Adele Prandrini


Adele Prandini

Adele Prandini  has spent most of her life as a theater artist.  For ten of those years she was Artistic Director at Theatre Rhinoceros.

Prior to that she was a founding member of It’s Just A Stage, a lesbian theater company that began in 1974 and continued producing original works through 1980. Adele has collaborated on numerous theater and dance productions with choreographer, Anne Bluethenthal. In addition to Anne she has had the opportunity to work with some seriously talented people among them Pam Peniston, Stephanie Johnson, Vola Ruben and Mary Guzman. She has been a recipient of Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and Hollywood Drama-Logue awards. She was also the first artist recipient of the LAVA Award presented by Bay Area Career Women.

Adele has always carried a camera around. Since her retirement she has turned her attention to photographing the natural world.

AP:  Jeff,  you were at the center of this wonderful wheel of creativity and were involved with many Queer  arts organization in the Bay Area. Your finger was on the pulse of everybody’s work. You are the ideal prism to re-experience and re-witness this history. It would be a gift to everybody, a gift to Bay Area history, not to mention the great gift it would be to the arts community to have it filtered through your experience

JJ:  In 1981 I remember being interviewed by Allan  Estes, who was Theatre Rhino’s founder and Artistic Director. He put two lines of cocaine on his desk, lit up a big joint and said, “Okay, what can you do for me?” I thought: That’s a great opening line!

Allan was really the embodiment of the manic gay energy of that time: he was about 25 years old, and he was somewhat political.  In 1978 he had already convinced Harvey Milk to help Theatre Rhinoceros to secure  some of the City’s Hotel Tax funds and he had met with the gay head of the CA Arts Council, who urged him to submit a proposal. He had also applied to the NEA and secured a grant from the Theater Program.

Allan was really the embodiment of the manic gay energy of that time: he was about 25 years old, and he was somewhat political. In 1978 he had already convinced Harvey Milk to help Theatre Rhinoceros to secure some of the City’s Hotel Tax funds and he had met with the gay head of the CA Arts Council, who urged him to submit a proposal.

Before his assassination, Harvey Milk spoke directly to the Chief Administrative Officer (Roger Boas), who exclusively controlled how and to  whom Hotel Tax revenues were awarded.  As a result, Theatre Rhinoceros and the Pride Parade were the first queer cultural arts groups to get funded.  When Allen and I looked at which LGBT agencies were funded by Grants for the Arts (then known as the Hotel Tax Fund), we noticed the Pride  Parade received the smallest amount awarded in the Parade category,  even though it was much larger than the Columbus Day Parade, the Chinese New Year’s Parade, Carnaval , the St Patrick’s Day Parade or the Cherry Blossom Festival. 

Allen insisted  that Milk’s “Gay rights ordinance” meant the City bureaucracy could not discriminate against Lesbians and gays. Even though Allen was thankful to receive a grant from the City,  he made it clear to me that he was ready to  challenge the obvious inequities. 

We both remembered that a Chronicle reporter had asked Roger Boas to explain why the Pride  Parade received only $5000, while he awarded substantially larger grants to all the other parades that attracted much smaller crowds.  On the front page of the Chronicle on Pride weekend 1979, Boas explained that funding the gay parade was not good for the City’s business community because it fostered  a bad image of San Francisco.

JJ: Adele, I’m particularly interested in talking to you because you were an active participant in the  Queer arts community before I arrived, and I didn’t personally know many of the people in the City’s early Lesbian arts community.  So I'd like to start at the beginning: Where were you born and raised?

AP: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I'm a native and I think there was always an LGBT community,  since the city was first founded during the  Gold Rush.  As kids, in the 1950s , we would hear about Finocchio's great drag shows because our working class parents used to go to North Beach to watch Finocchio's drag shows. The club was a landmark, it was where a visible butch dyke would park the cars. I don't recall her name, but she was a part of the show right there in the parking lot. There was always a presence of visible dykes and drag queens in North Beach.

I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, St John's Academy for Girls on Mission Street. The nuns warned us about the City’s lesbian elements; “Don’t hang out with older girls,” that sort of thing. Nobody went away to college in my very working- class family; we went to City College.

