Blogging GALA :: Day One
Your columnist rose bright and early and with a terrific headache... despite not having drunk a drop the (all-too-late) night before, even though I’d gone to a party at local gay spot X Bar, hosted by the New York Gay Men’s Chorus. The place had been jam-packed and both dance floors (one upstairs, one down) were throbbing with music and happy chorines.
Your humble columnist avoids combining drink and dance (he’s already awkward when stone cold sober), and so had not imbibed. So why the splitting head? Denver is in the desert, and anybody not used to the dry air, even a New Mexico native who has spent too long living in a coastal city, needs to make a concerted effort to stay hydrated. Neglect your water intake and you’ll know. Oh yes, you will know. They say 3 liters per day is a rule of thumb for a man, and that’s even if you don’t live in the desert. Add another liter or two when visiting a dry place.
Sunday commenced with a hearty breakfast; food is as important as water, especially when it comes to managing jet lag. Then the day took off at a run and never slowed down. For the already-dehydrated, it was gonna be a challenge...
GALA’s "coffee concerts" are morning programs in which choruses have more time to present programs than they do in the standard afternoon concert blocks. Because programs are ongoing all three venues all the time, no one can possibly see everything; like everybody else, yours truly was faced with the tough and sometimes impossible task of picking and choosing from an array of irresistible musical offerings.
Nonetheless, Sunday’s shows offered a few standouts that I just could not miss.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., have created a masterpiece of musical theater called "Alexander’s House." Commissioned from composer Michael Shaieb for the group’s 30th anniversary season, the hour-long show details how a man named Alexander strove to live a heterosexual life even though he was gay. When he finally emerged from the closet, his wife divorced him and refused him any contact with their young son.
The show’s prelude sketches out how Alexander, post-divorce, fell in love with another man, made a happy life with him, and died unexpectedly. He left the summer home he’d shared with his life partner and their close friends to his long-estranged son, now 25, a young man who never knew why his father was absent from his life. (His mother simply told him that his father had been "too selfish" to be a good father.)
The piece is funny and touching by turns, but it’s a stack of birthday gifts for the boy, returned by Alexander’s ex-wife that brings a tear to event the most jaundiced eye. The moment when the young man, already grappling with the revelation that his gay father had loved him and not wanted to be excluded from his life, opens a gift boxed years before is simply indescribable. In one moment, the utter and horrifying injustice dealt out to gay parents by fearful, ignorant, and vituperative former spouses (and unkind family courts) hits home. You know the phrase "Not a dry eye in the house?" In this instance, that’s no exaggeration.
The Heartland Men’s Chorus brought their A-Game with surefire smash hit "When I Knew," part of a series of musical "documentaries"--in this case, stories drawn from the group’s members about when they realized they were gay or at least "different."
Sex columnist, political gadfly, author, and "It Gets Better" co-founder Dan Savage was on hand as a special guest to narrate the show, which mixed visuals (photos, graphics), narration, and song to describe the experiences (some painful, some triumphant) of gay boys figuring it out and learning how to stand up for themselves in an often-hostile world. One bit of sage advice from a fellow who dressed up as a Brownie for Halloween in elementary school and drew the attention of a bully: A well-chosen purse makes for an awesome accessory and, when filled with rocks, and even better anti-bully system. The house filled with cheers at this.
But the audience spent as much time sniffling as uttering accolades. When Savage ended the show with a recounting of how the It Gets Better Project started, and the effect it’s had in terms of saving lives and educating and empowering at-risk GLBT youths, their parents, and the teachers who are supposed to be keeping them safe at school, there were cheers; but an epilogue brought everyone back to the sobering reality that the fight is far from over and the casualties still mount.
"In Memoriam," a projected title read, and about a dozen images appeared, one by one, with no names; only faces and ages, the scant years they’d seen when they died, driven to suicide by bullies. After writing aggregate news stories for EDGE for years, I knew the names and the stories that went with those faces, and just about dissolved in my seat.
Seth Walsh. Asher Brown. Justin Aaberg. Billy Lucas. Tyler Clementi. So many others.
Let us not forget.
