Pioneer of gay theater dies at 76.
By Don Maines
A festive memorial event is planned for 7 p.m. April 17 at the Montrose Center to celebrate the life of Joe Watts, widely considered “the father of gay theater in Houston.”
For Watts, who died March 13, all of Houston was a stage, especially for LGBTQ-themed scripts, which he produced in spaces ranging from gay bars to an art museum lobby to a professional venue, Stages Repertory Theatre.
Watts was 76.
“There will never be another Joe Watts. He was a life force,” said actor Taavi Mark, a friend and frequent collaborator, whose first show with Watts was the popular Dirty Little Showtunes.
“Joe was very passionate and had a connection with what we were going through as a community,” said actor Brett Cullum, who appeared nude and simulated masturbation in a typically bare-bones production of Jerker that Watts directed.
“The entire show was two guys having a relationship over the phone. They were afraid of getting AIDS,” Cullum explained. “Joe was way ahead of the curve. He would do plays that no other director would touch. He allowed us as gay actors to give voice to characters that general audiences weren’t interested in seeing.”
The shows included campy musicals, with goofy names like Gulp and Fruit Cocktail; irreverent comedies such as Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, in which God set Adam and Steve in the Garden of Eden, along with lesbians Jane and Mabel; and high dramas, including Martin Sherman’s Bent, which Watts directed at the Holocaust Museum Houston alongside a national touring exhibit called Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-45. For a 2010 production of The Laramie Project at the museum, former Houston Chronicle theater critic Everett Evans noted that Watts ratcheted up the “tear-wrenching” dramatics by opening Act 2 with the director’s original poem, “Matthew’s Flame,” and closing the show with a sentimental ballad, Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love.”
Working with Watts was “fabulous,” said local thespian Buzz Bellmont. “It was wonderful to get to perform the gay point-of-view of life. But it took a lot to get gay theater up and running. In one show, there were six of us initially, but one of the actors fell off the wagon and showed up drunk, so Joe fired him. We had to make the show work with five people. It was hysterical.”
The director’s friends said Watts was born Feb. 21, 1942 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he lived recently before returning to Houston about six months ago to battle Stage 4 kidney cancer with treatment at the top-ranked University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the support of his “inner circle,” including Mark, Steve Bullitt, and Lee Sirois.
Houston became home to Watts in the 1970s. He worked in sales and promotions at KRBE and K-ARTS radio stations and used the skills he learned at work to help corner the market on gay plays in Houston.
Bellmont recalled that, in 1983, another pioneering director of gay theater, John David Etheredge, enlisted Watts to direct Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, starring Randall Jobe, at a gay bar, the Pink Elephant, for Diversity Theatre.
Next, Watts directed Doric Wilson’s Street Theater, about the Stonewall riots, at Marion Coleman’s Kindred Spirits, then at Numbers nightclub as a Gay Pride event.
In 1985, Watts titled his ad hoc assemblage of thespians “The Group (Theatre Workshop),” and presented Kent Johnson in the one-man play, One, considered to be the first Houston production about AIDS.
Watts contributed to “Art Against AIDS” in 1988 by staging A Dance Against Darkness at Main Street Theater.
In addition to directing 65 productions, Watts acted in 75 plays, including his portrayal of playwright Eugene O’Neill in former Houstonian Andrew Hager’s monologue Eugene at Chocolate Bayou Theater in tribute to O’Neill’s 100th birthday anniversary.
In a playbill biography for one of his acting gigs, Watts admitted, “Being on the cusp of Aquarius and Pisces, [I am] a strange and moody, yet wonderful person.” Watts also allowed that his many interests outside theater included “spending time with [my] pet ulcer.”
In the director’s later years, Watts shined as a playwright, penning Joe’s FairieTales, a program of short plays, for production at his apartment on Hawthorne Street in Montrose, and writing a winning entry in Scriptwriters/Houston’s 15th annual 10×10 showcase of new scripts, each about 10 minutes in length, which were performed at a community theater in west Houston.
Watts also watched as mainstream theater groups began performing plays with gay characters and themes that tackled the AIDS epidemic and LGBTQ rights. Undeterred, he soldiered on with his pioneering brand of grassroots gay theater.
In the past six months, said Cullum, Watts considered directing a revival of The Boys in the Band before finding out that rights aren’t available because an all-star cast of gay actors, directed by a Tony Award-winning gay director, are performing the seminal gay play on Broadway this spring.
But Watts had a backup plan. He also imagined staging Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Tony Award winner for Best Play, about the tragic results of a professional baseball player revealing to his team that he’s gay. Like other shows that Watts directed “with a reputation for lack of costuming,” said Cullum, Take Me Out scintillates with a locker-room scene of naked athletes in the shower.