Representation Matters: Telling Queer Stories in a Significant Way

Miriam Schwartz and Gisela Chípe in "Indecent" at the Guthrie Theater. (Photo by Dan Norman)

Miriam Schwartz and Gisela Chípe in "Indecent" at the Guthrie Theater. (Photo by Dan Norman)

  • Melody DeRogatis

As pride month draws to a close, we’d be remiss if we didn’t call attention to the lack of diversity in telling LGBT+ stories for the stage. The theatre community is comprised of many different types of people, with an especially large number of people who identify as LGBT+. If our community is so largely composed with queer people, why aren’t we doing a better job of telling their stories?

In a bit of informal research, I decided to look at the current 2018-19 seasons of 10 different major regional theatre companies across the USA, noting which ones told LGBT+ stories. Of the ten theaters, only half of them included a production that advertised some sort of queer storyline. Of the five theatre companies that had a show in their season with some kind of queer storyline, 2 of the shows were Shakespeare plays, which inherently play with gender-bending, often for the use of humor, rather than actual gender expression.

In terms of telling stories of queer people as it relates to gender (i.e., stories of people who aren’t cis-gender), there is an important delineation to be made. Often in theatre, gender-bending is used sometimes as an artistic statement, but frequently out of casting necessity. While it is wonderful and necessary to give people opportunities to play roles that are outside of the gender they identify with, it is important to note that this is not the same thing as telling the stories of people who are trans, non-binary, agender, and so on. We live in a society where people who are not cis-gender are challenged every day for being who they are. Therefore, as a theatre community, it is our job to let these people express themselves, tell their stories to the world, and make it comfortable for them to do so. Casting a female Horatio in Hamlet to show “diversity” isn’t the same thing as telling a complicated story of gender expression… unless, of course, it’s done in a very particular way.

Looking at these theatre seasons, I read the synopsis of each production, which only gave me an outline of the play, as it exists on paper. Is it possible that the director of Anything Goes decided to make the ocean liner a Gay cruise line? Or maybe the actor playing Reno Sweeney developed her backstory so that she was bisexual? Possibly, but, not very unlikely. There is something to be said for taking old, sexist, occasionally homophobic storylines, and twisting them to tell newer, more progressive stories. But, it’s a lot more powerful to tell new stories that outline the struggles, or at least identify with the lives of queer people in the 21st century. Hence, why it’s essential that we start producing more plays that are already written with queerness within.

Often, when shows are produced that tell queer-specific stories, these stories are about gay men. Hoping to find more stories out there being told in theaters for queer people, I looked into the current seasons of specifically-designated LGBT+ theatres. Surprisingly, there were a lot less of these kinds theaters out there than I was hoping for. Out of the small handful I found, the theaters fell into 1 of 2 categories:

A. 50% or more of the shows were telling stories that had to do with Gay men, or shows that weren’t inherently about telling queer stories.

B. The theatre doesn’t have a formal season and comes together occasionally for various projects.

I found this surprising because if the regional theaters aren’t promoting stories that celebrate queerness, it would make sense for LGBT+ people to come together and tell the stories themselves. There are certainly companies out there already doing that, but there is definitely room for more representation on a grander scale, and it shouldn’t mean only producing shows about gay men and only telling the stories in queer-specific theaters.

Representation doesn’t have to mean an entire play dedicated to a character’s coming-out journey or a haunting tale about conversion therapy. Representation means producing new, fresh plays that regard the queer community differently, not just sticking in The Laramie Project or The Children’s Hour and calling it a day. Instead, how about a play about astronauts who get stuck on the moon, and one of them is polysexual, and misses their partners? Or maybe, a love story where the protagonist is asexual and demisexual. How about a horror-play where one of the kids who goes into the haunted house is non-binary? A queer person’s life isn’t only about them being queer; it would just be nice to show more diversity onstage in terms of queerness, acknowledging that people of sexualities besides straight and gay exist, as well as people of different gender expressions beyond cis-gender.

Additionally, queer people are often made to play things they aren’t. I know multiple gay men who are frequently told they need to learn how to “play straight”, and have seen several non-binary people in audition rooms, while someone grapples with whether to have them read “male” or “female”. While it’s not always possible, if you can award a person the chance to play a part authentically— do so. There are severely limited roles out there that aren’t cis-male or cis-female-identified, so if you’re doing a show with a role that falls into that category, make sure you cast someone who identifies appropriately. Of course, casting in regards to sexuality isn’t necessary, but just make sure you’re telling the story genuinely. Empathy speaks volumes.

The theatre industry is one of the strongest LGBT+ communities out there, so let’s start representing that in the work we do.