When Upstart Performing Ensemble founder and director Tony Babin suffered a fatal heart attack Dec. 9, he left behind not only friends and family, but also a work in progress. So after hearing the news of his unexpected passing at age 52, approximately two dozen cast and crew members originally assembled by Babin for the upcoming 10th annual Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival met to determine its future.
"He was my best friend," says Rod Knauss, who had to call the cast with the news and felt it was his job to lead the meeting. "We had one person say, 'How are we going to do this? There's just no way.' And it just came out — I said, 'We're going to do it with the same desire, dedication and discipline that Tony had in all of his projects, and it's going to show up in your rehearsals, and it's going to show up in your performances."
At the next rehearsal, lead actor Kaleb Kohart arrived and set the tone for the troupe, saying, "All right, let's do some theater."
Now, a few weeks later, Knauss points to a Kleenex box atop the director's table in the warehouse where the cast is running through lines.
"Of course, we've got time and plenty of tissues," he says. "We've rehearsed through a few tears and when this show is over, then I'll shed mine."
In the meantime, Knauss, Babin's longtime friend and colleague Kate Pagel, and newer recruit River Saddler are co-directing the festival's three shows — Bent, Rock the Line and Quilt, a Musical Celebration — over the three coming weekends. Babin had done a good deal of directing before his passing, and the new leaders agreed to stick to his vision, and to credit their friend as the primary director in the festival's program.
"It's my last chance to co-direct with Tony," says Pagel, "and I'm not about to miss it."
She worked with Babin on Bent when Upstart first presented another version over a decade ago, and she describes it as a "melancholy joy" to pick up where he left off this time around.
Bent tells the story of Max, a self-absorbed but charming gay man in 1934 Nazi Germany, where pink triangles were used to identify gay people just as yellow stars identified Jews. Pagel describes it as "a really interesting mix of comic tragedy," with an uplifting twist. She adds that the characters wrestle with issues that remain relevant in 2010.
"Basically, these guys are put in a position where — and this is still true in today's society in many ways — they have a choice between truth or passing and pretending they're something they aren't," says Pagel. "Because they are always having to consciously decide, 'How much am I willing to pay to be who I am?'"
Piecing it together
At an early January rehearsal, a handful of cast members sit in lawn chairs behind Knauss, practicing a scene from Rock the Line. It's the first year the troupe will present this particular play, which Knauss calls "a ladies' show."
The premise: A multi-generational group of women has assembled on a sidewalk waiting for a Patti Roxx concert to begin. Roxx, loosely based on Joan Jett, is their rock goddess, and while the fans wait, they reminisce about their pasts, including life in the closet and unrequited love. Knauss calls it "a comedy, and more of a relationship-based type of play."
By contrast, the festival's final show is heavier: Quilt, A Musical Celebration, inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
"In the songs, a lot of them are not specifically talking about a loss from AIDS, but the loss of a good friend," says Knauss. "So the words are hitting home on every level."
Also an encore Upstart show, Quilt is the final in the series and the most technically demanding, according to Knauss, because of the musical component and format of separate vignettes.
"In the script, it tells how to re-create a quilt piece for each particular person's vignette, because they are all real people," says Knauss, "so everybody made their own section of the quilt, and it will all be put together as the story goes on. Then at the end, it will appear as a whole, a big quilt in the background. That's another Tony Babin direction."
A generous spirit
In addition to bringing Babin's last creation to life, the cast and crew have found small ways to pay homage to Babin throughout the festival. In one scene of Bent, they intend to place a painted portrait of Babin dressed in drag, memorializing his theatrical beginnings. In others, there will be framed photos. And they'll write personal tributes to him in the program, in part to honor his contributions.
"He started a scholarship fund at Pikes Peak Community College, and he did so many different things," says Pagel. "We want him to be remembered for all of them."
Pagel says that Babin often selected plays about topics that gave a stage to "voices that were not heard." Though Babin himself was an accomplished actor, he struggled to find roles when he first arrived here, says Pagel, and aimed to cast actors who, for various reasons, couldn't find parts elsewhere.
"He'd say, 'Oh, we had another person come to auditions; we need to have another person in this scene.' He drove us nuts," says Pagel, "But it was wonderful because he gave a lot of people their first chance."
Knauss and Pagel say they hope to keep that tradition alive as Upstart soldiers on. Along with the group's board of directors, Tony's brother, David Babin, has stepped in to help keep the festival going; the hope is to stage a festival next year, and perhaps to grow Upstart in years to come. And they're off to a promising start, close to pulling off a feat that even Knauss wasn't always sure was realistic.
"But it's worked out," he says. "Everybody's really sacrificed a lot. ... The party that we're going to have after this is over is going to be one that we'll never forget."
Tags: 10th Annual Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival | Tony Babin | Rod Knauss | Kate Pagel | River Saddler | David Babin | Bent | Rock the Line | Quilt, A Musical | Kaleb Kohart | Joan Jett | Nazi Germany | AIDS Memorial Quilt