Ronnie Larsen: From ‘Making Porn’ to Making The Musical ‘A Shonda’

  • Plays of Wilton Becomes A Player, Even Making It To Off Broadway

Playwright and actor Ronnie Larsen. Photo by Dennis Dean.

At 13, California-born Ronnie Larsen was performing Shakespeare. Six years later, he ran his own theater company in San Francisco.

By his mid-20s, Larsen had become nationally known as one of the 1990s leading playwrights of adults-only gay comedies. His best-known work: “Making Porn,” which featured nude male porn stars, ran 511 performances Off-Broadway and was seen worldwide, including productions in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Now 55, Larsen is founder and artistic director of Wilton Manors’ nonprofit Plays of Wilton (POW) theater company and helming the musical adaptation of “A Shonda,” a serious love story about a young Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish man and a Southern Baptist cowboy.

“They're deeply in love,” says Larsen. “The play starts with them trying to navigate how they're going to escape their communities and actually live as a gay couple. But the Hasidic man is married. … He would lose his entire everything. The other man lives in this very redneck, conservative Southern Baptist community. They both have a lot to lose. The Southern Baptist guy has decided that he's willing to lose it. But the Jewish man cannot make the transition.”

A shanda (its usual spelling) is Yiddish for a “shame” or “disgrace.”

“A Shonda” was written in 2019 by Los Angeles-based playwright Wendy Graf. “A year ago, I thought this could be a musical,” says Larsen. “You could have Jewish singing, you could have line dancing, you could have all this imagery.”

Graf gave the okay for Larsen to add songs to her play.

South Florida composer/lyricists Bobby Peaco and Dennis Manning (also board president of Plays of Wilton) wrote the songs. New York City-based Oren Korenblum choreographed A Shonda.

GETTING IT RIGHT

For authenticity, Larsen hired Coral Springs actor Avi Hoffman, president and founder of the Jewish cultural Yiddishkayt Initiative as a performer and “Jewish consultant.”

He plays a Hasidic rabbi in “A Shonda.” Hoffman, 66, grew up in the Bronx and also in Israel. His father was a Holocaust survivor “who came from a very Orthodox background, but after Auschwitz decided that there was no God,” he says.

Hoffman, who is married to South Florida actor Laura Turnbull, believes “there is an enormous movement within the Orthodox community right now that is shifting and changing.”

“And a lot of young people, and older people, not only younger people, are finding that there is another world out there that they didn't know about really. And many of them are coming from the LGBTQ+ community.”

Actor Brandon Campbell, 31, of Miami Lakes, plays Duvid, the Hasidic young man in love with Clay (played by Georgia-based actor Jackson Goad).

“We were childhood friends, Duvid and Clay, the Southern boy,” says Campbell. “It's really a childhood love story. It's one of those first-love stories. These two boys have loved each other since they were young, and it never left.”

Campbell isn’t Jewish and says Hoffman has been “an invaluable resource for me for any questions I have, anything that I need to do to just make the authenticity of this character lived in.”

“That's really what I try to do as an actor – to make the audience never not believe that I'm not what I'm playing. …  I am bisexual. Right now, I am in a straight-passing relationship with a girl. I’ve played gay characters, bi characters. And again, it comes down to the authenticity. Love is love.”

Larsen, who became known for writing and directing shows featuring full male nudity and simulated sex scenes, describes “A Shonda” as “family-friendly if you're comfortable watching two gay men kiss.”

“They don’t kiss a lot, but they do kiss. And at one point they're in bed with their shirts off, but they're not having sex,” he says. “There's absolutely no nudity. There's no simulated sex. So, yes, if you're liberal, you could bring your kids.”

Larsen assures, however, that he’s not abandoning his bawdy past. In August, Plays of Wilton will present the 30th anniversary of his first play, “Scenes From My Love Life,” which he based on his own sex life in the early ’90s.

“It was pre-Internet, about phone sex,” he says. “Life before pictures. You’d have to trust that what they described on the phone was going to show up.”

Larsen’s second play, a year later in 1995, was “Making Porn.”

“It was a perfect storm. ‘Making Porn’ hit just when people were really interested in the gay porn industry, and it was pre-internet, so people had never seen a porn star in person,” says Larsen. “And a lot of them had never seen a naked man on stage.”

Subsequent Larsen titles include “10 Naked Men,” “All-Male Peep Show” and “The Penis Talk Show.” 

His early career petered out as gay theater companies began shifting from sexually-oriented programming. Larsen took a 10-year break from the theater and lived in Mexico, where he met and married Melqui Dominguez in 2009.

