"Preaching to the converted." (gay theater)(Gay & Lesbian Queeries)
Not long ago, I was performing My Queer Body, one of my full-evening solo pieces, in the beautiful Yale Repertory Theatre. This show explores the stories that our bodies carry and how the huge losses to AIDS challenge our deepest selves. The performance, I hope, is a journey through the most intimate pleasures and pains of being in our bodies in these difficult and juicy times. My Queer Body ends with a rousing call to claiming ecstasy and an image of a fabulous queer future replete with a black lesbian president. That's it in a nutshell. There is one point in the show when I wander naked out in the audience, exposed by the glare of the follow spot as I get close enough to see people. I look them in the eye and acknowledge them as the community occupying that theatre for that evening. I see their glasses. Feel their hair (maybe indulge in a quip about their haircare products). Notice the audience's wisdom. Discreetly, of course, cruise a boy. At a certain point, I sit on one of the audience members laps and look in their eyes. My butt naked on their laps. I try to speak clearly to them:
I'm sitting here with you now. I see your eyes. I see myself in your eyes. I could try to tell you some more sweet or scary stories like I was doing up on stage in those big red theatrical lights. But it wouldn't really matter what I did. Cause, right now sitting with you, whatever I do is gonna be wetter and messier and more human and more complicated than when I stand up there on the stage and think I'm gonna take you nice people into a Volcano.(1)
I said these words as I sat on the lap of a young man who was siring on the aisle (take that as a general warning). I looked into his face. Into his eyes. This young man began to shake. His face quaking. His eyes overflowing. He was trembling intensely but he was present in his gaze and really making contact with me. I was scared too. I wasn't sure what was going on for him. How intense was this for him? What unknown boundary had I crossed? Had I fucked somebody up? The performance continued:
I sometimes feel this border between my body and some friends who are really sick right now. It's like this nice coastline on your arm here. It's a border I want to cross, though. A coastline I want to pull people to. Maybe you have brought a special life preserver and you can teach me how to use it and we can throw it to all our friends who are sick and we can pull them back to shore. I want to hold these bodies really close so that not one more slips away. 
Anyhow, finally, I got back on stage where I belonged. I trusted that this momentary connection had been okay for this young man. After the show, as is my fashion, I immediately came out on the stage to talk with people. I like to leave the stage lights up and encourage folks to come up on stage. They can say hello to me or to each other. Before too long there were about a hundred or so people up on the stage of Yale Rep. They hauled themselves up onto the lip of the high stage or found the stairs and were chatting with each other, looking around, saying hello to me. I like to have people feel that the stage is a place where they are welcome. Their feet belong there too. Many people shared with me their experiences of the performance or made contact in some way that was important for them. The young fellow I had been with in the audience came up and we hugged. I asked him if sitting on his lap had been alright. He said it was, and explained that, because of the many things going on in his life as a queer man, our connection had been very intense for him. The performance had opened up some things within. We hugged again and he went off with his friend. Then a man came up to me and held my hand. He told me his lover had died of AIDS that morning in the hospital. In his arms. He told me he hadn't known what to do with himself. He chose to come and see my performance. He told me that the piece helped him in a deep way to be with his feelings of loss. It helped him claim the life that is in him for his future, the life that still breathes in his body. We talked for some time. Holding hands. Tuning in.
Now, clearly, this was a very charged gathering of people in New Haven. I'm not saying this was a typical night. But every night I step out onto a stage or performance space, I assume that many of the people who have assembled are in a dynamic and challenging experience as 'they enter the theatre. For many of them, their presence is literally a matter of life and death: while one audience member may be dealing with the upheaval of just having come out another may well have buried someone that morning. Mourning and celebration are the two poles of this life. I know they are often hovering quite near the surface of the community that gathers to see my work. These charged feelings are quite present in the theatres that I step out into, asking spectators to shout out a favorite place on their bodies. I know I am a queer performer presenting my homo-content work in a time of crisis. My work is also filtered through a complex set of political events around the right wing's attempt to censor lesbian and gay artists. Perhaps this makes these human gatherings for the work more pregnant with feeling and need. The call to community more pointed. I want to feel the full blast of the humanness of the situation. I want, as a performer, to be pulled and challenged. I want to serve, in some small way, this most human of gatherings. At this point in my life, I look at an audience and simply expect that people have just been to a funeral, or have just had delicious sex, or may have been recently queer bashed. I imagine each person carries these wounds and pleasures very close to them as they take their seats.
As the light comes up and I begin to speak, the beauty of these gatherings makes me feel many things. I feel humbled by their openness. Energized by human presence. Shamed by their authenticity. Emboldened by this challenge.
Among the many dismissive responses to lesbian and gay theatre and performance in the popular press and even among lesbian and gay people, the accusation that lesbian and gay artists are preaching to the converted is perhaps the most frequent. Surprisingly, it is also the one dismissive that lesbian and gay artists, intellectuals, and cultural workers have failed to provide with any forceful rebuttal or theorization. The ubiquity of the "preaching to the converted" dismissive becomes evident with any perusal of theatre reviews (from reviews of works as celebrated as Tony Kushner's Angels in America to reviews of new works in community-based venues by merging queer artists and playwrights) or any eavesdropping on gay people's own assessment of lesbian and gay theatre.(2) Such foreclosing comments arrive without reflection from a variety of critics and spectators alike. Mainstream theatre reviewers, for example, often dismiss queer artists who address queer issues for queer audiences for having a limited scope of address. Generally these critics see community-based work not as theatre but as propaganda; queer theatre, from this perspective, has little or no artistic value and queer audiences have little or no critical acumen. And yet queer spectators, too, participate in this kind of conjecture. Work that is explicitly directed toward a queer audience and performed in a community-based or queer-friendly venue is underattended, undervalued, and mocked - by lesbians and gay men - for its alleged naivete or predictability.
