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Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival

"All signs say Go West"

Maeve Marsden wonders if the future of queer performance lies far beyond Sydney's rainbow triangle and mainstage representation.

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Queer stages in Sydney: Mainstage, Mardi Gras and the M5

Date: 13 Feb 2018

Mardi Gras is upon us. All of the joy, conflict, fabulousness and reflections of my disparate and brilliant community will take centre stage (both main and fringe) in Sydney in upcoming weeks.

It’s no surprise that what started out as a queer riot for rights, has evolved into a month-long cultural festival of sorts; long before we could comfortably claim our identities in the workplace, queers have held a place in the beating heart of the arts.

We’ve come a long way from the gay-visibility-as nudge-nudge wink-wink of just a few decades ago, and the crumbs of representation have morphed into something with more sustenance, but where to for the future of queer theatre and arts practice in Sydney?

All signs say Go West.

At the 2017 Australian Theatre Forum in Adelaide, I participated in a group discussion about the state of queer theatre in Australia.

In the middle of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, theatre makers from all over the country debated everything from the merits of getting a gay character on to the stage in a rural town, to the decidedly big-smoke concern that mainstage queer representation was, in effect, strangling queer art.

Something that stuck with me though, was an artist’s aside to the effect that Sydney’s queer theatre scene wasn’t as robust as Melbourne’s, that Sydney’s scene lacked the independent companies, the stages and the opportunities for queer artists to flourish long-term.

A quick glance over the programs of mainstage and independent theatre companies in Sydney reveals consistent programming of works that centre queer experience and artists, but there remains a persistent undercurrent of resentment that outside of the Mardi Gras season, the experience being centered is one of white, cis-gendered gay men, and even those examples of representation can feel like lip service.

Playwright Lachlan Philpott agrees.

“For a city the size of Sydney, which has a large queer population, I would love to see more queer work and queer spaces,” he says.

Philpott credits the problem less to a lack of queer artists and more to broader issues with funding, the cost of living, and Sydney arts organisations being unwilling to support the growth of local talent.

“Living as an artist and making art in Sydney is increasingly difficult now,” he says. “Finding funding to support more innovative practices has also become harder in the wake of funding cuts so that has an obvious effect on queer art.”

Theatremaker Karen Therese says that mainstage companies rarely present work reflecting the diversity of the lives of LGBTQI people.

“As an artist, I never felt like anything I saw reflected my identity, so I was always a bit lost,” she says.

Therese credits a Chris Ryan-Victoria Spence production – Heterosoced Youth This is NOT a Coming Out Show (staged at PACT, Erskineville in 1998) as, “an absolute fucking revolution,” and a production that continues to inspire and inform her work.

So many queer artists have this sort of moment, the first time they are presented with relatable stories and identities in the arts or media.

As her career grew, Therese noticed that her sexual identity both pigeonholed her and provided opportunities. Every time she pitched work to a company, they would schedule her during Mardi Gras. She found it frustrating to be placed “in a box” but concedes that without the festival framework of Mardi Gras, and her box-ticking marketability as an LGBTQI artist, her career may not have developed in the way it has.

So, in a city whose two largest mainstage theatre companies – Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir – have gay men as Artistic Directors, as well as smaller companies such as Griffin, the New Theatre and the Old Fitz, who boast a who’s-who of queer writers and directors, where does this perception of fragility come from?

For transfeminine queer artist Bhenji Ra, the answer lies in how we define queer art.

“I think ‘queer’ is a dismissing of the now,” she says. “In Cruising Utopia, José Muñoz talks about a dismissing of the present, a straight, hetero present. Queering is looking at the past and present but seeing a future that has no arrival but lots of possibility and imagination. Queer art is resisting the conventions of now and the state of the now.”

Ra’s definition speaks less to representation in terms of numbers – of stories or artists (and programming box ticking) – and more to a queer sensibility, a queer lens. If this gaze is defined as a rejection of the dominant present ideology, then is there even a place for queerness on the mainstage?

As Benjamin Neutze wrote last year, “How can ‘queer’ theatre work within the mainstream if it’s largely about the people who don’t fit into the mainstream?” How can we do queer representation in a mainstage context?

Last year, Belvoir’s production of Taylor Mac’s Hir was roundly celebrated, especially among queer audiences, for its trans representation and exploration of the very notion of gender.