DISCOVERING WILTON MANORS

In 2010, David R. Gordon of Empire Stage theater in Fort Lauderdale presented a sold-out run of “Making Porn.” 

Larsen was startled to discover nearby Wilton Manors, with its large community of gay men who enjoyed the kind of shows he produced in the 1990s. He adds that nudity still sells tickets in Wilton Manors, he says, “because there's a core group of older men that really want to see that.”

Larsen and his husband relocated to Wilton Manors, where he leased a rehearsal space next door to Island City Stage on North Dixie Highway and named it The Foundry.

“The first show we did there was on the cement floor and there were like 20 chairs. And then we added 10 chairs, and 10 more, and then we added another 10. And then we added a wooden floor. And then we expanded the wings. And we moved the light booth.”

During the pandemic, after the for-profit Foundry abruptly shut down, Larsen’s longtime friend and business partner, Caryn Horwitz of Wilton Manors, a Miami Dade College criminal justice professor, suggested he change his model and create a nonprofit – which led to him founding Plays of Wilton (POW).

“My life just keeps changing in Wilton Manors,” he says. “I feel like Wilton Manors – I know this sounds so ‘whatever’ – but I feel like it made me whole. I was able to be a whole person here. Whereas before, I was just like the porn guy who did the sex plays. That’s fine. I embrace that because that's what I built my career on. But it's been really empowering to be recognized as, ‘Oh, there's much more to this person than just writing gay sex plays.’”

AWARDS AND OFF-BROADWAY

Since 2022, Plays of Wilton has been nominated for 28 local Carbonell Awards, South Florida’s version of the Tony Awards, winning four including the 2023 Howard Kleinberg Award to Larsen “for contributions to the health and development of the arts in South Florida.”

Larsen says he’s proud to live in a town with “three theaters in one mile” (The Foundry, Island City Stage and Empire Stage) that regularly present LGBTQ programming.

“That is unbelievable. I talk about it all the time,” he says. “They don't have it in New York. Chicago. London. Nowhere has it.”

Recently, Larsen and POW took one of their productions to Off-Broadway.

“The Actors,” written by and starring Larsen and directed by Stuart Meltzer (producing artistic director of Miami’s Zoetic Stage) ran from April 27 to June 1 at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in New York City.

During that month, about 100 friends from Wilton Manors traveled to New York to see “The Actors,” which had its world premiere in 2022 at the Foundry.

“If you go to the theater, you feel some part of ownership for that theater. It’s literally everyone's $10. It's everyone's this, that and the other that pays for everything that happens there,” says Wilton Manors Commissioner Chris Caputo, who also serves on the POW board. “And so the people that I know that went [to New York], they went feeling like they made this possible.”

Caputo, among those who saw the play in New York, says Larsen constantly promotes Wilton Manors as “a source of awesome theater.”

And Larsen says the people of Wilton Manors always support him, POW and the arts.

“We couldn't have taken ‘The Actors’ to New York as a commercial production. We did it with underwriting, and people donated to us. We raised $200,000 from this community of people that just wanted to see POW go to New York.”

‘THE DESANTIS THING’

Larsen says his life is “transformed” daily since becoming part of the Wilton Manors community.

“Even [with] the DeSantis thing. All these people started donating.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month vetoed $32 million in arts funding throughout the state, including 50 grants in Broward totaling $2.5 million.

Plays of Wilton was set to receive $20,000, according to Larsen.

“This has been a blessing because it infuriated people so much that donations started pouring in,” says Larsen. “People started calling me to say, ‘This is bulls---. I'm sending you $5,000. I'm sending you $10,000.’ We have had a windfall of donations because of the backlash of Ron DeSantis.”

So far, POW has raised more than $45,000 since the grant cuts.

“And more is coming in,” says Larsen. “It's like, ‘You are not going to cut the arts in Wilton Manors.’ They will not allow it. … That is the story. Wilton Manors is the story. That the gay men and the community of South Florida are supporting the arts. They love theater. That's the story.”

IF YOU GO

What: Plays of Wilton presents “A Shonda” by playwright Wendy Graf, with songs by Bobby Peaco and Dennis Manning. Choreography by Oren Korenblum. Produced and directed by Ronnie Larsen.

Where: The Foundry, 2306 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday from Wednesday, July 10, through Sunday, Aug. 11.

Tickets: $37.50, premium seating $53.50.

Information: (954) 826-8790 or  playsofwilton.com


This story was produced by Broward Arts Journalism Alliance (BAJA), an independent journalism program of the Broward County Cultural Division. Visit ArtsCalendar.com for more stories about the arts in South Florida.

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