Such a contradiction - that, on the one hand, gay people harbor no critical distance from gay art, and that, on the other, gay audiences are themselves hypercritical of gay art - helps sustain the accusatory and shaming force of the "preaching to the converted" dismissive. In either case, the idea that an artist is preaching to the converted sets into motion a no-win discursive dynamic that implicates both the artist and the audience. The dismissive "preaching to the converted" response assumes queer artists to be didactic and queer audiences to be static. Mainstream reviewers who employ the phrase position queer people as needing to be preached to, while queer people who employ the phrase position queer audiences as defiantly against being preached at. Regardless of how the phrase is employed - whether it be to insist that queer artists am propagandists and queer audiences infantile, or to insist that queer artists are didactic and queer audiences bored with it all - lesbian and gay theatre that supposedly preaches to the converted is never understood as a valuable, or even viable, activity. Instead, the uncontested phrase shuts down discussions around the important cultural work that queer artists perform for their queer audiences. The result is yet another occasion of queer disempowerment, one which undermines the idea of building a community culture around an ongoing series of events and gatherings.
This collaborative essay is not meant to argue defensively against the "preaching to the converted" accusation. Rather we see our essay as a means to argue for preaching to the converted, as we understand the phrase: first, as a descriptive which names the potential affinities between the two terms of its locution - preacher/congregation, performer/audience; second (however much it historically has been deployed as a derogatory), as a descriptive for community-based, and often community-specific, lesbian and gay theatre and performance.
Lesbian and gay theatre, like many other marginalized identity-based community theatre movements, comes out of a history of political struggle. Enabled by the post-Stonewall liberation politics of identity that galvanized lesbians and gay men to come out and demonstrate to the world that "we are everywhere," lesbians and gay men established community-based theatres where lesbian and gay playwrights, actors, technicians, and others involved in the production of performance could both develop and refine their work without fear of reproach. Moreover, lesbians and gay men interested in theatre that spoke explicitly about lesbian and gay issues now had a theatre within the public sphere where subcultural codes, vernaculars, and customs could be articulated and shared, negotiated and contested. In New York City, for example, this process begins as early as 1958 with the founding of the Cafe Cino and continued with the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of other Off-Off Broadway theatres such as La Mama, the Judson Poets Theatre, the Glines House, and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous. In these Off-Off Broadway houses, lesbians and gay men were able to begin offering alternative representations to the standard fare of mainstream representation, what Don Shewey identifies as "frivolous fairies, psychotic bulldykes, and suicidal queens."(3) The founding of a new generation of lesbian and/or gay theatres in the early 1980s - such as San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros, New York City's WOW Cafe, and Seattle's Alice B. Theatre - extended the cultural work of their predecessors and were essential in developing both lesbian and gay artists and audiences locally, regionally, and nationally. Together these people forged energies to simulate and enact a sense of queer history and queer community. At once a place for queer art and queer gathering, lesbian and gay theatre remained primarily theatre of, by, and for lesbians and gay men.(4) The idea of forging community, however tentative or utopian, rested on the assumptions that community is a political necessity and a viable possibility. The history of lesbian and gay theatre accepts the notion of community as axiomatic and stages the struggle to sustain and expand community as one of its primary objectives.
The current critique of the mythos of a lesbian and gay community from post-identity politics theorists, public sphere analysts, queer activists of color, sexual radicals, and others who find loosely utopian community constructions to be, at best, problematic, puts pressure on lesbian and gay performers, theatres, and supporters to articulate more clearly both the feasibility of our objectives and the limits of our political projects.(5) And while it is fashionable to negate the significance of these early community-based theatres as simply reifying the culture of the (white) queer ghetto, as having been the result and symptom of the accumulation of (bourgeois) public space, and as having thus served their primary purpose, these negations may be premature and may inadvertently contribute to the closing of these important community institutions. The financial vulnerability of many of these theatres leads people to believe that their social function has been achieved and that the work at these theatres is no longer necessary. In part, there is truth in both of these assertions: Lesbian and gay issues are no longer confined to a cultural ghetto; (white) gay male culture at least has made some dent in mainstream culture, and (white) lesbian chic continues to hold some market trend, although less securely and always as market trend. Still, the mainstream interest in queer culture, in particular queer theatre and performance, is fragile and not systemically structured into the institutions that produce and finance mainstream production. Therefore, it needs to be said early on that the financial vulnerability of the queer arts is most often the result of an anti-art sentiment endemic in contemporary U.S. culture and, more directly, of the cultural wars fueled by the ongoing crisis of the National Endowment of the Arts; it is not the result of the artistic failure of queer artists.(6)
Moreover, given the development of lesbian and gay playwrights and performers - Tony Kushner, Claire Chafee, and Han Ong, among others - through the regional theatre system, it is tempting to conclude that lesbian and gay artists no longer need to work in exclusively lesbian and gay spaces to succeed. The argument that community-based lesbian and gay theatre outside of the regional theatre circuit is wanting in artistic merit thus puts into motion a binarism between established theatre venues and community-based venues that valorizes the former over the latter. Such a high culture/low culture distinction reveals its insistence on canonical prejudices and fails to account for the distinct audiences each system develops and markets. Certainly, much of the work produced by community-based lesbian and gay theatres is inconsistent on all levels of the artistic process - script, performance, production - and is often, regrettably, predictable. Crossdressing and drag, staples of lesbian and gay community-based theatres, are no longer in and of themselves politically subversive or stunningly theatrical. Like the well-made play, staged transvestism has become for lesbian and gay theatre what it often has been historically - a theatrical convention capable of subversiveness and theatricality, but not necessarily inherently so. And yet, despite these occasional artistic shortcomings, it would be a great disservice to dismiss the work of community-based lesbian and gay theatres as trivial. Many audience members derive great pleasure from the very conventions others may find objectionable. One can never gage the effect of the first experience of these conventions on the spectator nor can one conflate all spectators' experiences into a unified response; in other words, one person's experience of subversion may be another's experience of boredom, and vice versa. Equally important, much of the significant cultural work occurring in lesbian and gay theatre spaces results from the social dynamics of queer gatherings. The context and space of performance, for many queer spectators and participants, informs most forcefully their experience of the performance. In many ways, what is represented on stage is beside the point. This is not to suggest, by any means, that the artistic process does not matter. Many of us continue to expect important work to emerge from these institutions. Rather, the point here is that the context of the performance plays a crucial role in the aesthetic experience of our theatre going. Community-based queer theatre allows for its terms - community, queer, theatre - to coexist without competition or hierarchy.
