Three LGBTQ actors—a gay man, a transgender man, and a nonbinary person—will perform in two rounds of Museum of Dysfunction XI: The Best of a Decade of Short Plays at 8 p.m. July 18–20 and 25–27 at Spring Street Studios.
“Since 2008, Mildred’s Umbrella has celebrated the dark, quirky, and absurd with a collection of short pieces submitted by emerging and established playwrights,” says Jennifer Decker, the artistic director of Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company. “For the 11th annual short-play festival, the company is revisiting their favorites from the last 10 years in a ‘best of’ edition that features many of the original directors and casts.”
The festival’s director, Leighza F. Walker, explains that she felt compelled to host the “best of” show while in rehearsal last year for the 10th annual Museum of Dysfunction (MoD). “Fans can experience these shows again, and a new generation of fans can be born. I asked past participants, ‘What’s the first MoD piece that springs to mind?’ and received a variety of answers with themes that captured the imaginations of a wide collection of creatives.”
Dennis Draper, Milo Michel, and Clarity Welch jumped at the opportunity to reprise their roles from past shows.
The last time fans saw Dennis Draper onstage, he wore “an adult onesie,” portraying a baby in “Syllogistic Infantilism” by Abby Koenig.
After that MoD in 2015, Draper took a hiatus to become a foster dad to his teenage cousin, Blue, who has since graduated from Bellaire High School and moved out on his own.
Serving as a foster parent “has been a challenge,” says Draper, who is busy in his 19th year as the director of events and operations at the Alley Theatre. “This show is the first real thing I’ve done, besides readings at the Alley. I love acting, I love directing, so hopefully I will start doing more theater. I have missed it as an artistic outlet, so I’m crocheting, and I am one cat away from becoming that cat lady.”
Draper grew up in Henderson, Texas, where he began acting in school and community-theater productions.
“The Henderson Civic Theatre was my home,” he says. “I wasn’t out till college, but the older people at the theater could tell; they knew. It was a safe and protective, comfortable place.”
Draper was involved in every play at school, including his especially memorable turn as Victor Velasco, the lecherous neighbor who courts a newlywed’s lonely mother in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. To play the aging Albanian playboy, Draper says, “I died my hair jet-black. It was hilarious.”
Next, Draper spent two years at nearby Kilgore College before transferring to the University of Houston. As the first person in his family to go to college, he graduated from UH with a bachelor of arts degree in theater.
“I moved to Houston in 1992, so I was here for Edward Albee premiering The Lorca Play at UH,” Draper remembers. “I was offered free tickets to the Alley, but I lived on campus my first year and I was scared to drive downtown.”
For several years, Draper worked in the Alley’s box office. When he moved to group sales, he helped create Night OUT at the Alley, which became ActOUT.
A favorite gig for Draper was directing Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, with biblical couples named Adam & Steve and Jane & Mabel frolicking in a trés gay Garden of Eden. That 2010 show for Unhinged Productions was performed at a playhouse on Navigation Boulevard.
“It was exciting for Houston to have gay theater,” says Draper. “Who knows? Maybe it will happen again.”
There’s a reason that transgender Milo Michel’s acting résumé doesn’t reflect his vast experience on stage as a youth.
“I feel uncomfortable listing roles where I played the wrong gender,” he says. “Some of them were leads. But if I tell people I played Penny Pingleton in Hairspray, they can’t believe it.”
On the other hand, getting to play some gender-neutral parts while growing up “gave me an opportunity to explore my identity. It gave me some perspective,” says Michel, who graduated from Brenham High School in 2012 and studied theater for a year at Blinn College in Brenham. Blinn is where he met his fiancée, Sunni Lee, who grew up in Grapeland.
“We met that first semester,” he says, explaining that they moved together to the Houston area in 2014, a change that coincided with his transition journey. “She’s been with me through thick and thin. I love her so much. I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways. My mother started going to PFLAG in Brenham, and she helped me with a lot of the icky legal paperwork that you have to do to get a driver’s license and correct your birth certificate and things.”
Lee portrayed Hero opposite Michel as her love interest, Claudio, in last fall’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare in the Park in The Woodlands.
“At the same time,” says Michel, “I was playing Ben Hecht in Moonlight and Magnolias at Playhouse 1960 in Houston.”
The couple teaches theater in an after-school program for youngsters.
For Museum of Dysfunction XI, Michel reprises his role from 2018’s MoD in which he played an art instructor whose private lesson with an older woman gets heated.
Clarity Leigh Welch
A nonbinary person, Clarity Leigh Welch appears in two pieces that are featured in MoD XI: a woman who gets offended when a man she doesn’t know hugs her without consent in “Free Hugs” by L.H. Grant, and a woman who emerges from an abusive marriage in “The Bullet” by Leighza F. Walker.
Welch uses gender-neutral pronouns, including the singular ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ in referring to herself and other nonbinary persons.
For example, Welch’s MoD XI bio states, “You may have seen them as Charlotte in Everything Will Be Different at Catastrophic Theatre, or Ophelia in Hamlet with the Trebuchet Players.”
The lingo isn’t that hard to pick up, they say. “When somebody cuts you off in traffic, you say, ‘How dare they.’ You don’t say ‘How dare he/she.’”
While attending Sam Houston State University, Welch played several callers in a production of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, including Ruth, the woman who delivers the last line of the show.
“I have been queer as long as I can remember,” says Welch. “I was three years old when I asked my mother if I could marry a lady. I am somewhat bisexual. I typically say that I am pansexual because people seem to have heard of that. I am all things. I love my name because it is unique and it has sort of a feminine sound, but I can pretend it’s masculine, too.”
Regardless of Welch’s preference for gender-neutral pronouns, they completely understand, regardless of who they’re speaking to, when someone in the queer community reacts with the sudden utterance of “Girl!”
No worries, Welch laughs. That’s one term that fits anyone and everyone.
What: Museum of Dysfunction XI: The Best of a Decade of Short Plays
Where: Studio 101 @ Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street #101
When: 8 p.m. July 18–20 (Round One), 8 p.m. July 25–27 (Round Two)
Info: All Tickets Pay-What-You-Can
This article appears in the July 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.