Why, in 2017, is there still such an absence of queer female narratives on the stage?
There is a moment in Zoe Coombs Marr’s Is This Thing On? when the whole work shifts in an instance and for the first time you realise you’ve been watching four queer women on stage. The work is a complex one: the five actors – four of whom we’ve met at this point – are, in fact, one character, Brianna, a stand-up comedian, at five different ages between 16 and 60.
The five Briannas overlap and intersect: stand-up sets calling back to earlier sets, the stories converging as she grows as a writer and performer. Although clearly existing in reality, there are moments of slippage as the Briannas talk to each other, as they high-five and celebrate their jokes, as they talk to one member of the audience present over decades. The bulk of the play takes place from when Brianna is 16 to 35, where she finds herself in the world and on stage, before destroying herself in the process.
It’s through her acts that we get insight into her life: she moves out of home, she drops out of university, she works in a bar, she becomes an alcoholic. And, at 27, halfway through the play, she comes out.
‘And that’s worrying too,’ she says, ‘because me not biting my fingernails in Redfern might be causing a monsoon in Peru…or something. Besides, cutting your fingernails may seem trivial, but I’m a…I am a um…lesbian, so it’s important.’
After a pause, she continues. ‘I’ve never said that at a gig before! Congratulations! You are officially my coming out audience!’
‘What do you do for a living?’ Brianna at 27 asks an audience member, before barrelling on: ‘I’m gay. I have been doing all this comedy for ages, like “Maybe I haven’t met the right guy.”’
Simultaneously on our stage, yet in another gig in another year in their world, 22-year-old Brianna muses, ‘Maybe I just haven’t met the right guy.’
‘Yeah,’ says 27. ‘Just a nice guy with a nice personality and nice breasts…’
Representation of queer women in theatre is so rare that the moments when it occurs stick out as pivotal moments in my theatre-going experience. Even with hundreds, possibly jutting into the thousands, of shows I’ve seen, queer women are still so far from the norm as to be utterly remarkable. And despite the markers Is This Thing On? would be this kind of story, watching its world premiere production directed by Coombs Marr and Kit Brookman at Belvoir St Theatre in 2014, there was a rush of energy when the story turned and we finally knew what we were experiencing.
By most measures, the largest and most successful stage show about a queer woman only reached the stage in 2013, before transferring to Broadway in 2015. Fun Home, based on the 2006 graphic memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel, went on to win five Tony Awards – including the only Tony Award for Best Musical to ever go to a work written by an all-female creative team. In a statistic that is slightly less measurable but no less important, it was also the only Tony Award for Best Musical for a show where the lead character is a lesbian.
Representation of queer women in theatre is so rare that the moments when it occurs stick out as pivotal moments.
Like Is This Thing On?, Fun Home writers Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) use the structure of Bechdel’s novel to create a story of Alison at different stages in her life. The musical is as much about Alison trying to figure out how to tell her story and how to sort through her memories as it is the story itself: of how she came to find her sexuality and come to terms with her relationship with her father – a closeted gay man who died, perhaps by suicide, shortly after she came out.
Centring on Alison as she writes Fun Home, there is no moment when the character Alison comes out to the audience in the work – her sexuality is ever present. But there are two crucial moments when she starts to claim herself: Small Alison’s ‘Ring of Keys’, and Middle Alison’s ‘Changing My Major to Joan’.
The sheer scale of Fun Home allows it to have a more expansive life than most theatre works that would hold similar resonances. Broadway musicals – with their commercial considerations and marketing budgets, along with televised appearances on New York City-based talk shows and award ceremonies, and the accessibility of cast recordings – can infiltrate more lives. The Tony Awards’ performance ‘Ring of Keys’, which became the headline song from Fun Home, which has Small Alison seeing a butch woman for the first time and recognising something in herself, has been watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.
But while the song, and its counterpart for Middle Alison (‘I’m changing my major to sex with Joan,’ she joyously sings), have an extensive life and meaning as recorded audio or video, part of their power comes from the fact that watching this aspect of Bechdel’s story was made to be experienced in a theatre: it was made to be experienced with you breathing the same air as the artists, with you sharing an audience with a whole sweep of people.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succor, Lee Hall’s 2015 theatrical adaptation of Alan Warner’s The Sopranos, is about a girls’ school choir travelling from their working class portside town to ‘the capital’, Edinburgh, for an inter-schools choir competition. It is wonderful in many ways, but in particular for how it removes men completely from the stage of this story of women.