Still it needs to be understood that the focus on the establishment of lesbian and gay theatres in the United States is only part of the story of the development of lesbian and gay theatre. Individual lesbian and gay performing artists, for whatever reasons, are not always presented by local community-based lesbian and gay theatres. Many of these theatres understandably prefer to work with the available pool of artistically talented and interested people living in their communities. It is not always economically feasible, artistically necessary, or politically viable to bring outside lesbian and gay talent into local community-based lesbian and gay projects. Queer solo performing artists offer a special challenge, since they generally need to rely on producing venues outside of their immediate local community for their work to reach other audiences. Presenting institutions such as the recently launched Josie's Cabaret and Juice Bar in San Francisco or New York's longstanding alternative performance space, P.S. 122 begin to accommodate this need with their support of lesbian and gay solo performing artists. While they may not be specifically lesbian and gay-identified venues, the participation of these presenting institutions in the development of lesbian and gay performing artists is a crucial and often unacknowledged factor in the history of lesbian and gay theatre. Queer-friendly and supportive presenting institutions provide an invaluable service in the development of an audience for lesbian and gay performance and in the nurturing of emerging and established queer performing artists.
In cities with neither a lesbian and gay theatre nor an established queer-friendly performance venue, individual presenters play a central role in supporting queer artists and audiences. Howie Baggadonutz, for example, is one of the primary presenters of regional and national queer artists for his community of Portland, Oregon; his efforts have enabled Portland to emerge as one of the most significant and lucrative harbors of queer performance on the West Coast. Sometimes these individuals are affiliated with a local college or university which ends up sponsoring the cultural event, often at the request and labor of the student lesbian and gay organizations. But these university connections are themselves vulnerable to university politics and procedures, student interest, and student matriculation. Nonetheless, universities continue to be some of the most prestigious gigs for performing artists. Their role in developing queer performance, while provisional, helps emerging and established performers get not only work, but also grants, residencies, and even, on occasion, teaching appointments.
Lesbian and gay theatre develops from and is sustained by the community-based labor of lesbian and gay theatre establishments, queer-friendly and supportive presenting venues, and individual lesbian and gay presenters. These cultural workers enable queer people to gather into the space of performance. Once gathered into this space, spectators, artists, and technicians enact, even if only temporarily, community.
The provisional and fragile community engendered by performance solicits from those assembled a dynamic (and impossible to determine and assess) relationship to the many aspects of the theatrical occasion. Theatre audiences, as Susan Bennett has demonstrated, bring any number of expectations to the theatrical event.(7) Lesbian and gay theatre audiences, moreover, bring to the theatrical occasion a specific social paradox. On the one hand, the support of many lesbian and gay audiences for community-based theatre results from the desire to be in a crowd of other lesbian and gay people. This desire rests on the comforts of identity politics and easily adapts to the primacy of sexuality in identity construction. And yet, on the other hand, many spectators also attend community-based events in order to defy the politics of sameness. Rather than upholding an uncritical stance towards the notion of queer community, many queer spectators set out to put pressure on this concept. This desire never rests, but rather prefers to unsettle the comforts of identity politics in the very space of its enactment. Thus, the impulse to seek community comes out of a series of relational and often contradictory tendencies ranging from the desire to be part of a community, however fabricated or temporal that concept of community may be, to the desire to test individual identity in opposition to the very concept of lesbian and gay community itself. Queer theatre audiences are dynamic social groups that cannot readily be reduced to a monolithic, static whole.
Queer theatre audiences, like all theatre audiences, defy simplistic categorizations and resist overly determined preconceptions concerning why we are even at the theatre. At the theatre, queer people gather to see old friends or acquaintances who may be in the audience, on the technical crew, or performing on stage; we go to the theatre to flaunt old and new lovers, cruise the crowd, or savor the moment when the theatre darkens and we can safely and discreetly hold our beloved's hand; we go to the theatre to parade our fashions and attitudes, to affirm our tastes, ideas, and values, and in order to be absorbed into a critical mass of subcultural resistance to the heteronormative muscle we must encounter continually in our daily lives. But we also go to the theatre for other reasons. Some of us arrive at the space of performance to defy queer collectivity even as we, paradoxically, enter into it; we enter into the space of performance as non-whites, transgendered, disabled, differently-sized, celibate; we enter into the space of performance as we enter other queer public space, disidentifying with the theatrical representation, the body in performance, the assembled crowd. Some of us arrive at the theatre with or without these aspirations or reservations; we enter into the space of performance because we know that magic and transformation sometimes happen here and our curiosity gets the better of us. We remember that performance puts into motion any number of emotions that circulate within the space of performance and that, occasionally, this dynamic transference of energy invigorates our lives, persuades us to return again and again to the theatre.
The idea of "the converted" assumes an inert mass of people which absorbs a performance uncritically and passively, without explicit interaction, and with immediate approval of the representation imbedded in the performance. The charge that queer artists are preaching to the converted reveals an arrogance on the part of the accuser, who assumes a knowledge of the people gathered in the space of performance. This charge assumes that a stable and static mass has arrived fully into an imagined state of conversion - a condition that, though not articulated, is both assumed and belittled. To claim that artists are only preaching to the converted implies a fixed position for the audience assembled that trivializes the ever-changing and never immediately apparent needs and desires of queer spectators. Imagining an audience as "the converted" relies on a binarism which insists on an either/or: either you are among the converted, or you are not. When critics write that performers are preaching to the converted, they locate audiences across an invisible but understood border of conversion; the spectators have gone over to the other side, have arrived, and have achieved a fixed state of grace. And this state of grace is nothing less than an irreversible state of loss. The cult of the converted is beyond redemption.
