The Island of Lost Chorus Boys: Professional Theatre’s Broken Promise to Accept Us in All Our Glorious Queerness
The theatre industry has long been a haven for gay men and other individuals who didn’t quite “fit in” in a mainstream context. But while our stories and our experiences have often felt invisible, gay men don’t gravitate toward musical theatre because we feel physically unseen. No. We flock—we float, we fly—to the cattle calls of New York because, in many ways, we felt too seen in our various hometowns. Many of us were relentlessly bullied for our voices, shifting hips, and broad expressiveness.
So what does it mean when we are told our marketability depends on our capacity to pass as the men whose rigid and volatile natures we fled? And what happens when the other gay men to whom we turn as mentors reproduce the terrorizing masculinity wielded by those boys back home?
As theatre begins re-opening, we have the opportunity to re-imagine our theatrical practices. We must think about not only what we set out to produce but also how we produce.
“… A Very [Confusing] Place to Start”
In recent weeks, reports of bullying behavior on the part of theatre dynamos have emerged. The attitudes and atmospheres cultivated by these individuals are pervasive; even productions like Hamilton, ostensibly diversity-affirming, have failed genuinely to support their cast members experiencing life in the margins. And although a number of my former colleagues and I all benefitted from our positionality as white, thin, and “conventionally” attractive—a set of criteria the industry has historically rewarded—the theatre industry managed, nonetheless, to hit us where we remained painfully vulnerable: our sense of failed masculinity.
Theatre has continually reinforced a narrow version of masculinity, one that is butch beyond its a priori whiteness and thinness. This messaging is toxic and, at times, has been lethal—a bitter betrayal of the individuals whose queerness built and has maintained the industry since its inception.
Masculinity policing is often at its most damaging in conservatory and training programs, where instructors feel it is their grotesque duty to toughen the skin of fledgling actors. And while it is an ethical impulse to accurately depict the competitiveness and harshness that await these hopefuls, a fine line exists between arming trainees against the confusing forces down the pike and outright abuse.
Charlie, a professional musical-theatre dancer, recalled a particularly jarring moment: “My senior year, my jazz [dance] teacher said [to me], ‘You dance like a girl.’ I was playing Angel [in Rent] and it was confusing, because when you’re twenty-one, you don’t know how to compartmentalize or moderate your faggotry.”
Daniel, a musical-theatre dancer, reiterated the confusing effects of instructors’ misled guidance, pointing out how, in these environments, “You don’t really know which part of your identity you’re being asked to silence unless you’re able to step outside yourself."
Masculinity policing is often at its most damaging in conservatory and training programs, where instructors feel it is their grotesque duty to toughen the skin of fledgling actors.
Category Is: Butch Queen Realness
Artistic visions are a piece of any creative docket, but queer individuals’ performance or embodiment of gender is not some aesthetic choice. It’s part of the spectrum of our lived human reality—a reality not meant to be scrubbed from the record. Various shows from throughout my years in the industry opted out of or campaigned against queer inclusivity.
There was a trend among director-choreographers of La Cage aux Folles in the early 2010s to cast the show with so-called “messy” drag queens—those whose muscles, hirsute limbs, and general (affected) clumsiness were meant to be shtick: a comic self-awareness of gender and the hyper-theatricalized “ridiculousness” of men in dresses and heels.
Charlie mentioned how this preference, among directors of La Cage as well as Kinky Boots, meant the jobs for which he had long waited were suddenly heartbreakingly off-limits: “They want a boy who looks like Adonis who they can dress up in drag and who is able to belt.”
Jim, an actor, seconded Charlie’s sentiment: “They wanted sexy, built, muscular men… ’Cause sex sells. The narrative is that feminine is not sexy.”
My own first professional audition experience found me veritably shaking in my jazz boots when the director-choreographer, mounting an international tour of West Side Story, began actively humiliating male dancers auditioning alongside me. To those of us watching, it was a flare: this was serious business, and it was men’s business. West Side Story, while about boys who dance, required men, and men don’t fuck around, especially if they’re dancing.
This overwrought sense of seriousness would resurface over and over again, as would the clear privileging of butch performers to play the “everyday” townspeople and ensemble members of whatever imaginary place.
Attempts at integrating gay men into productions (when it happens) can scan as transparent and tokenizing, a feeling Harry, an actor, lamented: “They wanna see us on the periphery... It makes them feel woke, and liberal.”