“I really thought Hir was fabulous,” says Therese. “Culture has really changed; there’s no way Hir would have been on 20 years ago.”

The production, written by LGBTQI icon Taylor Mac, was directed by a straight (“straight-ish,” she says) cis-gendered woman, Anthea Williams. But Belvoir went to lengths to ensure representation and creative contribution by trans artists. Williams worked with a trans artistic associate – Lucky Price – and did a national call out to find the young trans actor who would play one of the central roles.

Williams concedes that this level of diligence is rare, but the issue isn’t as simple as an unwillingness or lack of care.

“The biggest thing that is needed is space in budgets,” Williams says. “A lot of people are willing to do the work but arts funding is really tricky in this country and saying, ‘it just takes the will to do it’ isn’t true.

“Roles are being taken away – it’s so uncommon now to have an assistant director, and we weren’t in the situation where there was an experienced trans director to take on the play. Hopefully by bringing in an associate artist, there will be in the future.”

The process of recruiting Price as an associate led Williams to engage with several trans artists, one of whom she invited into a playwriting workshop she was conducting. Representation begets opportunity. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. But considered representation takes time, thought and money.

“There is a justified demand for representations of diversity on stage that reflects the evolving diversity of our society,” adds Philpott. “Unfortunately, that sometimes means work goes to stage before it has been appropriately developed. Great European works take years to be made. Here people have to fit it in between three jobs and six other projects. Of course the work suffers.”

If one of the most celebrated pieces of queer art can be effectively directed by a straight-ish woman, is it even possible to accurately calculate queer representation?

Or is the heart of measuring our worth and impact about continuing discussion and debate? Is it about exploring the in-between spaces, and rejecting the “now”, as Ra describes?

Now running PYT Fairfield, Karen Therese says her identity marker in the arts has shifted to that of “Western Sydney artist” and she often discusses the way minority categories function in the arts with the young people she works with.

“I work now with young Western Sydney artists from diverse backgrounds and they are devastated that ‘CALD’ [Culturally and Linguistically Diverse] is a term. They just thought they were artists. I say ‘apply for money and do stories about yourself because this is actually going to get you ahead’. But then it’s hard to get out of that.”

“Being gay in Western Sydney was hard when all the media attention focused on the ‘no’ vote,” she adds. “You look at Sissy Ball and it’s the coolest event this Mardi Gras and those girls are from Western Sydney. That’s where the underground culture is coming from. Western Sydney is Queens, it’s the Bronx.”

Ra, the curator of Sissy Ball, agrees. “I find the centre of Sydney quite boring and mediocre and flattened out,” she says. “The expectation of queer performance is already framed and there’s a standard to it, but there is a queerness beyond that standard, even the punk queer standard.

“Working in the West is sometimes really refreshing because it can be about dropping the politics and the language that you hold onto and just being like ‘ok, right now I am working with this community and they’re extremely queer because they’re extremely other’. It might not be a queerness surrounded by sexuality and gender, it might be more to do with race and class. It’s challenging but it’s also expanding.”

“We resist a lot of that mainstage mentality. That idea of increased visibility is often resisted and work that might be guerilla or community based is the essence of what queerness is,” Ra says.

“Queerness is a hard thing to nail down and that’s the way it should be given it is precisely this fluidity which is at the heart of queerness,” concludes Philpott.

Doubtless Sydney has many barriers to entry for artists, and when those artists face discrimination – for their gender or sexuality, or because they are part of another oppressed minority – those barriers are compounded.

But the fluidity Philpott refers to could perhaps strengthen our ability to address financial, organisational and creative roadblocks.

We were shut out of mainstream (mainstage) inclusion for so long, we’ve developed ways and means of working around the expectations of the status quo. The history and tenacity of the queer arts allows us to operate on the fringes, and to infiltrate the mainstream, albeit slowly.

Perhaps queer artists should not be seeking access to the mainstream in the hope of queer representation.

Perhaps the mainstage should be pursuing us.

Maeve Marsden hosts and programs Queerstories, a monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night at Giant Dwarf. Upcoming shows: Queerstories – The 78ers (March 16); Queerstories with guest MC Sally Rugg (April 6) and Queerstories – Sydney Comedy Festival, May 4.

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