I took theater classes at the community college, but college was not a good fit for me. I went into a class where the teacher, a guy, informed us that “In this class you will learn how to manipulate people.”  I walked out because I did not have any interest in manipulating people for money. It was not where my heart was. After exhausting the theater courses there, I went to work with an organization called Performing Arts Workshop. Do you remember them?

JJ:  Yes, I do. I remember the woman who started it, Gloria Unti.  I used to write grants for her in the 1980s.  

AP: There was also a fabulous actor there called Skip Mancini. I learned everything I could from her.  Performing Arts Workshop was set up for inner-city kids. I learned a ton there. But  I moved to Berkeley where I discovered an organization called A University Without Walls.

There were lots of women's courses: a women's music collective, a women's bookstore but no women's theater group. So I started a lesbian comedy improv class . There was no such thing as the Internet; it was all done by getting together in person and in groups. Many women joined this comedy group—It’s Just A Stage--it stayed together for almost 8 years. Some of the members were myself, Andy Leonard, Barbara Haley, Marge Neff, Jill Rose and Lynn Crowley.

JJ:  Did you actually put on productions?

AP: Yes, I think at first around the coffeehouse scene, and the bars. Then we performed live at Oak Theater. Then in San Francisco we performed at the Full Moon Coffeehouse, and at the Artemis Café on Valencia Street.

There used to be so many churches and cafes that weren't traditional theaters, but you could do theater in them. It was such a wonderful time.  where you could just go and do theater. At this time in the Bay Area there were over two hundred small community theater spaces.

And there were lots of folks doing lesbian theater. In addition to It’s Just A Stage, there was – The Whole Works Theater Company which included Elaine Magree and Michele Simon. Then Stephanie Johnson and Vicki Dellajoio were also doing lesbian theater.

JJ:  Are you talking about that church on Market and Sanchez that burned down?

AP: They had a marvelous performance space.  It was I believe the space where the Eureka Theatre got started.

JJ:   That’s  where Rhodessa Jones staged  Lily Overstreet.  

AP: Yes. In 1974.  Throughout the seventies, not only were we lesbians, but we openly used the F-word: By that, I mean Feminist.

JJ:  When looking at who Grants for the Arts funded back then, there was a theater company called Lilith.  I could never figure out who that was.

AP: Terry Baum.

JJ:  So did both of these entities—your Lesbian improv comedy group, (It’s Just a Stage) and Lilith both existed at the same time?

AP: Yesl, we were established first.

JJ: If we look back on that period, we can see there were multiple arts organizations that were really run by lesbians but they called themselves women's arts groups.

AP: You got it. “Oh don't worry, they'll grow out of it. It's just a stage.” Hello?

JJ:  Okay, so Allan Estes arrived here in ‘77 as a 23 year-old college graduate from Boston and started Theatre Rhinoceros.

B&A: Which is still “America’s longest running LBTGQ  theater.”

JJ: Allen produced some play at a leather bar and it did so well that he opened a 50-seat theater in the Goodman Building, on Geary St, between Van Ness and Franklin. After he produced a few plays there, he had enough money to rent the space in the Redstone building on 16th Street between Mission and South Van Ness.

One of the first things that happened was that City started a performing arts loan fund that enabled groups to borrow money, renovate a performing arts space and then pay the City back. So that's how Rhinoceros renovated its main stage and developed a second stage in the basement.

AP: My initial entry into Rhino began when Estes scheduled my play A Safe Light in the FY83-84 season and  Chuck Solomon directed it.

JJ:  Wasn't he with the Mime Troupe?

AP: Chuck? No. Prior to working with Rhino, Chuck was part of the Gay Men's Theater Collective, a group of 8 men who were doing what we were doing, utilizing all of the little performance spaces. What was unique about  San Francisco at that time was its small venues . Every weekend you could go and see us, you could see Lilith and the Whole Works Theater Company, another lesbian company formed by Elaine McGree, and Michelle Simon. It was just a hotbed of performance.  

JJ:  So I'm trying to remember when I met you at Rhinoceros. Didn’t you teach a playwriting course?

AP: Yes, The Playwriting Workshop. I was the Playwright in Residence. I was also the production manager, assistant artistic director, then artistic director…  I sort of played all the different roles there.

