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theatreWashington prez Austin moved quickly to cushion COVID-19 hardships

Lesbian and former City Paper publisher plans virtual Helen Hayes Awards soon

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Amy Austin, gay news, Washington Blade
Amy Austin says the COVID-19 ripple effects have impacted theater artists especially acutely. (Blade photo by Michael Key) 

When the pandemic prompted the shutdown of D.C.-area theaters, Amy Austin had to think fast. As president and CEO of theatreWashington, an organization dedicated solely to promoting, representing and supporting all segments of the Washington area professional theater community, she felt compelled to do all she could for a community and industry she loves. 

So, in response to unprecedented closures and loss of work, theatreWashington quickly established the Taking Care COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, a successful fundraiser that allocates money to help theater professionals in need during these unusually tough times. 

“We had to serve the artistic community directly and quickly,” says Austin in a recent phone interview. “We got it up and done, but it could have never happened without the community itself as the driving force.” 

Prior to theatreWashington in 2015, Austin was the longtime publisher of Washington City Paper and a familiar face on the local arts scene. Not surprisingly, taking on the task of supporting over 90 professional theater companies by celebrating excellence (the annual Helen Hayes Awards are presented by theatreWashington) and fostering ways to work together to make the community stronger, has proved a good fit. 

At home in Mount Pleasant things have changed, too. Austin is riding out the pandemic with her wife, Deirdre Joy, who is working from home, and their three children — two college students who are finishing off their sophomore years from home and a high schooler. 

“I go to the Dupont office alone — literally alone,” says Austin, 62. “I’ve only seen the guard at the door and some repair people. Last week I saw a mouse, which was almost a welcome surprise. I take walks around the neighborhood to get some air.” 

Austin is warm with an unfailing sense of humor, yet a friendly manner doesn’t belie her concern about current circumstances.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Amy, how are you? 

AMY AUSTIN:  I’m pretty good given there’s an existential crisis affecting the industry I support. It’s an interesting and very difficult time.

BLADE: Was there a moment when you knew the theater community was in big trouble?

AUSTIN: Right around the first and second week of March when you could see that gathering was becoming dangerous. There were people attending funerals, church choir practices or ski trips in Italy who were getting sick. It quickly became the need to gather versus gathering is unsafe. Early on, I cancelled the Helen Hayes Awards, which were scheduled for May. Soon after everything closed pretty quickly. 

BLADE: What’s the last live performance you saw?

AUSTIN: James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” at Shakespeare Theatre Company which was glorious, a beautiful production with lots of talented local actors including E. Faye Butler. It’s a memory that you can carry with you.

BLADE: Did the role of theatreWashington change quickly too?

AUSTIN: Yes, mainly the creation of the COVID-19 emergency relief fund, a subcategory of our Taking Care Fund that has been assisting theater people with medical expenses since 2012. The COVID-19 fund gives $500 grants to individuals who need money — actors, box office people, people who hang lights, people who design lights — anyone who works in the industry. 

BLADE: Earlier this month, Joseph Haj, artistic director of the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, made an announcement that they would remain closed through March 2021. Thoughts? 

AUSTIN: I think his announcement demonstrates that people are following their artistic vision and their heart, so you’re going to get different responses from different institutions. To me, the root of his statement was that they won’t be making theater if people can’t gather together. Not everyone will be coming from that place; there will be variance. For instance, Woolly Mammoth is doing Play at Home, a new collection of plays that you can download and do in your living (or Zoom) room. It’s a great way to get new work out and they’re employing artists to write them. And they collaborate with different theaters like them — propensity for new work. And Signature Theatre, the go-to theater, best-in-show, for using video before the pandemic, is doing interesting things. They made a quick switch by having virtual masterclasses, interesting deep dives into how theater works and who makes work; they showcase local talent up close and in ways we haven’t seen them before. There will be different responses. Some theaters are optimistically planning to have people gather in the fall. The question is can we provide a safe environment and will audiences feel safe to go back? Personally, I think people will wait. 

BLADE: What is the status of the Helen Hayes Awards?

AUSTIN: The May event had been rescheduled to August at Anthem but that seems way optimistic at this point. So, we’ve decided to take it virtually. We haven’t set a date yet but I’m really interested in getting the awards up and out to people. 

BLADE: Are you tortured by this kind of decision-making?

AUSTIN: I’m not tortured by decision making. What’s difficult is translating the event to a different medium and make it meaningful. Just like theater, what makes the Helen Hayes Awards extraordinary is having everyone together, that kind of energy.

BLADE: Do you miss the support of Victor Shargai? (Long-time theatreWashington board chair, theater lover and philanthropist, Shargai, who was gay, died on Dec. 24, 2019.)

AUSTIN: I miss Victor deeply. He had strength and optimism and high regard for the arts and how it can change people and society. He remains a guidepost for me.

BLADE: So where do things stand at this point? 

AUSTIN: For theater, there are reasons to worry across the entire spectrum. But I think if you had to choose, I’d worry most about the artists. The people who go from show to show — actors, designers, music directors — all of that group. It’s hard to comprehend the place they’re in. And that’s what we — community, institutions, supporters — should be concerned about most. We want to keep them safe and here until it’s time to get back on the stages.

Amy Austin (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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