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Crashing the Golden Gate

Playwright Tim Pinckney writes about the experience of bringing his très-gay play Message to Michael to San Francisco. logo
The cast of the
New Conservatory Theatre production
of Message to Michael
I was a tiny bit apprehensive about my trip to San Francisco. The New Conservatory Theatre was giving my play Message to Michael its West Coast premiere, and I was thrilled about that. But I just kept thinking about the last time I was in S.F.

I was there for a weekend five years ago, and I met a guy who seemed very nice. While chit-chatting over an Absolut and tonic, he informed me that he had "just recently gotten back into the gay world." As someone who has never taken a vacation from his sexuality, I wasn't quite sure what he was talking about. Well, it turns out that he was a "former" born again Christian and had decided a few years ago that he wasn't gay anymore. He was "cured". But, two unhappy years and one very unhappy wife later, he scooted out of the closet door again, and (of course) found me. He was a very sweet man, and he did keep stressing the fact that he was a former born again Christian. Yet he still had that Amway look in his eye, and I frighten easily.

This is what I remembered about San Francisco. I was in no hurry to return.

Message to Michael was written for my best friend David Serko, who died in 1992. In a nutshell, it's the story of two best friends, Michael and Kenny. They have been each other's primary relationship for a long time. When Kenny meets someone whom he starts to get serious about, the dynamic of his friendship with Michael is rocked. The play is very personal and very exposing, so--as you can imagine--it means a lot to me.

The first New York staging of the play was mounted by Rattlestick Productions about three years ago. I was very proud of the show, directed by Michael Scheman and played by six wonderful actors: David Beach, Kevin Cristaldi, Rick Hammerly, Michael Malone, Tony Meindl, and Eric Paeper. After we opened, there was a lot of good buzz: a piece in Back Stage about producers looking to move it to a larger house for an open-ended run, an item in Cindy Adams' column, and some terrific word of mouth. Rattlestick was excited, the press agent was ecstatic...and I was cautiously optimistic.

Then Peter Marks came to see the show. I was told by a couple of people who sat near him during the performance that he really seemed to enjoy it. They lied. Let me tell you, it's not much fun reading your name in a less than enthusiastic review in The New York Times. As I sat in the lobby with an advance copy of the Saturday paper, reading a notice that kicked around a couple years of work in six paragraphs, I heard sniffling behind me: Our press agent was sobbing into his copy of the review. (I would have preferred him patting me on the back, as opposed to weeping behind it.)

The reviews in other publications were quite good--the Post, The New Yorker, The Voice, and the gay bar rags. But the Times had spoken. The company extended the play for an additional, sold out month and then moved on to the next play in its season. Since then, Message to Michael has been done a few times around the country, where it has been received enthusiastically. After all that initial exhilaration and disappointment, I was very happy that the play was now making its way to the West Coast.
My flight to San Francisco was interminable, not helped by the screening of The Story of Us. The real in-flight entertainment was provided by the entire company of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, who happened to be board--lots of cheekbones and pursed lips. I read my book, and kept my seat belt on.

The director, of our show, Stephen Rupsch, picked me up at the airport and drove me into the city. He made me feel very welcome. As we came over yet another hill, Stephen told me to roll down my window and smell the eucalyptus, which is everywhere in San Francisco. Not my favorite fragrance; kind of smells like a cat box that needs to be cleaned.

As you enter The Castro, you see the world's largest rainbow flag waving at you. Now, I've never been a big fan of the rainbow flag; there's something so, I don't know, Hallmark about it. But even I was knocked out by the sight of Old Gay Glory blowing in the wind. San Francisco is s-o-o-o-o gay--and my bed and breakfast was the epicenter of gaydom. Right on 18th, off Castro, The Village House stands next to a rubber/leather goods store and what appears to be a bondage-themed Starbucks. On the night I arrived, a gay bar across the street called The Midnight Sun was showing Will & Grace and playing show tunes. All that leather notwithstanding, I felt at home.

Everyone connected with Message to Michael had made it clear to me that they wanted my input during the last week of previews. I tried to stress that this was their show, and they should not try to copy the New York production. (This seemed like the noble thing for me to say but, to be honest, I would have loved for them to have copied the New York production.) I was asked to take notes and help with adjustments--a very awkward position to be in. I didn't want to invalidate with one sentence anything the director might have been pushing for during five weeks of rehearsal--and I know that's exactly what I did a couple of times.

I was also nervous that San Francisco actors might not be as pliable as New York actors. It's tough to make a living as an actor in San Francisco; if you're not connected with ACT, you pretty much work on low budget films or hope for a Nash Bridges walk-on. I was hesitant to give these guys anything new, four nights before they opened. But they were great. They lapped it up, and asked for more. Leon Acord, Lee Corbett, Michael DeMartini, Tito Jacques, Jared Scott, and Scott Stabile all did beautiful work. And Stephen, the director, seemed to be confident enough with what he'd already done to make room for me and my adjustments, which I found more than admirable. (Yes, there really can be collaboration in the theater.)

I've learned from previous productions that I generally have to worry about three things: (1) Is the director a kook? (How many good directors do you know? Be honest. You could probably count them on one hand and still hold a Big Mac.); (2) Are the actors smart and funny? (Do they know their lines are funny? Do they know their lines?); (3) Is anyone making a dramatic exit wearing clogs? (That only happened in one production, but I still wake up screaming.)

As it turned out, I had no reason to worry in San Francisco. I was in the hands of professionals. It's exciting when someone wants to do your play, but I always feel like I'm sending my child to camp: You hope everyone likes him, you hope the people in charge are responsible and caring, and you hope you'll recognize the kid when you go to visit. New Conservatory Theatre artistic director Ed Decker and his colleagues made sure "my kid" enjoyed himself, was appreciated, was treated with love. And they encouraged parental participation. I hope to send my other children to NCT.

There were no drag ballerinas on the plane home; they had been replaced by a women's bowling team, on their way home from a victorious tournament in Reno. As they drank their Miller Lites and watched Galaxy Quest, I held my boyfriend Mike's hand and tried to sleep. Mike had flown out for the opening; he had never seen my work, so I was nervous. But he was supportive and calming. He gave me roses on opening night. During the show, he even laughed at some of my obscure theater references, though I know he didn't understand them (he's a banker). And, through the whole weekend, I learned nothing scary or unsettling about his past.

So I have no anxiety about ever going back to San Francisco. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

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