JJ: I remember writing the California Arts Council grant that I think was the one that hired you as the playwright, right?

AP: Yeah.

JJ:  When I look back, what I remember about Allan was that he did not have the typical gay man's approach to women. He could see that that he was going to have to have lesbians as part of his future theater. That's why he aggressively pursued the California Arts Council so that he could hire you to run the workshops and classes.  He was desperate to raise money: the first time I went to a Theatre Rhinoceros play there was a table in the lobby where volunteers were selling poppers.

AP: Allan was a visionary. He was also a very creative business man. I mean, I have never worked in a more underfunded, under-supported place. Rhino was blessed. We did so much with so little. We did a five-play mainstage season and a really full studio season. The Playwrights Workshop produced a little season of its own plays. That's the way people learn, by getting their play up on its feet and seeing it. So it was really fulfilling to produce there.

JJ: But at that time, while it was possible to get funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and Grants for the Arts, no foundations or corporations would fund Rhino. I remember Allan telling me he would meet people at the theater who would tell him “This show was really great and I'm so happy you did this.  I work for such and such foundation or such and such corporation.” Allan would say, “Well, can you help Rhino get funding?” And they would say, “Absolutely not…  I'd have to come out of the closet. I don't want to lose my job.” It really infuriated him.

Allen was an attractive and flirty gay man, as well as a relentless fundraiser. The three places Rhino did get funding were the City because of Harvey Milk, and the state ( where the Director was a gay man) and the NEA, I can’t remember how he secured that grant but he did. However, once someone from Ronald Reagan’s administration heard that the NEA was funding a gay theater company, they started searching for a way to defund it. The NEA Theater program assigned somebody to review Rhino’s organization, hoping to find a financial problem or some other irregularity. Ultimately the NEA staff defunded Rhino on the grounds that its artistic quality was below standard.   

Both Allen and I were totally committed to figuring out how to fund Rhinoceros. We both felt aggrieved that LGBT taxpayers were being ripped off by bureaucrats who acted like they were doing us a favor to award us a grant.  On occasion, we both felt entitled to act unscrupulously to overcome the institutionalized discrimination in the funding world.  

AP: I like to call Allan's business model ‘creative,’ rather than unscrupulous.

JJ: I remember how awful it was to be trying to fundraise for The AIDS Show, the first play about AIDS. No matter what funder Allen talked to, they all said the play was ineligible for their funding because its subject—the AIDS epidemic was “too political.”  

AP: First of all, Theatre Rhino was underfunded. Secondly, it was under-supported. Thirdly, we didn't realize it at the time, but we were not in post-traumatic stress, but in permanent traumatic stress. People were fighting for their lives

People would ask, “what do you think about this spot?” Of course, it’s a lesion and you’re pretty sure it's AIDS. However,  you wanted to be kind and sometimes kindness is better than honesty. But how do you handle that?

At first Rhino tried keeping a list of people who were sick, or who had died, but we couldn't keep up with the names. It became hard to produce a play: actors would come in, be there one day, and gone the next. We couldn't put on shows because there just weren't enough performers to do them. People outside our community couldn’t really understand what that was like; they just couldn't believe it.

JJ: I was already involved in writing the grants for The AIDS Show when Allen died and Cleve Jones recruited me to be the grant writer for the SF AIDS Foundation. Then I founded Mobilization against AIDS with Paul Boneberg. I was the first grant writer for Open Hand. Then my partner came down with AIDS and I took care of him until he died six months later. Suddenly AIDS just took over my life. Soon I had little time to work in the arts community because I was consumed by the absence of public funding.  After almost three years of pursuing AIDS funders, the situation had vastly improved: it was really exhausting—and terrifying. Finally I said  I'm out of here. No more AIDS stuff: I have paid my dues. I’m  going  back to raising funds for Queer arts and artists.  This was 1986.   Is there a recording of The AIDS Show that you know of?

AP: Theater Bay Area did one.  All of the shows at Rhino were taped. They were recorded for posterity. Oh, who were those filmmakers who made the films about AIDS?

