After 22 Years of Silence

At a table at the Center on a Saturday in June 2001, on the eve of Gay Pride Day, playwright Doric Wilson and director Mark Finley decided to launch TOSOS II, a resurrection of groundbreaking queer theater group TOSOS (an acronym for The Other Side of Silence).

Talk about a prodigy. The infant TOSOS II ran before it could crawl with three critically acclaimed productions last year including Wilson’s own much-lauded play Street Theater.

Now the toddler has made new friends in the playground and is co-producing What the F**k with Emerging Artists’ Theater Company (EAT), a launch pad for emerging playwrights.

Their first collaboration is an evening of two campy short plays by David Bell set in a New York restaurant. The collaboration with EAT came about because several members of EAT are also involved with TOSOS II. EAT members, Shay Gines and Christopher Borg, have both worked with the TOSOS II gang before.

For Bell, EAT turned out to be a particularly hot one night stand: “I was actually cruising for dates on AOL, but the profile for “Eattheatre” said that it was looking for script submissions, so I threw one in their direction.” They liked it and EAT has produced five of his original plays. What the F**k’s storyline is based on reality, Bell’s day job is in a restaurant.

Founded in 1974, TOSOS was the world’s first professional gay theater company, with a mission to deal openly and honestly with the gay experience. New plays and revivals by writers like Terrence McNally, Noel Coward, Doric Wilson and Lanford Wilson, as well as readings, performance art, and cabaret nights were standard TOSOS fare. The troupe’s out-and-proud sensibility became a significant part of the Off-Off Broadway theater scene.

Twenty-two years after TOSOS went into hibernation, Wilson and Finley, along with director Barry Childs, embarked on the TOSOS II adventure.

Wilson believes the mainstream media limits the view of what part of gay life is eligible for public presentation (think Will & Grace), and that many stories won’t be told. Also, important plays often get great reviews, sell out short runs, but are then lost to history.

Wilson wants to keep those plays alive, to “respect our literary history by remembering and reviving our past.” Finley adds, “we were all searching for a creative outlet, and the original TOSOS was a great art-friendly model.”

In order to put more work in front of audiences with minimal financial risk, the reborn TOSOS II adopted a “start small” strategy. Street Theater was performed at the Eagle bar.

The company’s principals found that not having the huge overhead expenses of owning space frees them to jump when opportunities arise. Tales Told and What the F**k, their two latest productions, came up at the last minute and they were able to move on them because they weren’t trapped in a schedule. Wilson is not sure they’d even want their own space, saying “I’ve been there before–the start of Circle Repertory, etc–and suddenly it becomes all about real estate.”

The founders intend to let TOSOS II develop in whatever direction it chooses. Finley says they “want to spread out to produce and advocate not just theater, but all kinds of art—dance, poetry, music—in all sorts of venues. And given our vagabond nature at the moment, that seems not only possible but inevitable.”

TOSOS and TOSOS II co-founder playwright Doric Wilson is one of the forefathers of modern queer theater, and of gay history itself. Wilson’s first gay-themed play was performed in 1961 at the legendary Caffe Cino, a West Village coffeehouse that was Off-Off Broadway’s birthplace. Years later he was present at the Stonewall riots.

Wilson has never stopped to consider his role in throwing open the closet door for Broadway productions like Torch Song Trilogy and Angels in America. He’s always had the life he wanted, and has turned down big-money chances to remain true to his ideals. “When my play A Perfect Relationship was heading for a major Off-Broadway production in the early 1980s, I looked at the producers and director and realized they were people I wouldn’t trust in my apartment overnight, so I cancelled,” Wilson says. “I would give my keys to anyone involved in TOSOS II—well, almost anyone,” he adds.

Wilson spent ten years on the west coast attending to family matters, and returned to New York in 1991. He wasn’t re-involved with theater until he connected with Mark Finley and Barry Childs. He still writes but hasn’t allowed production of his new material since the early 1980s. He mysteriously declines to elaborate, but admits that that’s likely to change with the revival of TOSOS II.

For now he’s happy to provide an opportunity for others, saying “Writers as talented as David Bell will ultimately reach an audience, but I want to help push them along faster if I can.”

At the end of What the F**k’s opening night performance, as the audience cheered, Doric Wilson leaned over and said quietly, “I’ve been out of the loop for 20 years. When I see these productions and hear the audience laugh and applaud, I remember why I started TOSOS II.”

Wed, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m.: Benefit Performance for Emerging Artists

Theatre Company (hosted by Paul Adams). Closing night, Sept. 27, hosted by Robin Byrd—Legendary Host of The Robin Byrd Show.