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Friday, April 28, 2017

What’s Inside ‘Dorian’s Closet’?

Written by  Ryan Clark

In 1990, documentary filmmaker Jennie Livingston premiered her film uncovering the wild and unique “Ball Scene” that predominated N.Y.C. Harlem queer culture in the 1980s. Long before Ru Paul became the drag queen zeitgeist, drag royalty – Pepper LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, and Dorian Corey were tearing up Harlem in a celebration of gender fluidity and protest.

The documentary film Paris is Burning is the story of these important pioneers of drag in the years before the AIDS crisis ravaged the gay community. Weekly, contestants would gather in dilapidated gymnasiums and auditoriums in Harlem to compete in runway shows. The politics were complex in this world where queens are divided into “houses” similar to the great fashion houses in Paris (e.g., the House of Chanel). While the competition was intense, the support was endless for these young people wrestling with sexual orientation and gender conformity. It is in Livingston’s film that we learn terms like “werking,” “walking,” and “reading,” as well as the roots of “voguing” long before Madonna hit the dance floor.

Dorian Corey plays a supporting role in Paris is Burning. Serving as sage to the younger queens of the various houses – it is Corey who explains “reading” long before its appropriation by white gay male culture. The sequences filmed with Corey mostly take place in her Harlem apartment while she applies makeup for a night out at a ball. The camera catches a glimpse of a closet in the corner of the frame. After filming of Paris is Burning was complete, Dorian Corey died of AIDS. Little did viewers know that behind that closet door was a mummified body that Corey had hid for 15 years!

Investigators concluded that the body was Robert Wells however; the circumstances of how Wells ended up in Dorian Corey’s closet remain unclear. It is here we enter the imaginative mind of creators Richard Mailman (book and lyrics), Joseph Ritsch (director and co-artistic director of Rep Stage), and Ryan Haase (music creator). Dorian’s Closet, opening this week at Rep Stage, explores the life of the drag queen pioneer as well as what lurks in that infamous closet.

Ryan Clark: What was the genesis of Dorian’s Closet?

Joseph Ritsch (director): The book writer and lyricist Richard Mailman and I have been friends for close to 30 years. About four years ago he started talking to me about this new musical he was writing about Dorian Corey. I told him I would be interested in reading a draft. I did and was very drawn to the material. Several months later I went out to L.A. for us to do a reading. Oddly enough there was no music at that time, as Richard was having difficulty finding the right fit with a composer. The reading was still very helpful, and we learned a lot. It was then I suggested we approach Ryan Haase to write a few songs to see if Richard felt a connection to Ryan’s compositions, which he did and here we are.

RC: How is the play similar and different from the film Paris is Burning?

JR: The musical focuses on Dorian’s life not only in the Harlem ball scene, but her time as a headliner at the infamous gay bar Sally’s as well as the murder mystery of the mummified body found in her closet after her death. There are some familiar themes taken from the lives of the performers in Paris is Burning.

RC: I know you had a workshop of the production last year. How has the play evolved since the workshop?

JR: The play has evolved tremendously. The opening third of the musical is different from the workshop version, as is the ending. Songs have come and gone, moved from one scene to another, some songs even shifted to other characters. The story has become very focused. There is so much to tell about Dorian’s rich life, it was really challenging to get the focus of the story just right and I think we have arrived there.

RC: The creation of a musical theatre piece is such an amazing process. Can you describe the collaboration?

JR: The development process of new work is so exciting to me in how it’s really about the group’s collective effort to make the storytelling the strongest it can be. We continue to challenge each other to create the best work. It’s easy to get tunnel vision with what you are focusing on. Of course my job as a director is to think of the big picture and how the details of text, lyrics, and music come together in a detailed way to tell the story. It’s important to keep checking in to make sure all the elements have a common intention and arc. I think we have been a great team in the sense of really allowing each of our vision for the piece breath, but also challenging each other to make sure there is a common ground.

RC: I wonder if you might comment on directing and producing this piece now in 2017. I’m sure you didn’t anticipate the current political environment when you were choosing your season. Does the news today affect your “gaze” on the work?

JR: Since the beginning of the New Year, seven trans women (all of women of color) have been murdered in this country. We have a newly appointed administration that continues to threaten the rights of LGBTQ people. On a daily basis I personally try to understand why so many people in this country still take issue with my marriage to my husband. I think it’s easy to say “look how far we have come,” and yes, there is no arguing that advances have been made, but as you will see while experiencing Dorian’s Closet, the struggle of these communities in the 1980s and 1990s are not much different than present day. Acknowledging history is important. Embracing the DNA of our culture, no matter how ugly, is important. Re-telling stories so that we can hold a mirror up to the past and learn from it is important.

RC: Any final thoughts?

JR: Dorian’s Closet explores many things. It’s a love story, a murder mystery, and a historical piece. It looks at what choices we make based on our place in society. It examines how we figuratively, and literally, seek to destroy the parts of ourselves, and in others, we long to be different. It’s about creating family when the ones we were born into cast us out. I truly believe that the theatre has the power to ignite change by the simple activity of assembling a group of strangers to collectively experience the stories of others. For that short time together in the dark we are not us and them, but one. Along with this, great theatre asks questions. How can we stop privilege from killing empathy, hypocrisy from hindering acceptance and fear from breeding hate? And don’t we all want to be legendary in some way if only to be remembered for our kindness and the ability to embrace the difference in others. I think Dorian’s Closet asks these questions and many more.

For tickets to Dorian’s Closet contact Rep Stage’s box office at 443-518-1500 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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