By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Anthony Rathbun
“That was freaking awesome!” says Walt Zipprian, exiting the dress rehearsal of The University of Tamarie, his first time on stage in four years. The lean six-foot-sixer is on a high, as jubilant as when he made his acting debut 26 years ago in Doric Wilson’s Street Theater.
“Glad you’re back on stage, Walt,” says a fellow cast member.
The duo is part of Tamarie Cooper’s 18th zany summer-musical extravaganza The University of Tamarie. In fact, the collection’s 2011 installment, The United States of Tamarie, provided Zipprian his last stage role, before he took time off “to travel.”
“I spent many weekends the past four years in Galveston, loving every minute of it,” says Zipprian. On the island, where he trained 30 years ago to become an X-ray technician (as a backup job while pursuing an acting career), Zipprian was recharged as a thespian, to the tune of drag shows at gay bars. “I got into watching drag shows down there, especially the ones that are not of Vegas quality,” he explains. “I was mesmerized by them; they took me back to the roots of theater. When you get right down to it, theater is congregating in a living room and getting up and entertaining your friends. Drag shows in Galveston are like a John Waters movie or a [Federico] Fellini film.”
That same sensibility had motivated Zipprian to film a documentary about the late Wendy Chicago, a Houston female impersonator. Featuring footage shot by Zipprian and compiled by Mark Johnson, the movie screened at a nightclub east of downtown Houston as part of 2004’s Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Zipprian grew up along the Gulf Coast, graduating from Angleton High School. “I was the tall hippie dude. We were eye-rollers. We rolled our eyes about everything, trying to be cool.”
His mother, a nurse, understood Zipprian’s dream of becoming an actor but encouraged him to get an ancillary job that would support him between roles, so “I would never have to be a waiter,” he recalls.
At Galveston College, he chose X-ray technician courses because the curriculum had “the least amount of math.”
Zipprian “was thinking about coming out,” he says, “but Galveston is such a small community: I wanted a certain level of anonymity before dipping my toe into that pool; I did not want to go to a gay bar and see three people I worked with. I also wanted to get into theater, so I moved to Houston in 1986. Remember Chateaux Dijon Apartments off Richmond [Avenue]?”
As soon as Zipprian arrived in Houston, he phoned a gay friend from high school. “He took me to Chutes,” a leather bar in Montrose that once hosted a fist-f–king demonstration with a freezer-section chicken. “It was nerve-wracking for me,” says Zipprian. “I didn’t get it; it seemed very seedy. I don’t know, I guess I expected it to be more like La Cage aux Folles. But it was such a dark bar. I didn’t go out again for two years.”
When Zipprian did venture out to a more “neighborhood” bar, the Venture-N, in February 1988, he says, “I will never forget it—I felt so much at home. I felt so accepted, and I fell in love with it. I thought, ‘This is me. I can handle this. I’m not experimenting. I’m gay.’ I made a whole lot of gay friends there who are still my friends today.”
Houston’s gay scene also introduced Zipprian to local stages when he was cast in The Company We Keep’s 1989 production of Street Theater. The director, Lee Harrington, thought Zipprian would look good in leather—and he did—“which is funny,” says the actor, “because I was such a neophyte.”
It took just one line for Zipprian to “arrive.”
“I don’t remember what the cue line was,” he says, “but when I said the line, ‘I’ll flip you for it,’ it got a really huge laugh. It was such a f–king adrenaline rush! I don’t think I will ever forget it.”
Zipprian performed in several more gay-centric plays, then branched out to community theaters, where he acted in British farces and Agatha Christie mysteries.
However, Zipprian didn’t find his theatrical “home” until 2002, when he met Jason Nodler, founder of Infernal Bridegroom Productions (IBP). The troupe was riding high (having been featured on the cover of the prestigious American Theatre magazine) when Zipprian made his IBP bow in September 2002 as the doctor in Phaedra’s Love by Sarah Kane at The Axiom.
Zipprian was still on board with the play-ers when Nodler and Cooper co-founded The Catastrophic Theatre in 2007. In fact, he played Cooper’s husband, a shell-shocked Gulf War veteran, in Big Death and Little Death by Mickey Birnbaum, when Catastrophic presented it in 2008 at the Quintero Theatre at
the University of Houston.
What: The University of Tamarie
When: Through August 29
Where: Catastrophic Theatre
Donalevan Maines also writes about Alex Stutler in this issue of OutSmart magazine.