On a warm sunny day in Brisbane (remember those?) a panel was assembled on the Turbine Platform at the Powerhouse to discuss the existence of a queer aesthetic.
At the thought of such a conversation, I initially rolled my eyes; was this really something we needed to talk about? It turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable chat with a group of artists who all, in their own way, agreed that we have entered an age where the GLBT community are negotiating the return of the ‘queer’ identity to whom it was borrowed from – a wider community of misfits – and are redefining (or do they define at all) what space they now play in.
Moderator (journalist) Nathanael Cooper opens the discussion by asking; ‘Is there a gay and lesbian theatre movement?’ Moira Finucane (The Burlesque Hour, Finucane & Smith) with an affirmative reference to the plain definition of a movement as a collective of people who do something, reflects the question back to the definition of the word queer and queer theatre. The core of the queer aesthetic is not about being queer. Tim Spencer (Show Me Yours, I’ll Show You Mine) also questions the meaning of ‘theatre’; is queer theatre about form, content, the creator or all of the above?
Beneath the streets of the nineties, simmered an underground performing art community where Moira began her work in the burgeoning burlesque scene and as a female performer of sexualised content; the queer scene, she explains was a place where performers could be safe from objectification. She talks about ‘the gaze’ and the idea of queer as being other than the dominant gaze. The gaze in the underground clubs was not definable, it wasn’t clear who was gay, who performed for men or women or both or who was even watching. The unconscious agreement however was that those in attendance were or respected ‘queer’ and the performers were free to explore and push the boundaries without fear of vilification.
Zvonimir Dobrovic (Artistic Direct of Queer Zagreb) worries that the word queer is still only read with the meaning of gender and/or feminism. He saw what he considers to be queer art (particularly performance artists such as Stelarc whose work focuses on extending the capabilities of the human body) being showcased in Croatia without any reference to the word Queer at all. In 2003 Dobrovic started Queer Zagreb in order to switch the balance of power – he discussed the idea of something being queer because it is in a festival that says it is rather than it being queer because of some definitive form and the idea of queer is absolutely influenced by geography. Anybody can see a gay story is queer, he reasons, but something that is queer in Eastern Europe can be defined completely differently in Iran. He gave an example of a Brazilian choreographer who wanted to challenge the understanding of choreography so she was buried completely under sand before she danced. In Eastern Europe this is considered queer but other countries may consider it just an installation work. He also referenced a Croatian designer (in response to a point made by playwright Lachlan Philpott about HIV all but disappearing from the theatre just as it has disappeared from the conscious of young gay men in the post-condom era) who created an ‘infected’ clothing range by introducing a computer virus to the manufacturing process. This was a comment on gay lifestyle but it moved beyond the normal storytelling of the HIV virus.
Writer / director Amy Conroy, in town for the World Theatre Festival with her play I Heart Alice Heart I was immediately uncomfortable with the label queer theatre explaining that she doesn’t see her work as queer per se but allows others to interpret it as queer if they wish to. I Heart Alice Heart I is a love story and a personal love story at that, but also a story that touches people across the gender and identity divide. She makes the point that there is a redundant crossover between the meaning of gay and queer and that there are many examples of gay art that isn’t queer in a sense of being liberated or outside of the norm. There is gay and lesbian theatre that is remarkably conservative and small-minded and far from qualifying as truly queer theatre.
Lachlan wades in and suggests that gay and lesbian theatre has become very conservative and that we still shy away from theatre that has queer dramaturgy and this may be because writers don’t want to be stuck telling the same story over and over again or that the expectation of gay audiences can be disappointing and limiting. Lachlan refers particularly to one of his shows where with-in five minutes an audience member had shouted out “show us your cock”. ‘You get pretty tired of that expectation’ he shares. Lachlan points out that the reason why people go to see theatre is because they want to see something of themselves on stage and the reason he became a theatre maker was to challenge the stereotypical representations of gay men as shallow and patronising. He believes that gay and lesbian theatre offerings are generally not challenging anyone to look at themselves.
Moira shared that she used to queer identify her work for political reasons but now she doesn’t identify it for the same political reasons. Queer means to deviate from the norm and in terms of a responsibility to identify work as queer; this would be more like a ‘gorilla strategy’ and may repel potential audiences where she prefers to seduce a broader audience toward her. Moira calls her variety show The Burlesque hour a revolution in a chocolate box. ‘It’s a show about human rights dressed up as a hot night out’. Her audiences are the people she wants to see the show and are not likely to go along and see a ‘transgender performance art feminist exploration of human rights’. Moira defends all work as political, even if it doesn’t know it.
Perhaps we could say that where queer and gay and lesbian theatre once looked intensely inward, it now looks unabashedly out at new horizons which may mean a split between queer and gay and even with-in the gay and lesbian theatre community, liberating itself from a queer pigeon-hole that at once protected it but also tethered it.
Amy ties the discussion back to an earlier point about making theatre that you want to make rather than what is expected and Moira’s tactic of seducing an audience strikes a chord. Amy suggests that when seduced, audiences are being drawn to something that they see as different but once there, they have a realisation that it is actually something that is the same; they see the humanity of it.
The forum Does a Queer Aesthetic Exist? was held on 23 February as part of the In Conversation series at the World Theatre Festival – Brisbane Powerhouse.
The mediator, was Nathanael Cooper and the list of panellists were as follows:
1. Amy Conroy
2. Moira Finucane
3. Lachlan Philpott