for the Arts is an underwriter of VPR.