In January 1995, well before what she calls the ``Will and Grace-ing'' of America, the Jewish lesbian theater and circus artist Sara Felder debuted her solo piece June Bride in Anchorage, Alaska.
Felder was stressed, and not from the cold. Packed with lesbian and Jewish jokes and juggling feats, Bride told of her struggle to have a traditional Jewish wedding to her girlfriend. Felder worried about how it would go over in a town not known for its liberal politics, Jewish community or gay scene.
To her surprise, the audience ate it up. Three 12-year-old boys who'd sat in the front row told her afterward they were aspiring jugglers who'd traveled two hours to see her.
``They said, `You're the only professional juggler we've ever met; would you teach us some juggling?' '' Felder recalls. She gave them a lesson on the spot, and as they left, one of the boys told her, ``Hey, great show.''
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In the 15 years since, Felder has performed Bride everywhere from Yiddish festivals to suburban arts centers. And she's concluded that her particular identity is less important to the show than its tale of love overcoming prejudice and tradition (plus its Borsht Belt-style humor).
``We can all relate to the story of wanting to marry someone we can't marry,'' she says from San Francisco, where she lives with her partner and their son. ``The more specifically you tell the story, the more universal it becomes.''
Felder is one of several artists who will examine gay identity at the first Out in the Tropics festival this week in ways that organizers hope will appeal to South Florida's diverse communities. Also on the program, presented by FUNDarte and Tropical Wave Productions, are innovative drag theater artist Taylor Mac and Cuban theater group Teatro el Publico, which will perform a stage version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant with men in drag playing the melodramatic lesbians of the original.
Artistic director Robert R. Rosenberg hopes the festival will spark interest and discussion in the gay community and beyond.
``I don't want to downplay the queer content, and I don't want to downplay the universality and quality of the work,'' Rosenberg says. ``You can look at these artists through different lenses, and we're choosing in this festival to look at these artists through the lense of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identity and politics. . . . But that's not necessarily where we end up.''
That journey from the margins to the mainstream is one gay artists have been making for several decades. Gay characters have become commonplace on TV and in movies, from Will and Grace and Ugly Betty to Brokeback Mountain. And the idea that formerly outcast individuals should be able to proudly define themselves, long a theme on the avant-garde edge, is central to Glee, the hit TV show about a chorus of charismatic misfits that's become a pop culture phenomenon.
For Mac, the glitter-glam makeup and gender-blending costumes he wears in The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, the critically acclaimed show he'll perform at Out in the Tropics, are a way to show the everyman (and everywoman) inside.
``We're not just one thing, we're a lot of different things squished together,'' says Mac, who grew up in ``redneck'' Stockton, Calif., where the only gay person he knew was the man who ran the children's theater that gave Mac his start.
``Coming from a homogeneous place where everything is supposed to be the same, and coming from a country that celebrates sameness, I want to expose the range of humanity,'' Mac says.
``I want people to see all aspects of themselves, so I try to expose every aspect of who I am. People say to me, `Do you feel like you're hiding in those costumes?' No, I'm exposing what I look like on the inside. If I wore jeans and T-shirts, then I'd be camouflaging myself, because I'd look like everyone else.''
After studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Mac began creating his own shows in the early '90s, starting in basement bars, and moving up to mainstream venues such as New York's Public Theater and the Spoleto Festival.
Kristin Marting, director of the HERE Arts Center in Manhattan, was an early supporter. She ran a gay performance festival there from 1994 to 2004, but now presents performers like Mac on the center's regular schedule.
``The artists didn't want to be segregated into Gay Pride Month or in terms of audiences,'' Marting says. ``They wanted to bounce off other people and not just each other.''
She also thought general audiences were ready for performers like Mac, a fact she believes is apparent in mainstream pop cuy of lture, whether it's the popularity of Glee or of gay American Idol singer Adam Lambert.
``There's a sense of freedom in your identity and being who you want to be -- to embrace difference and be open to a lot of different ways of thinking,'' Marting says.
Both Mac and Felder use humor to defuse mistrust, playing the familiar role of wisecracking Jew or snippy drag queen.
``I'm from Brooklyn,'' says Felder, ``if you're not entertaining, nobody listens to you.''
Mac hopes jokes open people's minds to more serious ideas.
``I make you comfortable by being silly and goofy, then I dig in a little deeper,'' he says. ``It's not just a frivolous expenditure; it's about inspiring a conversation.''
Often enough, he does.
``I get all these e-mails saying things like `We stayed up all night talking about your show,' '' Mac says. ``It hasn't just ended because the show has ended. It's gone out into the world.''