Seven Gestures Towards a New Queer Performance in Aotearoa
That the queer body is celebrated for its profanity and not only its potential to conform to the status quo.1
That the process of creating2 the work is a carefully considered reflection of the values reflected in the work itself.
That the lived experience is justifiably portrayed, not through crude mimesis.3 A careful consideration of what a lived experience is.
For the work never to forget the community4 in which it is indebted to and designed for.
Make work that is overtly queer: that is proud5 and unapologetically centers a queer experience, and isn’t afraid to name it.
Create scaffolding towards a vision of utopia. Don’t feel burdened to only reflect reality as it is, but rather the world as you would like it to be. Your art is a hammer as much as it is a mirror.6
The history of the work is to be archived7 comprehensively. Photography of the rehearsal and production process. Diary entries and journaling where possible. Build a zine of the process. Film a recording of the performance. Turn it into a radio play or podcast. Let it live in the cultural imagination in a myriad of ways. Let it live beyond the grave. Let there be new productions and revivals forever onwards.
I sometimes wonder what a neutral body might look like. There is a particular image that springs to mind, right? What do you think of when you think of neutral? My body will never be the neutral body in Aotearoa. And perhaps it shouldn’t be until the bodies of tangata whenua are first. If tomorrow my body became neutral though, there would still be the bodies of other othered people: fat bodies, disabled bodies, black bodies, indigenous bodies. My desire, my queerness, is fixed upon my relationship to my body and other bodies. My queerness is my desire. My desire for bodies. Some of these bodies are less like me than others. And the things my body does. My body leaks precum when I am horny. My body farts and it moans and grunts in unflattering ways. My body revolts and is sometimes revolting. But my body and my particular desire for bodies of certain types is what makes me queer. A desire of difference.
I am an artist. I am also a newly-dubbed arts administrator. How can I embrace the latter without forgetting the former? To destabilise the hierarchical ways of working that are treated as givens. Making art ethically is such a paradoxical exercise. It is either independent and underfunded, therefore not compensating people (including oneself) properly. Or, otherwise, it is funded and the money is from fraught hands, unsustainable hands. It is impossible to make ethical art under late capitalism. So, one must become an arts administrator. No, one must work towards changing arts policy. The only way to be an ethical artist is to not make art at all. Or maybe art and business were never meant to get along.
The romanticisation of method acting is dying. Of course, there is little question whether some actors can play gay roles well. Rather, what do these roles offer someone who can fulfil them without pretence? I wonder what truly revolutionary casting might look like. I wonder what the shock of that might do. When I see two gay Asian men hanging out in Fire Island (2022), it does shock me. But it’s a shock that feels not too dissimilar to ecstasy.
Queer culture is always at the risk of commodification as it progresses towards societal integration. Queer culture, as intrinsically disruptive as it is, is not impervious to being co-opted and appropriated. Mainstream media—and indeed wider society—is often searching for new ways to rebrand and stay relevant. It has often consumed and regurgitated queer culture to do so. It is easy to let this happen. To adore the bite of the parasite.
Pride is a rather contentious topic in the queer community. It is not an irony that shame is one of a queer person’s most profound emotions/guiding experiences. The history of queer work has been relatively subtextual. Down-low actors and writers recasting themselves through female protagonists. And, yet, in 2022, I long for something more tangible. I am struck by how little overtly queer work I have made myself. A more forgiving position to take would be that all queer work by queer artists is inherently queer. Sure, but only in so much as not voting is a political choice. After all, it’s not called Shame festival.
I am so much more suffused with hope these days. That hope hasn’t always been reflected in my work. The least I can do as an artist is help cast hope into the world. The consequences of negativity and pity are too easy to indulge. The history of queer work is so often bleak. It had to be, to reflect the conditions of the time. But it is also a limitation of one’s imagination to think only of the status quo. Therefore, radical queer joy is a profoundly political position. The autonomy and freedom of queer bodies is writ into legislation, writ into history, writ into our art.
The history of theatre in Aotearoa is poorly archived. This is doubly tragic in the case of queer work, because there is so little of it anyway. I have searched and scavenged for old gay plays and productions but am left with crumbs. I wonder what sort of plays I might have written had I discovered gay classics earlier. I wonder who I might be.
Nathan Joe is an award-winning playwright and performance poet based between Tāmaki Makaurau and Ōtautahi. His work tends to be confessional or autobiographical in nature, often wrestling with the experience of being Chinese-Kiwi diaspora through a queer lens.