Nathan Joe (he/him) reflects on queer theatre in Aotearoa with Hot Shame collaborators Joni Nelson (they/them) and Dan Goodwin (they/them).
Shame has historically been part of the queer narrative. While future generations hopefully move away from this, and may never have to wrestle with this as part of their coming-of-age, we feel it is something to be acknowledged and reconciled with. Our dark histories and collective traumas are not something to be ignored, but rather help guide us into brighter futures. To be queer is to be in a constant state of flux, to be questioning, and to reclaim what was once used against us. Queerness itself was once a dirty word. In my imagination, queerness is hot, burning bright like the sun, a star plummeing fearlessly through the universe. That’s how I feel anyway. If my plays were to have a common thread, maybe it’s that they involve “characters” embracing the supposedly ugly parts of themselves, the banal and pathetic, the transgressive and not always that likable.
If there’s a reason I make theatre, it’s an attempt to reconcile all these contradictory parts of myself. Which I feel are doubly contradictory when you’re queer. How often do we get to see these contradictions celebrated though? How often do we get to see queer people celebrated on our theatre stages full stop?
Not often. As Sam Brooks observed in his article in 2019, there’s a dearth of queer theatre in Aotearoa. But right now we’re amidst a little moment. Nothing fancy. Just three friends with a like-minded desire to see more queer theatre. But also to make more queer theatre themselves.
As we emerge from the sell-out season of Daniel Goodwin’s Chrome Dome and Schizo, the opening of Joni Nelson’s Together Forever, and Gay Death Stocktake is on the horizon, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on the state of queer theatre in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Dan Goodwin's Chrome Dome and Schizo
And despite queerness as a broad monolith, the plays reflect the absolute impossibility of containing or reducing queerness down to a single play. The three plays reflect something personal to our brands. Dan’s play with its fusion of performance poetry and subverting mental health narratives, Joni’s with characters trapped in a single location and snappy dialogue, and mine with a continued investigation of those messy parts of myself, as well as asking what a play even is.
We’re not a real theatre company. We don’t have proper funding and the art we’re making isn’t financially feasible. But we are all united in our desire to tell more queer stories. To tell stories that are more queer. There’s a hope that doing it as a collective, even just in name, gives us strength.
Whether Hot Shame proves to just be a little flash in the pan, or something more is hard to say. But at the very least it was a little queer flash in the pan, like catching a rainbow in a bottle. To see if the audience is there for it or not.
Why do you think explicitly queer theatre isn't more common in our city?
Joni Nelson: There are so many fantastic queer makers and performers in Tāmaki Makaurau, but this isn't reflected in the stories on our stage. When we did auditions for Together Forever, we made it really explicit that we were looking for queer performers who were comfortable playing women, and we were just floored with how many people got in touch. Talking to the thirty-something performers who came through those audition doors, they were just so excited by the prospect of getting to play queer characters on stage. That made me excited, but it also made me sad. We have all this stunning queer talent - but where are the plays? I'm honestly not sure why that is. Maybe it's not even queer-specific, but just that the pathways for playwriting are limited and isolating, so if you're already making from a point of marginalisation it's just one more barrier in a journey that's already full of them.
Daniel Goodwin: Money. Money money money. That’s a boring answer but it’s true.
Specifically, I think when resources are limited (or even feel limited), it’s easy to let our work slip into rigid formulas. Repeating the same processes, the same seasons, the same show formula… because it feels like it works. But that’s not a space where queer work thrives. It’s not a space where risk or subversion exists. Qualities that are actually necessary for queer work. If we want more queer theatre, we have to create space for queer creatives to try new things and fail. To take something every day, make it gay, and then see if there’s anything to learn from that.
Every theatre maker and their mum knows the adage - “the best thing you can do is fail!”. We throw it around in auditions and workshops and drama school classrooms. And then we backtrack when we go into rehearsal and feel the time crunch; four weeks of rehearsal with no funding and deadlines to meet. That’s just the reality. But if we want more explicitly queer work, then maybe there’s a way to loosen the deadlines a bit. When the goal is specifically to let queer artists create new styles of theatre. A bit more time and a lot more money. The dream!
How is anyone supposed to be gay in this economy?
Joni Nelson's Together Forever
What have been your major influences when writing your plays?
JN: Together Forever is a play of limitations. I wanted to write something that I knew I could put on myself, two performers on a stage, no big technical demands... and then Keagan Carr Fransch came along and made that vision so much bigger and more beautiful.
Together Forever is a scream for more queer characters that aren't just coming out or finding love - it's for the gays at home on the couch playing video games, watching too much Netflix and bickering about the dishes. It's about real life, and also the apocalypse, which to be fair feels less and less like an abstract fantasy these days.
