What are queer performing arts? The conclusion I have come to is that there is no straightforward definition. In this text, I have included suggestions on what can be classified as queer performing arts. What I’m really wondering is: will there be a day in the future when we don’t have to distinguish queer performing arts from “classic”, “mainstream” or “(straight) performing arts”? A day where we all sit around a table as equals. Cliché, I know.
Let’s start by defining the term queer. In its original form, queer means strange or odd, and has historically been used as a derogatory term for LGBTIQA+ people. The LGBTIQA+ community has taken the term and made it their own so that they are proud to call themselves queer. In this text, I will use the term queer as an umbrella term for people who belong to the LGBTIQA+ community, i.e. people who belong to gender and sexual minorities. But please note that not all LGBTIQA+ define themselves as queer. LGBTIQA+ is a broad spectrum that is not easy to define, we (queers) can take on labels that can facilitate social understanding.
I will somewhat simplify everything in the text, as it will otherwise be too heavy to read, even for me. When I use the term “straight”, I usually refer to cishets or cis-heteronormativity. Not all cishets are the same, but for the sake of simplicity I will lump them all together.
The historical perspective
Legislation in Finland has hindered a lot of the creation of queer content. It was still possible to be sentenced to prison for homosexuality in 1971, to receive a medical diagnosis for homosexuality until 1981, and the encouragement of homosexuality was banned until 1999. We can say that quite a few dreams and opportunities were not allowed to materialise until the 21st century. I also want to emphasise that laws and social rules are not the same thing.
Queerness is not something new in the world. It has always existed throughout the ages in different forms, so we can say that there have also been queer Finnish-Swedish performing artists in various forms. In some contexts, you can also say that the theatre world has been its own sanctuary when the world itself did not allow queerness. I quite often agree with the idea of a sanctuary, even if some of my colleagues probably think I’m naive.
The first Finnish-Swedish queer play, Karin Smirnoff’s Ödesmärkt, was published in 1923, but was first performed in Finland at the Radio Theatre in 2014. My only thought is: very mysterious that it took almost 100 years for it to be performed. We can certainly see that there was a time when it was forbidden, the legislation being what it was.
In 1968, the musical Cabaret was staged in Finland, not noting Cliff Bradshaw’s queerness in any way, but skipping over it and thereby straightwashing him.
In 1991, Åbo Svenska Teater had a queer musical, La Cage aux folles, which was their biggest success to date. The run was initially about 40 performances, with eventually 90 performances. Curiously, it was not staged anywhere in Finland until the second half of the 2000s, given its success at ÅST.
In general, it was difficult to get queer performances or queer characters on theatre stages up until the 2010s. Even now, it’s not so visible or mainstream, but slowly but surely.
What we queers don’t necessarily want to see
There are endless ways to highlight queers in the performing arts. Here are some ways I’ve seen and think are not really for a queer audience.
- The themes queer suffering and pain and queer joy. These are in themselves important themes for queer and straight audiences to see. For a queer audience, it’s more of an affirming “I’m not alone” whereas for a straight audience it’s more of a thing that evokes empathy. Queer suffering and pain is a heavy concept because often you see something that can bring up scars and trauma. It also raises the question: “Do we have anything other than this suffering?” Queer joy acts as a counterpoint, it is there to show that there is joy and pleasure in being queer. It’s now fun to be queer, better queer than straight. But here is the problem: we are trying to balance the world with these two. We can’t really reach a middle ground with two opposites. We need to find the diversity and multidimensionality of queer people and include that into the performing arts.
- Queer characters as punchlines. Those days are not quite over yet, but it would be great if it could bugger off, thank you very much. That is, making jokes at the expense of queers. There may be exceptions to this rule. Honestly, I sometimes make ironically very crude and mean jokes about queer people, but I always take it through myself and that’s the difference. Not all queer people agree with me on this. But as a suggestion: If you are going to make a joke that includes something queer, please ask (several of) us first, it’s better than thinking you know.
- The fact that a performance tries to include queerness in all its forms, without actually working with representation at all. Please, just don’t. Sorry, but it’s a little too much like tokenism, so instead of tackling structural problems, they put up a pride flag and think that everything is solved. Rather, we should together take small steps at a time and create a consistent change that is deeply rooted. Because although human beings are inherently simple, all human beings are complicated creatures.
- Queerness in a straight form. In other words: take the heteronormative patriarchy and “translate” it to queer people, in other words a “hetero-appropriate performance” or “gays for straights”. Yes, at first it feels quite good to see a performance that doesn’t have only cishet men and cishet women, but after a while I realise I’m getting bored, because it feels like a lecture I didn’t ask for and probably don’t need.
What is queerness on stage that works?
I’ve pondered this alone and in groups. There is no clear-cut answer to the question but I can provide guidelines or open thoughts to chew on:
Hypothetically, let’s say we create a show called Homo homo homo (the title isn’t that important) and then we put in everything we can think of about queer people: everything disgusting, everything wonderful and everything that is outside the “normal”. We’ll probably get a bad reception from the audience, who will be upset and say “This is not art!” and so on. So it didn’t go as well as we would have liked, unfortunately.
But what if we just let it go towards the queer? We bend from the straight line we usually follow in the performing arts. We allow this bend, we figure out what the biggest possible changes we can make are, without disturbing the audience too much. We slowly but surely push ourselves into society with small deviations. How does that sound? Well, manipulative, of course. We know that, but if we’re not allowed to create art the way we want, shouldn’t we be allowed to “manipulate”?
