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When the gay-themed slasher film HELLBENT took a stab at a theatrical run, gay horror suddenly became the next wave of queer cinema. A handful of films got a lot of press around the same time (2005-2006), and one of them was CREATURES FROM THE PINK LAGOON, made by Seattle filmmaker Chris Diani.
By rights, I should have interviewed Chris when I first started this blog, considering he contacted me approximately a billion years ago. So I’ll make it up to him with a giant three-part mega-interview loaded with essential vitamins and minerals, plus bonus theater-geek talk!
SEAN ABLEY: You started out as a child actor—me too! As a little gay child actor, did you dream of playing Annie?
CHRIS DIANI: Funny you should ask that! The theater company I belonged to as a child—Gateway Players—had an annual awards ceremony called, coincidentally enough, the Aileen Awards. The year Gateway announced they’d be producing ANNIE, I was asked to co-present the makeup award, ostensibly because I’d just played the heavily made-up role of Rumpelstiltskin in a production of the same name.
Anyway, they’d written some award-show patter for me and my co-presenter, the gist of which was that through the magic of makeup, even I could play Annie. Ha ha, everyone else thought it was hilarious, but I admit I was a bit disappointed when they decided to cast a girl in the role after all. It’s a hard-knock life, indeed.
ABLEY: You moved to Seattle and got involved in the theater scene there. I love Seattle, probably because I really love rain. I remember when I was in the drama department at the University of Montana, all roads led to Seattle for actors graduating from the program. So we probably have some friends in common! What’s the theater scene like there? (I ask because I chose Chicago instead…)
DIANI: When I arrived in Seattle in 1993, the fringe theater scene was thriving. There were numerous small companies producing exciting shows with amazingly talented actors and designers, lots of press coverage from the dailies and the weeklies, a big annual fringe festival, cheap seats for pretty much any show in town, even a friendly rivalry between Annex Theatre and the company I called home, AHA! Theatre.
Unfortunately, those days didn’t last very long, with 9/11, the dot-com bust and the rise of the Internet as a cheap source of entertainment pushing live theater to the bottom of people’s to-do lists. But even before the downturn, there was a big disconnect between the fringe—in which wildly talented local actors and designers were doing fantastic work for little or no pay—and the equity houses, who rarely cast local actors in key roles, instead preferring to import talent from New York.
Locals do occasionally pierce the veil and get paying work at the equity theaters—Nick Garrison, the star of CREATURES FROM THE PINK LAGOON, is a notable example—but for the most part, Seattle is a great place for actors or directors to hone their craft, but not so fabulous when it comes to actually making a living in the theater.
ABLEY: When you moved to Seattle, you eventually stopped acting—or at least, it seems that’s the case from your bio and info available on-line. Because I like to make these interviews annoyingly about me, I’ll tell you why I stopped acting: I was watching TV right before I moved to Los Angeles, and saw one of the El Paso ads where the fat guy was dancing around to “Maniac” because he loved tacos. And I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be the fat guy dancing because he loves tacos…” What about you? Was there a fat-guy-loving-tacos moment for you?
DIANI: My “fat guy dancing” moment was actually a “King Kong attacks the tram” moment. I graduated early from high school and immediately headed out to Los Angeles, certain my success as a darling of the central Massachusetts community-theater world would instantly translate into Hollywood stardom. Convinced by an aspiring actress from Texas I met at the Cineplex Odeon that getting a tour guide job at Universal Studios was the gateway to movie roles, I went on a cold call in which potential tour guides were pushed in front of the rest of the applicants and told to talk about the performer we loved the most and the performer we most hated. Totally unprepared, I talked about loving Glenn Close and hating Madonna. I know, that’s gay blasphemy, but at the time she had just come off the one-two punch of SHANGHAI SURPRISE and WHO’S THAT GIRL?
