Last month, the mural depicting Oklahoma-born playwright Lynn Riggs on the exterior of his namesake theater at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center was vandalized.
Some miscreant sprayed a few tangled lines of black paint over the mouth of the Riggs portrait, as if trying clumsily to sew the writer’s mouth shut.
If that had been the intention, it failed. Because the people responsible for populating the Lynn Riggs Black Box Theater are now more determined to ensure that all manner of voices, telling all kinds of stories, will be heard.
The theater, created as part of a $1 million capital improvement campaign by the center, has been in operation for not quite a year.
“We didn’t have plans for this area to be turned into a theater space,” said Toby Jenkins, the center’s executive director. “This area was originally a garage, and when we first moved here, we thought that it might be used for retail space or some other use.”
Morgan Allen, the center’s coordinator, said it was a former Tulsa writer, who was looking for a place to stage one of her original plays, who suggested that the garage would work as a performance space.
“We realized this could be used to give new, up-and-coming artists an accessible space,” Allen said, “and it would also give us additional ways to partner with other performance arts organizations in the city.”
Those collaborations have already begun. Theatre Tulsa presented its production of the rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the theater soon after it opened in September 2018, and the Heller Theatre Company plans to stage two of its upcoming shows — its annual short play festival “Heller Shorts” and the world premiere of David Blakely’s “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton” — at the Lynn Riggs theater.
“I’ve heard people with local theater companies say that they are always ‘taking a risk’ with their audiences by doing shows that have any kind of LGBTQ content,” Jenkins said. “Well, we’d like to remove that risk. We want this theater to be a safe space for all people.”
Later this month, the theater will also host a unique production of the chamber musical “The Last Five Years” produced by Claire Schroepfer that will feature a different cast each evening.
Local performer Pat Hobbs created and curates the theater’s monthly cabaret series, “Third Thursday in the Rainbow Room,” which has quickly become one of the center’s most popular events.
“It’s brought in about $10,000 to the center,” Hobbs said. “That comes from the hall rental and concession sales. The artists then get whatever we make in ticket sales. That’s one thing we endeavor to do is pay the artists.”
One of the voices the theater wants to make sure people hear is that of its namesake, Lynn Riggs, in an original play the theater has commissioned.
Riggs, a native of Claremore and of Cherokee heritage, wrote 30 plays during his life, the best known of which is “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which was adapted into the musical “Oklahoma!” by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers. Riggs also published two volumes of poetry and wrote a number of screenplays, including two in the series of Sherlock Holmes films that starred Basil Rathbone.
Author and lecturer Gregory Hinton is writing the play, a one-man show titled “Outside the Rush of Light: Lynn Riggs/His Words,” which draws exclusively from Riggs’ correspondence and other writings. It will have its world premiere at the Lynn Riggs theater in December.
“There’s already some interest from people in New York about putting this show on there because of the success of the new version of ‘Oklahoma!’, ” Dennis R. Neill said. “And we’re looking into trying to present it in Oklahoma City, when the national tour of ‘Oklahoma!’ opens there in 2020.”
The theater plans to host another of Hinton’s plays, “Beyond Brokeback,” based on posts to a public forum in response to the film “Brokeback Mountain,” which will mark its 15th anniversary in 2020.
As for the mural of Riggs, Jenkins said the artist, Scott Taylor, plans to restore the painting to its original state, although there is no time frame for the repairs.
“We’ve had other artists, who were just as outraged at the vandalism, offering to remove the graffiti,” Jenkins said. “But Scott wants to do it. It’s just that we’re in the middle of repairing the roof, and Scott has other projects he needs to complete. So when we do get the mural repaired, we’ll be able to make an event of it.”
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