JJ:  Rob Epstein and his partner Jeffrey Friedman. Maybe they  have a copy of the show?  Before I had started working for Theatre Rhino, I had met Rob Epstein when he was a ticket-taker at the Castro Theater.  It took him 5 years to secure funding for The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.  Not a single person, or foundation, or arts agency, or anybody would help fund it. Rob had to go to New York to raise the money. Allan was experiencing the same thing as Rob: that everyone in the Bay Area funding world was afraid that they would lose their job if they funded queers.

AP: Does The Performing Arts Archive still exist?

JJ:  Yeah, It is now called the Museum of Performance + Design.

JJ:  I saw The AIDS Show over and over. I would take my friends  to see it. People had various reactions. One guy who I took to the AIDS show for his birthday present almost had a nervous breakdown. I assumed that because he and I were somewhat good friends and members of Alice B Toklas, that he knew about and practiced safer-sex. Then he confessed to me, no, I'm the kind of person that picks somebody up on the bus while I'm coming home from work, has a quick orgasm and then heads home to have dinner with my partner. He was barely able to make it through the show.

AP: To create the AIDS show, all of us at  Rhino came together to recruit artists to propose scenes. I don't think there were very many cuts. My piece in the show was called Mama's Boy. It was based on my experience being at the hospital with Allan and his mom in 1984, when Allen was one of the first LGBTQ artists to die of AIDS.

Hospitals treat AIDS patients better now. But back then, everyone covered themselves completely in hazmat suits to go into AIDS patient’s hospital rooms. People were saying the most shameful, cruel things to Allan’s mother, like, “Well, you know, if your son didn't act the way that he did…”  This woman's son is dying and this is the way people were responding to her.  We surrounded them and tried to just be as loving as we could. That's what inspired my piece.

JJ: I didn't know that. I remember Allan called me and said, “I just checked into Davies Hospital, I'm not feeling good.” Later that night I went to the hospital to see him on my way out of town. I was only gone for 3 weeks but by the time I got back, he had died.

AB: And what year was that?

AP: 1984

JJ:  Yeah, Allan died before the show went up.

Annie: I lived through the ‘great dying’ too. I was living in Manhattan. I did some safe sex porn for the Gay Men's Health Crisis and did a couple of projects with Act-Up. I remember when AIDS first hit and I lost many friends and lovers. Time heals, and time sort of erases the pain.

JJ:  Yeah, it's not something people really want to talk about anymore.

Beth: You know Seth Eisen's walking tour that he did about Sylvester? The best moments of that entire walking tour was his piece about AIDS. The elders were all crying.  The younger audience members were just staring blankly at us, because they didn’t live it like we did.

Annie: By the way, I performed at Theatre Rhinoceros around the Millennium.  The Queer Cultural Center, including Jeff, produced my show, Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn. We sold out all the six or seven shows. QCC generously paid me 70% of ticket sales. It was great. Pam Peniston did the set.

AP: I remember the first big grant we got together was that $75,000 grant? I was beside myself. It was a three-year grant, $25,000 a year.  I was just so thrilled. It was because the grant officer was also gay. It was from one of the private foundations. Yeah, this lovely man. I don't remember the foundation.

When the AIDS Show went up, it became Rhino’s cash cow: it ran for 9 months, five or six shows per week.  Then there was the second AIDS Show called, Unfinished Business. Then Grants for the Arts decided to pay for the show to tour to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC,  to Dallas and to San Diego. But when we were trying to raise money for the initial show, GFTA would not go near it. Leland Moss, after Allan died, took over as the director. Then he died too.  I tell you, it was a time.

JJ:  Yeah. Did you ever meet Ed Mock? He died in 1986.

Beth: You know, Darryl Smith, the co-Director of the Luggage Store, invited me to do an installation about Ed Mock which incorporated some of Mock’s costumes and footage of his performances. It was in that triangular space on Market Street across from the Luggage Store Gallery.

AP: Linda Hope, who was with It’s Just A Stage, danced with Ed Mock. She was a piano tuner.

AB: Jeff, did you say you were his grant writer?

JJ:  Yeah. He was one of the most brilliant dancers in the city’s nonprofit arts community. There was nobody else like him. So after Allen died,  why did the Board decide to hire Kris Gannon as the director? Why didn't they hire you?