But to clarify this, in “straight” art, the focus is often on the opposing poles of light – dark, loud – quiet and so on. In queer art, you don’t so often look for counterpoles. Instead, you check out the little bit beyond these poles and take a look: what’s there? Performing artists rarely appreciate these odd places between two poles, yours truly included.
If this went over your head, don’t worry darling, here are some other thoughts that could help us out.
Gut feeling: as a queer person and queer performing artist, I’m used to seeing a lot of straight and heteronormative material on stage. Then, on the rare occasion when there is a little tickle in the pit of my stomach, I startle up and say, “This is gay!” There are no words to describe it, only a strong intuition.
Body language: There’s something in body language that tells me something is not straight. It’s not that a person assumed to be male walks with swinging hips or that I see a “gay wrist”. There is something unique about walking and being, something confident and slightly swinging perhaps.
The body: There’s something about bodies and how an artist can be with their own body without covering anything with or without clothes. As one dusty old man said: “We’ve been naked since the 60s”, nudity doesn’t necessarily imply that something is queer, but if the performance is consistently accepting of the body, naked or not, there is something in it that I can read as queer.
What do I think about queerness on Finnish-Swedish theatre stages?
I know a lot of queer performing artists, but I don’t know that many queer projects or projects that I would accept as queer.
Among the independent groups I can see some queer themes, how they treat a theme that is not necessarily queer (well, everything is queer and everything can be made queer). I’m not going to out any independent group as queer or queer-friendly, it’s not my place to do so. It’s clear that a queer label can become a problem, and by problem I mean that not all queer people will think it’s queer or the group will only be asked to an event to fill a quota and then there will be no variation whatsoever.
On institutional stages, I rarely see queerness except in collaborations or guest performances, which is already something in itself, but I wish there was more initiative from the institutions themselves to present something queer in or as a performance.
It is also not my place to name queer performing artists. Not all queer performing artists want to work with something queer. Not all queer performers care about queerness. Among actors, there can be a risk of playing only queer roles or playing only straight roles.
Nor do I intend to single out a specific institution to give them praise or criticism; I think they should go through their repertoire themselves and have a little ponder. Nor is it the job of queers to continuously say, “Could we get something for us on stage?” Absolutely not. What we really want is to be involved in the work like everyone else. To make them merge, not two different entities. What we really want is for the performing arts to reflect reality in many different ways.
Now comes the praise and criticism section
- I saw on Regnbågsallians’ (an organisation for Finnish-Swedish queers) Instagram that they were planning to go and see a Finnish-Swedish performance with their members. When I was on the board, there were thoughts of going to see a Finnish performance, so there’s progress.
- That the performing arts have also realised that the perspective “it’s totally fun to be queer” is something to have on stage. If we look at the poles of queer suffering and queer joy, this one is between those two, not quite in the centre but closer to queer joy.
- That people will eventually (note: slowly but surely) begin to realise that we queer performers don’t have a problem working with straight performances, believe it or not, but because of under- or misrepresentation we have to be loud and unhappy. Our discontent makes us look like we want queerness left and right, but no. What we want, and I hope we all want: Performing arts should represent the world and its diversity.
- That queer performing artists smuggle something queer into a performance. It can be in the lights, the set design, a certain being of the actor or something specific in the direction. Something only a queer person can read into – sorry, it’s a bit of an inside thing, but that’s how it is for the time being.
- The queer perspective in a straight performance can turn flat material into interesting or interesting material into something superb. That is, diving into the unknown, making a reversal or taking a specific (such as trans, asexual or lesbian) perspective.
- In recent years, drag and burlesque have become popular even among Swedish-speaking Finns.
- I recently saw an institution’s own performance where I, as a queer person, told a specific scene to eff off because it was homophobic and outdated. The theme of the scene could have worked for someone 12 years ago – ugh – but these days we call it homophobic.
- Seeing heteronormative relationships played on stage. Come on! Today’s straight couples don’t have to be as simple and boring as we think they are. This is coming from a queer person who knows that there are non-normative couples, and I’m not suggesting that you start putting on shows about swingers or that a 50-year-old couple should start fooling around by having some gay sex (or if that’s what it takes to make you understand, maybe that’s the way to go). Just break down what a relationship, a marriage, or being with someone means. Straight people do it in real life too.
- The fact that there is a character on stage who says “I’m gay!” followed by a dramatic pause or “Well, she’s using the pronoun they these days” to discomfit the conservative relative. These have lost their functions and we can all move on from them. I’d rather see a character saying “She… they are…” so you realise the character is trying to correct themself; even if it’s a pain, there’s also something comforting in that.
- The fact that some of our Finnish-Swedish reviewers don’t understand that if a character is non-binary or uses the pronoun they, they should be referred to as they even in the review. It is not that difficult.
Can we have both difficulties and fun together?
As an educator told me and many others: Why make it easy and boring when it can be difficult and fun?
It’s hard for all of us to unlearn patterns, both in life and in working on stage, or the two combined. We form a lot of patterns as children and don’t unlearn them without a struggle. There is often talk about generational differences, that we have to forgive an older generation for not learning. I am not fully against or in favour of this. I see it as something we can all fight for, if we do it properly. Then we might realise how easy it really is. Crossing that invisible threshold is hard for all of us, but once we’re across, it’s so much better.
Willjam Tigerstedt is a performing artist who studies acting at the UniArt Helsinki’s Theatre Academy.
Thank you for your help:
And other fellow students