Queer Necessities - Are LGBTQ+ Themes Expected in Theatre?
Updated: Jun 2
A few weeks ago I went to see WITCH's adaptation of "Spring Awakening". Going into it, I knew very little about the musical; only that it was a hit on Broadway and had apparently inspired many young theatre-goers upon its 2006 opening. As I watched the romance unfold between the innocent Wendla and the radical Melchoir, it occurred to me that, for a show about sexuality, it was an odd choice to make the central relationship heterosexual. Even for a musical based on a 19th-century play, any modern theatre production advertising itself with the words "sexual awakening" has inevitable connotations with homosexuality and self-discovery. However, not even five minutes after I thought this, a humorous scene in which nearly-forgotten character Hanschen (Alex Rabina) serenaded and flirted with another nearly forgotten character Ernst (Cary Stackhouse) atop a piano.
My immediate reaction was delight; a comedic scene mixing life advice with charismatically delivered innuendos is entertaining stuff, and it was performed well by Rabina and Stackhouse. Nonetheless, after that scene we don't see any more of them together, and in the grand scheme of things the plot would be no worse off without it. Granted, one of my key issues with this musical is its habit of creating compelling conflicts only to forget them entirely, but this one stood out. To be entertaining and yet so disposable makes me wonder whether it was merely a nod to the LGBTQ+ audiences, and whether its inclusion was a mark of perhaps how at least a nod to these themes is perhaps not only common, but expected.
Looking back over my reviews over the last few months there are only a couple of shows, that have love or sexuality as a theme, where that love or sexuality is not homosexual. "The Worst People", "Cull", "Santa Clause", so many have at least unnecessary one scene focusing on gay love. But Flora, could this just be a cynical reflection on your own preferences in theatre, as opposed to modern theatre as a whole? Quite possibly. Everyone has things they like to see in entertainment more than others, the only difference I see in myself is that I have not come across a show I haven't wanted to see, and try my best to see a wide range. The shows I listed above had no hint of LGBTQ+ themes in their advertising, yet they all featured them. If you attend theatre regularly, I think you are instinctively instilled with expectations, and I fear that as a result of this I would have felt disappointing if no same-sex love had featured in "Spring Awakening". Once it was addressed I was satisfied.
But if a scene is featured only for that satisfaction, and would have been seen as unprogressive without it, does the issue lie with myself and the audience? I have little doubt that among my fellow BATS attendees, who were most likely as ignorant of the story as I was, there was at least a smidge of anticipation for the scene, especially given the hearty reception of laughs and whoops it received. Let us not pretend that inclusion of LGBTQ+ themes in a period musical like this is not a contribution to the push for the increase in diversity and acceptance. My worry is that instead of encouraging diversity, we encourage quotas, which is essentially the same problem with a different, rainbow-striped hat on.
The ultimate point of progress is when diversity can exist without comment. Duncan Armstrong and Isobel MacKinnon's "Force Field" and Joel I. Thomas' "Buddy", both from the Auckland Fringe Festival this year, are perfect examples of that. Both could have expanded on themes of gay relationships or disability, but for the most part chose not to, creating the powerful message that acceptance starts at a point where different types of people and love are unexceptional. Even so, a conversation I had immediately following the performance of "Buddy" illustrated that there is clearly still progress to be made. As with most of the shows I attend, I hung around the doorway of the theatre as the audience left to ask for an anonymous quote for my "Whispers from the Crowd" section of my review. I introduced myself to a couple of gentlemen and asked for their thoughts. "Well, I'm not gay, so..." one said. I just chuckled and took notes on what they thought, and was quite glad to hear the other respond by saying "Dude, that's a really weird thing to say".
There are many ways to work LGBTQ+ themes and characters into theatre. This is a creative community with a strong queer influence, following, and history, and is all the better for it. The key thing to recognise is that it needn't be present in every work that community produces. Audiences will still champion any LGBTQ+ themes regardless of whether we see them coming or not, but for the sake of maintaining theatre's variety, I think audiences (myself included) need to be less demanding of it, and creators ought to feel pressured to include it.