When the "preaching to the converted" dismissive is directed toward queer performance, it trivializes spectators' specific histories regarding queer identity and community. The dismissive disregards both the communal needs of the assembled crowd and the specific issues of the individual spectator. To dismiss queer performance as preaching to the converted presupposes that we, the already allegedly converted, no longer need occasions, events, and rituals where members of our community profess and perform to us their beliefs so that we in the assembled crowd can take these performances and incorporate their insights into our own continuing struggle to live in a deeply homophobic world. To dismiss queer work as preaching to the converted negates the terror of homophobia as it is experienced always and differently by queer people, it dismisses the emotional and political benefits of queer people's gathering together in shared public space, and it assumes a political stability for lesbians and gays that is as naive as it is politically dangerous.
If "the converted" exist - that is, if there is an identifiable critical mass of queers who together compose a congregation of people converted into believing in the necessity of queer identities and communities, culture and politics - then "the converted" needs to be understood as a dynamic assembly that both individually and communally enters into the space of performance to sustain the very state of conversion. Truth be told, however, the converted are never wholly converted. Rather, like the process of coming out, which is a lifelong project of continuous self-identifications and revelations, there is no definitive moment of absolute conversion. Instead, to be among the converted is to be open to a series of conversions, it is a Way of being that implies a constant state of negotiation and need depending on the specific psychosocial and sociohistorical occasions of our daily lives. Conversion, understood from this perspective, demands a continual testing of one's identity, if only as a means to affirm it. It implies vulnerability - and its occasional companion, consent - to a barrage of occasions that challenges queer identity and queer community. Abuse and coercion also linger alongside the vulnerable. Interesting then, that despite the history of libelous conjecture about queer people's imagined recruitment of the young, the inflammatory "preaching to the converted" dismissive is never rephrased as the less condescending but at the same time more threatening accusation that queer artists are "preaching to convert." Somewhere, conversion has occurred prior to performance; it's a done deal before you even enter the space of performance. Once in, there is no turning back.
There is, of course, an extremely strange irony to this "preaching to the converted" dismissive. There is an almost obsessive desire on the part of many mainstream and academic critics to separate completely theatre from its roots as sacred storytelling. The interweaving of ritual space ("church," if it doesn't make you nervous) and theatre is thousands of years old. This convergence appears in one form or other in most cultures around the world. Sacred space and theatre space so frequently overlap. Their precincts have often had the same street address. How big a leap is it really from some Greek chorus queen who was a servant to Dionysis doing a summer stock Oresteia in fifth-century B.C. to that performance at Yale Repertory Theatre? (A theatre which occupies, I might add, a former Calvary Baptist Church!) These spaces and choruses speak to each other. There are church services in theatre auditoriums. Performances in sanctuaries. The spaces themselves and the people who performed the rites were sometimes the same. In some cultures today they still are the same. These varied roles of priest, storyteller, shaman, and performer are knitted together across time, and their job descriptions spring from some of the basic stirrings and needs of human life: The story must be told. The dead must be remembered. The creation of the world must be explained. The feast requires song and celebration.
The roots of these communal tasks often lead us to the performers and the preachers. From the medieval church music-drama and morality plays to the retelling of Arjuna's questioning with the gods on the battlefields in a thousand performances of The Mahabarata, this overlap has been a crucial springboard for world drama. With the various fracturings of more recent history, this relation between preacher and performer often grew more and more contentious. In the Roman-Catholic world the clergy was disturbed by the proliferation and popularity of these non-liturgical church dramas. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) prohibited theatrical performances in churches. Gregory IX backpedaled a few years later, saying these popular church dramas were tolerable as long as their goal was "ad devotionem excitandem" (to excite devotion).(8) Even though words like "to excite devotion" could be variously interpreted by church artists (could maybe even spell big box office!), this edict did create an acceptance for theatrical expression as sacred drama.
Enter. Stage left. The Renaissance. With a flourish.
Theatrical texts and presentations begin an exile from their parallel life as identifiable liturgical drama. Keep the preachers out of the play. And the drama out of the sermon. The precincts are now across town from each other. Some of this separation can be traced to an understandable alienation from mainstream Christian culture experienced by many artists and intellectuals. But, within that alienation, there is a deeper mistrust of any kind of spiritual system that suggests higher power, shared belief, or community purpose. Theatre has created a set of new liturgies with a spiritual function addressing the big questions: What happens when we die? How do we explain terrible events? Is moral action possible? But these new secular themes rest on a highly policed, if perhaps artificial, separation. The policing can be quite strict, in fact. The most censure I ever felt from an extended community of theatre artists was not in one of my many naked homoerotic solo performances. It was when I collaborated with Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd on a series of "performance art sermons" at Saint Augustine-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica, California.(9) In crossing the church/theatre separation - or the priest/performer split, for that matter - I felt I had broken a deeply rooted rule to maintain a totally secular posture as a theatre artist.
This schism of spirit from the theatre can be especially problematic for lesbian and gay people, who often have had an inscribed role both in sacred ritual and storytelling. In Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn, lesbian poet and cultural historian, charts this duality:
This participation is a natural inheritance, for theatre began as the ceremonial dramas and rites whose purpose was the reenacting of spiritual events for the benefit of tribal and village people. And it was the Gay shamanic priesthood who was in charge of these ritual dramas. The faggot sorcerer with his fagus wand and his costumes representing the god-forces and animal spirits of the universe in which his people lived took center stage and gave direction in the ceremonial theatrical functions and tribal origin stories. The formal traditional theatre retains much of its original purpose as rite, the reenactment of transformation. The curtain, or veil of vision or consciousness opens to display a second world, a state of being different from the everyday one. It is a world which the audience agrees to enter by contracting both emotionally and intellectually to believe in the story being told.(10)
The preacher's voice has had a huge influence on the performer's voice in the United States. Theatre here, especially solo performing, also has been powerfully affected by an extreme valorization of individual speech and public assembly; a forceful public speaking ability is a valued skill. This cultural inheritance is one explanation for the explosion of solo performance here. In other English-speaking nations, it is often noted how comfortable Americans are holding forth with their opinions. The veiled comment here, of course, is that we won't shut the fuck up. But the important truth is that we do place value on having our voices heard. The American ego places importance on speaking your piece and doing it in a compelling manner. This tendency, when mixed with the rich legacy of feminist autobiographical performers of the 1970s who dared to place importance on individual experience, has created a powerful new theatre of witness and testimony.
