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Balancing Trauma and Joy While Teaching Queer Theatre History

“I just don’t know how relevant these plays are to my life,” one of my most thoughtful, dedicated students shared with me a third of the way into semester.

My LGBTQ Voices on Stage in the Twenty-First Century class, an elective I teach at Skidmore College, was wrapping up its “AIDS on Stage” module. For three weeks, we had read contemporary AIDS plays and dug deep into secondary sources to understand their social, epidemiological, and theatrical contexts. We talked about ekphrasis in Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, chaos and order in Donja R. Love’s One in Two, postmodernism in Steve Yockey’s Octopus, and the possibilities of the musical form in Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop.

I found companionship in The Glass Menagerie and The Children’s Hour and The Women of Brewster Place long before I found myself in a circle of queer friends.

I had initially pitched the course as a survey of AIDS-related theatre, starting with The Normal Heart and ending with A Strange Loop, with a healthy serving of Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner, and Paris Is Burning in between. But almost nobody signed up for the class. Hoping to spark student interest, I changed the topic to a survey of twenty-first century US queer theatre, from Edward Albee’s The Goat to Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play. Soon, the class was healthily enrolled. And while I maintained a unit on AIDS on stage in the twenty-first century, these titles ultimately comprised only about one-fourth of the syllabus.

I am a late millennial queer. As a teenager in the mid-nineties, I found my queer allies in books and plays before I found them in internet chat boards and college affinity groups. And while building a literary support system in secret was challenging and sometimes harmful, it was also meaningful. I found companionship in The Glass Menagerie and The Children’s Hour and The Women of Brewster Place long before I found myself in a circle of queer friends. Although each of these pieces end tragically for their queer characters, they supported me and cared for me at a time when I was alone. This relief now feels paradoxical considering their traumatic content, but at the time, it provided me with unchecked joy.

Seven actors with their arms around each other's shoulders smile for a group photo.

From L to R: Isaac DeMarchi, Jordan Gonzalez, Will Davis-Kay, Jose Useche, John Michael DiResta, Kolton Bradley Junior, Javier Soto, in a staged reading of Octopus by Steve Yockey at Skidmore College, 2022. Directed by John Michael DiResta. Photo by John Michael DiResta.

My students found no such joy in the AIDS plays I’d assigned. They reported that the epidemic felt like a closed chapter of history. I reminded them of the statistic we’d learned in One in Two: one in two queer black men is HIV positive. I asked them to think about the end of part one of The Inheritance, when the ghosts of AIDS victims return to life to connect a twenty-first century queer man to his past. But their faces were stolid and, with the one exception of a student who had eloquently explained PREP to his classmates earlier in the semester, they all reported that AIDS simply wasn’t relevant to their lived experiences as young queers. What’s more, they found the trauma depicted in the plays to be, as they put it, a downer.

There is, of course, depressing material in AIDS plays. As Is, The Normal Heart, Falsettos, Enter the Night, etc. depict the young death of otherwise vibrant queer people perishing in the face of a government that ignored them. But if that material distanced my students, how would they respond to our upcoming unit, “Dramatizing Queer History,” anchored in Paula Vogel’s Indecent, Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, and A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them? These plays looked even further back than the AIDS epidemic at equally traumatic events. If The Inheritance—a play about twenty-first century queers wrangling with the legacy of AIDS—was irrelevant to them, how would they wrestle with stories rooted even further back in the past?

Before assigning Indecent, I added to the syllabus David Valdes's December 2022 HowlRound Journal piece, “The Queer Theatre We Need Now.” I found in Valdes’ students’ want for queer joy a reflection of my own students’ demand for a relief from an onslaught of queer trauma. David’s article effectively delineates something I have often heard from my students—that queer stories are either joyful or traumatic, and that students want the joyful. I credit Valdes with my adding to the syllabus Joel Kim Booster’s film Fire Island—a true testament of the power of queer joy (which my students loved) and an adaptation of Jane Austen that operates by some of the same rules as The Inheritance (which I loved pointing out).

Students reported that they found special resonance in Valdes’s observation that “it was seismic when stages first began to depict stories of gay men and then lesbians, but your average eighteen-year-old now knows how many other identities fill out the rainbow.” My students often report that historical gay texts—which often don’t disrupt the gender binary and which do privilege the voice of the white gay male—don’t align with their contemporary definitions of queer. They’re not wrong, and I constantly strive to bring more gender, racial, and ethnic diversity to my syllabi as a late but necessary corrective to the majoritarian narratives of queer history.

But a word in Valdes’ article disquieted me—but. Why must understanding the seismic nature of LGBTQ representation on stage be positioned in contrast to contemporary queer identities? Why can’t it be an and, not a but?