Although more non-musical titles centering on gay men have sprung up in recent years, even the leads of these shows tend toward the un-queer: cisgender, white, and straight-acting. For example, Jim, who appeared in the ensemble of The Inheritance—a play whose principal characters are almost all gay-identified and whose plot revolves around queer friendship and romance—expressed his shock at how inaccessible the production had felt to himself and his fem peers: “There was no consideration of gay men in those lead roles. There were two ‘out’ gay men in the whole primary lead cast.”
Onstage “gayness” is something more akin to the performances of gay-for-pay men who populate the pornography we watch than to any authentic expression of queerness. Many of our gay directors, convinced of the legitimacy of this code—and of their attraction to it—exploited their power to build the world they wanted.
Many of our gay directors, convinced of the legitimacy of this code—and of their attraction to it—exploited their power to build the world they wanted.
Objects of Their Desire
In prioritizing butch dancers and performers, director-choreographers both policed our masculinity and also commoditized our sexual allure. We were objects of artistic lust, cast often because we’d managed to catch a director’s attention or inspire his libido. “It’s not a secret,” said Charlie, “people wanna hire the people they wanna have sex with.”
The strongest capital when it comes to “hotness” and masculinity is undeniable: muscles. One theory about gay men’s obsession with muscularity and conventional fitness holds that this fixation is rooted in the AIDS epidemic. Before treatment advances in the nineties, a telltale sign of late-stage AIDS was a skin-and-bones frailty that betrayed positive individuals’ status and marked them as diseased. To avoid association with this damned sector of the queer populace, hordes of queer men hit the gym in the development of what has been labeled “protest muscularity.”
Jim put it plainly: “There is a generation of predominantly gay, cis, white men [directors and choreographers] in their late forties/early fifties who have not processed their own shame around being gay… And they take it out on the actors who come in for them.”
These gay men—whom my colleagues and I have all encountered—were casualties of the darkness that engulfs so many queer men in the industry. Absent self-awareness and needed conversations, the shadow remains and is expansive enough that those of us involved in the New York theatre industry continue to feel its chill. Until we deliberately address these attitudes and practices, a more light-filled, productive, and inclusive environment doesn’t have a fighting chance.
The privileging of Instagram-worthy fitness has become as much a part of BFA curricula as Stanislavsky Technique. Kevin, a former castmate, recounted how every meeting he ever had with his program head was always, “Get to the gym, start lifting weights.”
Samuel, an expert tapper who has appeared in a suite of Broadway productions, recalled an uncomfortable Legally Blonde/The Producers audition for a well-paid summer-stock season, where a casting associate announced that looking “good” while shirtless was practically mandatory. Samuel also disclosed a troubling interaction in which a renowned tap choreographer had discouraged him from auditioning for a production by saying, “We’re only wanting people… who have more fit bodies.”
About eight years ago, I had my own brush with body (over)-consciousness. Cast as a romantic interest in a production of 9 to 5, the Musical, I was pulled aside early into rehearsals, where the (gay) music director explained that he and the show’s (also gay) director were “worried” about my physical carriage and “pelvic placement.” Confused but amenable, I let this older man instruct me in what he described as the Alexander Technique: a means of “grounding” my body and “preserving” my joints. In addition to floorwork involving “relaxing” my tailbone, the music director had me repeatedly walk across the room, pointing out when my pelvis did and did not look “tilted.” While I knew the purpose of the exercises was to butch me up, my humiliation left me docile and blurrily deferential.
For Charlie, the kind of gender code I’d encountered in that room was literal: “I remember going to an audition for a non-equity tour of Annie. They had left my [audition] card at the table, and it had my notes: ‘big vibrato, v light’... I wondered what ‘light’ meant and then I realized: Oh, it’s an industry term for ‘gay.’”
Our superiors didn’t and don’t just police our “movement quality”—a clever, euphemistic way of referring to our fem-ness. It’s also our voices they surveil, along with the way our “verbal quality” betrays our queerness.
One actor, John, reflected on the fact that he can no longer determine what his “real” or authentic voice is, having modified it so often for self-protection and greater marketability. Another performer, Dan, recounted a stupefying episode in which a summer-stock music director had attempted to de-gay-ify his and fellow college interns’ South Pacific lyric-singing: “He takes the four of us in, sits us down, and talks to us about sibilant S’s. He makes us replace all of the S’s with Z’s: ‘Haz a zoft and wavy frame.’”
