There literally is a bear-suit costume in The New Colony's new World War II gay drama The Bear Suit of Happiness, now playing at the DANK Haus. So any hairy gay men carrying a few extra pounds who self-identify as "bears" should know that the show isn't per se about their subset of the LGBT community.
"We definitely thought about that," laughed Evan Linder, the author of Bear Suit and the newly appointed co-artistic director of The New Colony. "It's an actual bear suit on stage."
Linder's show title is a play on the Declaration of Independence expression "the pursuit of happiness," and it figures into his drama about how theatrical drag actually played a part in World War II USO shows to entertain the troops.
"The amazing thing was that it was sanctioned by the army and encouraged," said Linder, who did research to create Bear Suit by reading books like A Renegade History of the United States and Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. "They would enlist soldiers to appear in these shows and give them patterns to turn their army fatigues into ball gowns," he added.
Like most of the work created by The New Colony, the Bear Suit started development more than a year ago with actors doing sessions of improvisation to create the characters and to come up with a possible scenario to tie with the history. Linder then spend about seven months writing the piece, focusing it on a fictional young soldier named Woody who has a violent past, but is confronted with the possibility of leading a queer life when he gets cast in a show and encounters other gay men.
"He just sees them in rehearsal with their guards down and he sees them laughing and joking and being witty in ways that he feels kind of a part of him, but that he's never been able to express," Linder said. "He has to wade through this and say, 'I think that's who I am, too.'"
By pure coincidence, Bear Suit of Happiness isn't the only gay World War II theater piece around. Pride Films and Plays is presenting the world premiere musical Under a Rainbow Flag at The Main Stage of Profiles Theatre later this month, and The New Colony has teamed up with that company to do some pre-publicity events for both their shows. Also, the acclaimed 2010 off-Broadway musical Yank! A WWII Love Story was recently made available for regional licensing, so there's even more potential for theater on gay relationships from the 1940s on the horizon.
"I very specifically waited to read Yank! until about three weeks ago just because I was writing something so similar," said Linder, a friend of David Zellnik who wrote the book and lyrics to that musical. "We joked that we might have to do a gay World War II rep company."
The Bear Suit of Happiness continues through Saturday, March 30, at the DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20; visit www.thenewcolony.org .
Out writer-actor Rob Anderson (Steamwerkz The Musical) grew up in a very Republican and socially conservative family in New Jersey and didn't come out until he had moved away from home. If he had come out when he was in high school, Anderson wondered if his parents might have tried sending him to a religious-based reparative therapy program.
"I've always been interested and found it funny, but also definitely sad, that these conversion programs exist," said Anderson, the playwright and lyricist of Straight Camp: A New Musical which starts March 7 at iO Chicago Theater. "I thought it would make a very interesting musical comedy."
In writing the show with composer Mike Malarkey, Anderson drew his inspiration in part from books on the subject and the 1999 reparative therapy comedy film But I'm a Cheerleader.
"The main character, Whit, is a musical theater prodigy from his small town high school, so he sees things through this lens of Broadway," said Anderson noting that decision allowed him and Malarkey to write songs that affectionately spoof well-known musicals as Whit is sent away to a Texan gay-to-straight camp called "Mount Saint Cleanliness" run by the effeminate headmaster, Pastor Father.
"When I was writing this show, I wanted the characters to be as diverse as possible, and not necessarily to be gay stereotypes, but outcasts," Anderson said.
As part of his research, Anderson also emailed a number conversion therapy programs in the guise of a questioning teenager.
"They really like to recruit younger, more impressionable men and women," said Anderson, noting how the New Jersey Jewish-based Jonah Institute for Gender Affirmation was particularly aggressive with their outreach.
Luckily, Anderson said his mother and stepfather have come around to be more accepting of him as gay and he's pleased to see how far they have comeparticularly since his mother did see him showing plenty of skin in Steamwerkz The Musical at the Annoyance Theatre last year.
"She hugged all the cast members and she loved it," Anderson said. "She still talks about itso that just shows how far our relationship has come."
Straight Camp: A New Musical plays 8 p.m. Thursdays through April 11 at iO Chicago Theater, 3541 N. Clark St. Tickets are $12 general admission; call 773-880-0199 or visit www.ioimprov.com/chicago.