On June 22nd of this year, mere weeks before my play We All Got Lost opened at The Westdale in Hamilton, transgender activist Cedar Hopperton was arrested just outside of Gage Park’s annual Pride Festival for their involvement in a violent confrontation between religious anti-LBGTQ+ protesters and queer counter-protesters, one which made regional headlines and triggered several anti-hate demonstrations outside Hamilton City Hall.
In a statement issued to the public, the Hamilton Police Service attempted to justify the arrest by claiming that Hopperton violated their parole (the local resident pled guilty last November to their involvement in a Locke Street vandalism spree) by participating in a “public demonstration where peace was disrupted.” No anti-LBGTQ+ protesters (with hate signs) were arrested nor jailed.
This, of course, passionately enraged (there it is!) members and allies of the local 2SLGBTQIA+ community, especially given the Hamilton Police Service’s long and frightening history of violence against queer people. The HPS were originally not welcomed to participate in Pride for this reason.
Protesters who had witnessed the violence testified that Hopperton, a passionate LGBTQ+ advocate, was actually not responding to the hate in a violent manner and was, instead, attempting to intervene and defend their queer allies. When Hopperton came back at the police force with a heated anti-hate speech (that essentially expressed their distrust in the cops for not keeping queer people safe) at city hall, they were jailed.
It was in this sickening climate that We All Got Lost, our queer-feminist anti-conservative beast of a play, was getting ready for a run on the Fringe circuit.
The show had already picked up a New Play Contest win (after placing as a finalist in the Winnipeg competition) and, on that note, was only the second instance in Hamilton Fringe history where a woman had won the contest – and the first time a young, local woman with a story about young women had won it.
To say that I felt the weight of this would be an understatement. It led me to a series of complex questions, one in particular that plagued me:
How and where do (or should?) my identity politics overlap with my artistry?
There’s a provocative essay written by Jeanette Winterson in her Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery collection in which she explores the paradox of being publicly labelled as a “lesbian” artist. This essay is entitled The Semiotics of Sex, and any attempt of mine to condense or summarize her musings would fail miserably – some of it I agree with, and some of I don’t (the published year is 1997 and the year, today, is 2019 – of course art and theory, and specifically queer art and theory, evolve) but here are some juicy, digestible bits that would fit this post well:
“In any discussion of art and the artist, heterosexuality is backgrounded, whilst homosexuality is foregrounded. What you fuck is much more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. It may be because the word ‘sex’ is more exciting than the word ‘book’. Or is it? Surely that depends on what kind of sex and what kind of book? I can only assume that straight sex is so dull that even a book makes better reportage.” (Ah, Winterson – always cheeky!)
And, only a few lines later:
“I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.”
What is it about? Prurience? Stupidity? And as Descartes didn’t say, ‘I fuck therefore I am.’? The straight world is wilful in its pursuit of queers and it seems to me that to continually ask someone about their homosexuality, when the reason to talk is a book, a picture, a play, is harassment by the back door.”
The first time that I read this essay, it struck me as being relevant to a number of discussions I’d been having with queer friends and colleagues. A lot of my work, in theory, contributes (in one way or another) to conversations surrounding feminism and technology, queerness and capitalism.
In short, I like to keep “myself” out of my own playwriting work, not due to some crippling autobiographical anxiety (my folk music proves otherwise), but because I honestly feel that I don’t matter. Work precedes and exceeds me. That is my nature as a creative.
That being said, I also come from a place of social privilege. I am a cisgender white woman from a middle class family. I am femme and hetero passing and I have dated many men. My struggles have, for the most part, been visible in (albeit fetishized by) popular culture and media. I do not believe that placing my identity at the forefront of my work has an active, provocative, disrupting purpose.
But a lot of this changed when I went through the experience of curating Objects: London, Portrait of a City, which was my first solo installation/exhibition as a Resident Artist at the TAP Centre for Creativity.
Objects was, among many other things, an experiment with (and lesson in) confessional discourse. The installation demanded I disclose some of my most personal and intimate experiences, some of which of a romantic or sexual nature, for viewers’ consumption and for the overall affect of what I was trying to achieve. The exhibit is now facing an online reprise on my personal website, where it is doing much the same thing.
It was through a post-performance “Unscripted” discussion that I realized the extent to which autobiography and confession were, in and of themselves, theorizing. Confession was the nature of the work. The work commented on confessional discourse by participating in it. I was in control of my own confessions and I was empowered in that art.
But performance art and live theatre are two entirely different mediums, although shaped by similar forces.
This brings me back to We All Got Lost.
Did I face condescension and juvenile treatment, in isolated instances, for the experience of being a young (22-year-old) woman leading a company of young women with a show about young women? Absolutely. Was I also welcomed with open arms by some very kind, sweet, and supportive members of the Hamilton theatre community? Also yes.
Before I go any further with this discussion of queerness and capital, I would like to give you some insight into the fabulous process of working and playing with my brilliant cast and creative team.
Eight months ago, during one of my worst insomniacal episodes, I was feeling strange about moving back to my hometown of Hamilton for a liminal six-month stretch (before hopping on a plane to the United Kingdom) and decided, on a total whim, to submit my only unproduced play to the Fringe New Play Contest circuit.
