A Sensible Theatre Co. Centers the LGBTQAI+ Experience

The cast of 'Pageant,' photo by Nate Watters

Paul Flanagan and Jared Michael Brown, founders of new theatre company A Sensible Theatre Co., use two phrases repeatedly during our chat about their blooming artistic endeavor: paradigm shift and lead with love.

“Theatre saved me,” Flanagan says. “I’ve felt so accepted and so loved by the theatre community but have only the minisculest number of times seen myself accurately represented onstage. I love to be open and proud of who I am, but when I’m on stage I have to put that away and be a misogynistic straight man. And we don’t want that anymore.”

A Sensible Theatre Co. is focused on producing high-caliber work centering the LGBTQAI+ experience, building on the legacy of old-Seattle companies like the Alice B. Theatre and joining the ranks of contemporary groups like Fantastic.Z and Reboot.

“We love queer content because it’s fucking fun and it’s gritty and delightful to work on,” Brown says, laughing. “But we also grew up with all the classic musicals everyone else did and we love them, and we’re also interested in doing new work. We want it all.”

Brown and Flanagan are longtime friends and Northwest natives who’ve made their primary living as performers for years. Flanagan moved back to the PNW in 2011 after many years in New York; longtime Seattle actor Brown now splits his time between here and New York. Locally, they’ve worked on high-profile stages like the 5th Avenue Theatre, Village Theatre and many more.

This isn’t just to say they’re both immensely talented musical theatre performers (they are); more to the point, their experience has taught them a lot about how to run—and how not to run—a company. The majority of musical theatre stories from the canon are straight stories, and old-school directors are famously, bafflingly resistant to any hint of homosexuality in even ensemble characters. (Indeed, as I was writing this story, it came out that a Pittsburgh theatre canceled a production of Big Fish because the director wanted to include a male couple in the background of a scene.) Putting that lived experience center stage is nothing short of a paradigm shift.

“We want to elevate the entire queer experience here to the point where it’s just the same as going to an ArtsWest or Village Theatre show, but entirely queer-curated,” Brown says. “It’s not like oh my gosh we’re going to a gay show, it’s just another option. Mainstream, matter of fact.”

Which brings us to leading with love. Being an actor, especially an actor in a regional market that tends to venerate imported New York performers, is a tough road, riddled with less-than-respectful treatment. “Our first conversations about A Sensible Theatre Co. were about leading with love,” Brown says. “We can’t treat people like that because we were treated like that for so long. It’s murder on the soul, and we want to lift people up.”

Drawing on Brown’s talent for producing and Flanagan’s experience running the sadly defunct performing arts training center The Studios, Sensible’s first official event was a Coming Out Party last fall. Next up was a fashion show they produced to raise funds to costume their first show, Pageant: The Musical, which opens this month at
ACT Theatre.

Pageant—written by Bill Russell, Robert Longbottom, Frank Kelly and Albert Evans, who is artistic associate at the 5th Avenue—is the story of six contestants, one played by Flanagan, vying for the title of Miss Glamouresse, named for a fictitious beauty company. The twist is, it’s styled as an actual pageant, so audience judges at each show vote for who wins and, Edwin Drood-style, there are six different endings.

On a bedrock level, Sensible is committed to actively inviting as big and as diverse a community as possible onto their stages and into their audiences. Long-term, they hope to export their model and co-produce events and productions around the country.

It can be a challenge for actors to become producers, and when I ask Flanagan what helped him make the leap, he takes his time before answering. “Before, there were things that felt fun, things that felt like they were leading me toward better things,” he says. “This is the first time in my life where I feel like I’m doing something that’s correct.”