Trauma Inspired Queer Theatre
By Aishwarya Goli
Theatre, in general, has often been interpreted as the “voice of the people”. It is a form of expression for people to voice out their concerns and depict their interests. This is especially true, for people who are queer, who often feel like they can’t be open about their identities and their sexualities. It allows people to express their identities within this safe creative bubble.
Theatre is inspired by memories, the culture, and the imagination of people. It is inspired by the people, and in turn, inspires the people. Theatre allows people to feel represented and it encourages inclusivity. It reiterates the fact that we are not alone. The emotions we feel, the struggles we face, and the consequences we face due to our choices are communal experiences.
In the current society we live in, straight couples and cisgender identities are treated as the norm. Anyone who strays from the norm is automatically treated as an outcast. Queer Theatre, in my opinion, has become a safe place for so many outcasts. For many people, it has become a means where they could finally express themselves confidently. It has become a way to share one’s identity with the world, albeit on a stage.
This is why I believe that queer plays, queer casts, and queer crews are so important. It helps the audience understand they are not alone. Because once upon a time, someone like them had struggled similarly and made it to the other side. That’s an example of representation we need. Representation matters, but how one is represented also plays an important role especially when it comes to telling stories.
Trauma seems to be a key narrative in any queer play. Most plays focus on the process of coming out and the isolation that occurs as a result of it. Stories retold are set in different settings such as World War 2 to the current generation. The first play that I read that was queer was ‘Bent’ by Martin Sherman. The play delves into the tragic suffering faced by a man during the reign of Hitler. He loses multiple love interests and finally ends the story by committing suicide. This depiction, although historically accurate, is scary to a teen who is trying to figure out their identity. A part of me was scared that I may be doomed to constantly lose friends or family when I do come to terms with my sexual orientation. The plays I read always talked about the nervousness of coming to terms with your identity, the fear of being rejected by the people you love, and the harsh reality that your life will never be the same. It often is portrayed as an experience that is traumatic and often incites negative reactions from the family around you.
I would often look for queer representation in non-traumatic storylines. I would look for queer representation in plays that were predominantly straight. I started envisioning that they too had internal battles about sexuality and maybe did not want to come to terms with the identity. The lack of causal representation made me internalise the thoughts that queer plays represented which were the punishment of being one’s self; that all we could be subjected to was ridicule, jeers or worse violence.
This trauma-based narrative often drive home the message subtly that being queer is not “normal”. It is important to tell these stories, it helps people understand the trials one faces in order to accept themselves and being accepted by society. These stories help cisgender and straight people to understand how they can be more empathetic and more considerate as an ally. But to a queer person, it often reiterates the struggles they have had and what they may expect.
The lack of representation in queer stories is often due to the cisgender viewpoint.. This viewpoint tries to depict the experience of how they understand it to be. They greatly reduce it to the coming out process as they have no other significant event they can attribute to the queer experience. They only limit the experience to the person owning the identity that is the beginning of the story and the end. They don’t associate queer narratives with any other storylines which are not trauma-based.
Happy storylines are almost nonexistent in queer culture. Most queer stories end with the family throwing out their kids, the love interest being straight, or folks having to move away from their old lives. The found family trope is a significant part of queer culture, which more often than not, is also rooted in a trauma-based narrative. ‘In the Heights’, with music and lyrics by Hamilaton’s creator Lin Manuel-Miranda, it is a musical which is one of the few plays where I have seen casual queer representation. The two side characters were a queer couple, but it is never explicitly stated. In fact, I didn’t even realise till their shared musical number. The representation was subtle. But it gave me hope. It was two queer people in a relationship and they were happy. Their story was so much more than their identity. It was about their community and the role they had to play. Even as a 22-year-old, who has come to terms with her identity, it sparked hope. Hope that one day I can be vocal about my identity and it won’t be my only defining characteristic. It mimics the sentiment that I had earlier. Representation matters.
I personally demand happy romantic comedy narratives. I demand queer characters in a storyline where their identity, while explicit, isn’t the main focus of the story. I demand background queer couples. I demand main leads who are queer, but that is not their only story. I demand domestic couples who are queer and stories of their marital bliss and shenanigans.
I want more stories that depict queer people as the norm. I want theatre to remove the constraints placed on them by the patriarchal society. I want queer people to be part of the narrative, I want them to lead it and I want them to be depicted as human beings leading their lives. We often forget that their identity is a mere part of them. It is not their entire being. We can have queer chefs who are looking to compete to be the best around the world. We can have stories of queer models who have to work hard as the sole breadwinners for their families. We can have a story of a murder mystery where it turns out that the person who is queer was the mastermind. We can take any straight narrative and add queer characters in order to help the audience understand that queer people are more than their sexual orientation or their gender identity.
I think it is time to let go of the trauma-based narratives that have come to define majority of queer theatre. It’s time to shed the idea that coming out is the only major event that can be associated with queer people. Queer people can be married, they can have kids, they can have jobs and they can change the world. Their potential is so much greater than just coming to terms with their identity. I think balance is healthy. I think it is important to depict the struggles they face. I also think it is important for a queer child in the audience to see a happy ending; for them to see a narrative where queer people are part of the norm, they are accepted and loved and they are out there living their best lives.
Theatre definitely has a major part to play in helping this idea to cultivate. It helps to plant this notion in people’s heads that queer people also deserve storylines like straight and cisgender people. The only difference may be in the people they love and the gender they come across as. They still hate traffic jams, they still worry about money and they still enjoy art. Theatre is an amazing way to help to get this message across. It will help people understand that people are more than their sexualities.