A Different Invitation
Queer Performance on the Road
I’m headed out on the road in August, leaving my current home in Brooklyn behind. Not for too long, about four weeks, but hopefully for long enough to listen.
Why would I ever need to leave? Everything is here?
Part of the mythos around major metropolitan areas like New York City and the Bay Area in California is that they are the center of the universe—particularly for artists, queer people, and others who may feel isolated elsewhere. We seemingly have access to more culture and people in New York than we would almost anywhere else. But of course it’s never that simple.
The thing that’s pulling me away from the city is a play and the project that grew out of it. The play, titled Unknown, was inspired by the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, and follows women spanning four generations who interact in and around a fictional version of the Archives. I’ll be traveling to a variety of spaces across the U.S. and one in Canada, where lesbians and queer women gather to do readings of the play. In addition, I’ll be working with a small crew in order to make a documentary film as we go, focused on those spaces—spaces that have often existed at the margins, but today seem particularly rare for a whole host of possible reasons that I’d like to explore. We want to talk to the people who spend their time in those spaces, to hear their stories, to try to understand what value those spaces have, and why some are struggling while others are able to carry forward.
I’m hardly the first queer performance person to leave town for a time. There’s a long and varied history of people who, when they were able, and sometimes when they weren’t, have taken to the road to share their work, to hone their craft, in some cases to eke out a living, and to be with people far from home or who represent a different home.
Because my project involves asking others to share their experiences and stories, I wanted to spend some time here sharing thoughts from some other queer people who have gone on the road for some or much of their work.
In what can only be described as real life for traveling queer performers, one of the people I hoped to speak with for this piece, D’Lo, was up in Toronto and in the midst of a demanding show when I reached out on a very tight deadline, and so we weren’t able to connect beyond a few brief emails. Combining theater with stand-up comedy and a long-time practice of leading writing workshops with South Asian and Immigrant Queer organizations, D’Lo has traveled extensively in North America, as well as Sri Lanka, India, and parts of Europe, to share his work.
I was sad not to get to chat with D’Lo this time, as his travels, for me, bring together long-standing movements of queer performers across small and large stages in North America, with a similarly long history of theater artists working within communities to help others generate work of their own. But it seemed all too fitting that he was in the midst of working when I reached out. Many queer performers I’ve met who regularly travel with their work do so on incredibly dense and demanding schedules that leave little room for much else.
I did, however, manage to connect with a couple of other people who bring their work on the road and are influenced by that process: playwright Kyla Searle, as well as Damien Luxe and Heather ács, co-producers of the Heels on Wheels Roadshow.
“One person I interviewed spoke about not having enough language to describe themselves, and that became the truer statement about the play.” This from Kyla Searle, describing her play Fall (In Love and War), which grew out of a lengthy trip she took to interview, in her words, “same- and multi-gender loving people” around the country, most of whom were female-identified at the time she interviewed them.
When she first began her trip, she told people she was working on “an interview-based project that looks at the intersections of race, education, geography, gender, religion, family, and love.” But as seems to happen on journeys and in periods of intense listening, the project morphed in certain ways as she continued. The play that grew out of the trip focuses more specifically on same- and multi-gender loving people who became involved in the military. It’s clear from talking to her, though, that she was heavily influenced by much more than that specific topic.
“I was 21 when I started this project and I was coming from a very specific place as a gay artist, as a queer person. I grew up in California, in the Bay Area, my whole life,” Searle told me. Aside from short trips outside of the state and some time spent living in L.A., she hadn’t been much outside of California. In her early 20s, Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment put to popular vote that banned same sex marriage in California for a time, was dominating discussions of LGBTQ individuals. “People were saying ‘the gay community wants same sex marriage’ and I was like, really? ‘Gay community,’ is that a thing?” said Searle. “I ultimately concluded that there isn’t really one, there are many. So again, language breaks down.”
After starting her project with phone interviews, Searle quickly began to understand she was missing something by not being present with her interviewees as they spoke:
It was really important for me to get a sense of people in their own homes, in the place where they lived, and to really get away from the same sex marriage thing that was happening in California. ... I was excited because it pushed me out of California and into conversations many people were having about the fight for different kinds of politics.
