The Story of the Longest-Running Queer Theater in the World
Theatre Rhinoceros, the world’s longest-running continuously producing professional queer theater, was founded in San Francisco, in August 1977, by the late Allan B. Estes, Jr. Its first play, The West Street Gang by Doric Wilson, was staged in a South of Market leather bar, The Black and Blue.
The production was so successful it provided the impetus for a move to The Rhino’s first home in the Goodman Building on Geary Blvd., where The Rhino produced until 1981. From 1977 until 1984, Estes and Theatre Rhinoceros produced works by New York writers that included Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, and Harvey Fierstein (including the one-acts—“The International Stud” and “Fugue in a Nursery”— that become part of his 1983 Tony Award-winning play A Torch Song Trilogy), as well as several San Francisco playwrights including C.D. Arnold, Robert Chesley, Cal Youmans, Philip Real, and Dan Curzon. Audiences also experienced the works of several lesbian writers, among them Pat Bond, Jane Chambers, and Adele Prandini. This period of growth led to a move in 1981 to the Mission District’s historic Redstone Building.
In 1984, Theatre Rhinoceros was catalyzed by two significant events: Estes’ death from AIDS and the premiere of The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival, a ground-breaking work co-authored by twenty San Francisco Bay Area artists. This play was the first work by any theater company in the nation to deal with the AIDS epidemic, and brought The Rhino national attention. Directed by Leland Moss and Doug Holsclaw, the show ran for two years, toured the United Sates, and was the subject of a 1987 PBS documentary, directed by Academy Award-winners Rob Epstein and Peter Adair, and garnered a 1987 Media Award from the Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Artists.
Under the artistic direction of Kristine Gannon (1984-1987), The Rhino flourished as it continued to realize Estes’ vision of a theater for both gays and lesbians. Committed to exploring the impact of AIDS on the gay community, The Rhino produced several important new plays, including Doug Holsclaw’s Life of the Party and The Baddest of Boys, Leland Moss’s Quisbies, Robert Pitman’s Passing, Anthony Bruno’s Soul Survivor, and the Henry Mach–Paul Katz musical Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid. Charles Solomon (1987-1988) and Kenneth R. Dixon (1988-1990), the first African-American to run a non-African-American theatre, expanded The Rhino’s boundaries of inclusiveness by staging a production of African-American playwright Eve Powell’s Going to Seed, Cherie Moraga’s Giving Up the Ghost, and a historic inter-racial production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.
Artistic Director Adele Prandini (1990-1999) solidified the Rhino’s reputation for diversity and artistic quality with works by Chay Yew, Guillermo Reyes, Wayne Corbitt, Sara Felder, The Five Lesbian Brothers, Split Britches and Bloolips. The company forged partnerships with many groups, including Luna Sea, Teatro de la Esperanza, Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience, The Asian AIDS Project and the Latino/a AIDS Festival. It received commendations from the City of Berkeley, the City and County of San Francisco, and the State of California on its fifteenth and twentieth anniversaries.
Theatre Rhinoceros Wins a 2008 GLAAD Media Award
Slideshow of Pictures!
2010 Benefit Spectacular
The Rhinos at Play
Starring : Leanne Borghesi, Laurie Bushman, Connie Champagne, Dave Dobrusky, Jennifer Ekman, Mike Finn, David Goodwin, Sara Hauter, Kim Larsen, Matthew Martin, Jim McCunn, Sara Moore, Tom Orr, Deborah Russo, Brain Yates Sharber, Dan Strauss, Jef Valentine and Enrique Vallejo.
