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Theatre Rhino Secedes From California

November 21, 2008

It's not unusual to come across people in California think that the state should secede from the rest of the country. Until yesterday evening, however, I'd never heard of a group of Californians who want to secede from the state.

But in light of the recent madness surrounding Proposition 8, namely the state's decision following the November 4 election to overturn a previous verdict to recognize same-sex marriages, America's longest-running queer theatre company, Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco, has decided to secede its main stage from the state of California.

The 2008 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award-winning company (and a producer of generally great, or at least frequently interesting, work) has decided to undertake this plan in order, according to a media release, "to create a safe/legal space for Married Same-Sex couples in the State of California." The company is marking the decision with a secession ceremony tonight, Friday, November 21 at its space in The Mission district of San Francisco.

Here is the company's proclamation, written by artistic director John Fisher:

For thirty-one years our Mainstage has been a space of hallowed ground for Same-sex couples and it cannot continue as such if it does not recognize Same-sex Marriage. In recognition of the thousands of queer lives portrayed on our stage and the thousands upon thousands of queer people who have inspired, witnessed and been inspired by those lives, our Mainstage must secede from the State of California. The Board of Theatre Rhinoceros and I therefore declare our Mainstage seceded ground and proclaim our theatre an extraterritorial state that recognizes, encourages and condones Same-sex marriage. A "plaque of secession and proclamation" will be unveiled on Friday, November 21, 2008 at 10.00 pm, immediately following the performance of 100 Years of Queer Theatre. Come and raise a glass in recognition of this event and the eventual triumph of same-sex marriage over the forces of repression, exclusion and intolerance. Admission is free and open to the public.

If I make it to the ceremony, I'll report back about the event. Regardless, I think it's a bold move on the company's part. Even if it seems like a bit of a publicity stunt (and let's face it, the more hype surrounding Proposition 8, the better) I'm very glad to see such a prominent member of the local arts community taking a stand in such a deliberate, public and creative way. Let's hope the authorities sit up and listen.

Newsflash! Fisher just sent me the following thoughts about his company's decision:

"This is a publicity stunt, but not for the theatre. It's a publicity stunt for same-sex marriage. I can't imagine why anyone new would come here to see a show because we seceded. Our audience is loyal and dedicated, they'll come regardless - but in talking to them every night at the show I hear that they're angry and upset and suspicious of their neighbors. They want -- they expect -- some sort of statement of this kind from every queer organization. So we secede. It was a board member's idea. I loved it. It's also a way of making a statement without demonizing a certain group of people. There's a lot of hate speech out there about who as a group is responsible for getting the proposition passed. I think that's all spurious. The fact is something bad happened and we all need to clearly align ourselves with the cause of righteousness. America was created as an action of civil disobedience when we seceded from Great Britain - we didn't secede from certain people in Great Britain, we seceded from the nation as a whole to express our dissatisfaction with the governing agency as a body. This expresses clearly our disappointment with the State (and the state) of California.

Also, we're only seceding from the State (which hasn't provided us with funding for a decade) not with the City or the Country - the City has always been generous in its support of our work and the country, well, don't get me started but I don't want the Feds in here with their shot guns. Right now the only people the State can send after us is the highway patrol.

And it's all in fun. We will not, like the 1776ers, defend our theatre with blood. It's not that dramatic, it's theatrical. It's a statement, like a march or the proposal that all gay people not go to work one day - it's meant to make you think about the contribution of a place like Theatre Rhino and the people who make it happen. Usually we're proud to be a part of this great state, and we want some love back."

I also asked Fisher why only the main stage of Theatre Rhino had decided to secede. Why not the whole theatre? Here's his response:

"Again, we want to protect ourselves from too much legal action - it's an out. That was the board's suggestion. If anyone comes after us we can run out into the offices which are still legal and claim CA citizenship. Also, I think of the Mainstage as extraterritorial sanctuary, like Cathedrals of old. I tell the audience that if they're ever being chased by the Yes on 8ers they can run into the theatre for safe haven. I think the Mainstage is entitled to that, given all the same-sex positive stories it's husbanded over the years. (Or wifed, as the case may be.)"

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