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.