Madison native and current StageQ board president Michael Bruno has had quite the career. As a theatrical producer, gay porn actor, adult film awards show master of ceremonies and professional game show contestant on the West Coast, the 60-year-old’s resume has a certain je ne sais quoi.
With his return to Madison, though, he may be embarking on one of his most significant roles yet: continuing StageQ founder Thomas McClurg’s goal of providing a stable home for LGBT-themed plays within Madison’s larger theatrical community.
Much of Bruno’s life may have been spent far from Madison, but his hometown is where he first got plugged into gay culture. After coming out in high school, Bruno studied theater and drama at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the city’s Edgewood College, becoming an out and outgoing member of Madison’s LGBT and theatrical communities.
A hint of where he’d eventually migrate came in the late ’70s. Bruno says he had a chance encounter with a teacher after performing with the Wisconsin Children’s Theatre that brought a sharp directional change to the young actor’s career.
“She was from California and told me about a wonderful children’s theater in San Diego that performed in a park,” Bruno remembers. “I always wanted to live on the West Coast, so I thought, ‘Why not apply?’”
The theater was the Old Globe Theatre, a 1935 replica of its London namesake, and the park was Balboa Park, an urban cultural park that’s also home to the San Diego Zoo. Bruno auditioned and was hired.
“It was one of those fortuitous moments,” Bruno says. “I stayed for one summer, then came back to Madison.”
He remained in Wisconsin for a few years after that, working as a bar manager, host and humorist at a variety of the city’s gay bars: The Back Door, Going My Way and the speakeasy-style The Barber’s Closet inside the Hotel Washington.
But the West Coast’s siren song eventually called him back. This time around, it was as a contestant on Body Language, a CBS daytime game show filmed in Los Angeles. The young gay contestant proved to be a hit.
“This was 1983 and I won $60,000,” Bruno says. “It was all in cash, too. No crappy prizes or porcelain Dalmatians.”
Bruno’s big win was just the beginning. He entered the game show “circuit” and over the next few years found that very good money could be made by successful contestants willing to help producers test-drive new game show concepts. From there he went on to become assistant producer and contestant coordinator for the game shows High Rollers and Win, Lose or Draw, rubbing shoulders with producers like Wink Martindale and celebrities like Vicki Lawrence.
Bruno found other unusual avenues into L.A.’s entertainment industry. He was hired by Vivid Man, the gay production arm of San Fernando Valley pornographic filmmaker Vivid Entertainment (best known nowadays for releasing the Kim Kardashian sex tape). He may have been the only actor to keep his pants on.
“The producers were looking for a funny uncle or someone to provide comic relief in between the sex scenes,” Bruno says. “I did that for three years.” The experience led Bruno to a two-year gig as emcee of the Adult Video News Movie Awards, which were held as a benefit for AIDS research.
But it was “Tea with Bruno,” the column he wrote for a Los Angeles gay newspaper, that took him in new directions.
“The show Party came to town in 1996,” Bruno says. “That was the naked-boy revamp of The Boys in the Band and I was asked to review it.”
Bruno liked the production, but his theatrical instincts kicked in and he took jabs at the show for being staged in the wrong theater in the wrong neighborhood. The swipes earned Bruno a call from author David Dillon, who had an unexpected response.
“He thanked me for saying the things he had been trying to tell the local producers from the start,” Bruno says. “He also asked me to produce the show in San Francisco. I had taken this sidestep into game shows and pornography and missed the theater, so I said yes.”
Bruno’s production of Party was a success and he went on to form his own theatrical company. His next production was Dirty Little Showtunes, writer Tom Orr’s witty reimagining of classic show tunes with aggressively gay and sexually explicit lyrics. (“How Do You Solve Your Problem Gonorrhea” would surely give The Sound of Music’s morally upright von Trapp family pause.) The show, once again, was a hit and in addition to San Francisco, played in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago.
But life in the fast lane had already caught up with Bruno, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1993. Successes and failures with various California health care providers, and health issues facing his own elderly mother back in Madison, led to his 2001 return to the Badger State.
“My mother needed hip replacement surgery and her doctors were refusing to perform the operation, saying she would never survive,” Bruno says. “My father had passed away and I needed to take care of her health and my own health, so I came home.”
Bruno thought he would stay in Madison for a year or two at most, but saw an absence of interactive dinner theater and gay theater he felt needed to be filled. He formed Whoop De Do Productions, best known for Sweet Cannoli Nuptials, a dinner show modeled after Tony & Tina’s Wedding. He also became involved in StageQ, starting as both an actor and director and moving up to board president.
For the past five years he’s also hosted “Backstage with Bruno,” a blend of live and taped video segments on Madison’s theater scene that airs weekly on CBS affiliate station WISC-TV.
“It’s a great gig and gives me the chance to mention StageQ and other community theater groups,” says Bruno, who is directing one of the Queer Shorts segments just as he has for the past five years (see sidebar).
Bruno also has served as editorial consultant for Our Lives magazine and board member for both cultural arts groups Dane Arts and the AIDS Network of Madison. Above all, he is happy to report that in spite of his HIV diagnosis 23 years ago, his health is good.
“Thanks to UW Health and University Hospital, I’m healthy, drinking my ‘cocktail,” my T-cells are up and I am doing fine,” Bruno says. “I was originally told I would only have five or six years left, but I am a lucky, long-term survivor.”
What’s more, Bruno’s mother did have her hip surgery and, at age 100, is doing just fine too.
“Every day I am grateful,” Bruno adds.
One of Bruno’s new roles with StageQ is producing the Queer Shorts series, although it’s not a job he expected to have to do.
When creator Katy Conley started Queer Shorts, an annual collection of short plays designed to give voice to LGBT writers, actors and directors, in 2005, she originally intended the series to last just 10 years. Last year’s installment marked year 10, so between that and Conley handing off that year’s installment to StageQ board member Louise Stout due to health issues, the board decided to conclude the series as planned.
Madison’s LGBT community and the show’s fans had other ideas. They raised such a ruckus that Conley permanently handed the project over to StageQ’s board, which now also serves as the company’s management.
Over the years, themes have emerged to tie together the average of 10 productions culled from as many as 200 submissions each year, Bruno says.
“This year, the plays are all about how technology affects the LGBT culture,” Bruno says. “We had some very nice submissions and we had to choose 9 from the 80 one-act plays we received.”
In addition to producing the series, Bruno will direct playwright Dan Myers’ “Case of the Gays,” one of the installments.
Queer Shorts 2.0: The Reboot takes the Drury Theater stage at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., Madison, June 10 to 18. Tickets are $15 or $20 and can be purchased at stageq.com.