L. Robert Westeen explains it all to you in his stage show.
by Donalevan Maines
Haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re doing—in bed, at the bar, getting a haircut, choosing your drag? Not a problem, because L. Robert Westeen explains it all for you in his stage show Cocaine and Ethel Merman: The New Homo Guide.
Westeen is an out, HIV-positive Houston actor, playwright, director, and visual artist whose friends call him Lonnie.
Cocaine and Ethel Merman begins with a tumble down the rabbit hole, or what Westeen calls “a night that will live in fabulous infamy.” It was a snowy evening in Minneapolis when Westeen got picked up by a coke-addicted Ethel Merman impersonator. Westeen came away from the experience “with a new outlook on life.”
From that jumping-off point, Westeen “comes clean” about any number of topics, with the cumulative effect, he hopes, of encouraging audience members “to live life to the fullest.”
Westeen began penning the show as a how-to primer for the gay teenage son of “friends of one of my friends,” he says. “It was the best way I thought to show him what I went through. Everybody’s coming-out journey is probably a little bit different, but I thought it would be nice to have that image you don’t always find in film or television—a really reality-based story.”
Cocaine and Ethel Merman “stresses the importance of never taking any moment for granted,” he adds. “It is a celebration of friends, family, and foibles.”
Westeen was born in Michigan and grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. “There was no gay community, or very little gay community,” he explains. “You know—the hairdresser, the standard people.”
While Westeen wasn’t particularly bullied, his high school theater director, art teacher, and librarian “looked out for me,” he says.
The biggest bully he faced was his stepfather, so Westeen’s mother arranged for her son to live with a local gay couple. “They were in their late 30s and had been together for seven years, which in gay years means they were dinosaurs,” says Westeen. “Both worked in a window factory. They were comfortable being who they were. Jeff was a small rail of a man, while Brad was a big guy, a farm boy who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. He screamed masculinity—until he opened his mouth.”
After graduating from high school, Westeen acted in national tours of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. “I had been onstage since I was about five years old,” he explains. “We all start somewhere.”
Next, Westeen opened his own theater, Big City Productions, in Minneapolis, acting, directing, and producing.
From there, he followed a friend to Houston, where he keeps busy in theater while working days as a paralegal. In addition, he continues to develop as a visual artist. “I’ve been painting as long as I’ve been doing theater,” he explains. Some favorite examples of his work, mainly in acrylic and watercolor, are displayed on his website at lrobertwesteen.com. Additional images can be seen at visualaids.org, a New York City-based group that “utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV-positive artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.”
Last summer, Obsidian Art Space proffered its stage for Westeen to perform the first version of Cocaine and Ethel Merman. “It was directed more as a community effort,” he says. “Friends would give me notes as I rehearsed, and I used that as my jumping-off point.” Westeen also performed the show in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, as well as three cities in Wisconsin.
Returning to Houston, he enlisted Mark Adams, who recently directed Cock for Theater LaB, to help him tighten the show for the new production. “These six performances will be the longest run I’ve had so far, which is exciting,” says Westeen, who’s also happy to see it follow Gay Pride Month.
“My favorite thing about the show is taking the audience through the journey of what I’ve been through—the great things and not-so-great things. It is a celebration of hope and healing.”
What: Cocaine and Ethel Merman: The New Homo Guide
When: July 6–8 and 13–14
Where: Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street
Details: Tickets ($15) can be purchased at queensburytheatre.org or at the door.
Donalevan Maines wrote about the Tony Awards in the June issue of OutSmart magazine.