Art Notes: Actor Dan Butler revives a 30-year-old play about gay life

Dan Butler looks through a copy of his one-man play “The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me” at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Butler will be performing the play, which premiered in 1994 and is comprised of 10 vignettes that depict a spectrum of gay experiences at that time, on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Haverhill’s Alumni Hall to raise money for the nonprofit Help Kids India. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dan Butler looks through a copy of his one-man play “The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me” at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Butler will be performing the play, which premiered in 1994 and is comprised of 10 vignettes that depict a spectrum of gay experiences at that time, on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Haverhill’s Alumni Hall to raise money for the nonprofit Help Kids India. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

Dan Butler at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Butler said that as a kid he was always drawn to stories of time travel, and performing his one-man play for the first time in 25 years has felt like jumping back in time to a different era. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dan Butler at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Butler said that as a kid he was always drawn to stories of time travel, and performing his one-man play for the first time in 25 years has felt like jumping back in time to a different era. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

Dan Butler crosses the driveway to collect wood for the stove at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Butler splits his time between Vermont and New York City, where the former “Frasier” actor is still actively working. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dan Butler crosses the driveway to collect wood for the stove at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Butler splits his time between Vermont and New York City, where the former “Frasier” actor is still actively working. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-07-2023 1:48 AM

There is something humbling, and a bit exciting, about seeing one’s work turn into a period piece during one’s lifetime. It’s a reflection not on the work but on the pace of change.

Thirty years ago, life was very different for LGBTQ Americans. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” became the law of the land, and it would be several years before Vermont legalized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2000. AIDS was then still a death sentence.

It was in that milieu that Dan Butler wrote a one-person show about gay life, “The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me.” It opened in Los Angeles in 1994, where he was living and working as an actor in “Frasier,” then went to San Francisco and New York where it was nominated for a 1995 Drama Desk Award.

On Sunday at 4 p.m. in Haverhill’s Alumni Hall, Butler will perform “The Only Worse Thing...” for the first time in 25 years as benefit for Help Kids India, a Vermont nonprofit that supports four preschools in South India.

“I’m curious to see what the reaction to it is,” Butler said in a phone interview.

While its cultural references remain fixed in time, the show now appears to Butler in a very different light. When he wrote it, he was coming off the breakup of a seven-year relationship and his move to Los Angeles, a place he’d told himself he’d never live.

In addition, “The Artist’s Way,” a classic book designed to help creative people recover their mojo, had just come out and Butler was following it. He just started writing.

“Something told me, don’t worry about how it all sticks together,” he said.

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The resulting play features 10 characters reflecting aspects of what it meant to be gay in America at that moment.

At the time, Butler was riding the wave that takes you out of your 30s and into your 40s. Last week, he turned 69.

“It’s an experience that’s very similar to watching clips of myself performing in something I was in in 1990,” Butler said of reviving his play. “That’s another person.”

This revival, brief as it is, gives him a chance to marvel at his younger self, just a bit. “I think I’m mostly inspired by it,” he said. “I go, ‘Wow.’ ”

Sunday’s performance came about because of Butler’s friendship with Tom and Catherine Kidder, who like Butler and his husband, actor and director Richard Waterhouse, live in West Newbury, across the river from Haverhill. Catherine is co-president of Help Kids India, which is based in East Corinth.

Performing a play about gay life to benefit Indian schoolchildren is not as big a mismatch as it might seem. The students Help Kids India serves are from India’s Dalit, or “untouchable” caste. It wasn’t all that long ago that LGBTQ people were shunned as well, and in some corners they still are.

The show itself, though, is not for children. There’s some foul language, and some talk about sex. “I would say 18” is a reasonable age limit, Butler said, “but that’s up to people. I just want people to know it and then not be surprised.”

While the characters take the audience to places that might surprise them, what carries the play along is its undercurrent of humor. The ironies of gay life 30 years ago were front and center for Butler, who played one of the most rabidly heterosexual characters on TV, the sportscaster Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe, on “Frasier” when he was performing his one-person show. Irony is all about cultural gaps, and that one is so immense that the humor in it is self-evident.

There will be a short break after the hour-and-20-minute show, then a Q&A with Butler, who has lived in Vermont part- and full-time for around 15 years.

“I like Vermonters,” he said. “They want to talk.”

To reserve tickets (suggested donation of $25), email info@helpkidsindia.org or call 802-505-5281. There might be tickets at the door, but don’t count on it.

Movies, remade

It was a few years ago, I think, that I stumbled on a crowdsourced remake of the original “Star Wars” on YouTube. Brief segments from a myriad of creators, were stitched together into a version of the 1977 blockbuster that was at times hilarious, charming, cringey or just plain odd. The filmmaking ranged from amateur actors in homemade costumes to stop-motion animation to computer graphics. It was bonkers.

The local debut at 4 p.m. Sunday of the Crowdsourced VT Toy Story at Junction Arts and Media in White River Junction, promises some of the same madcap creativity. The screening is free and open to the public.

Holiday art

The holiday season brings out vast group exhibitions of work by Upper Valley artists at a multitude of venues. Those that spring to mind are AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, Artistree Gallery in South Pomfret, Chandler Gallery in Randolph, the Library Arts Center in Newport and Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction.

It’s a bit of a secret that artists will keep making work whether we buy it or not. But when we do buy art, the artist gets something far deeper than the money that changes hands. The idea that their work will be given as a gift and end up on display is immensely gratifying, a sense of connection that’s in keeping with the season.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.