Those “different” fights involved intersectional politics that interrogate and seek to address the fact that many identities and oppressions can and do coincide in one person. On her mind as she left home was the work of legal scholar and political theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who continues to play a leading role in helping to name and develop intersectionality and critical race theory. But as Searle got going, she also encountered two other books that heavily influenced the project: Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project, edited by Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Lisa L. Moore, and Sharon Bridgforth (which includes D’Lo, from whose Facebook page Searle learned about the book), and Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Nat Smith and Eric A. Stanley.
“I felt like my political imagination really got strengthened by doing this project,” noted Searle. “Traveling broadened my inquiry and put different things on my radar that might not have been there because it was outside of my normal research or artistic thinking.”
Integral to the intellectual and artistic was also the personal. “I needed this project, I was desperate on a personal level. And people were really generous a lot of the time. And we had a lot of fun. The entire project was really fun to do. I think building relationships with people made a lot of sense.”
“Traveling creates a different kind of invitation for people who are local as well: I’m on an adventure, join me,” she explained. “It creates a different kind of participation for the audience.”
The spark that lit the travel fire for the Heels on Wheels co-producers ács and Luxe started with questions about artistic opportunity at a time when they felt they didn’t have access to the spaces where they wanted to present their work. From Luxe: “We don’t want to beg and we don’t want to wait and we don’t want to ask permission. All these things come up against that—being queer, being feminists, being women, being working class and poor people, our different identities, and different mediums. Why are we waiting for some great performance dad to give us this thing that we are clearly going to have to make ourselves if we want it. So that was a big part of the impetus—let’s just do it.”
ács and Luxe started the Heels on Wheels Roadshow in the spring of 2010 and have now gone on four additional tours to places ranging from Durham, North Carolina, to Waco, Texas, from Los Angeles to Toronto. On their website they describe their group, which brings together many artists in addition to ács and Luxe, as “interdisciplinary performing artists who create performance-based cultural works and community events produced from sites of femme/inine-positive queer embodiment to reveal power in under-represented communities.” In the past year they have also added a monthly artist salon/performance, the Opentoe Peepshow, which takes place locally in Brooklyn.
In some of the same ways that Searle came up against the limits of language, ács and Luxe wanted to avoid limiting the show despite making the choice to foreground work by those who identify as femme or feminine. From ács:
If a tour is framed around certain identities but all of the work is just about those identities, I think that’s leaving something out. I want there to be space for people to be able to do whatever the fuck they want through the lenses of all those intersecting identities. I think we look for work that is political but not didactic, work that is high quality.
In addition, they are committed, as ács put it, to “celebrating local community and sharing work from elsewhere.” To that end, they not only present work by artists who are part of each Heels on Wheels tour group, they also invite local artists to be a part of the events at each stop along the tour. “We want to really engage with people in the towns,” Luxe noted. “I want to see what kind of art is happening there.”
And on an artistic level, ács and Luxe seem driven to break down thinking that says artists are only successes when they receive recognition from heavily funded and prominent cultural institutions. Having started the tour in part to claim space and opportunity for themselves, they are challenging the need or desire to be present in some of the spaces that wouldn’t have them in the first place. From ács: “We have to figure out ways to get away from those institutional markers and to define ourselves on our own terms.”
Luxe further emphasized the point:
Institutions, capitalism, are set up to make it appear that one person can have something and therefore one person can’t; one person can be good because someone else is not good, etc, etc. I want to queer these fundamental ideas of who is good enough, who is talented.
I’m just at the beginning of my own project. As the child of a military family I’m not someone who has spent my life in one spot, and even when we were in one house, I regularly switched schools every couple of years. In certain ways staying put is still a newer experience than some kind of shuffling around.
But after living in New York for almost eight years and beginning to understand what people might mean when they use that tenuous word “community,” part of what is pushing me out on the road are issues and questions that resonate in some ways with what Searle, ács, and Luxe spoke about. I feel frustrated by the artistic and production opportunities that I have spent too long pursuing and am doing these readings as a way to challenge the model that says plays need to receive large and expensive productions that demand approval by artistic directors who continue to remain averse to presenting work focused on women, people of color, and a whole host of other groups that continue to be massively underrepresented on American stages. And I have questions about how I and others fit into the queer communities and spaces I’ve been present in over the past few years.
Travel can be many things, and is often tied up in privilege, but for some it is also a survival strategy, a necessity, or a way of life. In this instance, for me, it is many things, but primarily a desire to listen and learn and hopefully share some of that with people along the way.