Accentuating the Positive
More laughter and tears awaited the afternoon audience in attendance at the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus performance of "Accentuate the Positive: Telling New Stories About Living with HIV/AIDS." The show was edited down from its full-length version to fit into the half hour allotted to each chorus included in concert blocks (otherwise, concert blocks would be much harder to program and schedule). The New York boys came on at the tag end of a block that had also featured the Rainbow Women’s Chorus, Tone Cluster, and Harmony, the latter of which was a local ensemble that waved state flags at one point while singing, "Color me Colorado." (It was adorable.)
The show began and ended with Morten Lauridson’s composition "Sure on This Shining Night," with lyrics by James Agee. In the middle, the show was presented in the format of a nature documentary, and addressed HIV in a touching manner. The narration described the habits of the "HIV-Positive Lower Manhattan Resident," including mating rituals, family dynamics, and seasonal behavior. A character disclosing his status did so through tap dance, a brilliantly apt metaphor; again and again he encountered results that were "other than the desired" outcome (rejection by a prospective partner, having to comfort a suddenly sobbing brother). The action was traced out using a clutch of popular songs, including Duncan Sheik’s "Totally Fucked" and Beyonce’s "Crazy in Love," among several other tunes.
Later in the day, during a program called "Our Legacy = Our Songs," the topic of HIV would be revisited. But first came more concert blocks, more fretting over which choruses to hear, the best way to assemble a diverse palette of musical experience.
Others relied on the concert block schedules or the program descriptions provided in the booklet or using the specialized app and other online resources, especially festival novices. I had an advantage other novices might not have had, though: I had a GALA guide in the person of my friend J.D. Fugate, a 16-year veteran of the Seattle Men’s Chorus who has attended four... now five... GALA festivals. J.D. joined me in surveying the options available for the rest of the day.
"You don’t want to miss the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus," he told me. "Their music is good, and their choreography is unbelievable. I’d miss tech rehearsal if I had to rather than their show."
Miss tech rehearsal? A blasphemous thought in the extreme. I’m sure that choruses in Ancient Eqypt used to strand such offenders on barges made of straw and then shoot flaming arrows at them. Columbus must be good.
Oh, and they were. Their program, titled "Celebrate, Love Yourself, and Believe," started off with "I’m Coming Out," progressed to "True Colors,:" and and included a few unlikely choices such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "His Eye is On the Sparrow," the latter delivered as a righteous gospel piece, and finished with "Believe." The choreography really was a scene-stealing, crowd-pleasing wonder, though. At one point I found myself leaning forward and muttering to J.D. unbelievingly: "That guy is tap dancing in a foot cast!"
J.D. and I later ran into the cast-wearing tap-dancer on the street and asked him how he’d done it. "It’s a little swollen," he shrugged, "but I’m taking ibuprofen." Now, I know that the nation at large may be watching the Olympic trials, but this guy was a champion.
Gay Youth Choruses are a significant and creatively vital part of GALA. To support them, the GALA Choruses leadership hosted a special fundraiser called "Pinnacle." One level of ticketholder got to attend the cash bar reception and buffet dinner, with remarks by Dan Savage and an auction; the higher level of ticketholder also enjoyed a private reception with Savage in a more informal interaction.
Dan Savage’s remarks, delivered just before the auction segment, touched upon several topics, including the "It Gets Better" Project. In the course of his comments, Savage said something that cut so straight and true to the crux of the hysteria around gay youth that it bears repeating here (though, I am sure, in a somewhat paraphrased form).
"For a long time after Stonewall, the deal for gay people went like this: After you’re 18, you can go do what you want, you can live as you like. But until you are 18, we will torture you at school, at church, and at home. You’ll be called names, you’ll face the rejection of your parents and violence at the hands of your peers.
"But here’s the catch: After you are 18, you may never reach out to LGBT youth, the youth we are still torturing. If you do, if you reach out to them with words of support, with words of encouragement and experience, having been where they are now, and if you try to provide them with hope, we will label you as pederasts and we will accuse you of trying to ’recruit’ kids into some kind of gay ’lifestyle.’
"But the response around the ’It Gets Better’ Project has challenged all that. In addition to the lives we know we’ve saved, we’ve given kids and adults who used to be those kids a way to connect and communicate. Gay kids don’t have to feel so alone any longer. We’re doing what Harvey Milk said to do, and giving ’em hope."
A short while into the auction stage of the event, a member of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, a grad student in nuclear engineering named Sam Brinton, took the mike and told his own story. The son of religious missionaries, Sam and his buddies found a Playboy Magazine when Sam was about 12. Looking at the magazine gave Sam no "impure" thoughts or feelings at all; he attributed this to his religious upbringing, which had inoculated him against all such vices by giving him a strong moral character.
