John Fisher, A Gay Man for All Theatrical Seasons

by Barry David Horwitz

John Fisher, Aristic Director of Theatre Rhinocerus, the country's longest-running gay theatre company.
John Fisher, Aristic Director of Theatre Rhinocerus, the country’s longest-running gay theatre company.

John Fisher, Artistic Director of Theatre Rhinoceros, is busy playing himself—as Actor, Director, Producer, playwright, set designer, audio designer, costume maker, and whatever else needs doing, day by day–sometimes all at the same time. He is also grateful and humble about what he has been doing at The Rhino: “It’s always a pleasure to go out there on opening night and to become someone different. …when you see the audience enter the theater…it’s all OK. They are so full of expectation that you can’t help but feed off their energy.” John is a trained actor-director who listens to his audience, carefully.

Talking with John Fisher is a civilized pleasure, and I highly recommend you try it. Here is the man who has been leading the Theater Rhino, the oldest gay theater in the country, for 12 years now, and has found himself acting, directing, and writing new plays every season—and he wears all those theatrical hats with style. He runs major plays in theaters in North Beach, The Mission, and Outer Mission because the Rhino no longer has its own theater.

When asked what problems the “homeless” Rhino presents, Fisher replies, “Actually, being homeless and running our plays at Eureka, Z-Space, and Thick House among other venues, gives us flexibility and economy that we wouldn’t have with only one house.”

Fisher explains, carefully and calmly, that each play calls for its own kind of theater, that being able to choose the theater to fit the play, allows Rhino to be more flexible. He explains, “We can do the plays in the right houses, and we don’t have to be filling a space just because it’s sitting there, waiting for a show.”  Of course, that’s right, once he lets us in on dramatic planning.

In fact, John says, “It’s liberating, not having one house, one theater to fill with all our shows.” He has used Thick House’s audience space for the steep steps that Jon Wai-keung Lowe and he needed to present “Shakespeare Goes to War,” putting the audience on the stage! He used the full proscenium stage at Eureka Theater for “Breaking the Code.” And they used the small, intimate theater at Below Z-Space for “Habit of Art.” And all his shows win acclaim and awards. This cool and collected director has breathed new artistic life into the gay theater scene by selecting a wide variety of shows, always with a gay writer or a gay theme behind them. The shows cover a lot of ground, and each show is a new joy to behold. And often he mines his own life to write a new show.

He has ventured into deep personal waters. He admits that he was anxious about the play dealing with his mother, called “A Necessary Evil.” But Fisher felt he had to write about his mother’s repressive religious beliefs in the 90s, when she was condemning him for being gay. He says, “People who went to my mother’s church hated me. That didn’t make sense. It was a sad, angry play. But sometimes plays are just angry. No one says you have to see them or stay if you’re unhappy.” The play was his challenge to those who were voting in 2008 for Prop. 8 to ban gay marriage in California. John reminds us of our own history, too.

These were hard fought battles that cover many years—and along the way, our Rhino playwright and director has garnered many awards, too many to recount here. A few highlights are: Critics’ Circle Best Script Awards for “The Joy of Gay Sex,” “Combat,” “Medea the Musical,” and “To Sleep and to Dream”; Best Direction for “Medea the Musical”; and two Will Glickman Awards for Best Play; L.A. Weekly Award, and GLAAD Media Award for Best Theater. That’s just a few.

The Best Script award for “To Sleep and To Dream” was special to him because it was a play about his father in which he played his father:

“It was a tough view of him, but ultimately sympathetic. …. I put him onstage, played him, cast a really great actor as me at 22, and had all the conversations we always failed to have. …. I kind of knew he said these things to other people but didn’t have the courage to say to me. The recognition of that script by SFBATCC was great.”

