John Glines: Developing Positive Self-Images for Gays
On June 5, 1983, John Glines accepted a best play Tony Award for his production of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.”
In his nationally televised speech, the producer thanked everyone who’d been a part of the show--including his then-partner and lover Lawrence Lane. At the end of the heady evening, Fierstein’s limo deposited Glines in front of his Brooklyn apartment, where cheering neighbors had festooned the building with a banner and streamers. On June 7, there was a death threat on his answering machine. The curb outside was spray-painted with the words “Die, Faggot, Die.”
“I had thanked my lover on television,” Glines, 55, explained calmly. “There are people who bash fags, kill them. Sure, I was frightened. How do you get over it? You read Martin Luther King and think, ‘My God, a man lived with that his entire life.’ So you do what you have to do. I knew what I was saying on television was crucial to gay people. And on the other end of the death threats, was the outpouring of mail from all over the country--people saying how much what I’d done had meant to them.”
The Oakland native--a small, pale man with a ready smile--didn’t set out to be a crusader. “When I was growing up and thought I was maybe that way (gay), I went to the library and found out what you did: You killed yourself,” he said sardonically, referring to such cautionary tales as “The Children’s Hour.” “That was the mid-'40s, and I knew it would be very difficult. But I also knew I wanted to change things.”
His latest contribution to the cause is “On Tina Tuna Walk” (opening Thursday at the Callboard Theatre), the Fire Island-set story of a group of former Yale roommates who decide to help one of their buddies out of his writing slump by hiring an actor to seduce him. Offered Glines, “It’s about creativity and love--all the different kinds of love: passionate love, love of friends, the platonic love of a gay man and a straight man.”
Developing positive gay self-images to replace negative stereotypes (“We’re not all in drag; we don’t all climb into leather”) was the impetus behind the writer-producer’s founding of the542008695riginated.
Before that, Glines, who had originally gone East to study acting at Yale, had worked as an actor, dancer and director--but was earning his living writing for children’s television. The move to producing came after the failure of one of his own plays. Glines decided it was the producer’s fault and determined to learn that end of the business. The attraction was immediate. “I was running on all cylinders,” he said happily. “As the creative producer, you have your fingers in all the pieces of the pie.”
From that vantage, he also has been able to enjoy watching the evolving attitudes toward gay theater. “When I started the Glines (Company), it was tough,” he said. “I thought I’d never write for children’s television again. But it was also one of the reasons I used my own name--to say, ‘Look, we’re here.’ In those days, actors and playwrights often used a different name when they were involved in a gay project. The first audition I did, six people showed up.”
The resistance was entrenched. Glines recalled that in 1976, the New York Times refused to use the word gay to describe him or his subject matter. “Now it doesn’t matter,” he said with a shrug. “Doing a gay play on Broadway is not a big deal, thanks to ‘Torch Song.’ Then came ‘Cage aux Folles,’ ‘M. Butterfly,’ Derek Jacobi in ‘Breaking the Code.’ They don’t even tell you the lead (in “Code”) is a gay man'--it’s just accepted. At least on the New York stage.”
Now, Glines said, the challenge has been in going back to writing.
“For a while, children’s television was challenging,” he said. “Then I got good at it, then I loved it, then it got to be a job. The show I did, ‘Sesame Street,’ had set characters. They didn’t follow a script, they followed an outline. There was the premise, the development and the payoff. That’s what you did for Bert and Ernie or Big Bird and Mr. Hooper: You played structure, not wit. This play (“Tina Tuna”) is very witty, very wordy, very multisyllabic . . . all those things I couldn’t do for years on television.”
Ironically, Glines believes the two worlds--children’s TV and gay theater--are not that far apart.
“They both have to do with enlightening,” he said, noting that “Tina Tuna’s” producers refer to him as “Mother.” “It comes from the idea of Father being the stern one, and Mother being the one who you can go to--who’s loving, empathetic, holds your hand. If I had not gone into theater, I would have been in psychology: learning and helping and teaching others.”
Having picked theater, however, Glines has no regrets.
“These are the things life offered,” he said simply. “I was dealt certain cards and I played them. Someone called me: Did I want to write for ‘Captain Kangaroo’? Well, I’d never seen the show. But I watched it the next morning--then went in, auditioned and got the job. Then my first plays were unsuccessful, so I learned production. That was the first time my personal life was absolutely matched with my professional life. Now it’s all a part of me. It’s who I am.”