TOWARDS A QUEER THEATRE
Training, Transness, and Rewilding
This is an essay that Open Flame ensemble member Katie Burgess and Walken Schweigert wrote together about how queer and trans identities relate to training, and to Open Flame’s pursuit and explorations of these questions of rewilding.
True freedom and desire can never be about assimilation. This is where our story begins. Being transgender in this world has meant living an existence in which I was told that I did not exist. It has meant looking in a mirror, fighting to believe, needing to believe, that there was another world behind it. It has meant trusting myself at the cost of others telling me I’m insane, and of redefining what it means to be alive. However, the need to look behind and beyond the mainstream culture that is presented to us is not unique to those of us that are queer. There are many avenues of realizing that we live in a world of smoke and mirrors, and that those mirrors need to be smashed in order to find the authenticity and autonomy we all desperately seek.
For the previous 7 years I had only been able to share my passion for performance on street corners, doing rudimentary juggling acts, while begging for spare change to sustain my existence as a young traveling homeless trans woman.
When I first encountered Double Edge Theatre in 2007, I was in search of a dream. I was newly aware of the word transgender to describe the dysphoria I felt, and this revelation that everything I had been told about gender was wrong had led to a cacophony of realizations about other myths I had been told. Pursuing a college degree had seemed like the only avenue to making my life in the theatre, but understanding my own queerness suddenly called all of those assumptions into question. Reading Towards a Poor Theatre by Jerzy Grotwoski inspired me to search behind my own masks, to examine my own nakedness, as much as it terrified me. I could not do this in the safety of an institution; nor in a life of busking and living on the streets, as I tried next. Sometimes when the paths in front of us seem so dark, when we are so afraid of becoming lost, of losing ourselves, we seek out any light we can see. A friend had told me about Double Edge (founded by Stacy Klein, the protégé of Rena Mirecka, Grotowski’s lead actress and founding member of the Laboratory), a few years earlier, and it took only one training at Double Edge’s Farm Center to know that was the brightest light I could have hoped for.
I had abandoned other, more traditional ways of making theatre for multiple reasons. The autonomy of the actor Grotowski spoke of, that I so longed for, was entirely absent for me in the context of constant auditioning and commercialism that seemed to surround mainstream theatre. The rigorous investigation and training he wrote of I believed to be inseparable from the creation of theatre that could in any way hope to tear down the walls of oppression that keep us from even daring to imagine that other ways of life are possible. My new understanding of myself had led me to believe that I, and those I loved would indeed, perish if those walls stayed standing.
My first training at Double Edge transcended all my ideas of what theatre-making could be, and yet I also felt the sense of coming home. It reached into and then exploded parts of me that were always there, but that I had been guarding deep inside. My subconscious was allowed to come to the surface and when the exhilaration of the rigorous, physical training gripped me I was in ecstasy, and also confronted by all of the dark unknown parts of myself I had been longing to explore.
By delving into the raw essence of my humanity, I found a way both to transcend and investigate my dysphoria. This journey was encouraged by my mentors at Double Edge, but there were many questions along the way. I was one of the first out trans people to ever go through a training program at Double Edge, and this was not always easy… nevertheless, I stayed to train there for almost a year because I knew, as we all knew, that the soul of what we were all there to search for was the same.
The ability to explore my embodiment, presence, energy, humanity, imagination, and so much more is what I discovered through the training process at Double Edge. This training process gave me a new way of living in my body and expressing myself. I believe it’s the next most logical step to share this process with my trans community and evolve our resources through performance and unleashing our imaginations for true healing and justice.
A year or so after leaving Double Edge, Katie and I co-founded an ensemble to explore transness, the subconscious, and how they related to transphobia through a process of training. This culminated in a performance entitled Gut Wrenched and Rising, (GWaR) in which many of our demons were allowed to enter into the light. It laid bare our trauma and alienated many in the (mostly) straight audiences that saw it.
