In February, I had the pleasure of performing in Tinsel Town Bartleby: A Collection of Desperate Monologues at the Hart House Drama Festival. The show was written and directed by Emily Powers, a third-year English Literature student with a background in creative writing, especially in poetry.
Not only was this my first time in a U of T production, but it was also my first time portraying a queer character on stage. My background in the dramatic arts is slam poetry, so imagine my delight upon reading the character description for Maria Vasquez, the character I would later be chosen to portray.
“POC Lesbian. Would be damn good at slam poetry. Has a lot of gay guy friends because of that one time she quoted RuPaul.”
I ticked the boxes, fulfilled the categories, fit the criteria. I distinctly remember ringing my mum and squealing on the phone because it was such a shock that a writer actually wanted queer representation in their play.
Ultimately, theatre is a collection of worlds. There are the flamboyant, glittery musicals, the hard-hitting on- and off-Broadway/West End productions, cabaret, fringe festivals, and of course Shakespeare.
However, a new world is emerging: queer theatre. Queer theatre is another term for the gay theatre movement, which embraces the role of the gay community within all the other worlds of theatre.
Unlike Hollywood, theatre always reflects the social conditions of the political and cultural climate. Queer theatre would not have been celebrated during the Elizabethan era, for instance — ironic, considering all the actors were technically in drag.
Powers’ writing in Tinsel Town Bartleby is laden with a vast amount of personal experience and emotion, which resulted in her skillfully targeting the problematic behaviour of the queer community, as opposed to that of its individual members. My character’s monologue focused on the cisnormative and white members of the queer community.
Maria’s slam poem was a raw and humbling piece to perform. I was able to relate to many of the themes regarding female sexuality, vulnerability, and the unwanted ‘male gaze’ from both gay and straight men. It was such a gratifying experience to be able to portray a queer character on a safe stage and to have been given the opportunity to deliver a narrative that truly needs to be heard.
Theatre is a transformative tool, and with Tinsel Town Bartleby, Powers recognized her platform as a playwright to influence positive change, provoke thought, and suspend our realities. In her character descriptions, Powers specified that Maria and another character, Taylor Marsh, both fell under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
I asked Powers if there was any significance behind the casting and character descriptions. “It was important for me to show queer visibility both in the characters and the actors,” she said. “My priority was casting queer people and people of colour, because visibility in theatre and art in general is so important.”
In Tinsel Town Bartleby, Taylor Marsh was portrayed by Justin Park, a fourth-year Computer Science and English Literature major, who told me he was “uncomfortable with [playing] Taylor at first, as I didn’t want to take a role away from a non-binary actor.”
Park said he “tends to be fairly critical of white washing and the like in mainstream media.” He feels that it is important for queer characters to be visible in theatre, but he also acknowledges that representation should be inclusive of other intersectional discourses, including gender.
While theatre has traditionally evolved alongside society, Hollywood is only just beginning to become more inclusive of women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community. Through television, and to a small extent, film, the industry is now producing content that passes the racial Bechdel Test and its self-decreed ‘diversity quota.’
However, in their rush to respond to — and profit from — the current ‘politically correct’ climate, Hollywood has also been casting actors in roles that do not ‘belong’ to them. Traditionally, there has been less stigma attached to straight actors playing queer roles in theatre, as opposed to vice versa, but recently there has been a vast amount of backlash surrounding actors who appropriate identities and cultures.
There was an uproar surrounding Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of Maura Pfeifferman, a transgender woman, in the Amazon Prime show Transparent, and similar issues surrounded the films The Danish Girl and The Imitation Game, with lead actors Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch accused of preventing members of the LGBTQ+ community from portraying their own stories on screen.
Fortunately, now in 2018, there is finally a space for theatre that celebrates queer actors, comments on public pressures regarding sexuality, and makes the personal political.