AP:  Chris brought me in. She brought in Doug Holtzclaw. I think she brought in John Carr. She brought in a lot of people.

JJ:  Frameline had to respond to the question of why there were so very few lesbian films being screened in the annual festival. Then when Frameline  decided they would have a screening of lesbian films, I think at the Roxy, but after the lights were dimmed and the film started,  it was two men having sex. Frameline  had to deal with this issue. Michael Lumpkin, the founder of Frameline and its leader for almost 20 years, was committed to solve this problem. Back then you couldn’t just make a film on your computer. Michael Lumpkin believed “the reason we don't have enough films by lesbians is because making a film is expensive.” Nevertheless, Lumpkin seriously addressed the issue of how does the lesbian community fits into predominantly gay male organizations like Rhino and Frameline.

B&A: Yes, the gay men and gay women’s communities were very separate. Then when AIDS hit, lesbians stepped in to help with caregiving and AIDS activism.

AP: Not only were we dealing with people dying, at the same time we were dealing with how to deal with each other. That just didn’t happen automatically. You need to build trust, and that takes time and a lot of hard work. Men and women don't trust each other automatically. It's not there.

I know I'm not the easiest person in the world, but I am genuine. I will genuinely try to work on a relationship with you. So I have that going for me. We were underfunded, overworked, and we had to deal with different personality types. But at Rhino we had a great working relationship. I saw it. So learning to trust and work together at the same time was happening.

Kris Gannon started introducing women's work. She scheduled Jane Chambers’ plays. That brought a lot of women into Rhino.  So did having women working at the theater.  I tried to bring in women of color to make new works and to build relationships with other organizations. I brought in the first trans work.

AB: Was that Kate Bornstein? Was Kate's the first trans work that you produced ?

AP: Yeah, but  there may have been other trans stuff before her.

JJ:  Was Kate already trans when you met her?

AP: Yeah.

JJ:  After Kris Gannon there was Ken Dixon, who was a very queer black guy. He had a very strong view of how everything should be. I didn't have very much to do with him because he didn’t hire me. But when he died,  you became the director, right?

AP: Yeah.

JJ: You knew Tony Press, who worked for me at that time. All three of us were here in Pacifica. But what year did you become the director of Theatre Rhinoceros?

AP: Well, I was acting director for a couple of years. It's almost like a curse to really accept the reins. So I was just an acting director. I was there for about 15 years in total.

 JJ:  So in the 90s, Theatre Rhino was more or less a mature organization. I think the only reason queers ever achieved large-scale acceptance in the funding world was because of AIDS. For the first time it was ok to fund queers. Then it was possible for you as the director to get funded.

 AP: Yeah, right. I was doing stuff like trying to work with Theater Esperanza, bringing the Lesbian Brothers out from New York and trying to just give people space and let them do their thing. You know, that was a big thing for me. I'm not going to tell you what to do. I will give you the space to do what you want, because I think that's what people need.

 JJ:  So which play by Cherrie Moraga did you produce?

 AP: We produced GIVING UP the GHOST in Rhino’s 88-89 season

 JJ:  That's before she and Ellen Gavin were living together, right?

 AP: Yes, exactly. An interesting thing about Brava Theater Center is how it morphed.  Rather than close down It’s Just A Stage, Ellen and I discussed transitioning the 501c3 into Brava! For Women In the Arts. Both organizations had similar missions.

 JJ: Oh, I didn't know that. Ellen and I had worked together for four or five years. Everyone totally respected her because she was determined and relentless and she succeeded.

AP: I have a great deal of respect for Ellen Gavin. She created a multifunctional art  space in the Mission that serves a variety of communities.

A&B: What are some of the controversies you've faced in your life?

AP: Well… I'm not exactly sure how to answer that, but there were controversies and controversies. It's this darn lack of integrity, you know?

JJ:  So when did you leave Theater Rhino

AP: In the late nineties. I had a biopsy on my breast. Then I went back to the office and all of a sudden, I looked down and I'm bleeding. I wondered WTF am I doing? Then it occurred to me that this job is no longer good for my health. The Board got shady and it just became too much. There was a lack of integrity and there was infighting, and all of that just built up. It wasn't any one thing.

