Joan Lipkin: Lifetime Achievement

Photo by Theo Welling.

It’s about 5:30 a.m. and I’m up early trying to finish the final task of the massive, unwieldy undertaking that is the Out in STL Influence Issue: a profile on theater guru and activist Joan Lipkin.

“You’re writing the Joan piece? Good luck with that,” laughs a mutual friend I will not name.

So much has already been written about her over the last three decades, and rather than churn out another list of her local and global achievements, I aimed to give a more intimate take on who she is and her unique role in our community. To do that, I would begin by talking to those in her orbit.

If I were writing a typical piece, the media savvy Lipkin has everything I could ask for at her fingertips, including high-resolution headshots. She’s also engaged, uber responsible and task-minded, pinging every couple of days and making herself available.

But that’s not where I was going. I reached out to fellow honoree Christine Elbert. She’s a dear friend of Lipkin, and over dinner at playwright Donald Miller’s Maplewood home one evening she shared a few vibrant and amusing tales of her confidant. When I followed up for this piece, she shared the story of their first meeting.

“It was the very early ’90s, and I was a 24-year-old arrogant dyke who was fucking her lighting designer. They were busy preparing for a production at the St. Marcus theater of My Queer Body by Tim Miller, and I stroll in, admittedly uninvited.

“Joan, who was preoccupied, takes one look at me and asks ‘Who are you and what are you doing in my theater?’ I replied, ‘I’m Christine, and that’s my girlfriend. Who are you?’”

Elbert said Lipkin had a stunned expression for a brief moment, and then replied, “I’m Joan Lipkin, and you’re in my theater. If you’re going to be in my theater, you’re going to work.”

Elbert spent the next hour or so setting up chairs. Or the next three decades, if we’re speaking figuratively.

“The one thing about Joan is she doesn’t let those around her get too comfortable. There’s always more to be done,” Elbert says, stressing that Lipkin’s stunned moment wasn’t about a “Don’t you know who I am?” ego. It was legitimate surprise that a homosexual in this town would not know who she was given her groundbreaking work.

I love this anecdote, but Joan doesn’t remember much about it and is pretty certain that it didn’t quite play out that way. This in turn leads to my own 5:30 a.m. anecdote, which you’re hopefully reading.

While in Chicago to give a talk, Joan writes, “I don’t doubt that [Elbert] remembers the story that way but memory is personal and selective. Did she really have that much swagger? Was I really that tough? Maybe I was. We were under great duress and this cutie comes bopping in out of nowhere right before the tech. I hope I have mellowed. But, yes, I’m sure I would have put her to work. I probably still would. And would probably say, please.”

After days of back and forth, I could tell the task of comparing memories was going to be quite cumbersome.

Lipkin, of course, would rather be talking about her history of groundbreaking work, including writing, directing and producing Some of My Best Friends Are…, the first piece of gay and lesbian theater ever in Missouri.

Written to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Stonewall, it sold out every performance, even though the St Louis Post-Dispatch initially refused to cover it, saying the content was inappropriate for a family newspaper, and the post office claimed the mailers were obscene.

Lipkin has always been ahead of the curve, producing queer works that were controversial at the time but are mainstream today. As society changed with the advent of marriage equality or the first openly gay candidate running so successfully for president, Lipkin has broadened her focus. While she continues to develop queer work both locally and abroad, she says her concerns have expanded over the years to focus additionally on disability, racism, reproductive choice, gun control, violence, immigration and voting rights and has created projects on all of these pressing contemporary issues.

I see Lipkin as being akin to the school principal of the community, at a time when precious few are considered beyond reproach. I’ve had Facebook threads that have gotten too hot due to people going at it too fiercely. The few occasions Lipkin chimed in to say so, I felt my stomach sink in a way I haven’t experienced since I was a kid. “Oh shit, now Joan’s weighing in. I’m deleting the post altogether!”

Not surprisingly, Joan Lipkin was selected for our Lifetime Influence Award not only for her tireless work, but for that unique moral authority she possesses. This piece fell a bit closer to her vision than to mine, but I’ve got too much on my plate to risk detention. Unlike the ’90s Christine Elbert, I very much know who she is.


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