Has queer theatre entered the mainstream in Australia?

One of Sydney Theatre Company’s major hits of the year has been Calpurnia Descending, by queer theatre duo Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene). The play, which is an exploration of the notion of the “diva”, sold out months before it opened, thanks to both the Sisters’ reputation following their 2013 STC hit Little Mercy and Paul Capsis’ star power, and has now started a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.

With Flanders and Capsis (pictured above) playing two feuding divas — Flanders the young up-and-comer and Capsis the veteran drawn back to the stage — the show looks at how queer culture has evolved and been appropriated over the last few decades as its various aspects have entered the mainstream (which, Greene says, reflects and comments on their own journey to the mainstream).

Sisters Grimm has been at the centre of an explosion in interest in queer theatre in Australia (particularly Melbourne and Sydney) over the last several years. Having famously started out performing their work in Melbourne garages and pop-up venues, the Sisters’ brand of campy, trash-DIY theatre caught the eye of major theatre companies.

“We had a very conscious attitude early on that we didn’t want funding,” says Greene. “We hated most of the work that we saw going on in theatre companies as well, and that wasn’t a culture we wanted to be a part of.

“It was supposed to be more about suggesting that theatre could be the equivalent of going to a live gig — it’s something you get together with your friends and just make. It can be messy and lively and it doesn’t have to be cultural medicine or stuffy and elitist. Once we’d proven that to ourselves, the project started running out of steam.”

After six years working in smaller venues and self-financing their work, the pair was on the verge of quitting the project when STC’s Literary Director Polly Rowe offered them a development workshop for Little Mercy. Could they maintain their irreverent, fiery style at STC? How can ‘queer’ theatre work within the mainstream if it’s largely about the people who don’t fit into the mainstream? Above those questions, Sisters Grimm saw the opportunity to connect with a broader audience and find a sharper political focus.

“At the time, we were playing to people who knew exactly what they’re going to get when they come to see us,” Greene says. “It’s not very provocative. After a while you do start to feel like you’re preaching to the choir, and that’s one of the best things about doing a show at a place like STC — a lot of the time the audience isn’t on side at the start of the show. It’s really, really satisfying — when you get one 70-year-old man giving you a standing ovation at the end of the show, it’s a lot better than a whole garage of hipsters giving you a standing ovation.”

While ‘queer theatre’ is often taken to mean ‘gay theatre’ and theatre which tells gay stories, it’s a broad, encompassing part of the theatrical landscape, of which Sisters Grimm occupy just one corner.

“It’s more about taking an outsider look on the world or using our own cultural positioning as something that can destabilise the mainstream — the word ‘queer’ is something that destabilises or upends — it’s a verb — to ‘queer’,” says Greene.

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In another corner of the queer theatre ecosystem is Zoe Coombs Marr, who this year had two works premiere at Belvoir. One work Oedipus Schmoedipus (created with theatre group ‘post’, pictured above), which poked fun at the Western theatrical canon and its bloody deaths, drew negative reviews, whereas her most recent work Is This Thing On?which follows a lesbian stand-up comedian through various stages of her life, won raves.

The work was drawn, largely, from Coombs Marr’s own experiences in the comedy world. In her most recent stand-up show Dave, which was performed at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Coombs Marr performed as a typical sexist, obnoxious, but ultimately friendly ‘bloke’.

Coombs Marr says that theatre has always been pretty queer — looking back to the traditions of Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde — but that queer subject matter has opened up substantially over the last several decades across Western culture.

“Since the ’90s, gay culture, at least, has been a lot more visible in mainstream media,” she says. “I remember when I was a kid loving Xena: Warrior Princess because it had a hint of gayness in it — it wasn’t even overt. I think since Ellen [Degeneres’ coming out] — and you can pretty much date it from Ellen — there’s been all these barriers broken and it’s become pretty normal to be gay on TV.”

But Coombs Marr’s approach to queer theatre goes further than simply telling queer stories and extends to a queer approach to the very form of theatre itself, rather than just its content.

“I don’t think a lot of people really understand what ‘queer’ is — even people who are queer,” she says. “There’s a lot of ongoing discussion within the queer community about what it even means. It’s ongoing and changing, and quite slippery, which is kind of the point of ‘queer’ — it’s undefinable.”