It would seem that the supposed need to separate the sacred from the theatrical, the sermon from the soliloquy, is in fact an odd obsession. And for lesbian and gay people it is often a censorious one. For queer people, the act of being witnessed is inevitably both sacred (i.e. transformational) and performative. From the ritual and theatrical life-action of "coming out" to the urgent necessity of telling the tale of who we are, the lesbian and gay experience is often chartered by a set of initiations and gestures that are designed to be participated in and witnessed. The solo performer, in this cultural situation, often exists in a complex vortex of expectations and roles: emcee, sacrificial lamb, minstrel, priest, and entertainer. S/he may experience simultaneously the needs of self and community as they manifest themselves in his/her experience, and may try to notice where these needs overlap - to locate the site of a potential conversion/transformation. This could take the form of a renewed commitment, or a call to action. It could dare a journey within, make possible a time for focus, or demand a certain consciousness.
Many performers are accepting this set of challenges and are daring to make community calls. Their manifestos are often unequivocal calls to action. They are often programmatic and specific. The artist might even go so far as to provide useful recipes for confronting and transforming internalized racism, self-hatred, or shame. This has been especially true of a host of queer performers who have cut through the so-called neutrality often held up as the jackpot in the treasury of values for which an artist should strive. These artists have found instead a more engaged and direct mode of expression. The necessity of responding to AIDS and the right-wing attacks on lesbian and gay culture has demanded a variety of more immediate expressions in performance. Michael Kearns's charged reclamation of his sexual self in the face of AIDS in his solo, Rock, provides spectators with techniques to do the same. Annie Sprinkle, in Post-Porn Modernist, leads us through her exploration of her body and includes us in a participatory ritual at the end of her performance. At the conclusion of Fierce Love: Stories from Black Gay Life, the Pomo Afro Homos look the audience directly in the eye as they exclaim that "our stories must be told; our lives, forever real, must be cherished; and our love, forever rising, must be - has got to be, no doubt about it - as strong as our ancestors and twice as fierce."(11)
The heat of this more direct statement has been shared by many other artists who work in relationship to other communities also under attack. The eco-feminist manifestoes of Rachel Rosenthal call the community to a more conscious relation between the individual and the planet. Guillermo Gomez-Pena's complex and fluent performances challenge the public assembled to confront the racist implications of mono-lingual culture. The visceral cries of Karen Finley pull us to own the fucked-up families we come from and to create our new families by gathering these "black sheep" together. Performer Dan Kwong leads us through his personal history as a Japanese/Chinese American, providing audiences a model for moving through internalized oppressions.
How does a performer follow the creative impulse and locate the voice to make this address to audiences? Judy Grahn notes that the audience must agree to enter the theatre's second world; may we not also assume the audience can agree that certain issues are worthy of being addressed, may even require addressing? For an audience of lesbians and gay men, these issues will probably include (though not be limited to): sex, homophobia, AIDS, coming out, body image, family. This agreement is not static or concrete and probably depends on certain acts of faith. For an artist, it requires believing that there do indeed exist certain potential messages that may be received by certain identifiable groups of human beings, and that these particular messages will be of interest, even urgency, to some members of this group. Most human communication of any sort relies on a similar sequence of "acts of faith"; the process is just more apparent in the ritualized communications that take place in the theatre.
In the creation of my most recent full-evening performance, Naked Breath, I made a leap into a topic that carries a lot of tension in my community of queer men: sexual intimacy between HIV-negative and HIV-positive men. I felt called to this subject because my own life demanded it. I was finding myself in a variety of intimate relations with men who are positive or are people with AIDS. I was required to sift through my feelings and fears around this intimacy in my own life. Because I teach a great deal within my community, I was seeing the same subject come up again and again in the performance workshops that I lead for gay men. It became clear to me that my own deepest need to claim sexual connection in the face of the AIDS crisis was a necessary subject both for me and for my tribe. This called the piece forward.
I told the story of a boyfriend of mine in New York City who is HIV positive. I told about our meeting on a street where a lover of mine who had died of AIDS, the performer John Bernd, used to live. I shared the complexities of eros and fear that accompany all our acts these days. I made the manifesto that we can and should safely claim our desire with each other. That we can confront our fears and be in this time fiercely: "Cross that line! Take the scariest chance and seize the slippery day. Whatever it takes, do it! Like your life depends on it. Which it does."(12)
Performance artist, heal thyself. By sifting through my own sense of deep need, as it speaks to my observations and participation in community, I identify a hot-spot. I explore the feelings surrounding this theme. I propose some plans of action that address my own needs and might possibly be of use to others in my community. I desire to convert our private and communal fears into a courage to connect with each other, to convert the anxieties we face in these troubled times into a deep commitment to face the challenges in our daily lives.
I am open to conversion. I am willing to allow myself the possibility of being disciplined into other people's fantasies, ideologies, performances. It doesn't always happen. Something to do with the chemistry, I imagine; the alchemy is sometimes off. Lately, I have been interesting in expanding the field of my theatre-going and exploiting the infinite pleasures promised by performance. I ask myself: Why foreclose? I even went to see the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees; the alchemy was off, but at least we tried. I left the theatre singing "You Gotta Have Heart" - for weeks. I didn't realize I liked the song. Is this conversion?
I go to great lengths to see everything directed by Joanne Akalaitis - Genet's The Screens at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Henry IV Parts I & II at the Public in New York City, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Goodman in Chicago - because I think she's a brilliant director. I'm always engaged, always enthralled by her work, even if, on occasion (Buchner's Woyzeck), she misses the mark. Is this conversion? Blind faith? In the summer of 1993, I flew into New York City from Seattle to see her production of Jane Bowles's In the Summer House. I was on a theatre run; a binge really. Of course, I was there to see friends, but I spent most of my time in New York running in and out of the theatre, some would say, indiscriminately. Friends know that I am a generous theatre-goer, some of them tell me I am too much so. They know, since I always tell them, that I will usually find something worthwhile about the production. Have I been converted into an uncritical love for performance? If so, when did it happen? Was it Martin Sherman's Bent, featuring Richard Gere, on Broadway, which I saw when I was a queer teen? Does this explain why I giddily keep returning to the 1993 revival of Carousel at Lincoln Center? Or why I saw Jeffrey, at the Minetta Lane, dare I admit it, twice? Is such promiscuous theatre-going queer?
