In a small school in Texas, a group of junior high students are performing an inventive LGBTQ+ adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. In this blog series, queer playwright Briandaniel Oglesby reflects on how the project evolved, how the students and community responded, and what he thinks this all means.
“Can you name any Disney movies about LGBT people? Any fairy tales?” I ask my students, a collection of rambunctious pre- and early-teens. A few volunteer that they’ve heard about a television show with gay or trans characters, but nothing beyond that.
“What we’re doing isn’t done,” I say. (Yet, I add mentally.) “Why is that?” one asks, prompting further discussion—and a little outrage. What Brave New World that has such people in it, teenagers genuinely mystified and enraged at the non-inclusive nature of history and culture. (I’ll return to this moment again as we make our way through the rehearsal process.)
I live in Texas, and I’m writing a gay adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. This wouldn’t be remarkable on its own; the moment I mention this project to theatremakers, I’m bombarded with examples of LGBT versions of Shakespeare’s work that I’m told I should know. What’s remarkable is that this adaptation is for middle schoolers, that they elected to do this, and this is a school production. My Romeo is eleven, and my Juliet is twelve. And they are both boys, and they are both playing boys.
I make art with teenagers. (LGBTYA, I call it, because I’m cheeky that way.) I stumbled into this job on my way out of grad school, taking an MFA in Playwriting from UT Austin and charging directly into an eccentric private school. Skybridge Academy is the kind of place where teachers propose classes for the students to vote on, and then we build these classes from scratch. The students voted for productions, and instead of pulling a large-cast play out of the canon and slivering it to fit the class time, I’ve written several plays for and with my students.
While TYA (or Theatre for Teens) is a mismatch with most of my other work—I make plays out of curse words and adult situations, with titles like She Gets Naked in the End and Dogf*ckers—these classes have given me space to experiment, to marry pedagogy to art. I build the plays with the students. I’ve borrowed activities from devising and Applied Drama and Theatre. It’s not a horizontal power structure—I still make the creative decisions, but I base where I go on their desires, skills, strengths, and weaknesses.
I’m keenly aware that sometimes what makes something art isn’t the piece itself, but the context—how a play is made, who is making it, and where it is being made. This is Texas. Ted Cruz territory. Even in liberal Austin, a traveling play about gay penguins was booted from a number of schools a few years ago, and this play focused on the human ally’s advocacy, not the avian romance. Furthermore, our RJ isn’t an ally story performed by adults—this is centered on a gay romance portrayed by two pre-teens. We’re breaking rules, or at least revealing rules to be imaginary.
Although my students are highly political, they didn’t intend to challenge convention, and I wonder if “queer theatre” is a useful term for this. They merely wished to tell an interesting story about people they regard as normal—but there’s something radical in that as well.
How did this happen? Early in the semester, I learned they liked adapting classics, they gravitated toward campy comedy, and they wanted something with multiple protagonists. An activity sparked a story about a princess who falls in love with another princess. I suggested Romeo and Juliet as a candidate for adaptation, with its robust, recognizable plot and dual protagonists. And then one of my students piped up, “What if we combine the princess love story with Romeo and Juliet?”
“Well,” I thought, “this is exciting. But, what if some students are uncomfortable with this idea and fear being labeled homophobic?” I asked them to close their eyes, to keep peer pressure from influencing the outcome. “Raise your hand if you want to combine the plays—and make Romeo and Juliet a same-sex couple?”
Almost all of the hands went up. None of the other options received the same enthusiasm. Then another thought, a bit of fear. “If we have a same sex couple as Romeo and Juliet, who would be up for playing a lead?” Fewer hands, but enough that it was possible. Romeo and Juliet would have to be male. A month of script-building later, and the draft was finished.
Questions emerged, and some remain. Some are practical—do we have enough rehearsal time? Will the students get off book? How does one manage a group of middle schoolers with limited theatre experience? Others are artistic—this will be a comedy until the end, and how does the original support comedy? When can we make fun of the original, and when can we inhabit it? Do I borrow any of Shakespeare’s dialogue, or make it up entirely?
Most of my questions are where art and the world intersect. Given LGBT teen suicide rates, what do I do about the ending? Will we have the courage to publicize the play beyond our (open-minded) parent population? And that leaves me excited and scared. I’m excited because we need queer theatre for youth. I’ve enjoyed the recent rise of local Latin@ theatre for youth, well-documented by my mentor and friend Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, which has reinforced the need for representation of overlooked stories in youth theatre. Romeo and Juliet: Young and Star-Crossed, or whatever I call it, is one of the stories that should exist—a gay love story with and for young folks.
But I’m also scared. I hear that voice, the artificial critic, tinged with internalized homophobia, it whispers, “You’ll be accused of trying to further the ‘gay agenda,’ of trying to turn kids gay.” Today, the excited voice is winning. Let’s go make a play.