Soon after coming back to Minneapolis after the raft, Katie and I were both in another very different performance about gender variance…
The Naked I was originally written by Tobias Davis not more than 40 minutes away from Double Edge Theatre, at Smith College in Northampton, MA in 2003. Six years later, Claire Avitabile, director of 20% Theater Twin Cities produced the piece in Minneapolis. For me and many other Twin Cities trans performers, it was an opportunity seldom, if ever, seen to perform on stage. The Naked I was a concrete invitation to use my skills in a formalized practice of theater, being provided stage, directors, design, and tech assistance.
The Naked I was successful not only as a performance piece, but also as a tactic for community organizing. The cast became close friends and many people made life saving connections to the community. Being transgender often means living in isolation, questioning your very right to exist in this universe. Almost 50% of trans people choose suicide in large part because of this inability to access resources and community. The impact on the audience was just as profound, offering reflections of shared experiences to trans audience members and vital education to the community at large. The Naked I was so successful that a handful of us produced a workshop series with 20% Theater entitled The Naked Self to instigate trans people in the community to write their own stories and monologues that were then produced in a second show. And then a third show. And now it is an annual occurrence of writers, performers, directors, and designers coming together with 20% Theater to produce an ongoing Naked I series.
While it has been and continues to be a vital part of our community, it also puts in the spotlight certain disparities within the trans community. Historically, the cast has been majority white. There have been many conversations concerning this over the years – some harder than others. It is, in my opinion, testament to how far we still have to go to truly see the intersections between transphobia and racism. Secondly, the pieces have historically been monologues. Theater can offer us so many opportunities to explore our bodies in conjunction with our minds. As trans people we are told, and tell ourselves, that our minds and bodies will forever be separate. But as performers we must let go of limits. We must be ready to move into our dysphoria in new and imaginative ways. We must be ready to let go of our dysphoria, or to crush it, or to accept it, or all of these at once. Whatever the next step is, I believe we need to move beyond cerebral monologues about our experiences. We are not protecting ourselves or our audiences by limiting the imaginations living within our bodies.
GWaR and the Naked I sparked for us a period of research into our queerness that is irrevocably connected to training: dreams. There are histories, on every continent, of the varied roles that trans people and other queer folk have played in society since human societies began, and in our research of the limited texts available on the subject, we found a common thread. Throughout human history, those with non-normative gender or sexual identities have served as the conduits between this world and a world beyond.
It became obvious that there was no such role for queerfolk in our current society. What does that mean? What is the connection between a culture that passively accepts samenes, and the mainstream definitions of family and freedom? The connection between making of a livelihood that relies on the generation of money, and the privilege of those who are straight and male, with whiter skin and a Christian heritage? Was it a coincidence that all of this now makes up the world in which we live but someone who cannot be classified as a man or a woman does not?
It seems to us that not just a sameness, but a tameness has gripped this mass globalized culture. As humans in this civilization, we separate ourselves from our dreams, our unknowns, the dark and rich parts of ourselves that exist in all of us just under the surface, we distance ourselves from any true contact with the very physical world around us. Fear of our emotions and the instinctual, intuitive parts of us most alive in the subconscious parts of ourselves, was coupled with a denial of ourselves as very human animals. Nature, and we as part of nature, became something we needed to control, and we believed this so much that we ceased to imagine that anything else was possible. And now we try to manage and garden the world, as we try to manage and garden ourselves. Life has shown us again and again that it thrives on diversity, not homogeneity. And so we arrive here, with a massive global culture on the brink of collapse and self-destruction sinking under the weight of 7 billion people trying or being forced to try to live like the richest 1% of us.
But that’s just the thing: we are not dead yet. If given the chance, if given the space, trees crumble buildings and people will organize themselves in an astonishing number of ways.
If you stop poisoning a wetland it will rewild and heal itself, eventually. But how do we stop poisoning ourselves? The beauty is that there is no one right answer; there are so many possibilities. The beauty is that we need not one answer, but many. The difficulty is that we need to see into that unknown of ourselves, past what we know, past even what we think we know of the past. This is about dreaming of many futures that do not yet exist, and then working to try and enact them.
I believe this because I was told, as a trans person, I did not exist. Training gave me the assurance that I do. Because of the variance, of the unknown that queerness represents, it cannot be codified nor classified, nor quantified. The existence of queerness cannot exist in a world of control. And this very notion is precisely why queer theatre will be one of many hammers smashing all the mirrors.