On the Normalization of Queer-themed Theatre

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As a maker of plays about queer things, I’ve grown increasingly mistrustful of the trend toward homonormativity and sexual assimilation, a trend initiated by the gradual disremembrance of AIDS, and hastened further by the highly politicized pursuit of marriage equality.

While the latter should certainly be celebrated as beneficial to those who seek its protections, the exaltation of traditionally heteronormative institutions is unsettling. These institutions are not wrong, but they seem to have propelled us with greater force down the potentially amnesic path that the writer Sarah Schulmanominously refers to as the gentrification of the mind. The erasure of identity, and its replacement by something more acceptably jejune, or in the case of queer theatre, more commercially palatable and “straight-acting.”

As a group that has always embraced eccentricity as a touchstone of our own cultural identity and as a tool of communal protection, are we somehow becoming less queer as we find greater freedoms?   

Perhaps my legs wobble while adjusting to the normal stride that abruptly comes when deboarding the accelerated moving sidewalk that was this decade’s breakneck rate of progress. Yet, I still steep deeply in paranoia and yet-to-be validated fear that queer and outsider art may sadly normalize, slowly folding in on itself through a process of homogenization, and that thing called equality serving as unintentional catalyst in the process of our cultural repurposing. I worry that the most celebrated and queerest things about us may become increasingly muted in our lives, and in our artistic work.

Each time I witness whitewashed, queer characters existing in domesticity, happily joining the collective by experiencing conflict within heterosexually derived plotlines, my paranoia grows more unwieldy. As a group that has always embraced eccentricity as a touchstone of our own cultural identity and as a tool of communal protection, are we somehow becoming less queer as we find greater freedoms? Will the vibrancy of our queer-occupied theatre fade as we inevitably normalize? This dilemma significantly concerns and affects my work as a gay and divergently progressive playwright.

Progressive Theatre Workshop's God Hates This Show by John J. Caswell, Jr. at HERE, 2013. Photo by John Keon.

From 2011-2014, I worked on a piece that I wrote and directed called God Hates This Show: Shirley Phelps-Roper in Concert, Live from Hell, which depicts the infamous Westboro Baptist Church as deceased and banished to the underworld, forced to perform a cabaret act for the rest of eternity to a room full of heathens. I became desensitized to the shocking nature of the play and its frequent derogatory use of the word “fag”. For me, the piece became a celebratory evening of laughter at the audacity and repugnancy of a seemingly deranged group of homophobic bigots.

While many types of people came and “enjoyed” the event, God Hates This Show was made by and for queer people as a cathartic declawing ceremony, and to celebrate the parts we love about ourselves that perhaps WBC and others might view as disgusting and indicative of our subhuman status. It was clearly a piece of queer-scream theatre if ever there was one, its content decidedly unsalable on a commercial level. Curiously, it garnered interest after its initial run at HERE, and after a concert version was presented at Joe’s Pub. I was approached by a producer that offered advice about how to make this show work. It involved converting it into a two-act musical, hiring a book writer, creating a linear storyline, writing original music (which totally defeated the purpose of using Westboro’s own parody recordings), and focusing on the main character’s life before she went to Hell. I was to call her when I’d made progress. Long story short, I didn’t rewrite my play, and it is never going to win a Tony Award.

Progressive Theatre Workshop's God Hates This Show by John J. Caswell, Jr. at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater, 2014. Photo by John Keon.

Although limited by resources, I’m fortunate that I have a company with which to create and produce my work as I see fit. It seems that fiscal autonomy is something to strive for when creating queer experimental work that exists beyond commercial theatre’s demarcation point. But will there be enough of us doing the same thing in the face of an increased presentation of material featuring post-marriage equality queer characters in roles and situations that at best bring visibility, and at worst continue to encourage deindividuation and loss of community?

I fear a well-meaning queer theatrical canon that culturally normalizes a group that may never have wanted to be “normal” to begin with. I don’t understand how a battle for equal rights under law devolved into an unintentional shift toward behavioral sameness in our artistic representations and daily lives. How we see ourselves reflected in our culture shapes the future makeup of our identity. These things impact our art forms, and our art forms change who we are as a group of people, for better or worse. We should be careful. We should be queer.

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