Tim Cusack founded Theatre Askew in 2004, a company that focuses on LGBT productions.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” and “The Normal Heart.” As the artistic director of a queer theater company operating in New York in 2011, I think a lot about the representation of gay people on the commercial Broadway stage, and our community’s purpose therein. What was practically unheard of 30 years ago has become so commonplace as to be unremarkable: Openly gay writers, directors, actors, choreographers and composers producing plays and musicals with openly gay characters, many of whom are the heroes of the story. We most certainly are not in Kansas anymore.
And yet I believe that something essential is missing.
I view “Priscilla” and “The Normal Heart” as twin theatrical poles between which is stretched the queer (male) body. On one end, gay men are fabulous, feminine and frivolous; on the other, tortured, dangerous, martyred. At “Priscilla,” straight spectators leave the theater secure in their gender identities (even while wearing a magenta boa from the concession stand).
Actors from “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” perform “Go West.” The musical opened on Broadway in March 2011.
In Larry Kramer’s AIDS play, “The Normal Heart,” the straight spectator is invited to pity the struggle of the gay men under siege from AIDS, while safely insulated by the fourth wall. Homosexual viewers, meanwhile, are invited to feel smugly superior to both the hetero yahoos in the Aussie outback in “Priscilla” and the straight establishment in “The Normal Heart” that allowed the epidemic to spiral out of control.
Excerpts from “The Normal Heart,” which one a Tony award for “Best Revival of a Play.” The play opened on Broadway in April 2011.
I view “Priscilla” and “The Normal Heart” as twin theatrical poles between which is stretched the queer (male) body.
Let me be clear. Both shows deserve to be on stage. If an audience wants to eat cake, why not the most extravagant, glittery Down-Under confection possible? And “The Normal Heart” is indispensable. Every sentient being in the universe should see it. But both shows draw a thick black line down the center of life that says “homos” on one side and “breeders” on the other. Broadway producers and mainstream audiences are comfortable with this clear binary, so these are the works that get Broadway runs.
But there’s another story that needs to be told from the queer perspective. And this is what we do at Theatre Askew.
Though our work is filtered through a queer lens, we’re trying to ask larger questions about politics, history, culture and spirituality. For us, queerness is a metaphor for anyone who rejects the dominant narratives about gender and sexuality — including the one that positions gay and straight as absolute opposites. We are, by our very nature, independent, and we look to the tradition of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Charles Busch’s Limbo Lounge for DIY inspiration. And we believe in passing down this tradition to the next generation through our educational program for queer youth.
Once upon a time, a theater like ours was essential because there were no queer characters on Broadway. Now gay characters are everywhere. Yet, I believe our work is more important than ever.
For example, Theatre Askew’s production coming this September is “Busted,” a solo musical written and performed by trans woman (and long-time Askew associated artist) Bianca Leigh. The piece recounts, through song and narrative, Leigh’s experiences at the Manhattan House of Corrections after being arrested for prostitution.
“Busted” aligns perfectly with our mission on several fronts. First and foremost, it turns the usual prison narrative, familiar from pop culture, on its head. Rather than serving as exotic background or salacious flavoring, a trans person is at the center of the story. And unlike in “Priscilla,” an actual transsexual — not a male actor in drag — plays the trans character in the production.
To further reflect the diversity of the queer community, we invited several songwriters to contribute original material to the show. This group included a trans-identified gay, a lesbian, a straight woman, a heterosexual man, as well as several run-of-the-mill male homosexuals. We wanted to include as many diverse voices working in as many different idioms as possible. And finally, the play is a chilling reminder of how fragile the civil rights protections Americans take for granted actually are.
This type of production drives home the point that even a middle-class, educated, white person can be abused in jail, especially if she’s transsexual.
In a country that locks up a greater percentage of its citizens than any other Western democracy, bearing witness to this reality is a service to everyone. We just do it with a little more flair.
Tim Cusack founded Theatre Askew in 2004 with Jason Jacobs. The company draws from theatrical and literary heritage to create works that confront cultural and political concerns and that have social impact and spiritual consequence. Theatre Askew was honored by NYC ARTS as one of the 2011 Emerging Voices.