During that 1993 New York City summer theatre run, I ended up one Monday night at Dixon Place, Ellie Covan's living room performance space, south of Houston Street on the Bowery. Dixon Place is a very casual performance space, it's a place where artists perform their works-in-progress. Generally, performances are closed to critics; no reviews. Tickets are under ten dollars. In place of theatre seats, there are couches, lounge chairs, love seats. Dixon Place is quite small; seating for maybe sixty people, if that. This is a neighborhood performance space, not specifically queer, but unequivocally supportive of queer artists. I arrive with my friend, Bob; we are here to see Holly Hughes perform her latest solo piece, at the time provocatively titled Snitches from Snatches. Now it tours as Clit Notes, no less provocative. Bob and I are resting on a couch in the very front of the stage. Holly Hughes enters and, facing us, sits on a chair in the very front of the stage, too. If I wanted to, I could touch her. Instead, she touches me.
I have been a big fan of Holly Hughes for some time. I teach her work in my classes on lesbian and gay studies, on U.S. theatre and performance, and on "minority" discourse, and I teach many of the essays and reviews written by feminist and lesbian performance theorists about her plays and solo performances. The bibliography on her work is considerable; the critical assessment of her work ranges from the near disdainful to the near reverential, and this wide scope of opinion arises from her lesbian theorists.(13) I tend to align myself on the side of the near reverentialists. I admire the way that she is able to finesse humor and charm with difficult personal and cultural material (I'm thinking especially of World Without End) and the way she has been able to help forge a new, and at times hotly contested, lesbian aesthetic (I'm thinking especially of Well of Horniness). Snitches from Snatches, now Clit Notes, is quite humorous, is filled with charm and charisma, bears witness to important social issues, and contains many of the qualities I have come to expect from her work. But, in truth, nothing has prepared me for the sermon on shame that she will deliver tonight. Clit Notes is her first new solo material since the infamous summer of 1990, when her solo performance grant - along with the grants to Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller - was rescinded. The last time I had seen her perform was in Los Angeles in 1991 - World Without End, on a special bill with new work by Tim Miller and John Fleck.
Performers like Holly Hughes are always accused of preaching to the converted. But what does this really mean? Holly Hughes is a community-based lesbian playwright and performer, a product of WOW Cafe; since the early 1980s, she has been a vital and vibrant contributor to New York City's East Village performance scene. Her plays are produced in theatres throughout the United States and she herself tours her solo material widely. On that Monday night - and on every other night I have seen her perform this work since - the performance enters into my body and moves me. I am not sure that I can explain it any more clearly, but I will try.
Clit Notes is essentially three stories: the first has to do with her father, his cancer, and Hughes's relation to both; the second concerns her early experiences with feminism and with the theatre; and the third is about her relationship with her lover, the lesbian singer and artist, Phranc. These stories are prefaced by a two-pronged prologue composed of her personal experiences with presumed authorities on sexuality (Dr. Reubens, the author of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex), on art (John Frohnmeyer, the former Chairperson of the NEA), or on both (her lesbian critics).
In all of these stories, Hughes professes vulnerability. Is she a victim? Is she a martyr? Is she a lesbian? Is she an artist? Of course she is; that's the easy part. It's not difficult to arrive at these conclusions. The proof of the pudding, as Brecht claims, is in the eating. For me, these questions miss the point. Instead, I wonder, in the wake of the NEA fiasco, what stories will she tell? I am here at Dixon Place for one reason only. Okay, maybe two. I want to support her work. I arrive as the converted. In part, I am here because I find that I still need to locate us within some mythic idea of queer community. But I am also here because her work seems always to resonate in the deep caverns of my queer psyche. I wonder, which queer nerve will she strike tonight?
Clit Notes is a performance about shame. Hughes tells stories of how she's been shamed - by her father, by other lesbians, by the government, by random people on the street. Shamed for being a lesbian. Shamed for being shameless. From this, the queer paradox: shamed our entire lives, we are accused of being shameless. Holly Hughes: "I wish I had no shame! Sometimes I think that shame is all I got."(14) She performs a profound exploration of shame in all its insidiousness and contagion, describing in brief breaths how shame has formed her sense of self. Eve Sedgwick: "Shame, as opposed to guilt, is a bad feeling that does not attach to what one does, but to what one is."(15) The piece is about shame's effects and her attempts to transform shame or, at least, learn to live with it. Here is a section from the third story. It begins with a reflection on her lover Phranc's butchness, which I won't quote, and concludes with an anecdote of a trip to San Diego, which I will:
Don't you hate it when people ask you what you are?
As if you had any idea? All I know is that I am a woman who loves another woman who most people think is a man and that once we were in San Diego together, ok?
We checked into the best motel, the Hanalei. Polynesian from the word go. Outside a pink neon sign announces: "A Taste of Aloha." You can taste it before you even check in. There's styrofoam Easter island heads everywhere. The bed's a volcano. Every night there's a luau. It's free, it's gratis.
So of course we go. And I love the way they slip those pink plastic leis over your head. I just love that! I love the thought of those day-glo flowers blooming long after Jesse Helms is gone. I hope.
I look out on the astro-turf. Kids chasing each other around. Folks sipping Mai-tais and Pina Coladas out of plastic pineapples. They've got a helluva show at the Hanalei. Hula dancers. Fire eaters. A Don Ho impersonator that's much better than the real Don Ho.
Nobody cares it's not the real Polynesia. It's all the Polynesia they could take. It's the one we invented.
During "Tiny Bubbles" she starts kissing me. Everybody's looking at us. But you can only see what you want to see. And what these folks want to see is not a couple of dykes making out at their luau. So that's not what they see. They start translating their reality. What they think they're seeing is Matt Dillon making out with a young Julie Andrews. A young Julie Andrews. Before "Victor/Victoria."
I don't mind. I'm not in the closet! I'm so far out of the closet that I've fallen out of the frame entirely. They don't have any words for us, so they can't see us, so we're safe, right?
