The Queer Theatre We Need Now
“I feel kind of abused, tbh.”
That was a message I received this fall from one of my Queer Theater and Film students in response to having read a number of early- and mid-twentieth-century LGBTQ-themed plays, including Robert Patrick’s The Haunted Host and Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, and after viewing the film documentary Celluloid Closet. We had spent the first part of the semester covering historic representations of queer life, which involved a persistent drumbeat of suffering: suicide, alcoholism, abuse, persecution, and loss.
As another student said in a class discussion, “I understand why we need to see this history and that it’s important, but I would kill for some joy, too.”
A classmate chimed in, “It would be nice for there to be queer characters who did something else, if you know what I mean.” I did know: these plays focused heavily on reactions to queerness—hiding it, proclaiming it, defending it, or being abused because of it. The students wanted to see less reaction and more action—queer characters going about the rest of their lives, having adventures, falling in love, and defeating obstacles beyond ones relating to sexuality. Because I am a working playwright who most often foregrounds queer characters, I know that those stories can be told, and I was eager to help them find work like that.
One reason these two works landed so well with students was that queerness was the baseline.
When I moved the class structure away from chronology and into a more thematic approach, things improved. Discussing queer communities, via the pairing of the play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers and the film Fire Island, yielded a lot of excitement. Many of the students simply hadn’t seen a play with all queer women characters, much less a play with so many who were different from each other in personality. As for Fire Island, seeing an Asian-led, queer film with a heavily Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) cast was a revelation of its own.
One reason these two works landed so well with students was that queerness was the baseline, the ground the plots stand on, but not the only plot. The gayness is key to both narratives, but the dilemmas are about relationship and personality. Like many of the early readings, Bluefish Cove involves loss; but that loss is not related to being lesbian, and the ending is hopeful and warm. Fire Island contains no real trauma at all, and any rejection is based on class, not orientation.
Both contain as much queer joy as queer pain. And as one of my students puts it, “Queer joy is queer empowerment.” Art with room for our whole lives can be incredibly nourishing.
Wholeness can come from having queer people touching all aspects of a production’s life. Often, if only the writer is LGBTQ, you can tell; the roundest, richest queer plays I have seen have had more queer hands on deck, including queer dramaturgs, designers, directors, or producers. When more of the community is in the room where it happens, the yield is likely to be truer.
Beyond these depictions of the fullness of life for queer characters onstage, we need to see a much wider range of characters, period. Many in the queer community reinforce the gender binary just as hard as their peers in the straight world, and that is evident in what theatre gets produced. Yes, 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. They want to see trans, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming characters onstage. They want to see bisexual and pansexual characters, characters who transcend the alloromantic model entirely, and those whose romantic and sexual practices may not align with any single identity.
And they don’t want those characters to all be white. If you define a queer play as one by an out author with significant LGBTQ characters, perhaps the three most impactful queer plays of the last thirty years are Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, and Paula Vogel’s Indecent; all are serious additions to the theatrical canon and, on a personal level, moved me deeply. Even so, there’s no escaping the fact that among their dozens of roles they offer a single role explicitly for a non-white actor. (And we can talk all day about how Belize functions.)
When more of the community is in the room where it happens, the yield is likely to be truer.
Broadening content and presenting a wider array of characters are not the only ways we can expand our vision. One subject of debate in my class has been what it is that actually makes art queer. One general definition of queer would be that it is that which subverts, is positioned outside of, or acts in opposition to the dominant structure. I think that should apply to other modes of expression—especially structure and voice—as well.
Plays that count as queer in those regards are not yet dominating the landscape. Theatres (regional theatres especially) seemingly prefer a linear play written for a unit set and featuring two to six people who reveal secrets (often staying in the room much longer than they ever would in real life). Tonally, these plays tend to hew to standard expectations for drama and comedy, with ample room for dramedy that ends in a laugh/cry. This kind of work may feel most comfortable for audiences because they come to the theatres knowing what to expect, and producers are quick to tell you that comfort sells. But there is a need—and a hunger—for more plays that take risky, inventive approaches to structure and tone alike.
Playwright Jonathan Alexandratos, in their American Theatre essay “What is a Non-Binary Play,” answered the title question, in part, by identifying “oscillations in tone and time.” Their essay identifies the way plays by enby (and trans) artists often reject tonal consistency in favor of theatricality, yielding a conscious mash-up of eras, emotions, and images.
Over years on both sides of the submission process (as playwright and adjudicator alike), I have seen how often such plays meet resistance from literary managers or producers who want them to conform more neatly to genre. I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve heard artistic staff ask, “Is this supposed to be a comedy or a drama?” What is that but one more limiting binary?
Writers making truly queer work should be able to claim as much space as those who write the kind of work that has long been deemed most amenable to producers.
Granted, there have always been plays that are queer in this regard, but they typically have not had the same access to audiences as more traditional work (and vice versa). For every production of Robert O’Hara’s genre-defying Booty Candy, there have been literally dozens more of A Doll’s House Pt. 2. This imbalance calls to mind Alexandros’s claim that non-binary plays reveal how “space exists to be claimed by those who have none, rather than assigned by or to those who have plenty.” Writers making truly queer work should be able to claim as much space as those who write the kind of work that has long been deemed most amenable to producers.
The scarcity model, which is the belief that there is only enough stage for the safest, most commercial work, too often starves theatres and audiences alike. It makes space for some kinds of queer work—the most well-behaved pieces, if you will—without moving the dial too much. I say that as a playwright who has experienced both sides of that equation. My easiest-to-pigeonhole plays have received multiple productions, and my weirder stuff is often confined to the reading circuit.
Many of the artists making truly queer theatre today are seizing their own space, self-producing, or banding together to lift each other’s work up. When playwright M Sloth Levine produces work, they collaborate with other queer artists on and off stage, queering the entire process and production—something many institutional theatres never think to do even when they present work by LGBTQ writers or about LGBTQ life. Levine is the kind of playwright whose plays include descriptions like this: “A penny dreadful epic in the Ridiculous tradition exploring queer shame, gender dysphoria, mental illness, cannibalism, loneliness, folk religion, oral sex, the rise of cinema over vaudeville, werewolves, biology, masculinity, femininity, exhaustion, confetti cake, chiastic failure, literacy, memory, and death.” This may not make them catnip for Broadway, but it’s paving the way for a world in which Broadway fare matters less and queer art matters more.
If I could wave a magic wand (naturally, it would be a bent one), queer theatre would become so deeply embedded in theatre programming that all audiences would come to expect it—no, to love it so much that they demand it. I dream of a future in which every theatre season is queer, featuring an array of round characters, spanning the wide spectrum of orientations and gender identities, their stories told in modes unfettered by past expectations of genre and tone and structure.
For now, new work that fits that same description is being written by a thrilling crop of young artists like Micah Rose, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, Alicia Margarita Olivo, and Connor Wentworth. It’s time for producers to make sure we see them.