Welcome to the Magnolia Arms, the wall-less apartment building where everyone's a lovelorn lesbian--including the tough gal elevator operator and the horny artist on the 17th floor. And yes, the two are having an affair. In fact, Lesbian Affairs is the gay version of Melrose Place: hearts are broken and mended with the speed of a hurled vase.
The serial soap was written and directed by Judith Schray, whose previous theater experience includes mostly acting, as well as arts administration for prestigious performers like the junior company of the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe and Urban Bushwomen. The first show she wrote, Significant Women, was performed in 1996 at the women-run theater collective, W.O.W. Café--to which she returned two years later with the first installment of Affairs.
A word about W.O.W., which has provided a haven for the work of many female thespians, including the Five Lesbian Brothers and Madeleine Olnek. The theater was founded on the idea of "sweat equity"-- anyone can participate as long as they help out with other productions. Aspiring W.O.W. producers attend weekly meetings to pitch their ideas. Then W.O.W. members go on their annual upstate retreat to plan the coming year's schedule. Since the collective receives no public grants, it funds productions with ticket money--from a sliding scale admission price--and donations--deposited in the box marked "Love Tokens: Money for Starving Artist." No one takes home a check. Amazingly, this works. In fact, this year W.O.W. is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Lesbian Affairs was inspired by Schray's observations of the lesbian community, particularly her interest in "the conflict around affairs," and people she knows. After trying to turn these sagas into a funny card game, she realized "there were some characters that I wanted to introduce who couldn't play cards."
So she started a script in the ideal genre for quick-flip drama. "I grew up watching soaps because my grandmother was sickly so I would go home and watch them with her." (Dark Shadows was her favorite.) The serial soap format proved conducive to Schray's creative mission: keep the suspense high and use characters "who could come out of a coma without it being medically right." The first seven episodes of Lesbian Affairs were written in eight months, on weekends and evenings while Schray worked a full time job. "I had to give up a lot," she recalls of that period. In March 1999, the episodes were performed (two a night) at W.O.W., and the "incredibly positive reaction" encouraged Schray to keep the suspense going.
A year later, the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh episodes (which play in pairs every other weekend to the actors' relief) are only refueling fans' desire for more. With some of the same actors, these episodes, according to Schray, concentrate less on the actual affairs and more on the themes of forgiveness and honesty.
But although the play is indeed a sounding board for these universal themes, it's really the hysterically overblown and often sexy affairs (the most recent of which Schray recaps at the beginning of each performance) that continue to draw the mostly lesbian audience. Will Sunshine get out of the hospital? Will Adele end the affair? And because this is not TV, the audience provides more than canned laughter; they howl, cheer and comment as the familiar characters soap it up. With this kind of response, Schray is going to have a hard time closing the curtain anytime soon.