Vicky Featherstone directed the play for the National Theatre of Scotland and she may have these girls hitting the town, drinking heavily, talking about sex freely, flirting with men, and turning men down, but by having the female actors also play all of the male roles the story’s focus remains steadily within their gaze.
As teenagers, they’re still finding their place in the world, weighing up if they’re going to escape their small town, or be sucked into the class vortex which has kept so many of their peers there with teen pregnancy and university being for swots.
Watching the work, I knew not every statement these girls say is true: they play-up or tamper down stories of their sexual experience; or they don’t talk at all, knowing the assumptions in the silence will lead to a more complementary story of themselves than any words could.
They play-up or tamper down stories of their sexual experience; or they don’t talk at all.
Spending only a day with these girls, sunrise to sunrise, the audience has no idea where they will end up. They struggle and grow on this day framed as a complete turning point in their lives: one will end up no longer a virgin; another will end up choosing to become a teenage mother. All are irreversibly changed by a day of adventure, alcohol and drugs. But, crucially, while many of them suffer in ways from the day, it is never suggested they shouldn’t make these choices – nor is it suggested they are being punished for the choices they made.
The queerness in Our Ladies is quieter than Fun Home and Is This Thing On? Unlike those shows, which follow the characters past the point of self-acknowledgment and coming out, Our Ladies and its single day depicts Fionnula at the beginning of claiming herself and her sexuality, and Kay perhaps at the beginning of finding hers, too.
The moment is given space. ‘Kay’, says Fionnula. ‘Come and dance with me.’
Kay joins Fionnula on the dance floor.
Fionnula: Kiss me.
They kiss. The dry ice envelops them.
In a show filled with rambunctious energy, of yelling and kicking and headbanging singing, Featherstone gives the girls a moment all to themselves in the quiet. As they finish their kiss and gently sway with their foreheads pressed against one another’s, all else is still. They’re figuring themselves out, Featherstone seems to say. Let’s just let them be for a moment.
It is the nature of theatre, especially when you step away from the fringes, that its cost becomes a factor to ensure it is homogenised. While issues of representation – of female playwrights and directors, in particular – may have come to the limelight in recent years, and this has issued somewhat of a corrective with companies (not all, but many) taking a look at their stages and who is on them, it’s still a blunt instrument. Representation is more easily fixed when what is missing is more easily measured: race and sexuality need a more nuanced measure and argument than for gender equality.
Economic considerations from theatres has meant defaulting to the white straight man as the universal everyman.
The production of theatre takes time, money and investment, and theatre companies too often double down into conservatism when looking at what they need to pull in at the box office. Economic considerations from theatres has meant defaulting to the white straight man as the universal everyman to ensure tickets can be sold to as many people as possible. It has also meant a default on the artists, and the straight white man is the least likely to suffer financial hardship or duties of care, and so the most likely to be able to invest the money, the time, and the money that buys time, into developing a career in the theatre – all of which means there are still too many stories theatre doesn’t tell, or tells too rarely.
When the stage adaptation of Tipping The Velvet opened on the West End in London in 2015, Exeunt Magazine gathered five of its critics in conversation to discuss what exactly went wrong, and why they were so disappointed.
It wasn’t just that it was, in their estimation, a poor adaptation and production. It wasn’t just that it fell short of the heights and importance of Sarah Waters’ much-loved novel. It was that it completely misunderstood its source text: placing a male narrator on top of this story of lesbian women in Victorian England, emotionally distancing the characters through layers of music-hall showmanship, endlessly driving forward without taking a rest or really understanding a queer woman’s gaze.
‘Tipping the Velvet,’ wrote Mary Halton, ‘is only the second time I’ve seen queer female sexuality depicted on stage…How a story that is so powerfully about the strength of desire and the eroticism of sex between women has become a music hall pastiche is not just lost on me, but somewhat devastating.’
‘What happened?’ she goes on to ask. ‘And why did I feel so invisible when I left?’
And it’s sad, but this is what makes work like Is This Thing On?, Fun Home, and Our Ladies so special beyond their inherent strengths: because, for just a moment, the default can be considered to be something completely different. In 2017, representation of queer women on stage is more rare than it should be. But that makes those representations that work all the more precious, too.