Slideshow of Pictures
Doug Holsclaw (1999-2002) presided over the premiere of new works by Marga Gomez, Latin Hustle, John Fisher, F. Allen Sawyer, Marvin White, and Guillermo Reyes. The entire twenty-fifth anniversary season was celebrated with world premiere works by Johari Jabir, Sara Moore, John Fisher, Kate Bornstein and Ronnie Larsen as well as special performances by Kate Clinton and Marga Gomez. Holsclaw negotiated a contract with Actor’s Equity Association making Theatre Rhinoceros the first gay theater company to employ actors under a professional seasonal agreement. The company was recognized by the California State Assembly on its twenty-fifth anniversary and again as a pioneering organization at the twenty-fifth anniversary remembrance of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Since 2002 Artistic Director John Fisher has raised the quality and intellectual challenge of The Rhino productions. Critically acclaimed stagings include works by Terry Baum, Marga Gomez, Erika Lopez, Jaeson Post, G. B. Shaw, Martin Sherman, Nicky Silver and Tennessee Williams. Two plays, Sara Moore’s Show Ho and Fisher’s own Queer Theory, were presented in New York City as part of the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. The Rhino has continued its association with the New York Fringe, presenting There’s Something About Marriage and Schoenberg in subsequent festivals. In 2005 The Rhino co-produced, with the Tony Award-winning American Conservatory Theatre, the US premiere of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Lilies, receiving rave reviews and standing-room only audiences at ACT’s Zeum Theatre.
The 2005-2006 season included the world premiere of Fisher’s play Schoenberg, Garret Jon Groenveld’s Missives, and Karole Langlois’ The Amazing Conclusion of Take Me for a Ride…Cute Girl, as well as an extended run of Veronica Klaus and Jeffrey Hartgraves’ Family Jewels: The Making of Veronica Klaus. The 2006-2007 season included the world premiere of Nicky Silver’s Past Perfect, John Fisher’s Special Forces, and Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (co-produced with the American Conservatory Theatre); revivals of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Marga Gomez’s The Twelve Days of Cochina; and a very special visit by Lesbian headliner Suzanne Westenhoefer.
The 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons enjoyed a return of Westenhoefer, more New Year’s blowouts by Marga Gomez and Ali Mafi, two new works by Fisher: Ishi: The Last of the Yahi and A Necessary Evil, a play about the whole fracas surrounding Proposition 8; Bay Area premieres of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, Daniel MacIvor’s Beautiful View, and Moby Dick, the Musical, as well as landmark collaborations with Word-for-Word (Three on a Party: Stories by Stein, Williams and Maupin) and Eastenders Rep (100 Years of Queer Theatre.) Three on a Party will toured the Bay Area in 2010 before it traveled to France to embark on a cross-country tour. The Rhino Christmas Panto celebrated Christmas 2008 and revivals of the ground-breaking Staircase and the musical Falsettos (Hector Correa directing) graced our stage.
New works included Jerry Metzker’s His Heart Belongs to Me, Snehal Desai’s Finding Ways (to prove you’re not an Al-Queda terrorist when you’re brown), Jeffrey Hartgraves’ Shark Bites and Tina D’Elia’s Groucho, a Queer Loca.
Two Rhino shows traveled to the New York Fringe Festival: Fisher’s Schoenberg and the Bicha-Fisher-Wanlass audience interaction piece There’s Something About Marriage. 2007-2008 also marked our thirtieth anniversary. For this occasion we produced a hit Anniversary Show, which was a medley of moments from past triumphs going all the way back to the first Rhino show Gayhem (think Mayhem, but gay.) We also threw a big party where we received plaudits and encomiums from Speaker-of-the-House Nancy Pelosi, State Senator Carole Migden, Assemblyman Mark Leno, Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Mayor Gavin Newsom. Later in the season, Mayor Newsom presented us with a 2008 GLAAD Media Award for our “landmark work as the longest running professional queer theatre in the United States” at the GLAAD Awards ceremony in San Francisco.
The 2009-2010 season boasted a return of the holiday classic Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, Marga’s traditional New Year’s show, the San Francisco Premiere of Jonathan Larsen’s tick, tick… boom!, a collaboration on new works at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory including the wild SexRev: The Jos Sarria Experience and our 2010 Rhino Benefit Spectacular. Also, for the first time ever, we produced not in one theatre (we moved out of 2926 16th street in July of 2009) but in four. In an exciting departure for The Rhino, these theatres were larger and all over the city, from the Eureka on the Embarcadero to the Artaud on Potrero Hill.
In 2017 The Rhino celebrated its 40th Anniversary as the longest-running LGBT theatre in the world. In 2019 we were invited to march in the Resist Contingent of the San Francisco Pride Parade (right after the Dykes on Bikes!) in recognition of our long-running commitment to activism, social justice and visibility.
Our history continues as we have landed at Spark Arts (in the heart of Castro!,) where all Rhino shows are produced. Check out our recent productions on our Seasons Page where each production appears in detail.