Ganymede Arts, Washington’s only gay-specific theater and arts company, is closing. Board members and director Jeffrey Johnson cited finances as the main reason.
“Since I took over in 2003, artistically it’s always been very successful,” Johnson said. “But there’s never been anything left over after each production. It’s part of the reason the previous guy left. There was security, no savings or money pushed back that made it easier on the front end. We’d have ticket sales and sell out most nights but after production expenses — and this was fairly across the board — we were back to zero.”
Ganymede was originally known as Actor’s Theatre of Washington but changed names in 2007 to be an LGBT-specific company with theater, dance, music and art. For four years, it held a fall arts festival, which sometimes attracted well-known celebrities like Karen Black, Charles Busch and Holly Woodlawn.
The board suffered several setbacks. Former board president Noi Chudnoff — also a big financial contributor — died in 2007 and the stock market crashed in 2008 affecting many arts organizations that rely on donations. Former board president Kevin Minoli said the board worked hard for the 2010 season — which included full-scale productions of “Naked Boys Singing” and “Falsettos” — in an effort to restore Ganymede to where it had been previously.
“I feel we got there last year and we were hopeful that once we got to that full production schedule things would rebound financially as well, but it took an enormous amount of work to make that happen and all of us on the board are volunteers,” Minoli said. “We mutually agreed that it made the most sense to close the company.”
Challenges dogged the organization over the years. Because the company lacked a permanent home — shows were often staged in storage spaces at Miss Pixie’s and Go Mama Go, both on 14th Street — seasons couldn’t be announced in advance. The board never knew if it would have the money or the space to open shows.
And because seasons couldn’t be announced in full, establishing a subscription base for patrons as many local theater outfits do, was impossible.
Johnson says he thinks the mentality for gay Washingtonians is to support larger operations.
“People give a lot of money to HRC, you know, the bigger-name stuff,” he said. “They always acknowledged us and came to our shows. We were always able to turn out a great audience when we’d have celebrities. Karen Black is still nuts about us to this day, but when it comes to larger donations, I think it goes to the Kennedy Center, Studio. This was our problem from the get go. We’ve never been able to compete with the Arena Stages and those theaters. We’ll take $2,000 and build a stage. They’ll put that into one costume. The difference between the bang for the buck has always been huge.”
Johnson says he feels “no regret at all.” He’s proud of the work Ganymede produced but says he’ll now have time to focus on his own endeavors. He performs often in D.C. as Special Agent Galactica, his pink-coiffed drag persona who, last New Year’s, started singing live after years of lip-syncing. Two Galactica shows are planned May 20-21 at the Black Fox in D.C.
Johnson says none of the big companies had gay nights or “pride nights” several years ago. He thinks Ganymede’s existence made them realize there was a market for the local LGBT audience.
That also became part of the problem.
“It’s one of those interesting things,” Minoli said. “As gay people have gotten more integrated in society as a whole, more companies are doing gay-themed shows. There’s the Albee festival going on right now. Gay people are going to see gay theater and gay art all across the city, so where there was a need for us at one point, maybe we’ve evolved and integrated to the point that the need isn’t as pressing now.”
But isn’t there something to be said for gay art produced by gays for gays?
“I think there is,” Minoli says. “We always said we were doing different things in different ways than what Studio, or whomever, was doing. They might do one gay show a season. So it is a loss to lose that, but I’m not blaming the community for not supporting us. We appreciate the support and all of our donors over the years.”