DG: Loads! Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a major one, as it is for a lot of people. Being in conversation with an audience is one of the strengths of poetry, but the way Waller-Bridge capitalises on it in the narrative-driven text was exciting. Duncan Macmillan's People, Places, & Things, John Belluso’s Gretty Good Time, Ella Hickson’s The Writer, Mark O'Rowe’s Terminus. And then poets like Tusiata Avia, Kae Tempest (Brand New Ancients in particular), Ken Arkind’s Coyotes, and George Watsky. Poets who tell stories. Queer performance artists like Tim Miller and Holly Hughes. Performers who are great at establishing and holding space in unconventional ways.
What's the hardest part about putting on a show as a young playwright?
DG: I think the shift from working in an individualist headspace to suddenly being a part of a team can be tricky. Not just your cast and crew, but also being in a relationship with venues and audiences. Marketing yourself and your writing is a yuck process. But a necessary one.
I think getting out of your head as a new playwright is difficult. Again, it’s the individualistic nature of the craft. Writing alone in a room and then working with others. Being in a room with other artists speaking about your work practically is terrifying. Realising how well your own knowledge of the play translates onto the page, and then how that page is decoded by every other person in the room (or doesn’t) is terrifying. Even more so when you’re the only one speaking from a specific place of knowledge or perspective, mental health, queer or otherwise. When the onus of defending the play-world feels like it rests on your shoulders. That’s hard. But it’s also where the potential for exciting theatre is, so you’ve got to embrace it!
JN: Honestly? Resources. Balancing your desire to make work in 2022 in the pandemic-capitalist-hellscape - with your values of wanting everyone involved to gain tangible value from the experience - and pay their rent.
Nathan Joe's Gay Death Stocktake
What would be your dream for Chrome Dome in the future, now that you've had a sold-out season?
DG: I would love more people to be able to see it.
I would love to go back into a rehearsal room with this cast and crew to keep building the work. Keep playing and exploring and creating with each other. Georgie, Brit And Sahil are some of the most exciting, kind, and generous actors I’ve met, and more than most other things I want to be back in a rehearsal room with them, making things.
I would especially love to take the work into spaces that don’t often have access to this mental health narrative, particularly from a queer perspective.
So many stories about psychosis are wrapped up in violence. Horror film villains and murderers on television. There’s an obvious parallel with queer stories from the last half-century, in which queer characters typically die or live miserably.
When all of the stories you see about your experience centre around violence, it becomes an inseparable aspect of how you see yourself. You start to question if you really might be the monster people seem to see you as. I wanted to write a play about love so that I could start to shift that aspect within myself. And - if the play could do that for other people as well, I would count that as a win.
This isn't your first play or your first time at Basement, but it is your first full PLAY at Basement. Has there been any major learning this time around?
JN: FINALLY. It's weird, isn't it? It doesn't feel like the first time, Basement has such a habit of making you feel at home, even when you've been away for a while. It's a special space.
I think my biggest learnings this time around have been watching Keagan work - seeing her values as a maker and the way she holds space - just the way her brain works honestly. I used to think I may direct in the future - and now I'm not so sure!
Chrome Dome & Schizo
What excites you about the future of queer NZ theatre?
JN: I always want more queer representation. I consume a truly ridiculous amount of queer media and content. Like I'll forever feel like the fourteen-year-old queer desperate to see validation anywhere and everywhere.
I think what I'm most excited about is seeing queer theatre come out from the edges and take its place on our main stages. And not just the men! I want straight people on stage to be the plot twist.
DG: I feel like there’s a resurgence of new queer playwrights coming into their own atm! Writers and creators like Joshua Iosefo, Courtney Bassett, Chye-Ling Huang etc. It feels like queer artists who have been making for a while now are cementing themselves as part of the national queer canon, and that in turn creates a stronger sense of national queer theatre. And of course, there are also emerging/establishing directors like Rachael Longshaw-Park, Keagan Carr Fransch and Sam Phillips.
Also, I’m excited about the crossover of forms. I like that more and more of our queer creators seem to be drawing from different styles. Artists like Emily Hurley and Adam Rohe. Practitioners with a strong theatre background, but who also bring their expertise from other forms. Puppetry, poetry, installation, documentary film etc. The melting pot and intersection of forms are really interesting to me, and I think the range of talents in our community is so expansive.
What would be your dream for Hot Shame?
JN: I would like Hot Shame to become a platform for people throughout the queer spectrum - a watering hole for the diverse makers and performers who fall under this umbrella. I want queer femmes and POC to be at the heart of this - and to focus on lifting the least heard voices up, not just the ones that are the easiest or most marketable. We're just the seeds at the moment - and I want it to grow so much further beyond us.
Catch the rest of Together Forever until 27 Aug
Gay Death Stocktake opens on 6 September as part of Auckland Fringe.