John’s first show at Rhino, some years back, was “Joy of Gay Sex” which he brought over from his PhD studies at CAL, Berkeley. “Joy” is a comic study of gay life on the U.C. Campus—which has always been pretty limited, and in the past, rather closeted, too. But John brought it all out into the open, cracking open the closet door at CAL.  John has proven over the years to be a man for all seasons—from campy and popular musicals from his own hand, like Medea, the Musical at a big downtown theater, complete with great beefcake and show tunes, to recent sophisticated offerings, like Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art.”

John Fisher as actor Henry playing the role of composer Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's "The Habit of Art" at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.
John Fisher as actor Henry playing the role of composer Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

“The Habit of Art” (2009) by Alan Bennett, another award winning Rhino production, was directed by Fisher and he also plays Benjamin Britten, the Brit composer. His Britten character plays against a convincing W.H. Auden, the Brit poet, played by Donald Currie, another great local actor. “Habit of Art” was so successful that it had two runs: one at Z-Below and a second at Eureka Theater. Bennett’s play features the two gay English artists, Britten and Auden, composer and poet, revisiting their Cambridge haunts of the 1930s and then flashes forward to the 1970s. Bennett shows us how gay guys lived and survived in England, and brings us up to the present. Bennett, author of “The History Boys,” depicts the lives of artists and their working habits, the personal relations of these greats in two art forms, and their differing tastes in sexual relations. Rhino’s rich rendition was well worth the three times I saw this play—and friends thanked me for taking them along.

I wish the Rhino were more well-known, so that it would be an easier sell to friends—but then maybe theater isn’t always an easy sell in these days of TV series and movie blockbusters. But isn’t LIVE art more thrilling than digital? Well, that’s the sensual and biographical question of “The Habit of Art.” Fisher’s moving production about gay artists who had to hide their sexuality through most of the 20th Century, and who also helped to liberate the gay world along the way, is subtle, serious, and seductive.

Fisher directed the perfectly paced and produced piece, while nailing the formal and elusive character of Britten, so different from his more slouching and informal friend, Auden, the groundbreaking poet. And Fisher directed the whole she-bang—awards all round!

He also starred in and directed another recent Rhino tour-de-force, “Breaking the Code,” (1986) by Hugh Whitmore in which he plays Alan Turing, the great Brit mathematician and cryptographer. Although you can watch the engaging movie The Imitation Game with the Cumberbatch, and the riveting documentary Codebreakers about the same WWII team at Bletchley Circle, nothing beats the live play that brings Turing’s struggles, suffering, and achievements to life before our eyes. Fisher played Turing, giving us insights through Turing’s friends and colleagues, as well as his amusing Mum. He shows us the boy struggling to grow up in anti-gay Britain, and his naive, painful friendship Pat (Kirsten Peacock).  Fisher plays Alan Turing and directs the play, as well, going back in forth in time, so that the whole tragic story emerges, forcefully. Fisher’s achievement as both actor and director make him a pretty special “Man for all Seasons.”

As Alan Turing, Fisher brings the right amount of reticence and deliberate clumsiness to the role—pulling us back to the gay suffering of the 40s and 50s, when coming out was not an option—especially for a British intelligence codebreaker . As we know now, Turing and his colleagues broke the Nazi Enigma code and shortened WWII by two years, saving millions of civilian and military lives.  You already know how he was shunned and tortured, physically, by chemical castration—as payment for his noble achievements—dying an early death at the hands of the country he helped to save.

Fisher captures the naivete and the innocence of this afflicted genius. And, again, he directs the play, as well. These are pretty amazing achievements, but not a surprise coming from this modest and devoted theater artist. He has taken plays that depict heroic thinkers and artists, embodied them as presented in the work of others, and highlighted the earthy and ennobling qualities in our flawed and oppressed geniuses. These are grand achievements taking place, quietly, right here in the San Francisco. Such work merits the many awards it gets, as it works its way into the world at large. John has mobilized the talents of an army of artists to work the Rhino magic—but that would be another story.