JJ:  I know you did something with Pam Peniston before you left, right?

AP: Yeah. Pam worked on a lot of my shows and did a number of sets for me. I'm very grateful for all of the artistic relationships. There were so many wonderful people that I worked with that I loved. Vola Rubin was another wonderful lesbian designer. Stephanie Johnson was the lighting designer. Iva Walton was another really talented set designer and production manager. Clay and Rosie, two very talented people who worked in production. So many people that I really adored.

JJ: Now I remember that you were having health problems.

AP: I didn't realize it at the time, but there was a tumor growing in my brain. It was too much.

AB: Did you retire at that point completely or did you go on to do more great things?

AP: I kicked around. I started teaching computer skills for an adult school. I worked with at-risk youth with the Bridges program. People get out of prison and they need those skills. I was also teaching senior citizens. I did that for 15 years.

JJ: And that was easier than Rhinoceros?

AP: You know, it was challenging as well. But I had to make a living so I did it.

JJ: I want to ask you about John Fisher, who now runs Theatre Rhinoceros, because I've never met him.

AP: I only met him a couple of times. I no longer go to Theatre Rhinoceros, so I can't really say. But he is a playwright and director.

JJ: I confess that I haven't gone to any of his plays. I also saw that right around the time you were leaving Rhino, the New American Conservatory Theater came along. We used to call it the “Nude Conservatory Theater” because their early plays were publicized  by advertisements that featured  hot-looking young men of color being leered at by middle aged white gay men. Like me, the director, Ed Decker, was from Austin.  Ultimately, he must have done something right because after the Millennium his theater company began played the role that Theatre Rhinoceros used to play. Eventually they started doing better work: I know Jewelle Gomez did work there.

AP: Yes. Bless her. I did go see her play on Alberta Hunter, which I thought was really well done.

A&B: We did a theater piece there in 2006, Exposed: Experiments in Love, Sex, Death and Art
What would you say are your greatest achievements?

AP: In general I would say that my greatest achievement was creating opportunities for theater artists to create work . In so far as my personal work was concerned. I loved “Pulp and Circumstance.” I wrote it in collaboration with Sue Zemel, Anne Bluethenthal did the choreography. Vola Reuben did the set. Stephanie Johnson did the lighting.

As a kid, I wanted to be a country western singer. So the main character is this butch young woman who wants to grow up, move to Nashville and sing country western music. Naturally her mother is horrified. Most of the activity takes place in a lesbian bar in the fifties. The cops come in for their pay off. The owner of the bar is another butch woman. There's a black and white female couple and  a couple of beatniks.

Pulp was extremely successful for the theater. It toured down to L.A. for a festival and it won a number of awards. I also did a play based on Judy Grahn's book Queen of Swords. I'm very proud of that.  I'm proud of both shows for different reasons.  Pam did the sets and the choreography. The set was this fancy scaffolding. Terry Sendgraff did some aerial work with the cast ande there was a chorus of crows that Pam outfitted in masks. Queen of Swords was in Rhino’s 88-89 season.

A&B: Was any of your work focused on environmental issues?

AP: Yes, my play Coconut takes place on an island, when developers are trying to destroy the island. The lead role is a lesbian shaman who runs this resort where people come to get healed. In the end, the island winds up being reclaimed by the volcano.

JJ:  Was that before 1997.

AP: Yeah.

JJ:  I remember Pam was working on that near the millennium. So the two of you have had a very long, collaborative history?

AP: A long and illustrious collaboration, yes. And we still do. Pam and I now collaborate on Photography exhibits

Annie: Adele, were you the director of Theatre Rhino when I did my show, Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn?

JJ:  I think maybe that was the second or third National Queer Arts Festival, which would have been the year 2000 if I'm not mistaken.

AP: Well, I was gone in 2000.

AB: Adele, where is Rhino’s archive?

AP: I think Doug Holtzclaw gave it to the University of California in Berkeley, He was artistic director after me and before John Fisher.

AB: I'm so glad your archive is in a good, secure spot. That's great. You did a lot of really important work.

JJ: It’s been very pleasant for me, Adele, just hanging out with you, after many years of not hanging out. Just to see you.

AP: Yes, it's a pleasure.

Posted in Interviews.