I asked my students more challenging questions inspired by both Valdes’ article and the Vogel and Fierstein plays: Can we use our contemporary positionality as queers—a positionality that rightfully demands more queer joy—to activate and keep alive the history that allowed us to be as queer as we are now? Can the process of reckoning with the legacy of queer trauma be joyful in and of itself? Can we acknowledge that historical queer theatre does leave out an enormous amount of what would become contemporary queer life, and does tend towards depictions of trauma… but those depictions are so often erased from history altogether that the act of salvaging them and giving them life in our contemporary world can be joyful?

Six actors in drag, complete with dresses and wigs, in the middle of a performance.

From L to R: Tom Reilly, Tim Huls, Michael Moerman, Matt Weimer, Max Hersey and Paul Rodrigues in Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein at New Conservatory Theater, 2016. Directed by Becca Wolff. Scenic Design by Kua-Hao Lo. Photo by Leslie Katz.

I think the answer to these questions can be yes. Excavating lost queer history provides me with meaning, a sense of purpose, and joy, even when the stories are painful. But my students were reluctant to see these plays this way.

As a white gay man in my early forties, I do not know what it is to walk through life as a lesbian, or a trans person, a nonbinary person, or a person of color. Many of my students fall into those categories, and I don’t claim to have answers for them as to how to process their lived experiences. I am also something many of my students are not—a queer person who risked losing everything when he came out and who put himself at risk of HIV conversion with every sexual encounter before the advent of PREP. I am glad that so many of my students now come out into the open arms that I did not find and can live lives less fettered by sexual anxiety. But I am afraid that these strides have stolen from my students the opportunity to connect with the long history of queer liberators that came before us.

My students’ dedication to bashing binaries is creating not only a more just world, but a more nuanced and interesting one. So when I pointed out to them that, in some ways, they’d created a binary—traumatic or joyful?—I invited them to see past that construction. I asked them to investigate if the spheres of contemporary queer joy and queer histories might intersect in a fruitful middle ground. Together, we found that while that middle ground includes trauma, it also includes not only a processing of that trauma, but a translation of that trauma into artistic product. By investigating our queer theatrical history from a contemporary lens, including investigating plays that tell the tragic ends that queer people sometimes met, we can not only process that trauma, but we can find joy and meaning in the ways that excavating queer histories allows us to make better queer theatre as future-facing artists.

I came to our Indecent class ready to invite my students to embrace the paradoxical joy that can be found in dramatizing queer history by introducing them to an element of my personal history. I told them about a gay bar I remember existing in my hometown of Methuen, Massachusetts, in the late eighties. It closed when I was a child, but I know this building was there. I know its windows were blacked out. I know it was sometimes crowded, and I knew from its design and decor that it was specifically built to keep out the conservative, Irish-Italian-Catholic residents of my hometown. Like most small-town gay bars that didn’t hang signs, it was gone by the mid-nineties, a victim of the AIDS epidemic and the draw of increasing tolerance in urban areas. Few people in my hometown today remember this shuttered business. Like many gay bars in the eighties, it wasn’t marked and it had to stay hidden, so people could easily erase them from memory. But it was there.

These writers put on stage everything that was real, and they let that reality—warts and all—shine bright and burn a hole into history that proclaims that not only were the queers always there, but the world was better for them.

I walked my students in that first lecture through some other parts of queer history that had been lost. The homoeroticism of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that their AP English classes skipped. The well documented—and well photographed—lesbian lives of Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, and countless other grand dames of old Hollywood that the studios paid thousands of dollars to hide. Alan Turing, Sally Ride, Michelangelo, Lorraine Hansberry… All these icons are part of a queer narrative, but the queer parts of their identities are so often omitted.

Why? Because history erases the queers.

I asked them if these facts made them feel hopeless, and their heads nodded “yes” in unison. I then argued to them what I now argue any time I am told to stop focusing on histories of queer trauma and instead only tell stories of queer joy: we have muscle on our side, and to stop telling these stories abandons this power. We have our queer grandparents, like Paula Vogel and Harvey Fierstein, who have been fighting for us for decades with no sign of stopping. We have the imaginations of Hansol Jung and Ty Defoe and many others looking to our queer histories to create our queer futures. These writers put on stage everything that was real, and they let that reality—warts and all—shine bright and burn a hole into history that proclaims that not only were the queers always there, but the world was better for them. Holding on to this history gives me joy, and I hoped it could do the same for my students.

Ten actors link arms with each other during a performance.

Ensemble of Indecent by Paula Vogel at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Scenic design by Sybil Wickersheimer. Lighting design by Marcus Doshi. Costume design by Deborah Dryden. Directed by Shana Cooper. Photo by Jenny Graham.

