There’s a dearth of queer work in Aotearoa, and very little of it is supported by our mainstages. Homos, or Everyone in America is a gleaming light in the darkness. Sam Brooks responds to the play, and talks to the director about its urgency.
(For the purposes of this piece, the label ‘queer’ stands in for LGBTQI+ as a label for work.)
As a queer person, and a queer maker of theatre, the dearth of queer work on our mainstages is keenly felt. When I think of the queer theatre made by and for New Zealanders that has been performed on our mainstages, it’s no coincidence that it’s some of our most acclaimed work: Silo Theatre’s Hudson and Halls Live, which played on almost every mainstage over the past few years: Chris Parker’s No More Dancing in The Good Room, also part of Silo Theatre’s main programme; and Victor Rodger’s Black Faggot, which had just one mainstage season at Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre.
But let’s stay in the present. Throughout the entire country, only two explicitly queer works will be performed on a mainstage this year. One is Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Christchurch’s Court Theatre, a cult musical about a transwoman that gained prominence after a Broadway production starring Neil Patrick Harris. The other is Cock at Wellington’s Circa Theatre, Mike Bartlett’s play about a man caught between two lovers, a man and a woman.
It’s directed by former Silo artistic director Shane Bosher, whose production of Jordan Seavey’s Homos, or Everyone in America is currently on at Q Theatre ‘s Loft (so just to be clear, not a mainstage). The show originally debuted in New York in 2016 to rave reviews and critical acclaim of the ‘best of the year’ and ‘essential viewing’ kind. It’s the story of two unnamed men, The Writer and The Academic, and their story of love, friendship and healing over a decade in New York. (As an aside, time seems to be passing so quickly that a play set even in last decade feels like a genuine period piece. We should all wish for the halcyon days of 2008.)
Shane Bosher is a name that comes with high expectations; you expect a high level of artistry and competence from the man who brought you Silo Theatre’s tremendous productions of When The Rain Stops Falling, A Streetcar Named Desire and Angels in America, not to mention the countless other shows he directed in his time there and elsewhere. Homos, or Everyone in America meets the bar he’s set for himself and frankly, the rest of us who make theatre. The performances – particularly from Arlo Green, digging deep into his character’s trauma – are excellent, the design is world-class, and there’s a tautness to the show that could very easily be lost if it weren’t so expertly controlled.
It’s not that Homos, or Everyone in America is important. God knows that nothing turns somebody off something good than being told it’s ‘important’ – we’d rather watch something intentionally unimportant than something that insists on its own significance. No, what Homos or Everyone in America feels is urgent.
A little of the show’s urgency is lost, but only because of the inevitable distance that a relocation brings. I have no doubt that the show – set in the long shadow of 9/11 and the tenuous glow of marriage equality – felt present, real and visceral when it premiered in the middle of Manhattan in 2016. But, three years and a few oceans removed, it makes me wish that our mainstages supported this kind of work from their own.
We’ve got the makers, we’ve got the stories, we’ve got the chops, we’ve definitely got the desire – so why aren’t we seeing this kind of work at the Waterfront Theatre, at Circa, at the Court, at Centrepoint? Why does it take independent companies like Brilliant Adventures to do the work that our mainstages should be doing?
This was one of the things I got the chance to talk to Bosher about after the show’s opening, as well as the vitality of this work now, and of queer makers making queer work in general.
Sam Brooks: There’s an urgency to the show that makes it feel really vital, and gives it a lifeblood. Can you talk about that?
Shane Bosher: One of the most potent threads in the play is about progress. It talks about the fact that while new laws can be forged to offer protections to LGBTQI+ people, it takes generations to change hearts and minds. Legal access to marriage doesn’t just catch us up. You only need to look at the recent hate crimes enacted on our community to know that we’ve got generations before inclusion and understanding are actually embraced by all. I don’t believe in the word tolerance. It’s been just 18 months since the Pulse nightclub shooting.
The recent homophobic and racist attack on [actor] Jussie Smollett happened the week that we opened. Closer to home, a performer in our own community was attacked on K Road. His face was stomped on. We’re just not there yet.
I also celebrate the fact that while the play riffs on personal politics, it does this at the same time as interrogating this thing we call love: how complex it is to build a relationship and stay in one, regardless of sexuality.
Jordan Seavey writes with such compassion about how bloody tricky it is to fall in love – and how we almost always bring so much baggage to the table. The candour with which he writes reminds me of that beautiful film Weekend. It’s just so knottily queer.
I mean, when have you ever heard two people onstage debate the use of poppers?
What do you have to say about the state of queer theatre in New Zealand?
I am hopeful and disappointed. I think there is a lot of brilliant work being created in our independent spaces, but those spaces are currently doing all the heavy lifting. And none of those artists are being paid a living wage, creating the work at significant personal cost.
The two best works I saw last year were made by Leon Wadham (Giddy) and Chris Parker (Camp Binch) – unfunded excellence. I’ve been hugely inspired by the work of next generation talents such as Leon, Chris, Jess Holly Bates and FAFSWAG have been making.
But when they’re too old-slash-experienced for The Basement, where do these artists go? How do they forge meaningful and sustainable careers that allow them to speak to the queer experience?
If Circa and the Court can use public investment to programme meaningful content, why can’t everybody else? There is a proven and supportive audience for LGBTQI+ work, particularly in Auckland. We are hungry to see our stories and our work is commercially impactful in terms of bums on seats.
At an event I went to last year, FAFSWAG could have filled the Auckland Art Gallery three times over. Where is their major theatre commission?
How important is it for queer artists to make work that is explicitly queer, or does the sheer fact that a queer artist is making work automatically make it queer?
If we don’t tell our own stories, who will? We must continually document, reflect on and challenge our own history. So yes, I think it’s vital to continue to make work that is explicitly queer. But I don’t think a queer artist making work automatically makes it queer however. Not always.
If I direct a play by Andrew Bovell, it’s a very good play written by Andrew Bovell directed by a guy who happens to be gay. I think it’s all relative to the conversation we are trying to have with our intended audience. Sometimes I want to interrogate sexuality, sometimes gender, sometimes class, sometimes family.
What’s your dream for the future of queer work in this country?
LGBTQI+ theatre in New Zealand has been predominantly cis, predominantly Pākehā, predominantly male. I want to hear and see everyone else’s stories.
I want to see the next generation of queer artists well-supported into sustainable careers, empowered to make work of cultural specificity and dignity. There is also still a generation of mid-career and established queer talent who need to be backed to continue; we have become incredibly ageist in our hunger for the new.
I want old history to talk to new history; I think we still have much to learn from each other.