There’s still a distinct lack of queer stories on stage and the ones we’re seeing tend to rely on cliches and stereotypes, such as trauma, violence and more violence. Will it change? How will it change? Jennifer Cerys is hopeful but thinks there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
When theatres went dark back in March, I was one of the many artists who found themselves figuring out how to make work for an industry that was no longer there. Though many of the conversations I’ve had with other artists – particularly Queer artists – have been about missing theatre, even more has focussed on how the industry didn’t work for us in the first place. As a Queer artist, the stories of my community have been ignored, tokenised, and fetishized. Now, as theatres slowly start to come back, I hope it can be rebuilt in a way that serves many more of us.
I co-run Lemon House Theatre with Samia Djilli and, as part of our current audio project, Lemon Lounge, I got to interview several Queer artists about their experiences in the industry. Something that consistently came up was the idea of conformity and specifically, how there is a very fixed idea of what a queer play should be, and that artists should stick to this pre-decided criterion when making work. In the Lemon Lounge episode with directors Hannah Hauer-King and Sita Thomas, we spoke about queer trauma and how queer theatre often focuses on coming out, AIDS, and death. These are all important topics to explore, but where are the stories of queer joy on mainstage spaces? Where are the stories where a character’s sexuality is also incidental to the story, rather than the focus? Ultimately, if you’re a Queer artist entering the industry, it feels like you must exploit your own trauma to have your play on stage.
This idea of conformity extends even to the form of work you’re making and the space you’re making it for. We’re told to aim for main stage spaces, as that’s where successful artists go, but, for a lot of Queer artists, spaces such as these, which tend to house more traditional plays, don’t work for them. This is something producers Daisy Hale and Salome Wagaine mention in our third Lemon Lounge episode. Going into a space that may be bigger and more well-known, and therefore seen as more ‘successful’, can actually set you back as a Queer artist. It can feel tiresome to be at a venue that doesn’t work with people like you often, so you’re having to justify aspects of a character’s sexuality, or requesting that ushers not say, “welcome ladies and gentlemen”, or asking a venue to change their toilets to gender neutral ones (which larger venues are often more hesitant to take note of).
Venues such as The Yard Theatre, Camden People’s Theatre and The Bunker Theatre (before it closed), give Queer artists a lot more freedom to tell their story how they want to, rather than the story a heteronormative audience wants to see. They offer artists more experimentation with their performance style, instead of encouraging them to stick to ‘traditional’ theatre. But smaller venues need better funding, artists need to redefine how they see success, and audiences need to look beyond traditional theatre. When I first moved to London, I went to the biggest venues I had heard about as I associated capacity with quality. But, actually, the best shows I’ve seen have been performances in pub basements and community-led spaces. Venues where artists haven’t had to make themselves ‘palatable’, but have been respected and given creative freedom. So, in terms of moving forward? This is a question for funders, artists, and audiences.
Though Queer artists shouldn’t see big stages as the pinnacle of success, and instead find venues that better suit them, that doesn’t mean these main stages shouldn’t also be working to make Queer artists feel more comfortable. There are so many of us to commission, yet one Queer-focused play a season is often seen as ‘enough’ at more mainstream venues… How can you tell a multitude of queer experience with one play? In her podcast episode, Hauer-King pointed out that this play is often about the gay, cis, white, male experience and, again, is often about trauma.
Though I’ve started to see more plays about lesbian, bisexual, and trans experiences, and how queerness intersects with other identities including race, disability, and class, I’m nervous that theatres are going to play it safe when they return. That they’ll rely on productions that are already well known, with famous actors, to ensure audiences come through the door. But, we’re in a really unique, exciting time: we’re starting again with the theatre industry. Surely now should be the time for risk and to ask how we can do it better? We need to show that there is more than one story out there, and more than one way of telling it.
Supporting queer artists isn’t just in the programming, it comes much earlier than that. Last year, I wrote the show Willow, which ran at The Bunker Theatre, and it was the first time I worked with an all-queer team. Not having to explain myself to other artists in the room felt incredible – I didn’t have to discuss with straight actors what it “feels like” to be queer, or how to “act” queer. That’s why we need more queer representation both on and off stages. Even as an audience member, I’d feel great knowing there’s more than one queer play in a theatre’s programme and I’d feel even better knowing there’s queer people on the team. As part of Lemon Lounge, I chatted to actors Jennifer Dixon and Sophia O’Donohue, who starred in Willow, and performer Teddy Lamb. We all spoke about the sigh of relief when you walk into a room that has other Queer people in and the feeling of just being able to breath a bit easier. Having Queer people in an artistic team also means that Queer audiences, as well as artists, aren’t just an afterthought. It’s not just about getting them in the door, but how they’re treated once they’re in the door.
I’m definitely not the only artist itching to get back into theatre and to start staging work again. But the value I’m placing on both myself as a Queer artist and the work I make feels very different to what it was like at the beginning of this year. We should expect more than one queer play per season, and it shouldn’t be the same story told over and over again. We deserve stories of queer joy on main stage spaces, as well as investment in smaller venues that are already supporting queer artists, so that they can work with even more artists and audiences. Finally, Queer representation needs to happen off the stage, so that artists have a surrounding community that values them, and lets them tell their story authentically, rather than the story they’re expected to tell.