Anyway, I got called back, which probably owed more to my being an adorable 17-year-old and less to my actual skill at improv in front of a crowd. At the callback, the producers asked me to do a cold reading from the actual tour guide script, and in the middle of the King Kong-attacks-the-tram-full-of-tourists scene, I had a massive epiphany, realizing I wasn’t a very good actor. Until that point, I’d been cast in roles that were similar enough to my own personality that I just had to show up and be me, but when it came time to stretch and convey an emotion I wasn’t familiar with—fear of a 50-foot gorilla—I choked. I returned to Massachusetts, a retired actor before my 18th birthday.
ABLEY: Your shorts, and CREATURES FROM THE PINK LAGOON, have ”Seattle Theatre Project” as the producing entity. A little investigating reveals that you indeed ran a theater company—something else we have in common! (Shout-out to my pals at Chicago’s Factory Theater!) What was your goal for the theater when you started it?
DIANI: I didn’t start Seattle Theatre Project; it was the oldest semi-professional theater company in the city when I took the reins as managing director in 1999. I got involved with STP through my long-standing relationship with Lisa Anne Glomb, for whom I’d stage-managed a number of shows at Open Circle Theater and AHA! Theatre. After AHA! closed in 1997, I started looking for a new artistic home; Lisa invited me to join the board of STP and encouraged my desire to move on from stage managing so I could focus on writing and directing.
ABLEY: Looking over the STP website, I don’t see any plays written by you on the schedule. That was one of the reasons I co-founded the Factory Theater—so I could put my work on stage! Why didn’t you mount any plays of your own?
DIANI: That was the plan when I joined AHA! and later STP—to establish myself in a company so I could get my own work produced. But I’m a terribly slow writer and kind of fickle when it comes to committing to a writing project. Over the years, I’ve worked on a stage adaptation of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and a Hitchcockian thriller about a young agoraphobe and his murderous namesake cousin, but the project I was really excited about and was closest to finishing—a multicharacter play about the Hollywood closet titled THE BEST GAY FRIEND WILL HAVE HIS REVENGE ON HOLLYWOOD—was scooped by the remarkably similar THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED by Douglas Carter Beane. Damn him and his Tony Awards!
ABLEY: For those who haven’t had the pleasure of running a small regional theater, give us your take on the amount of work it takes. I’m pre-sympathizing with you before I’ve even gotten your answer…
DIANI: That’s the other reason I never got around to producing any of my own work; between having a full-time job and running STP, I never had the time to write! Thankfully, STP was nomadic, so we at least didn’t have to worry about monthly rent and theater upkeep—two of the elements that led to AHA!’s undoing. But because it was basically a two-person company, everything fell on Lisa’s and my shoulders. I wrote budgets for productions, designed posters, cajoled critics, booked rehearsal and performance space, delivered postcards to theaters and coffeehouses, shopped for props and costumes, worked the box office, swept the stage and took care of any other job that came up. For no pay. Ah, those were good times.
ABLEY: Am I to believe from the STP website that the organization stopped producing around 2000? Why?
DIANI: STP stopped producing new shows after 2001, but continued to co-produce LATE-NITE CATECHISM for several more years. Basically, Lisa and I got burned out. I’d directed a multimedia production of Nicky Silver’s PTERODACTYLS in summer 2001 that was fairly well-received by critics but failed to find an audience; then Lisa directed Jamie Pachino’s political fable THE RETURN TO MORALITY in the fall. No one wanted to see a political play in fall 2001. It was heartbreaking, pouring our time, energy and tens of thousands of dollars into these productions only to perform them for scant handfuls of people each night. That was when I decided to go to film school.
ABLEY: Lisa was both the boss at Seattle Theatre Project and the producer on CREATURES and your shorts. Talk about working with her.
DIANI: Lisa has been a great mentor to me, and I learned much of what I know about directing and working with actors while serving as her stage manager. As a co-producer, she’s the yin to my yang: calm where I’m impulsive, cautious where I’m reckless, wise where I’m an idiot.
TO BE CONTINUED
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