National Queer Theater: Building Community, Shining a Light, and Raising Hell
New York’s theater scene is not an ecosystem short on gay plays. However when it comes to showcasing all the colors of the LGBTQ+ rainbow, these plays predominantly come in one shade: white and gay. To fill in the gaps and build bridges to underrepresented communities, Adam Odsess-Rubin founded the National Queer Theater.
Just over two years old, NQT has already fostered a hearty roster of international artists, chiefly through its annual Criminal Queerness Festival. The festival (postponed to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and now online due to COVID) is co-presented with the new works incubator Dixon Place from June 13–29 and spotlights stories from nations where queer narratives are censored. To broaden its reach, the fledgling festival operates with some municipal heavyweights: the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs, and also NYC Pride. Here, Odsess-Rubin and playwright, dramaturg, and NQT cofounder Adam Ashraf Elsayigh discuss the genesis, vitality, and future of NQT.
Billy McEntee (Rail): Can you discuss the genesis of NQT? Was there a hole you were looking to fill in the theater ecosystem?
Adam Odsess-Rubin: I had been an actor and teaching artist at New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco, one of the largest queer theaters in the country. It was such an artistic home for me, and when I moved to New York to attend grad school and didn’t see a place like that here, I knew I’d have to create it myself. Some school friends and I started doing small productions and readings, working out of my apartment. And then we started getting grants from organizations like Broadway Cares, and some bigger partnerships, and things really took off quickly. There aren’t many groups producing queer theater by and for queer people, and with the kinds of education programs we have. For me, it’s always about building community.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: I remember a few years ago writing my play Drowning in Cairo which tells the story of three queer Egyptian men who were arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001, a real-life raid on a gay nightlife location in Cairo. After writing the play, I had the realization that there was no place for it. LGBTQ people and stories are aggressively persecuted by the government and authorities in Egypt, and the government actively arrests, detains, and tortures artists who tell counter-hegemonic narratives. Similarly, as an immigrant I didn’t feel like the American theater was interested in making space for queer or bilingual or international stories. My collaboration with National Queer Theater first emerged when I shared Drowning in Cairo with Adam and we conceptualized the idea for an annual festival of plays that brought stories from artists in countries where queer experiences and performance are repressed and criminalized. Since, we have had two iterations of the festival where we have had the honor of telling stories from Tanzania, Venezuela, India, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, China, and Pakistan.
Rail: When did you officially "launch," and how have you evolved since?
Odsess-Rubin: We did a student production of my play DREAMers at NYU in March 2018, based on interviews with undocumented LGBTQ youth. But the nonprofit paperwork has us officially incorporated on May 29, 2018. Our first big production was the 2019 Criminal Queerness Festival, which ran for a month at IRT Theater near The Stonewall Inn. The idea was to showcase the work of queer playwrights from countries that criminalize or censor LGBTQ communities. Partnering with WorldPride on that festival really took us to a new level. We got featured in The New York Times and The Advocate, and suddenly we were working with Broadway actors. Now we have a contract with the city and a robust set of programs.
Rail: It feels like our world has erupted in 2020, in ways that might be the growing pains of, hopefully, real change. What do you see as NQT's role in this current environment?
Odsess-Rubin: National Queer Theater has a social justice-based mission and, as such, we have a responsibility to push for queer liberation and freedom for all oppressed peoples. We choose our plays with the very specific intent to educate, inspire, and catalyze our community towards action. One thing we must do is ground all of our work in principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion. And that runs from the plays we put on stage, to our staff, board and the artists we hire. The other is we have to set a new standard for the role theaters take in authentic community engagement. You can’t pay lip service to the community you serve—you have to build relationships and sustain those.
Elsayigh: This moment has in many ways been incredibly challenging as producers, but as a citizen I could not be more engaged and riveted by the efforts emerging to resist state violence and prejudice both in the US and abroad. With the recent uprisings in response to George Floyd’s killing, we found ourselves again asking if our mission and voice are needed at this moment. We believe it is needed in the sense that our stories emphasize the similarity in the authoritarian structures and violence everywhere, and they remind us that the systems that manifest this violence abroad have done the same towards the most marginalized members of our society here in “the West” as well. The question then becomes: What do we do with that knowledge? How do we build a version of global solidarity that actively disrupts these forces? That’s something I’m hoping to bring into the conversations that are part of the festival.
Rail: Before we dive in deeper, can you broadly give an overview of Criminal Queerness Festival and how its presentation/production has changed in COVID?
Elsayigh: With the pandemic, we shifted all of our festival programming to the virtual space, while continuing to be in partnership with Dixon Place. The shift has given us opportunity to further our outreach to include local and global audiences. It has been logistically—but also artistically—challenging to make this transition. After all, the beauty of theater is actually being in space together. That said, something really exciting about this transition is the fact that we are able to include queer people from all over the world, including countries where queerness is criminalized—including most Arab nations—into our audiences but also into our programming. Now, we are not only telling these stories from the perspectives of New York artists and for New York audiences but truly engaging in conversations that transcend ideological boundaries. We are also able to share these stories of people being truly human and overcoming adversity in their contexts with the communities from which these stories come from.
Rail: There seems no more fitting time than now for a festival like this; there is great promise in its impact and shock in its relevance.
Odsess-Rubin: Every year, we lose hundreds (maybe thousands) of queer stories to censorship in countries that criminalize same-sex relations or variant gender identities. The premise of the festival is to provide artists from these countries a platform to share work with complete freedom of speech. Since Trump’s election, I always knew that LGBTQ rights could be rolled back in America and that the festival could serve as a warning to queer Americans of what could come under a Trump presidency. What I’ve woken up to now is the fact that the United States is really no better off. The same systemic inequalities that exist in parts of the world that Americans exoticize or ‘other’ exist in our own backyard. Adam helped me to understand that and it only makes the festival feel even more immediate. Theater can be a powerful tool for change and I implore every artist to treat it as such.
Rail: As we look beyond this period, what goals do you have for NQT in the future?
Odsess-Rubin: Artistically, it would be incredible to get to the point where we produce shows off-Broadway or partner with regional theaters to produce queer work around the country. But what makes National Queer Theater special is that our role in the community runs deeper than the performances we stage. I’d like for us to develop a queer youth theater program. That’s something I would have benefited greatly from as a teen. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately impacted by homelessness, depression, and suicide. Theater can be a powerful antidote for that. I think we are also in a unique position to champion TGNC artists—and especially TGNC playwrights—who are completely ignored by the mainstream theater. I’d like to see TGNC and queer playwrights of every background produced on Broadway.
Elsayigh: A more active engagement with theater communities and theater artists across different cultures who experience marginalization because of their LGBTQ identities. I am really interested in continuing to engage and reconceptualize ways we can use theater to provide solidarity, as well as social, legal and economic support to queer communities and individuals experiencing marginalization in other parts of the word.
Rail: How do we find hope?
Odsess-Rubin: Between COVID-19, the recent police murders, and the Trump presidency, it’s easy to feel really hopeless right now. I’ve been struggling with that a lot. But when I started hearing people say that Pride was cancelled because of COVID, I just rejected that wholesale. Because Pride can never be cancelled; it lives within each of us. So as we reflect on the legacy of Stonewall—and especially the Black, queer, and trans martyrs in our community like Marsha P. Johnson and Tony McDade and Nina Pop—we also look with hope to the next 50 years of Pride and a brighter future that is just, inclusive, and queer as hell.