As a native of Spartanburg and a journalism major, Sandy Staggs didn’t really expect to start Proud Mary Theatre Company, South Carolina’s first and only nonprofit theater group dedicated to telling the stories of LGBTQ+ voices to the Upstate.
Staggs went to school in California and began writing as a film critic, but quickly moved into theater, as well. After 17 years in California, he came back to the Upstate and started Carolina Curtain Call, a site where he and other contributors write reviews of theater and performances in the Upstate.
While becoming more immersed in the theater community here, he realized a stark contrast between South Carolina’s and California’s theater scenes: what he describes as a lack of diversity.
“I felt like there was room for more diversity in the Greenville theater scene, and I found myself being attracted to more edgy stuff,” Staggs said.
“I thought, what if I just started one here to see how it went,” he said. “I started with a $1 domain name for the website, and luckily I had a lot of contacts from reviewing theater here that were very helpful.”
He started Proud Mary Theatre Company in the summer of 2017 with high hopes and no idea whether it would actually work. Staggs chose the season and selected a Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show to start the year because, as he said, “I wanted something cheap, so how could you do better than a one-man show?”
“I Am My Own Wife” told the story of a transgender woman in Nazi Germany. As the company’s first production, it earned awards at the 10-state Southeastern Theatre Conference held in Mobile, Alabama, for best actor (Dave LaPage) and best director (Robert Fuson).
Now in the company’s second season, Staggs tries to ensure that each season is “balanced.”
“We try to keep a balanced season with a gay play, a lesbian play, a transgender play, and something special, whether it’s a classic, which there are plenty of classics, or a new play,” Staggs said.
This year’s season will kick off with “The Boys in the Band” and continue with “Blown Youth,” “Boy,” and “Fun Home.” While the shows are representative of the LGTBQ+ community, the cast isn’t always.
“Only half the cast is gay. Sexuality is never a consideration here,” Staggs said. “Everyone is welcome here, straight or gay or anything else.”
“Boys in the Band,” the opening production of the company’s 2018-19 season, has had the highest presale ticket sales of any Proud Mary production. While the show premiered on Broadway just this past summer, it has been off Broadway since 1968 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The show revolves around a group of gay men throwing a birthday party in New York City in the 1960s and focuses on what it was like to be gay and not yet “out” in this time period. The show is known for its portrayal of the lives of gay men without judgment during a time where the lifestyle was still widely unaccepted.
“It was the first time that gay people were seen on stage,” Staggs said. “I think people will have many different reactions to it. It is a very divisive play, the way that people were in 1968. They weren’t out and they couldn’t be out. It reads a lot differently today. It has a great cast and a lot of fun.”
The Proud Mary Theatre Company is only the second theater to do the show since its Broadway debut.
Staggs knew when starting Proud Mary that at times the company could face adversity. While he said the shows have seen overwhelming support for the most part, Staggs said he knows there’s a chance that someone will disagree.
One of the shows in the 2017-18 season sparked the most controversy. “Southern Baptist Sissies” takes a look at the experience of gay men growing up in a religious, Southern community. Staggs said he knew the title wasn’t exactly innocuous and might have ruffled some feathers, but he said the show itself does not have any more graphic or offensive content than some of the classics such as “Spring Awakening” or “The Rocky Horror Show.”
While comments on Facebook and other social media popped up, the most notable reaction came from an opinion piece published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, ‘D.J. Horton: A Southern Baptist pastor to Southern Baptist sissies,’ written by a prominent local Baptist pastor.
The piece is respectful and well-researched, and Staggs was not necessarily offended by it.
“He wrote the column without seeing the show,” Staggs said, but he and the author went on to have coffee and further discuss the gap between the LGTBQ+ and Christian communities in the South.
“He got a lot of support and was very prominent in the Spartanburg Christian community. Those are the kinds of things that we encounter sometimes, but for the most part people are very supportive. We wouldn’t still be having shows if we weren’t well-supported,” Staggs said.
Staggs has also seen derogatory social media comments and seen businesses take down his flyers right after putting them up. Staggs says he knows that despite the adversity he has faced, the company has continued to gain more support.
“We are still working on securing our presence here. Some theaters and colleges have helped us out,” he says. “Converse College, University of South Carolina Upstate, Furman have been really helpful in loaning us costumes and set pieces, or renting their theaters to us very cheap. “Warehouse and Centre Stage have also been helpful in those ways. You have to understand that even though the theater community is seen as so liberal, there are still many people who are not supportive of our shows, at least yet.”
Staggs says that the most supportive presence has been the LGTBQ+ community in the Upstate through organizations such as Upstate Pride and PFLAG Spartanburg.
Staggs says he knows more challenges are to come, but with each show, Proud Mary Theatre Co. gains more support from the community. Show sales are at an all time high, and Staggs is regularly approached by actors wanting to be in the upcoming shows.
“If we weren’t doing these stories, they would not be told here,” Staggs says. “I think it’s important that the LGBTQ+ community should be represented on the stage and have a safe place like this to call home.”
If you go
- What: “The Boys in the Band”
- When: Oct. 26-Nov. 3
- Where: Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and West Main Artists Co-Operative
- Tickets: Starting at $15
- Info: www.proudmarytheatre.com