Lead Pencil

The Queer in Theatre I Found

Written by Vibhanshu Doshi

Confused whispers. Delighted frowns. Astonished faces. 

 

The joys of looking at the audience coming out of an auditorium and sensing their reactions are unparalleled. My first project as a production assistant was with The Five Senses Theatre Group's production Even Mists Have Silver Linings -which documented a theatre performance addressing the LGBTHQIA+ issues of identity and stigma in India encouraging audiences to change their views. That’s what art, in general, is meant to do right? To be the mirror, to bring about the 'redefining' change. The entire ensemble devised vignettes of stories and their forms after sensitising themselves about Queerness. The very first step of the audition process was for them to interpret the word ‘Queer’ and stage it through a movement performance. To my surprise, a lot of the auditionees weren’t cognizant of the term, despite it being mentioned in the brief for the audition call. It was integral to have the right representation and have a team that believed in what they endorse. Over the course of a month, stories were devised which came from an authentic and honest place, and where the narratives structured were resonant with the rich context of queer life in India. Finding this honestly wasn’t just about the creative explosions, within the bounds of the rehearsing space, but much more than that. This journey was, as educational, as it was fun. The company attended the pride march together, took part in a queer treasure hunt, attended screenings of relevent films every day, and even went to a Queer heritage walk, led by the playwright Vikram Phukan, to explore locations with queer significance in Colaba, beginning at the iconic Regal Cinema and ending where the gay-friendly pub Voodoo once thrived. With the help of the open script and prompts, the actors staged and improvised scenes.  These tales twined with humour, mythology, charm, and wit-covered a range of emotions; from intimacy struggles to internal conflicts running between confusion and desire, from traumas of abandonment to empowerment from acceptance. The stories talked about a trans woman finally being true to her identity, they talked about being a true ally, they talked about gender norms and the pressures of confirming them. 

 

Queer representation in mainstream media has most often been aligned with flamboyant characters and vibrant aesthetics. Even in theatre, this has been amplified.  Often many trans and gay characters are given caricaturish traits that later end up being the laughing stock for the audience. Even the most 'woke' creators end up using queerphobic slurs casually, attributing it to their characters' nature;  being completely ignorant of how that dialogue normalises the abuse in the behaviour. It’s no myth that every 'straight' actor wants to be able to play the 'oh-so-challenging' role of a queer person even when most of them have half-baked ideas that are influenced by stereotypical, preconceived notions! Thankfully, this is changing. The theatre-makers today aspire to stage stories that they are motivated to share, not just to break glass ceilings and to go out of the box, but for their genuine love for the art. Authenticity is the currency of the present. Queer artists are called and encouraged to voice their opinions and not have a heteronormative voice represent them as seen typically. Be it the actors, directors, or writers- it is recognised how the most integral aspect in making Queer theatre, is to acknowlegde and involve queer perspectives in the process so that the toxic misrepresentation stops. 

 

I have had the chance to witness Inqueerable by Vikram Phukan and Shobhna S. Kumar that gave a platform to queer stories led by young creators. One of its editions had artists interpreting the word ‘Queer’. There were anecdotes narrated from the perspective of an ally, who was trying to fathom what queerness meant. There was a movement piece that creatively embodied the word. Interestingly- there were acts with stark contrast but still a common ground - one of which disapproved of the societal boxes and labels saying how  ‘queerness isn’t a choice’, while another,in his slam poetry, celebrated how he loves the variety in the colors of a rainbow, and finds it empowering to choose one or many or none. This again takes me back to one of the interviews the team did while scripting Even Mists have Silver Linings. Queer people who volunteered and agreed to help, believing in the vision, were interviewed about their lives and identities.  This was then transcribed and used as research. One of these interviewees loathed the idea of labels and even the word Queer, while another one found comfort in it, and felt that they belonged someplace after acknowledging it. It was so important for us as a team- to depict this in the play- how there is no rulebook or just one kind of ‘queer’.

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Photo Credit (Even Mists Have Silver Linings):

Punit Reddy/ Five Senses Theatre , MMXX 

Along with these projects,there are theatre festivals being organised, that celebrate the very essence of queer life in the country, like the Delhi International Queer Theatre and Film Festival. Theatre has always been way ahead of its time, but in a time like this- the proscenium has somewhere found a safe space, that is inclusive and celebratory. 

 

Having said that, there will always be cultural boundaries and traditional implications that prevent art from existing in its rawest form. A lot of it has to do with the lingo and vocabulary when it comes to Queer stories- because, in the otherwise heteronormative culture, these are termed as strange. Likewise, the Censorship Board has been struggling to certify scripts that are objectively harmless, without censoring 'problematic' discourses that are very well written within the realms of the context! 

 

‘Queer’ as a word isn’t a modern Gen Z, westernised jargon, and nor are the identities this umbrella encompasses. This is grossly misunderstood in our culture. This ‘us’ and ‘them’ is very prevalent. The lenses with which the crowds of a heteronormative paradigm see queer content will always be different than those on the other side of the spectrum. But, the target audience for Queer theatre isn’t just queer people!

 

Thus, there will always be 'Confused whispers. Delighted frowns. Astonished faces' in the audience who may never relate to the shared stories, but what cannot be ignored is that these very faces contribute to the spark and add to conversations that are very much needed. 

 

Theatre has found its queer, and its emerging.