I get confused. I forget that invisibility does not insure safety. We're not safe. We're never safe, we're just . . .
You tell me.
Holly Hughes concludes her performance with these words, a window that opens up Clit Notes from the deeply subjective to - well, the deeply subjective. I'm not sure who she's addressing at the end, or if it even matters. Who's the us, the you, and the me in these final moments? I feel implicated in all the terms. And so, I play the parts. I want to answer her, but I, too, now want to know. What are we? - "we're just . . . You tell me." I want to fill in the ellipses, answer the call, but I get stuck in the window. She's brought me in, her stories resonate with some of my own. Funny how solo performance is either understood as someone preaching or someone confessing. For me the best autobiographical solo pieces are windows into a world that is both my own and not my own.
So what is she preaching here? I leave New York thinking about her performance incessantly. I am stunned by her artistry, how she is able to sit in a chair and transform personal crisis - the private and the public shamings - into a lyrical reclamation of identity. But it's the sermon on shame, and not her individual journey with shame, that forms a residual haunt in my head. I wonder how shame has formed my own identity, how it shapes my sexuality. When I was very young, my mother started claiming, in varying tones of voice and with distinct affects but always only in Spanish, her first language, that I was sin verguenza. I had no idea what she meant by this, it simply became for me my Homeric epithet, what my mother put on me. She never delivered the phrase in any way that would demand from me a specific response other than the recognition that her words were a type of naming. Sin verguenza. Years later, I figured it out: without shame. These days I wonder if my mother, who always pulls through for me, was offering me some kind of power, a gift that in its expletive performance was meant to be a hope. This may be too generous an interpretation.
Eve Sedgwick speculates that "for certain ('queer') people shame is simply the first, and remains a permanent, structuring fact of identity: one that has its own, powerfully productive and powerfully social metamorphic possibilities."(16) Sedgwick's prototype for all of this is Henry James. But she could easily be describing the work of Holly Hughes. Did anyone ever accuse Henry James of preaching to the converted? Everywhere you turn reviewers are claiming that Hughes is preaching to the converted: What does this dyke have to say to me, they demand; and where's the shock? I can't answer these questions for them (or for anyone else for that matter). Who knows? maybe they are right: nothing at all. But I can tell you this. I left Dixon Place exhilarated - shocked, I guess you could say - by the power and nakedness of her performance. A few stories were told, queer parables; something happened, a window was opened. "You tell me." I hear these final words as yet another performative stance of her vulnerability, an invitation (or is it a concession?) to interpretation, expropriation. But I also hear a summons in her closing lines that asks me to tell my own story, to preach. Over-identification? Perhaps. Sometimes I go to queer theatre and over-identify. I write myself into the plot. Or, I want to be Bottom. I want to play all the parts: "Let me play Thisby"; "Let me play the lion too."(17) I want to be in the representation, help produce or perform it, sometimes revise it.
Queer theatre, like all theatre, is about conversion and transformation. Bottom's journey in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the queer one; through him we can see the trajectory of queer performance. Set against the nuptials, queer performance is mocked and derided, shamed by the critical authorities in the very process of its performance: "It is not for you. I have heard it over, / and it is nothing, nothing in the world;/Unless you can find sport in their intents" (5.1.77-79). Shame's performative, however, is metamorphic. Queer performers preach this metamorphosis, and queer audiences are invited to preach it, too. "You tell me." And so it is that we assemble and disperse. Gather and disband. Of all the illusions produced by performance, for me the most immediate is the illusion that performance can accommodate all of my desires at once. This is the lure of performance and, of course, its failure. And yet, like Bottom, I still go for whatever I can get.
The "preaching to the converted" dismissive surfaces often for community-based artists, and while its specific charge to lesbian and gay gatherings beckons forth and is symptomatic of a larger cultural anxiety around queer issues, queer artists and audiences are not the only people who must confront it. Most political artists from marginalized communities are vulnerable to this dismissal. The dialetical tension between the assumption that political artists are preaching a type of ideological redundancy to a group of sympathetic supporters and the possibility that community-based performers and audiences are participating in an active expression of what may constitute the community itself, obscures the fact that these very marginalized communities are themselves subject to the continuous rhetorical and material practices of a naturalized hegemonic norm. Hegemony's performance forces its subjects to a conversion into its alleged neutrality its claims to the true and the real. Political performers who practice what Cornel West so aptly identifies as "prophetic criticism" expose these coercive attempts out to maintain the hegemonic norms that govern and discipline our daily life.(18) The persistent attacks on the emerging multicultural agenda in this country have created a kind of battle fatigue. The nascent consensus that we must engage in hearing other people's stories, myths, and images has frayed severely. The "preaching to the converted" slap can be an easy out for some people to detach from the necessary and difficult work that is required to bring forth cultural equity. It can be a technique to devalue specific voices. What people are often really saying when they drag out the "preaching to the converted" critique is: "I'm tired of having angry black men, scary women, and shameless fags disturbing my post-theatre dinner!" Even more dangerously, within the byzantine workings of oppression culture this dismissive can also be a method - for members of any addressed community - to silence the heat and danger of a message that just maybe hits too close to home. We believe that the work of those who commit to the "new cultural politics of difference" will unsettle the force of the systems that sustain the regulatory regimes of power which insist on positioning us as marginal, abject, and in light of AIDS, disposable.
Community-based and community-identified artists and audiences offer each other necessary opportunities to rehearse the constitutive reiteration of our own identities in light of these facts, and a direct, proactive resistance to, defiance of, hegemony's own unending production of what does and does not constitute, in Judith Butler's phrase, "bodies that matter."(19) Thus the "preaching to the converted" dismissive conceals yet a second, related agenda: When conservative critics dismiss community-based art projects on the grounds that this art is only propaganda, they also attempt to undermine the social movements that engender these art projects. The right's attack on progressive culture in the NEA crisis and the anti-p.c. movement (to name only the most obvious examples) effectively positions the arts as a low casualty. Efforts to stifle the arts are, in essence, efforts to stifle the transformative cultural movements and social actions with which community-based arts see themselves in direct relationship. At the very least, these artists reclaim the once-longstanding alliance between performers and spectators as members of community who, in the enactment of communal ritual, enable the power of individuals to gather and perform the necessary constitutive rehearsal of identity.
