Queer Dramaturgies for Queer Communities: Why we need theatre
As Hamlet lays dying towards the end of his play, he says to Horatio:
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
His story obviously is being told, and has been told for hundreds of years now. We remember him; a poignant act given that this play was written after the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. When I see or hear these lines, I feel his desperation for being remembered. Without heirs, there is no one else to carry his legacy, so it must survive in the story. When I worked with Teater Dictat to create a queer adaptation of Hamlet, we often thought about these last lines and how they encapsulate a queer experience. Traditionally, many queer people don’t have children, and during the AIDS epidemic, many gay men were taken at too tragically a young age. Still to this day, we constantly see young queer people dying at the hands of conservative regimes, others’ hate, or by their own desperation and isolation. So in our queer community, the only way our lives are marked is through story and memory. Queer people have been fighting a long time to get the space to tell our stories, and to pass down our memories to the next generation. Theatre has been a great tool for this.
Queer communities should seek out stories in the theatre to remember or be remembered, as a way of knowing, a way of understanding ourselves and others around us, and making sense of the world. Heritage and memory live within theatres, not just museums. Our lives are in constant motion, in a constant state of evolution that our memories deserve not to be preserved as static objects but as living spirits whose affect and impact derive from their impermanence. The impermanence we also find with theatre.
Playwrights, devising ensembles, choreographers and lyricists give us a glimpse into their world and how they see things that are happening around them. They might look to the past to figure out why we ended up where we did, or perhaps they turn to the future to prophesy where we will go if we continue down a particular road. Maybe they uncover things that are happening now but are not being talked about or seen by the majority. Ultimately, they make stories that speak to their social setting, forming another thread of our collective heritage. And this is important as it marks our lives and our worlds, forging the stories that will carry us on through generations, letting our transient experiences be remembered.
As queer culture becomes more globalised, and we all become pawns in culture wars, we are at risk of losing integral localised identities and experiences. Nations tend to focus on their capital city as the place that builds culture and defines what the country is, and so smaller cities and towns end up in dissonance with this idea, wondering where they fit into the national narrative. Often queer stories reflect this by taking the “black sheep” queer figure from their small narrow minded village or town, and having them venture into the glamorous city where we’re made to believe that queerness exists only “there” and not “here”.
In these moments we should be able to turn to our local theatre. It is not that the local theatre focuses only on our direct stories, but it balances them with stories from elsewhere, with different perspectives. This allows us to constantly redesign what our local looks like, and what kind of community we want to be. It also inspires our community members to reflect about what they want to write, and it hopefully encourages them to find sanctuary for their art in the theatre’s walls. If a theatre can do that, then queer artists might stay, rather than venturing off to the capital city or another country to pursue their dreams. When they stay, the community is resilient. Artistic resilience is the commitment to making our stories heard and visible; not allowing our little pocket of the world to be forgotten or disappeared
A community’s theatre will also be changing to capture new memories and remember alternative ways of living. It is ever evolving because a community is never just one static thing. Communities are made up of a collection of different kinds of people. These people should have equal access to cultural memory through the theatre, and as such the theatre needs to be made up of a collection of different kinds of stories. As theatre makers, we are carriers of memories and so we must always be sure to listen to the stories as carefully as possible to ensure that we remember and our communities are remembered. And that is why a community needs a theatre. To know themselves, to share themselves. To remember and be remembered.