For their final project, I invited them to take the content we were wrestling with and make something with it. I invited them to think like directors, like playwrights, like dramaturgs, like actors, and to engage a play that tackles queer history with a maker’s brain. I invited them in these creative laboratories to not be receptacles for the traumas of history but instead, to be catalysts who take that history and metabolize it into future-facing art. I showed them how contemporary theatremakers who wrestle with queer history are illuminating what didn’t have to be lost and what we can fight harder to keep alive today: a world of extraordinary resilience in the face of unimaginable strife.

I offered students immense flexibility in how they would engage with these texts. I invited them to complete an artistic experiment, achieved individually or in groups, with a sharable outcome that engages with the historical material covered in the course in a contemporary way that faces the future as much as it faces the past. One student wrote his own play about his queer Filipino identity inspired by the works of A. Rey Pamatmat; in reading Pamatmat’s plays, he learned about what life was like for Filipino queers ten and twenty years ago, which inspired his visions of the future. Another performed “I’m Here” from The Color Purple and wrote a personal essay about how the words of Alice Walker helped her find her own identity as a Black queer person. A third, inspired by A Strange Loop, wrote musical theatre songs about overcoming religious trauma that didn’t shy away from the extant pain that exists for queers within some contemporary religious contexts, but also provided examples of ways in which that trauma can be overcome.

In their final evaluation, one student wrote, “This course challenged my preconceived notions about the intersections of queer theatre and queer history.” Reading this reflection, I felt not only convinced of the importance of continuing to teach queer theatre history—including its less-than-joyful content—but also that there is a way to help students engage with this challenging material: by inviting them to make something with it. To ingest this material can, indeed, be difficult. But if we ingest it not with the endgame of tolerating it but instead with the goal of doing something with it, the toxins of the past metabolize.

We can’t rebuild the nameless gay bars that history tore down. And we can’t bring back to life the people who died too young. But the erasures of history can be remedied by telling the stories of the people history has asked us to forget. Through them, we can write history anew on stage. I think it’s more than okay to find power in that process—in fact, I think it’s joyful.

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What an impactful read! Indeed, deconstructing binaries is crucial in building a more just world. Exploring the complexities of how one could take opposing ideas, such as joy and trauma, and using them as a catalyst for meaningful change is exactly the kind of creative action the world could use. Your words were truly inspiring and hopeful. I am grateful I have had the opportunity to learn from you and collaborate with you in your class performance of Steve Yockey's Octopus.

I'm so glad to have read this! The idea of breaking down the trauma/joy binary is a welcome paradigm shift. The world isn't black and white; we live our lives in the gray; there is comedy even in the midst of tragedy, and trauma even in the midst of joy. The stories we tell should reflect this. I'm especially excited by the concept of finding joy in the very "process of reckoning with the legacy of queer trauma," and grateful for your pointing towards how we might do so: "make something with it."

P.S. So glad to see Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them on your syllabus - that play has been haunting me for well over a decade. I hope it's haunting some of your students now too!

Edith Can Shoot Things... has been a syllabus hack of mine for a while now - it always revs up a course! (Outstanding choice for directing classes, too! Directors have to wrangle both hyper-emotional, realistic acting and some thrilling dilemmas of theatricality.)

And yes, trauma/joy is not a binary! It's not an either/or choice; it's an intersected constellation!

This is perfect: "My students’ dedication to bashing binaries is creating not only a more just world, but a more nuanced and interesting one. So when I pointed out to them that, in some ways, they’d created a binary—traumatic or joyful?—I invited them to see past that construction. I asked them to investigate if the spheres of contemporary queer joy and queer histories might intersect in a fruitful middle ground."

We just had this discussion in my classroom, while watching BPM, the movie about ACT-UP Paris; it does not stint on the horror of that time and (not but!) it is also full of the joy shared by the activists (they dance, they make up cheers, they giddily compare notes on the way home from actions). What it does best is not separate out the elements--it has scenes that mix dancing and protest, or protest and sex, or dancing and the virus. It's the wholeness of life that you're describing and that our students need to see.

I love the work you're doing and the difference it's making.

So much of this work traces back to your article, David - thank you for all you inspired!

Your example of protestors coming home from a demonstration giddily is so well taken, and so important! It reminds me of when my students watched "How To Survive a Plague." The content of that movie can be so difficult to ingest; it's an unsparing look at the corporal toll of the disease. But in a different "Queer Performance" class last year, a student presented on Arthur Russell, whose music scores the film. They spoke so joyfully and passionately about Russell's music - which is, itself, often playful and whimsical - that the energy in our seminar classroom was crackling, even as we discussed the carnage of AIDS in the 80s.

I think the last thing our queer ancestors would want us to do is stew, but we need to rethink ways in which we are inviting students to activate their queer power in a new world that assaults them with difficult content. These moments of joy can, I think, point the way.

Thank you for this article! I have added new titles to my reading list. And, I'm glad students are receiving the queer education I didn't know I desperately needed in college. Cheers to teaching the next generation(s)!