DATE: December 2020
When I applied for Shakesqueer, I figured I’d be a shoo-in. I figured that between my flaming bisexuality, magical trans body, and a heaping handful of nepotism (or, “community bonds” from a less cynical point of view), it wouldn’t be a problem. When I met with Rooks & Quincy for an interview, I found myself more nervous than I expected. I live alone, but before that I lived in a house of queer and trans femmes for two years. I took my access to the community for granted, and now with a chance to participate in a structured environment where that would be provided, I was thrilled for the chance, but terrified that I might not get in. The chance to be part of a structured environment in which artists were not only united by our experiences of gender and sexuality, but by our shared artistry was too good to pass up.
They revealed that they were hoping everyone they chose for interviews would be able to participate in the workshop series. How delightful, not having to pit marginalized folks against one another. Once we began, I was delighted to meet old friends, connect with a deeper level with casual acquaintances, and meet new homos who were right under my nose, all in a theatrical context.
The community building aspect of the workshop series feels even more resonant now, due to the ongoing effects of COVID-19. To participate in the workshops when I did felt like an inoculation for isolation right before an intense period of social distancing and government lockdowns.
The queer community is an inherently diverse one united by our shared deviance from the cisheteropatriarchy. This refusal to conform means that many of us hold deep traumas, often relating to our gender, sexuality, or bodies in general. One of the best parts of the workshop series, a truly foundational moment, is when Garry led us in an intimacy workshop. Being from communities that are so often brutalized, to be given permission to develop amongst ourselves emotional intimacy, care, and trust was a powerful experience filled with laughter and tears. To be respected as a queer person is to be seen for who you are, and this act of radically vulnerable “seeing” was essential to our community and ensemble building.
I’ve spoken very little about the actual Shakespeare part of Shakesqueer, not because we collectively decided Shakespeare as we know it is canceled, but because of the workshop series’ focus on developing an ensemble. Shakespeare was a framework around which activities and games were planned, but the focus was on the development of interpersonal bonds between queer artists, which was a relief to me as I skipped the Shakespeare course in university.
Shakespeare’s texts were, more than anything, a common language and framework on which we could use as a jumping off point. One of my favourite books is a collection of fairy tales by Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber. Carter opposes the label of “adult fairy tales,” and rather insists that she has drawn latent adult and sexual themes out from texts -- themes that were always present in them and were waiting to be centred. It is using a similar philosophy that we discovered the queerness in Shakespeare. Frankly, it isn’t a difficult canon to queer. All the romance and gender swapping and high melodrama lend themselves to the queer sensibility.
A highlight of the series was a guest lecture from Professor Roberta Barker from Dalhousie University, speaking about Elizabethan norms around gender and sexuality. Her knowledge about humorism and its relationship to gender and sex in the time in which Shakespeare wrote provided a basis for future discussions on how queerness can be infused into or drawn from Shakespeare’s works. Based on the medical theories of Galen, in a nutshell, males are male because their humors are hot and dry, and females are females because their humors are cold and wet. Non-binary people are not mentioned. The logic of the humoral system states that if men are defined by their hot dryness, and women by their cold wetness, then women who engage in things like vigorous physical activity or really anything to raise their body temperatures sufficiently may inadvertently turn themselves into men, a penis dropping between their legs from what was once their vaginas.
This was 1), some rad transmasc representation, and 2), called into question the gendered implications of every “lovers romping through the woods” rom-com that Shakespeare wrote. Is there a chance that when Hermia was beating up Helena a little peen slipped out?
A consequence of queerness being suppressed in our dominant culture for so long is that for decades queer representation had to be decoded through images, tropes, implications, and symbols. Being a codebreaker is my favourite part of being queer. It’s like in learning about yourself, you learn a secret new language, that you can use to identify your people. Learning about gender in the Elizabethan/Jacobean context has made the Shakesqueer ensemble fluent in this archaic dialect of queer discourse. With that framework, we can begin to translate the inherent queerness contemporary with the text into a queerness we can all understand today.
While we have come leaps and bounds in terms of queer representation in the past decade, even, there is still a notable lack of queer presences in media of all kinds.This void is filled by queercoding. In an ideal world, these activities will be unnecessary, but until we reach that point as a society, queercoding will continue to be a vital way to communicate to our kinfolk our life experiences. The codebreaking and encrypting of the modern homosexuals are wrapping gifts to be unwrapped by the Ls, Gs, Bs, Ts, Qs, and 2Ss of tomorrow.
– Written by Lara Lewis
From right: (back row) Garry Williams, Sara Tilley, Alexa Kirste, Jordan Jeremiah, Lara Lewis, James Thornton, Madeleine Tench, (front row) Quincy Russell, Stephanie Kincade, Rooks Field-Green, Jesse MacLean
This project was made possible by the generous support of Shakespeare By the Sea (SBTS) and Arts NS's Artistic Innovation Program.