Proud of himself, Sam told his parents about the magazine and his immunity to its charms. Then, as a sort of unfortunate afterthought, he added that he thought he did have feelings like the ones the magazine provoked in his friends... only, they came to him when he looked at one of his male buddies.
As Sam put it, the last thing he remembered after saying that was seeing his father’s fist closing in on his face. He woke up later in the hospital. This was the first of many beatings requiring medical attention, but his parents were well-respected in their religious community and quite literally beyond the reach of reasoned reproach.
Later, Sam was sent to "doctors" who tried to "cure" him through physical duress. The torture that Dan Savage referred to is not entirely metaphorical or psychological and emotional in nature; Sam was literally, physically tortured, with ice, with heat, with electricity, all in the name of aversion therapy. None of it worked. In the end, Sam escaped his parents, and an attempt to pay them a visit ended with his man-of-Gof father, firearm in hand, warning Sam not to set foot in the house, or else he wouldn’t live to walk out again.
For Sam, it got better... so much better.
The two hot ticket items on the Sunday "Evening Blockbuster" schedule were "Our Legacy = Our Song" and "Songs of the Soul," a collaborative presentation by several choruses (including, among others, the Seattle Men’s Chorus, the Seattle Women’s Chorus, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of San Francisco in one of the very few performances that my chorus mates and I would have the chance to see them give; the schedule has pitted us against San Francisco and Atlanta late on Wednesday). Also performing at "Songs of the Soul" was openly gay singer-songwriter Tom Goss, a former seminarian whose work often contains a spiritual bent.
"Songs of the Soul" was the earlier of the two, and took place in Boettcher Concert Hall, which is a big place, and it was packed to the rafters. Don’t tell me that GLBTs are not a spiritual or godless bunch.
The other Evening Blockbuster, "Our Legacy = Our Song," was slated to start just after "Songs of the Soul" in the adjoining Buell Theatre, another large venue. But if Boettcher contained spirits and bodies sent soaring skyward, Buell’s cup ran right over; the ground level filled up, followed by succeedingly higher mezzanine and balcony levels. I was about to give up and seek a place at the Opera House, where the show was set to be simulcast, when reserved seat blocks at the very tip-top of the house were made available (erm, that is to say, the mob, having had enough of this craziness, tore down the tape and plunked themselves down). Through a fog of hypoxia I was able to survey the stage from a rarefied vantage. It worked for me.
The show was a retrospective of the history of gay and lesbian choruses, which had an early history of entanglement with feminist choruses before coming into their own. Various choruses performed epoch-specific songs, offering a tuneful time capsule retrospective as presenters Dan Savage and Vanessa German narrated (and engaged int he occasional bit of badinage: "Loud lesbians were at the forefront," German declared.
"As they always are," Savage put in dryly.
One of the songs featured in the program was premiered at the 1992 GALA, which also took place in Denver. Titled "Give Us A Death Undiminished," the song’s first public performance took place in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Boston Gay Men’s Chorus director Reuben Reynolds told EDGE, "It was in the throes of AIDS and we were losing more people than were joining choruses. This song spoke so eloquently to their ideals: ’Give us a death undiminished, just look us in the eye / Let us die with honor.’
"So [we’re] revisiting that same music twenty years later with a group of HIV-positive singers, who were here at that time, who sang it thinking that they would die... and here they are [today], functioning, perfectly healthy, out and about in the world, making this festival happen, and so proud of the journey they’ve made in all of that time."
Added Reynolds, "When they came to me with the idea for this, it was just, like, ’I’m not really sure that I’m capable of capable of doing this, because I haven’t made that journey with them.’ But the thing that was so wonderful about it was meeting them, hearing their stories, and creating this whole together."
After the performance, Reynolds shared with EDGE the tidbit that the full group had not been able to have a rehearsal together beforehand.
"There were choruses from all over the country. In fact, we couldn’t even find a time to rehearse together, so I had two separate rehearsals for an hour and a half each yesterday. We never actually got to perform the piece all together until we walked on stage."
One would never have known it from hearing the performance itself.
"It was thrilling and breathtaking when it all came together," Reynolds allowed, with a smile.