In the recent production of his autobiographical play “Shakespeare Goes to War,” Fisher acts in several principal roles—that of his own father in Marin County, and as the Commandant of a Nazi Prisoner of War Camp. He also plays his high school Shakespeare teacher who fought in World War II and produced Shakespeare plays in a POW Camp. Now, this is all hard to believe, but Fisher says it’s all true—and the comic heights he ascends in writing, acting, and directing this play about growing up are unique and surprising. “Shakespeare Goes to War” shows us the young boy in an up-tight Marin County family, overseen by an attorney father, who comes off more like an accountant his eye firmly on the “bottom line.”

In the meantime, Jack Fletcher (the young Fisher, played by Gabriel A. Ross) is studying Shakespeare under his teacher, Harry Smith (played by Fisher).  Smith, the English teacher, had been a WWII Prisoner of War in Germany.  The charming point of his own play about “Shakespeare at War” is that John Fisher is showing us his own story of growing up and coming out in high school in California in the 70s. The play is a celebration of his great and inspiring teacher—a really beautiful accolade of appreciation for a secretive and sage gay teacher who inspired a gay playwright and director. He also shows us the struggle of growing up gay in Marin, his first gay crush, his growing understanding of what theater in general and Shakespeare in particular have to offer a shy gay boy. All this in delicious comedy, parody, and flashback to Smith as a POW, complete with Nazi commandant played by Fisher! It really does take your breath away when you see it, and brings a tear to your eye, by the finale.

(from L to R): Jesse F. Vaughn, Gabriel A. Ross, John Fisher, and Sean Keehan in Theatre Rhinoceros' world premiere production of John Fisher's "Shakespeare Goes to War." Photo Credit: David Wilson.
(from L to R): Jesse F. Vaughn, Gabriel A. Ross, John Fisher, and Sean Keehan in Theatre Rhinoceros’ world premiere production of John Fisher’s “Shakespeare Goes to War.” Photo Credit: David Wilson.

The classroom confrontations, the conflicts between high school kids, the early attempts at Shakespeare scenes, the guys playing gals—both in the prison camp by Smith and in the classroom by Fletcher—ring true and give wonderful opportunities for theatrical hi-jinx and commentary on the American political scene. There’s also opportunity for hilarious amateurish cross-dressing, too.

One of the many historical threads involves the 1978 “Briggs Initiative,” which tried to ban all gay and lesbian teachers from California classrooms. The young Fisher/Fletcher finally dares to get involved in politics to protect his closeted teacher from the threat. The valiant and ultimately successful campaign to defeat the vicious anti-gay campaign takes us close to early struggles for gay rights. Fisher gives us his own story, but more profoundly, he recounts everyone’s story—so that those who were not there can figure our history, to see the road to the present. Working a bit in the Tony Kushner vein, even Ronald Reagan appears in his personal “Shakespeare” play.

Finally, Fisher shows us how to fight for our rights. Whether it’s a musical like “COMBAT” about WWII, or “Medea the Musical,” or whether he makes plays about heroes like Alan Turing or Noel Coward or W.H. Auden, Fisher finds the materials to inspire his audience and turn us on. He tries to send us out into the street to think and take action. He gives us food for thought about the lives we live and how we got here.

John works hard. He loves the feedback. He says, himself:

“‘Shakespeare Goes to War’ was long and complicated. I rehearsed it to death. I  rehearsed my monologue as Klambach four times a day: once at home, once on my bike, once in the theater, and once with the actor playing the young Harry listening. The whole thing scared me. ‘Breaking the Code’ was also tough because it was so physical. But once I was out there doing it, I was OK. I think becoming another person onstage is the scariest, most demanding thing a body can do, physically. You’re really recreating yourself.”

Keep on recreating yourself, John, and also recreating us, along the way. As John says, “It’s always fun!” We look forward to seeing more of him. Whether he is Alan Turing, Noel Coward, Benjamin Britten, or Harry Smith, he will play the role with guts and gusto.

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