But maybe here, in this essay and with these words, we too are only preaching to the converted. And yet, writing for readers of a journal dedicated to the theatre in a special issue on lesbian and gay theatre about the ways in which queer theatre is derided and dismissed doesn't in itself secure a readership sympathetic to these concerns. One could say, for example, that we presuppose a converted readership which accepts queer theatre as a legitimate, authorized area of concern - and therefore that we are preaching to the converted. Or, that we set out to help legitimate and authorize queer theatre as an area that should be critically engaged - and therefore we are preaching to convert. Most likely, we are vulnerable to charges that question the combined effort of both these supposed strategies.
Nonetheless, by naming the readers of Theatre Journal a community, we hope to put forward the idea that such a community does exist, however disparate we are to each other. We also make a call to remember that no named community exists in isolation. Each reader of Theatre Journal, like each member of any audience, moves in a complex series of connections and engagements that can amplify and enlarge any discussion which begins in a publication or a performance venue. All our voices grow immeasurably in discussions with friends, colleagues, students, and co-workers. For those of us engaged in the collaborative process of creating, considering, and teaching community-based theatre and performance, a momentary pause to honor the work we have dedicated our lives to seems warranted, even necessary. In acknowledging our venue, we acknowledge our audience. And from these acknowledgments, we locate the positions from which we speak, profess, and preach.
This essay emerged from an ongoing discussion we are having with our friends and colleagues. A version of the conversion section, which discusses the work of Holly Hughes, was presented by David Roman at the 1994 Modern Language Association Convention in San Diego on a panel sponsored by the Drama Division. Questions and issues raised at the session helped clarify many of our points. Thanks to Holly Hughes for sharing her script of Clit Notes.
1 Tim Miller, My Queer Body, in Sharing the Delerium: Second Generation AIDS Plays and Performances, ed. Therese Jones (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993), 326.
2 A notable recent example of the "preaching to the converted" dismissive is Arlene Croce's refusal to review choreographer Bill T. Jones's Still/Here, which was performed in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy in December 1994. Still/Here was inspired by a series of workshops Jones led for people with life-threatening and terminal illnesses including AIDS, but for Croce, The New Yorker's leading dance critic, Jones and his audiences are "co-religionists in the cult of the Self" and the performance - which she has not even seen - "victim art"; see "A Critic at Bay: Discussing the Undiscussable," The New Yorker, 26 December 1994/2 January 1995, 54-60. Croce's attempt to insert herself into the cultural wars succeeds, in part, because of the venue of her writing; the amazingly blantant racism and homophobia of her position is seemingly occluded by the New Yorker's position as a reputable periodical of the arts. Moreover, Croce's dismissal of Bill T. Jones seems permissible since the magazine printed it only a few weeks after publishing a celebratory profile of the choreographer by Henry Louis Gates. The nearly sequential pairing of these two essays suggests that the New Yorker needed to counter Gates's intelligent appraisal of Jones with Croce's stinging rebuttal of him in the spirit of an alleged balanced journalism. For intelligent responses to Croce's condemning rhetoric, see Richard Goldstein, "The Croce Criterion," The Village Voice, 3 January 1995, 8; Deborah Jowitt, "Critic as Victim," The Village Voice, 10 January 1995, 67; Frank Rich "Dance of Death," The New York Times, 8 January, 1995, A19; and last but not least, letters from Tony Kushner, bell hooks, and others published in The New Yorker itself, 30 January 1995, 10-13.
3 Don Shewey, introd., Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays (New York: Grove, 1988), xi.
4 See Richard Owen, "Of the People, By the People, For the People: The Field of Community Performance," in High Performance's special issue on community-based performance, 16.4 (1993): 28-32.
5 The bibliography on the critique of a lesbian and gay community is enormous. Michael Warner's introduction to, along with the essays in, his anthology Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), is perhaps the best place to start given its survey of the issues and its substantial bibliography. See also Radical America's two-issue focus on "Becoming a Spectacle: Lesbian and Gay Politics and Culture"; 24:4 (1993) and 25:1 (1994).
6 And, of course, varying degrees of homophobia. See Alisa Solomon, "Art Attack," American Theatre, March 1992, 18-24 and 57.
7 Susan Bennett, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (London: Routledge, 1990).
8 Fletcher Collins, Jr., Introd., The Production of Medieval Church Music-Drama (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1972), 6.
9 Tim Miller, "Jesus and the Queer Performance Artist," in Amazing Grace: Stories of Lesbian and Gay Faith, ed. Malcolm Boyd and Nancy L. Wilson (Freedom: Crossing Press, 1991), 57-66.
10 Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue (Boston: Beacon, 1984), 226-28.
11 Brian Freeman (with additional material by Eric Gupton and Djola Bernard Branner), Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life, unpub. performance script, [C] 1990 by the authors.
12 Tim Miller, Naked Breath, unpub. performance script, [C] 1994 by the author.
13 See Kate Davy, "From Lady Dick to Ladylike: The Work of Holly Hughes," in Acting Out: Feminist Performances, ed. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 55-84 for a history of Hughes's career and a bibliography; and see also Hughes on her own work in Cindy Carr, "No Trace of the Bland: An Interview with Holly Hughes," Theater 24.2 (1993): 67-75.
14 Holly Hughes, Clit Notes, unpub. and unpag. playscript, [C] 1994 by the author.
15 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Queer Performativity: Henry James's The Art of the Novel," GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.1 (1993): 1-16.
16 Sedgwick, 14.
17 Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in the Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1. 2. 51 and 1. 2. 70.
18 Cornel West, "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and West (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).
19 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge 1993).
Tim Miller is a solo performer. He is the artistic director of Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, CA, and cofounder of P.S. 122 in New York City. He teaches in the Graduate Theatre Program at UCLA. David Roman is a visiting Assistant Professor at Yale University and Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. His book, Acts of Intervention: U.S. Theatre and Performance, Gay Men, and AIDS, will be published by Indiana University Press.
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|Author:||Miller, Tim; Roman, David|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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