Question: What do you do when you've written a raunchy gay sex farce sure to offend delicate sensibilities?
Answer: Take it to Des Moines!
John Trones, Dan Averitt and I had just finished producing our gay sex farce, 3Way, for the Minnesota Fringe in 2003. It was a labor, honestly, to write, and we were very proud of it. It was also quite popular and even critically acclaimed. We were just glad people thought it was funny. We knew we wanted the show to have a future outside of the Fringe, but we weren’t exactly sure how that might happen.
About three weeks later, John received an email from a gentleman who owned a bar in Des Moines called the Vaudeville Mews. He had been scouting shows at the Fringe to bring down to his establishment and said he loved ours. “The folks in Des Moines are gonna love it!” he enthused. We had our doubts the good people of Iowa were ready for the sight of three men in bed talking about who did what to whom the night before, but we figured we would take a chance and test it out to see if it had “legs.”
So we agreed to pack up our show and take it on the road. The guaranteed minimum which we negotiated didn't hurt either. It’s always good to have someone on your side with some contract experience--in our case, John Trones, had this down.
Our hotel was also negotiated and provided. Our only stipulation was that the hotel be near a Cracker Barrel. This was critical. John has this strange fascination with Cracker Barrel and assured us it was going to be an amazing gastronomical experience.
Luckily, the company I worked for had a cargo van. It was old and had been ridden hard and put away wet, but it was free. And, thankfully, our show, having been produced for the Fringe, was a bare bones production. Our biggest hurdle was also our biggest set piece; a queen sized box spring and mattress. There was no way we could fit that in the van along with the three of us, a loveseat, a coffee table, prop box, luggage, wine bottles and a ficus tree. We tried. We were afraid we might have to call off the show for lack of a bed – which was, obviously, essential for a show called 3Way. Then, the owner of the Mews told us he knew a guy who had a mattress we could use. Knew a guy who had a mattress. . .Let that thought sink in.
Did you know the servers at Cracker Barrel have stars, like generals? The better server you are, the more stars you get – all the way up to 5 stars. Our haggard, frazzled and none-to-bright server, Fran, had ½ a star. Kid you not. Dan, who is a lactose, fructose, cellulose-intolerant vegetarian, was served biscuits with sausage and gravy. Twice.
The Vaudeville Mews is a combination bar and performance space, not unlike the Bryant Lake Bowl, but smaller. Everything is contained within one long, narrow room. At the end of which is a tiny, 12’ x 12’ stage, usually reserved for bands. Somehow we managed to fit everything, including the mattress, on to this postage stamp of a stage. The owners’ friend assured us the mattress absolutely had not been part of a motel crime scene. Despite appearances, we took that on faith. In two hours, we blocked the show, set up the very simple light and sound cues, and got ready for the first performance.
Fish out of water?
Because of the size of the place (50 seats), we knew any crowd we got would be small. What we could not predict would be the kind of crowd we were going to get. This was Des Moines, Iowa, after all. Not that Iowa is the Deep South circa 1953, but we were definitely feeling like three fish out of water.
During our first show, we noticed that the audience was an odd mix of gay men and their friends – the demographic we expected – some young alternative bar goers, and a large section of middle-aged straight couples. 3Way is a gay sex farce. What, we wondered, drew the straight couples to us? What did they think of the show? Would there be torches and pitchforks at curtain call?
Turns out most of our audience had read a brief calendar listing based on a press release we had sent down to the local newspapers weeks prior. To our surprise and amusement, the paper had made a small but significant change to the listing. The one-sentence description we sent out read, “Three friends wake up in bed one morning and attempt to sort out their stories and their socks.” For some reason, the Des Moines version read, “Three straight friends wake up in bed one morning and attempt to sort out their stories and their socks.” Totally different show.
For some reason, the copy editor for the Des Moines newspaper thought it made more sense that three straight guys would get drunk, have sex, then spend an hour re-telling the event – and, for some reason, a bunch of middle-aged straight couples thought that would be worth seeing!
Regardless, they all said they enjoyed the show.
It was through this happy accident that we learned that our show could have a life beyond our initial target audience. We had evidence that it did indeed have “legs,” so we branched out. Now we have toured 3Way to a small university in rural Wisconsin. This was for a University gay and lesbian event but was also mostly attended by straight frat boys. They loved it. Go figure. And it was so popular in Des Moines, we brought it back, and the audiences came back for more. Encouraged by our success, we ran it again in Minneapolis, got great reviews and great attendance, again with a diverse audience.
Then came an even bigger test. We were contacted by a theater company in London that wanted to produce the show across the pond. (They’d seen the play listed on the website doollee.com.) Being a farce, we hoped it would do well in the place that basically invented the genre, and luckily, the Brits howled with laughter.
How had this happened, we asked ourselves. What had started out as a lark over martinis two years earlier had grown, evolved, and flown off in directions we could not have predicted. Our gay sex farce appealed to farmers and frat boys – everyone, it seems, wants to laugh. This should have come as no great surprise to us, but it did.
And we learned all this by taking it on the road. In the theater, we often say we’re experimenting and discovering and taking risks, but when you tour your show you literally don’t have any idea what’s around the next corner. But if you trust yourself, your audience – and trust the guy with the mattress – you may be pleasantly surprised.❦