WERTHEIM, AUBREY (14 August 1953 - 12 January 2003), born Robert Wertheim, was a playwright and gay rights activist born to Robert Sorin Wertheim and Mildred “Millie” Wertheim in Sagamore Hills Township, Ohio. He graduated from Nordonia High School before going on to study theater at Ohio University for one year, followed by two years at New York’s New School for Social Research. Wertheim then began to take odd jobs around New York City to earn money and made his way into theater by working as an usher, a prop maker, and a casting assistant. He eventually found success as a playwright, and he began working as an organizer for the gay and lesbian community during the AIDS epidemic. Wertheim continued this work for the rest of his life.
Wertheim’s first success as a playwright came in 1977 when he conducted a staged reading of his play Pranks at Encompass Theatre in New York City. In 1980, his play Popular Neurotics was produced by the Mark Taper Forum Convention before it was turned into a TV special shown on the Arts & Entertainment network and the Public Broadcasting Service’s American Playhouse in 1984. The TV special was nominated for two Awards for Cable Excellence, “Best Adaptation” and “Best Comedy,” in 1985.
From 1983 to 1992, Wertheim stepped away from the theater in order to support the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. From 1983 to 1985, he worked with the National Gay Task Force where he developed the organization’s Crisisline, a national hotline for people seeking information on AIDS, and “Circles,” a discussion program for gay people who had recently come out. Wertheim also conducted numerous anti-gay violence workshops, training sessions for community organizations across the country, and meetings with government institutions to inform them of issues surrounding AIDS and the gay community.
In 1988, Wertheim became the Director of Services for the LESBIAN/GAY COMMUNITY SERVICE CENTER OF GREATER CLEVELAND. In 1989, the Center was able to officially hire him for the position and begin paying him a salary with its limited budget. During his time at the Center, he played a significant role in developing the LIVING ROOM, a space for AIDS counseling and education. Wertheim also worked on the MARYANN FINEGAN PROJECT where he provided support to members of the community impacted by anti-gay and anti-gay lesbian violence, held meetings with local police departments to discuss the harassment and entrapment of gay men, and developed trainings to encourage law enforcement to take these forms of violence seriously.
While some have claimed that the Center project PRYSM (Presence and Respect for Youth in Sexual Minority) was Wertheim’s creation, he explained in an interview with the PLAIN DEALER in 1994 that it was initiated by Bob Boone, a teenager who visited the center in 1988 and found that the adult discussion groups did serve the needs of young people. The Center sent him to Boston to study local gay and lesbian youth organizations, and when he returned in January 1989, Boone began PRYSM and recruited more than twenty members in the first month. Wertheim later served as a facilitator for the group, and in 1990, he received the Community Service Award from the Gay People’s Chronicle for his work with the Center.
In the early 1990s, Wertheim began to work on theater projects but remained active in his role at the Center. In 1991, Wertheim’s play Make Way for Dyklings debuted at Cleveland Public Theatre and was given a reading by the Mark Taper Forum. The play was also recognized by the Cleveland SCENE as the “Best Premiere of Local Play” that year. In 1992, Wertheim received the Edward Albee Fellowship to conduct research on gender for a writing project in Albee Colony in Montauk, Long Island. The fellowship ultimately led him to write Costume Drama, a play about the theater in seventeenth-century England when women were allowed onstage and began competing for roles with gay men who had found a home in drama performance.
In 1994, Wertheim resigned from the Center in order to focus on playwriting. Soon after, he became a member of the Playwrights’ Unit at the CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE. The group was created as a part of the theater’s Next Stage play development project to support the work of affiliated playwrights by offering free copying and postage, space for meetings, and a place to hold readings of their plays with professional actors.
In 1995, Costume Drama received the Chilcote Award for “Most Innovative Play by an Ohio Playwright.” In January of 1996, the play was performed again for the New Plays Festival at the CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE. In November of that year, Wertheim’s play The Genuine Article debuted at the Cleveland Play House Next Stage Festival. Wertheim also received a $5,000 grant from the Ohio Arts Council to support his work as a playwright in 1996.
Although Wertheim resigned from the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center in 1994, he remained active in Cleveland’s gay community. At the 1998 CLEVELAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, he served as a moderator for the panel discussion on gay rights following the documentary Out of the Past directed by Jeff Dupre. During that same year, Wertheim gave a talk for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) of the Mohawk Valley on developing service centers for the area's gay and lesbian community.
In his final years, Wertheim worked on his final play, Captivity, which focused on Alzheimer’s and captured some of his experiences after his mother was diagnosed with the disease in the 1990s. In 2001, Wertheim himself fell ill and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2002, his cancer went into remission, but it soon returned, and he died from the disease on January 12, 2003 at MetroHealth Medical Center, eleven days after the death of his mother. He was cremated at Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, and his ashes were returned to his father. Wertheim was survived by his longtime partner David Crispell.
Last Updated: 4/15/2022
Finding aid for the Aubrey Wertheim Papers
Baranick, Alana. “Aubrey Wertheim, activist; Millie Wertheim, writer.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), January 14, 2003: B7. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current.
Glaser, Cris. “Chapter 14: Aubrey Wertheim.” Purple Armadillos: The Intellects, Entrepreneurs and Oddballs of Northeast Ohio's LGBT Community in the 19th and 20th Centuries (blog). June 21, 2010.