Shortly after winning the Hamilton Fringe New Play contest, I learned that only one other woman had won it before me. This put me off, but it also lit a ginormous fire under my ass. This, I thought, was an opportunity for regional female (& queer!) voices and stories to flourish. This was a chance to grab my conservative hometown’s Fringe by the ass and make it listen.
I held self tape auditions. I met a bunch of (mostly) internet strangers at Churchill Park on one sunny afternoon in May. We took photos in mismatched Catholic uniforms that would soon be plastered all over the city of Hamilton. That day, as sweaty and strange as it was, was the start of something special.
We barely knew each other. We rehearsed every Monday in empty classrooms at McMaster University. We snuck into theatre spaces. We sourced props from forests and backyards and the back of our closets, brought them into rehearsal, and played with them for hours. We built worlds out of bedroom sheets and broken sticks. (I was experimenting with Viewpoints techniques, as well as “moment work” I learned from NYC-based writer Mina Samuels, to devise the physical landscape and aesthetic of the piece.) We barely had a budget. We were kind of scrappy. But we believed in the work that we were doing.
The rehearsal process was difficult. I could not have picked five more different women for this task. With everything happening in and around Hamilton, and with the intimate and very personal nature of the piece, things were hard at times. When Hopperton was arrested on that fateful day in June, I felt a sickness that I feared would accompany me all through the show’s run. I didn’t know how audiences would react to us. I thought we’d be swept under the rug until View Magazine shocked us with a cover feature.
In this article, I talk about many things. I talk about my influences and overall body of work. I do not talk about my labels. I do not talk about my political beliefs. (All of these things, by the way, I am very vocal about to anyone that knows and loves me. Or to anyone that has me on social media.)
So it starts to bother me when, as the Fringe goes on, I am approached by several local artists, journalists, theatre goers, and more whose first question, more often than not, was: What makes you qualified to tell this story?
To which I wanted to respond (rudely), “you’re asking me what makes me qualified to tell my own story?” But it isn’t, technically, my own story. This play is not autobiographical. It isn’t directly constructed from real-world experience, and the parts that I guess “are” aren’t privy to your nosiness. What are you really asking? Am I a feminist? Am I queer? Am I religious? Was I raised Catholic? Did I witness a murder? (Spoilers.) Are my answers to these questions more important than the work? Why do I need to justify myself to you? Would it make you happy if I screamed Yes-This-Company-Is-Made-Up-Of-Real-Feminist-Real-Queer-Real-Young-Women-And-Also-I’m-An-Artist-Which-Is-Perhaps-The-Most-Dangerous-Identifier-Of-All in your face?
Do you think “Telling Queer Young Women’s Stories” is all just a scam to make a quick buck off of the unsuspecting (and likely homophobic) small town Fringe audience? If that were the truth, that’d be an impressively bad business strategy.
Do you deserve answers to your questions? Is my reluctance to speak about myself, in relation to my work, selfish or internally misogynistic and/or homophobic? Is my reluctance to “out” my cast in every promo interview a product of the same forces? Is it a product of my own anxiety? So what? Do I really owe anyone anything? And does the work not speak for itself? If a woman or a queer person comes forward with a story, why is it our immediate reaction to question whether or not it’s rightfully theirs?
Are men asked all of these questions?
Of course I understand where some of these people are coming from. I’d be pissed if there was a band of hetero artists making waves by appropriating queer identities for capital gain, too. The complex conversation surrounding appropriation is crucial right now. There are many a folk out there who use diversity rosters and other similar measures to “perform” their own “liberalism” without actually practicing active allyship. This is a huge, gross problem. Stories of marginalized persons should be told by artists who identify as a part of that group. But this statement opens up an infinite number of portals, filled to the brim with more complex questions and queries – the nuance for which I don’t have the time and space for on this blog at this moment.
My point here is this question: Why are women (and especially young women) not always “trusted” to tell their own stories?
How are our post-feminist politics active in the post-#MeToo era? How can we ask “the right” questions while simultaneously respecting the private and intimate nature of these things?
You’re probably wondering how all of this ends. Well…
On the festival’s final night, we won Best of Fringe and Best of Venue (The Westdale). We were chosen as View Magazine’s Reviewer’s Pick. We were the highest attended and highest grossing show in the festival. Our sales and attendance surpassed that of two bigger-budget commercial musicals, two commercial darlings (F**kboys The Musical and You Want it What Way: A Boy Band Tale – cue the screaming heteros!).
Somehow, against all odds, people showed up. And kept showing up. And kept showing up. Critics started raving about it. Audiences started talking about it, started showing up more than once. People started believing, and I mean really believing, in the work that we did.
What’s more, we were approached by so many young women (and especially young, queer women) who were so happy to finally see themselves represented onstage. Talking to some of these women was the best reward of all.
I’m still trying to fully comprehend the experience of We All Got Lost and dissect its many, complex affects, but hopefully with this post I have shed some light on some of the issues effecting my hometown’s creative spheres.
I also hope that I have, in some way, opened up a dialogue through which some of these things can be more fully fleshed out.
Food for thought. I might come back to this later. But for now, I’m hopping on a plane.