Even in New York, one of the queer capitals of the world, opportunities felt limited to us, because our goddess-given bodies couldn’t silence their corporeal lisps. Now, as new productions unveil rounds of auditions and as companies (re)enter rehearsal rooms, such invalidating policing is one important thing we can actively monitor and change.
As a club dominated by men, musical theatre functions in part like a fraternity, one whose gatekeepers employ ritualized hazing by which the uninitiated must prove their commitment and value.
Theatre Frat Row
In the pantheon of professional theatre, the biggest (or most visible) “haves,” of course, are the directors and choreographers themselves. They, along with producers, are the power brokers and decide who gets cut and who gets contracts. As a club dominated by men, musical theatre functions in part like a fraternity, one whose gatekeepers employ ritualized hazing by which the uninitiated must prove their commitment and value.
This analogy tracks when we consider the importance of trauma reproduction to the actor-selection process. For his publication Guyland, sociologist Michael Kimmel spent years investigating the forces behind frat culture. Writing about hazing, Kimmel points out the prevalence of “attribution error”: the tendency of fraternity-associated men to feel they owe their maturing to the humiliation and risk they were subjected to in their college settings.
Many director-choreographers fall victim to the same fallacy, falsely believing the abusive directors under whom they worked decades ago are the source of their own growth. They “owe” it to neophyte actors to provide the same rites of passage—leading to what Ben, an actor, called the industry’s “shared language of pain.” Unwitting or not, director-choreographers exploit a power dynamic, advantaging themselves and leaving insecure would-be members of the men’s ensemble in its wake. Redistributing this power means first having conversations about how we cast and produce theatre, an uncomfortable but rewarding process that would benefit everyone involved in the theatrical process.
Of course, this power differential isn’t exclusive to the dynamic between actor-dancer and director-choreographer, but stands instead at mission control of the entire theatre industry.
Reimagining the Island
In spite of its cycles of abuse, we (well, I) still deeply love theatre. We love the magic it represents, the ability to collaborate toward something that feels like it benefits all of us.
Theatre has also been a place where we queer and colorful kids found—or re-found—each other. But it has also often felt like we were a group of boys suddenly stranded on an island, ill-equipped to govern ourselves and fumbling along as we tried. Unsure of whom to trust, we ultimately worshipped a hog’s head mounted on a stake, convinced that this was God, or at least the best way to protect ourselves against deafening cognitive dissonance about who we were and where we belonged. The ideas and expectations learned in our youth and reinforced in those rehearsal studios… We will be hard-pressed ever to outrun them.
But it appears there are some happy endings for us, the once-marooned queer men. Some of us have escaped the island. Some of us have discovered ways to make the industry work for us, transforming the terrain while sowing new ideas.
Ben, who is about to enter an MFA program in acting, has become involved in coaching, where he is quick to acknowledge and support his queer students in a way he was never able to experience himself. “[One particular student] talks about his struggle with belonging, and a lot of us are challenged with that as effeminate gay men,” he said. “It’s bubbling up for me in a big way [when I] connect that to what happened to us in pursuing the world of musical theatre.”
I, myself, am now a full-time teacher at an all-boys school in the Midwest, acting in productions in my local professional scene when time and circumstances permit. While my career in theatre has lent me confidence and a penchant for improvisation that are beneficial, I continue to be overly aware of the way I embody my masculinity.
It’s no stretch to say we, the islanders, may spend the rest of our days contending with the belief that our performance of manhood is insufficient; we may never fully uproot that psychology. What we can do, however, is cast out that kind of policing for and among those we train, teach, and raise. We can make it better for them and, on some level, for ourselves, too. Those involved in productions, as well, can cultivate an awareness of how gender and masculinity factor into the entire production process—from casting to rehearsing to post-performance note-giving.
Acknowledgement and interrogation of these biases among all parties is a first—but not impossible—step. We must ask ourselves and each other why, in earnest, this or that “type” receives preferential treatment, be it expressed along lines of butchness, fitness, or whiteness. Through such collective consciousness, we can identify the issue and renovate the greater theatrical space. As we look forward, we can all try our best to keep the promise we believe theatre made to us and broke.