The future of queer performance; should it be aiming to embrace its otherness or assimilate in to the mainstream?

The thoughts that I take in to this week of placement, which will be spent assisting on Walking:Holding in Brighton, naturally provide a frame for this week. I attended a talk as part of Glasgay, titled ‘What’s next for queer performance?’ and found that I had a strong response to lots of the things raised by the speakers and audience members. This article is in response to something said by Steven Thompson, producer of Glasgay. Questions had been asked around definitions of queer and queer performance, who it’s for and who it should be made/performed by, generally with the consensus that queer art should be aimed at and made by both those who identify as queer and those who don’t alike. Yet, when Thompson was asked about what he thought the role of Glasgay was in the mainstream, in comparison to an event such as Arika at Tramway, I was shocked in his reaction and my guttural response to it. He implied he saw little value in performance art that seemingly indulged in nonsensical actions, and would rather watch a play where there were characters and themes he could recognise in his own life, where audience members could see how normal LGBT people were, and that was what Glasgay was about. Although I am aware I am paraphrasing, I wish to explore all the ways in which I find this statement problematic in relation to the future of queer performance.

 Firstly, I agreed firmly with panellists Stef Smith and John Binnie in their beliefs that presenting the ordinary or mundane in the lives of LGBT’s can be radical. They have both attempted to stay away from writing archetypical gay characters in their plays, that is to say portraying LGBT characters with mental health issues (a trope known as the 'tragic gay'). Not only is portraying characters who identify as LGBT already going against societal norms, but it allows those who identify as LGBT/Queer in the audience to cherish the sight of actual representation and reflection of their lives. As for those who may have more conventional views or lifestyles, seeing Queer/LGBT people perform day-to-day actions, live and love as they do allows them to see the ‘sameness’. Here, the personal is political.

How ever, where performance art differs from traditional theatre is that it allows the representation of difference or struggle without the illusion that the work is speaking for a homogenous group. This is mainly as this type of work is autobiographical, and is performed by individual(s) speaking as themselves, not characters. So, although presenting ‘everyday’ queers lives is radical, I take issue with anyone who wants to only present the smooth day-today, omitting any struggle that people who do not conform to heterosexuality face. Is there a risk that in representing the ordinary, and rejecting the trope/cliché/stereotype of ‘the tragic gay’ character, we forget to represent the everyday struggle, that is still very much a part of being queer despite many perceived improvements in equality. Is there a way to use mundane or everyday life to show the small things that effect queer life in big ways?

I understand the desire to move away from the ‘tragic gay’ character, which is where I feel performance art comes in and why I feel disheartened at Steven Thompson's narrow view of what it can achieve. Perceiving all theatre to either fall in to the category of a) alienating high performance art or b) plays with relatable characters not only works within a binary, but is simply not true. I have seen plenty of plays with stereotypical characters that bear no resemblance to my life, and plenty of performance art where I feel connected to the performer’s life experiences, and vice versa.

Secondly, I worry about Thompson’s definition of and inability to embrace ‘queer’. His affirmation that Glasgay is all about showing how ‘normal’ LGBT people are goes against all queerness stands for. By showing we’re ‘normal’ and rejecting the abnormal don’t we invite those outside of the Other to reject this also? Then where’s the space for those who do want to embrace otherness? What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Furthermore, when one looks at the definition of queer, it is about quite the opposite:

Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant - Halperin

Not only is it harmful to try and represent LGBTs as ‘normal’ but it isn’t possible. As Butler says, you are already placed outside of the binary by not conforming to heterosexuality, by having same-sex partners we already perform differently from what is expected of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Don’t we as queer artists want to work outside of binaries? Isn’t that what queer art is? If we just adhere to societal norms don’t we just perpetuate stereotypes and the labels that confine us? It seems Thompson is only concerned with the type of otherness that is acceptable, people are more likely to accept otherness if they can put a label on it – be that ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘transgender’. ‘Queer’ is in its nature fluid, and works outside of the systems to which all the above labels are a part of.

Finally then, if we see the word queer as having multiple voices, working outside of a binary, and seeing definition to one fixed thing as reductive, then actually Glasgay is not a queer festival.

The point of queer art, in fact art in general, is not to push people to conform or ‘fit’ but to explode ideas and ways of thinking. The sooner audiences and performers alike begin to see that when we let go of the need to be ‘normal’, the sooner they see no-one really fits in to these norms anyway. They’re all social constructs, we should be freeing ourselves from needing to live within the confines of 'normal' in a patriarchal, heteronormative, western society.

Glasgay seeks to show the everyday LGBT person, in traditional theatrical form, that’s not to say it’s not radical or effective, but it is not showing a spectrum of work by a variety of people in a variety of different genres/art forms. Furthermore its’ producer sees no reason to develop this, it seems by leaving out alternative theatre forms in Glasgay, its programmers can avoid being seen as ‘Other’, despite the topic of the talk. Live art and performance art inherently embrace otherness, as they work outside of theatrical conventions. Perhaps some queer art deliberately seeks to set itself apart, and therefore automatically alienates non-queer identifying audiences, or even LGBT people who don’t identify as queer. But as Walking:Holding shows, this does not have to be the case. The work very simply asks its audience to engage with the person, not the label, whilst its taking place in a city allows it to be visible and for the audience to not only see but experience for themselves how hostile some environments can be for queer people.

Personally, I feel the wrong people were discussing the question of ‘What’s next for queer performance?’ Although I do believe queer art can be accessible to those who do not identify as queer, I think it has to be made by those who at least believe in the word. I’m interested in a future where queer performance is about embracing fluidity, between art forms and ideas, between the gender binary which effects queer life so deeply – I’m not interested in a future that continues to divides a community that’s meant to be united, because it’s too scared to let go of the need to cling to a clearly defined, fixed labels.