I’m interested in creating theatre that isn’t necessarily about queer issues, but that makes all involved recognize their own queerness.
“Queer” was a word taken up by non-heterosexual and non-binary people after the messy, minoritizing identity politics of the 1970s. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes: “‘Queer’ can refer to the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8). Basically, “queer” is a designation of productive contestation that cannot be defined. It is drenched in utopian fantasy, and that is a-okay. “Queer” is beyond restriction and limitation.
Madhavi Menon, in Indifference to Difference, uses this “queer” not as an identity but as an idea. An idea marked by desire, which transcends limits constructed by fixed bodies. We all have desires (hopes, aspirations, dreams, imagination, impulses) that reach beyond the meat and bones in which we move around. We, as conscious beings, cannot be contained by the boundaries of our bodies or “who we are”. Queerness is universal (we can all be considered queer) because our desires are reason enough to question the fixity of our identities.
I’ve written about this before. What I’d now like to focus on for the purpose of this particular post is the idea of using this notion of queerness, practically, to improve our theatre-making.
To begin: David Savran says queer is theatre, and theatre is queer. In fact, it is the “queerest art”.
Queerness is theatre because it is “a transient disturbance produced between and among text, actor, director, and spectator. It might be said to be an effect of knowledge, or lack of it, in relation to dissident sexual desires and identities” (Savran 59). People who are queer in terms of their sexuality or gender are constantly performing queer. Once you “come out”, as Sedgwick writes, you are constantly coming out. You always perform queer because the default, or the expected state of being in this society, is heterosexuality and compliance to the gender binary. Queer is a performative designation.
Theatre is queer because “writing and performance always function to disarticulate and disrupt identity – whether the identity in question is that of the playwright, the performer, or the spectator. The performer is the most obviously destabilized of this group insofar as he or she is always playing a role, always literally giving birth to an Other within the self” (70). But the spectators are also destabilized. In theatre, our eyes are errant. Much like the queerness of our desires, the practice of watching theatre is queer in that we can never have one particular experience. We are identifying ourselves with a multiplicity of characters at the same time. The way we identify cannot be contained by one body. We latch on to a variety of characters in a variety of experiences in every given theatrical event.
Multiplicity is important in theatre, not only among the performers but among all creators. And it’s the multiplicity involved in its creation that makes it queer. Theatre can never (or should never?) be fixed. It can never be categorized as one thing. It is fluid and complex, with an ever-changing state of being, much like each of our individual identities. The desires each of us have reach into the beyond; into space; into the unknown. Theatre, much like our desires, should reach into a place of imagination and uncertainty. Theatre is rife with Jill Dolan’s “utopian performatives”: those moments where we collectively glimpse a better future and feel, however fleeting, a sense of unity.
If we can become indifferent to our differences in the creation process of theatre, if we can allow for a plurality of voices, backgrounds, approaches, and opinions without falling into chaos or fear, and stop limiting ourselves to people we know and safe “strategies” of production, the queerness that results will bring communities closer together. If we become “indifferent” to the fact that we all have differences, we will get past making mediocre theatre. This involves confronting our own self-constructed limitations (“I’m such-and-such, so I should make such-and-such types of theatre”) and also allowing more people into our creative processes that don’t necessarily share our values or beliefs.
If we “queer” our approach to theatre-making, spectators will experience an art that throws identity politics to the wayside and simply embraces universalism. We are all different, but we often limit ourselves by using our differences as definitions and sticking to the groups with whom we identify. Theatre needs to be open and inviting in order to be its most effective as a site of playful contestation, where all of our differences confront each other until we realize that we all share similar struggles.
Whether taking a creative approach involving assigned roles (designers, stage managers, actors, directors, etc) or a devised approach where everyone has more-or-less equal input on all decisions, we can still be “queer” in our processes. Allowing space for complexity and fertile tension in the creation and/or rehearsal phases leads to more-than-mediocre theatre. A creative team consisting of different bodies, abilities, and backgrounds leads to more rich storytelling and design choices, as well as performers with whom audiences will attach themselves despite their differences. Such attachment will illuminate for the spectators the queerness of their identities.
That said, arguments need to be open and accepting on both ends in order for them to be useful. An attitude of “yes, I hear you, but what about” rather than consistent no’s will foster more inclusive and interesting environments. I’ve noticed that I’m often confronted by “no” environments lately. Creators gossiping and complaining about fellow artists without being constructive with those complaints, and artists closing doors out of fear of change or skirmishes. This leads to average theatre, because we are not bringing in as many community members with their variant opinions as possible.
It’s interesting that many companies and organizations host very engaging panels or events about giving voice to those too-often silenced, and yet never quite open themselves to the inevitability of discomfort. In order for us to all play on equal playing fields, we all need to have an attitude of genuine acceptance to people’s varying values and opinions.
We’re all queer and cannot be limited by self-constructed boundaries. If the process of making theatre involves closing doors on people, or not opening them in the first place, we lose the possibility of surprise and of a fascinating, successful experience. Limiting our outreach means limiting our potential. In order to create effective theatre, where we explore our innate queerness, we need more people of varying opinions and backgrounds. We also need to take this further by having healthy arguments and tense playfulness. It’s not just about visibility, it’s about listening and engaging in positive ways.
Theatre is a force that moves everyone involved into a fruitful conversation about our current state of being. We are now on the cusp of embracing the idea of not allowing differences to define us. We see the real-world, political consequences of sticking to who and what we know and not reaching beyond our own experiences and values. We cannot box in the complexity of being human. Theatre has potential to bring us closer in more tense but productive ways if we can allow it to be multiplicitous in its makeup and therefore disruptive in its execution. We are all queer, and our theatre should celebrate and work with that queerness. Let’s get drenched in the muck of utopian potential.