Mackian Bauman in “Adonis Memories.” Credit: Brandon Nick
On most nights, the subterranean sex club Paddles in Chelsea is home to patrons — straight or gay, depending on the hour — absorbed in threesomes and other adventurous behavior. But on a recent afternoon, as dozens of men and women explored its low-lit rooms, the only sex was in the storytelling.
The reason was “Adonis Memories,” an immersive work based on first-person accounts by men who frequented the Adonis, a gay porn movie theater that opened in 1975 and proved so popular in the seedy-city era of Times Square that it inspired its own film, “A Night at the Adonis.” Bought by a developer, the Adonis closed in 1989, around the time that two other theaters were shut down after the New York City health commissioner, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, called them “an AIDS breeding ground.”
The Adonis in 1994. Credit: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
A site-specific production of the documentary-theater company In Our Words, “Adonis Memories” features eight actors who wander through Paddles in its off hours providing frank and often X-rated accounts of furtive pairings and virginity-vanishing quickies at the theater. In the immersive spirit, shirts come off and pants are lowered with the audience just steps away. But there are also more poetic parts, tales of the Adonis as a refuge where men found companionship and romance before AIDS.
Taking the axiom “you had to be there” literally, immersive theater productions — the multidisciplinary genre includes artful extravaganzas like “Sleep No More” as well as more raucous fare like “Drunk Shakespeare” — are resurrecting bygone chapters in gay history this spring. At a time when gay marriage is often greeted with a once-unthinkable yawn, and with anxiety about AIDS no longer omnipresent, these nostalgia-drunk shows are eager to provide audiences an experiential reminder of the dangers and pleasures of an earlier gay age.
In addition to “Adonis Memories,” there’s Jeremy Lawrence’s “Lavender Songs,” a solo show set in a Nazi-era underground Berlin cabaret, where a drag queen addresses the audience during what might be his last performance. Two men drafted into the Army before World War II explore their sexual desires in “Seeing You,” a new movement-based show by Randy Weiner, a “Sleep No More” producer, and the choreographer and director Ryan Heffington that begins performances on May 2.
“The View Upstairs,” another musical, was inspired by the unsolved 1973 arson attack that killed 32 people at the UpStairs Lounge, a bar on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans. (It was the deadliest instance of anti-gay violence in the United States until the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., last year.) Directed by Scott Ebersold at Culture Project, the piece is semi-immersive: The actors mingle with the audience in a campy gay bar reminiscent of the UpStairs, with cabaret seating near a piano where actors belt the ’70s-inspired score.
Jeremy Pope in “The View UpStairs.” Credit: Kurt Sneddon
“This is a space where you want to hang out,” said Jason Sherwood, 27, the show’s set designer. “We were interested in getting it right historically, but we were also interested in disarming people with the familiar, and providing an analog experience.”
Max Vernon, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, said he was less interested in an immersive piece about the fire — the show centers on a millennial who time hops to meet the bar’s patrons on the night of the blaze — and more about “1973 and 2017 having a love affair.”
Fire gutted the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images
“All those people were facing very real oppression, but they were still figuring out how to be colorful and connected as a community,” Mr. Vernon, 28, said of the UpStairs patrons. “They were at the birth of a political movement, and now we are experiencing a resurgence of that militant civil rights activism. I wanted to write a show that inspired people to learn from the past and pick up the torch and move forward.”
Alan L. Bounville, 40, who wrote and, with Adam Fitzgerald, directed “Adonis Memories,” said the stories he’d heard about places like the Adonis were often quite negative. “I knew as soon as I got this material that there was a lot more to those spaces than I was aware.”
In addition to accessible and entertaining history lessons, the creative teams behind “Adonis Memories” and “View Upstairs” said they hoped immersing audiences in a gay yesteryear would remind theatergoers of what it was like to cruise in bars and other gay shared spaces with their eyes, not with their apps.
Mr. Bounville said he was inspired by the gay author Samuel R. Delany, a champion of “cross-class contact,” the notion that men of different races and incomes who wouldn’t normally talk to each other on the street would share sexual interests at places like the Adonis.
In today’s digital age, “you miss part of the experience of what cruising really was, which was to be in a public space with people and not be afraid if there’s rejection or if someone said, No, thank you,” Mr. Bounville said. “There was also much more sexuality happening in those spaces than you online choosing your flavor for the night.” Mr. Bounville included Delany’s memoir “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” as a prop in “Adonis Memories.”
As with any immersive show, there are perils to merging audience and actor.
“Our first show we had some instances of the audience-actor line being blurred,” said Mackian Bauman, 22, an actor in “Adonis Memories.” “We had an opening speech beforehand — ‘Have fun, guys, explore the space, but remember, no touching the actors and we won’t touch you.’ But I got grabbed in the butt.”
Most of the gay men behind these immersive shows are too young to fully remember the environments they’ve so carefully reconstructed. An exception is Jeffrey Escoffier, 74, the Stonewall-generation author and historian who is a historical consultant on “Adonis Memories.”
“You had cops that could come in and bash your face with a baton, and bars could be burned down,” Mr. Vernon said of gay life in the ’70s. “Now we have this equality, but we also have this would-be dictator president and we also have Pulse happening. I don’t think there’s any time period that’s the perfect time period yet.”
What’s behind this resurrection of the gay past? A thirst “to keep dusting off and finding out that we actually have a history,” said Harvey Fierstein, the Tony Award-winning actor whose groundbreaking gay-themed play “Torch Song Trilogy” will be revived this fall at Second Stage Theater.
“Our history’s never been written down,” said Mr. Fierstein, who plays a character whose lover dies in the UpStairs Lounge fire in “Gently Down the Stream,” Martin Sherman’s new play about three generations of gay men that starts this month at the Public Theater. “Now these young kids are trying to discover our physical history. They’re doing the archaeological work. It’s like why do people who are adopted want to find their parents? You need to know your roots.”