Joel Gersmann, 62, artistic director of Broom Street Theater since 1969 and one of Madison's most prolific playwrights, died Friday in his home. He had been in poor health for some time.

The theater has a reputation for producing experimental, avant-garde plays, many of them controversial.

Currently, the theater is featuring "Oklahomo, a Gay Comedy About Curley, a Resident Drag Queen, a Transsexual Cow and Homophobia."

Earlier this year, Gersmann played the part of gay rights activist Harry Hay in "Radical Harry." He said at the time it would be his last acting role. He had suffered from several ailments including heart disease and had not previously appeared on the stage since 1991.

Gersmann's own plays included subjects ranging from Nazis to Nancy Drew, and from abortion to pedophilia.

He was proud of the fact that his was not a commercial theater.

"People today are treating theater as a commodity, like stocks or bonds or real estate," he told a Wisconsin State Journal reviewer in 2001. "But at Broom Street we're not treating plays like hot properties we're going to trade on in the distant future."

He was able to break traditional rules because he owned his own theater building. Tickets to his plays were just $7, payable at the door. He often asked patrons to donate extra to help meet expenses.

More than a decade earlier, he told another State Journal reporter he wasn't concerned about people who didn't like his shows.

"A lot of people hate all of our work. A lot of people like it," he said. "If we ended up doing things that everybody liked, we'd end up recreating a commercial theater. We are a complete contrast. The shows that are important to me are the ones that were commercial failures. I'm not interested in those that brought in a big audience. They usually didn't contribute to our development."

Gersmann joined the theater's staff shortly after it was formed in 1969. Despite its name, the theater has been on Williamson Street since 1977.

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