Much of Coombs Marr’s work challenges gender, hierarchies and institutions, including the hierarchy of mainstream theatre. And much of it doesn’t work with narrative. It’s this move away from the traditional way of storytelling that’s part of her style of queer theatre (and an essential element in Oedipus Schmoedipus), but something that she says has drawn strong criticism.

“If you make a non-narrative work, people think you did narrative wrong,” Coombs Marr says. “I think it’s one of the things that often gets lost in translation — it’s like eating spaghetti and going ‘this is a terrible soup’. It’s not the same thing.”

Queer female voices haven’t risen to the same level of prominence in the theatre as male queer voices. While Belvoir has this year embraced female queer perspectives from Coombs Marr, The Rabble and Adena Jacobs, the audience and critical response has varied.

“We’re already attuned to the male gay voice,” says Coombs Marr. “We’re ready to receive it and hear it, and it’s exciting and fun, with funny drag queens. You say ‘lesbian theatre’, and the first thing people think of is a bunch of cranky dykes in skivvies standing around and grumbling about the patriarchy.

“I’m not saying they don’t exist, but I have never seen a queer woman portrayed onstage in a mainstage, mainstream theatre production, ever. The more disenfranchised the group, the less likely it is that you’ve actually heard their voice, which can be really exciting when you do because it’s new, or confusing because you don’t actually know what you’re listening to.”

Stephen Nicolazzo, the artistic director of Melbourne-based Little Ones Theatre, says the way male queer voices are prioritised drives him insane.

“I think that it’s just a result of the fact that we are living in a patriarchal world and not interested in breaking that down,” he says. “That’s the problem with the fact that there a lot of gay males making some of this work — I think it overshadows the other artists — male, female, trans — who are working in this area.”

Greene says he was surprised that the response to Coombs Marr’s Oedipus Schmoedipus — which began with a long montage of gruesome deaths — was so negative.

“I thought that show was incredibly inviting,” he says. “It was so goofy and ludicrous. It was a surreal experience for me sitting in that audience and watching people shut down in response to that show. I wonder if it’s something as basic as drag; it’s a familiar entry point, but queer female comedy is something that doesn’t exist in the mainstream culture as much.”

Certainly Coombs Marr is working to have her work seen by as broad an audience possible and her entry into Belvoir has helped, but how exactly can you challenge the mainstream — which is what so much of queer theatre is focused on — while becoming a part of it?

“It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make a compromise,” says Coombs Marr, who works in a more collaborative way than the traditional hierarchy of writer-director-actor allows. “It’s just a different system and structure. It is happening and will continue to happen because I think people are going to make work about what is important and what’s interesting.”

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Little Ones Theatre focuses on high camp and joyous theatrical experiences, using classic and cult texts. Their upcoming production is of Wendy MacLeod’s 1990 play The House of Yes, which was made into a cult 1997 film starring Parker Posey.

It tells the story of an unusual middle class family in Washington who suffered a traumatic event at the same time as the Kennedy assassination. A normal “innocent” then becomes engaged to a member of the family and drawn into their hilarious web of incest and damage.

Little Ones Theatre had huge critical success with its production of Psycho Beach Party and was this year part of Melbourne Theatre Company’s independent theatre season Neon with an (almost) all-female production of Dangerous Liaisons (pictured above). But the company is yet to enter the mainstream in the same way as Sisters Grimm has or Coombs Marr is beginning to.

Nicolazzo says that he hopes the company will make that crossover, as he intends to make theatre for a broad audience. He believes the time is right.

“I think that it’s not just related to theatre in Australia — in the West, queerness and drag and all of these ideas are becoming a bit mainstream,” Nicolazzo says. “The underground nature of a lot of this work is no longer as prevalent.”

The Little Ones brand is also light, bright and joyful — intended to entertain first and foremost.

“Yes, you want to be provoked, you want to think and you want to have a critical engagement with the work, but if you’ve been at work all day, I think you want to laugh,” he says. “There is a real need to find joy, because I think the drudgery of day-to-day living is exhausting — you don’t spend $70 to $100 to go to the theatre and feel shit.”

It’s that spirit which attracted MTC to the company in the first place for the Neon season, which put their work in front of MTC’s older, broader subscriber base. Nicolazzo says he was surprised at how receptive and supportive they were to a piece of queer theatre.

“Purely on a business level, it expanded the type of people who see our work. I guess it was an odd experience to have both sectors coming together, but to me that’s part of the reason why I make theatre. I’m not making it for a niche, small audience. I want to make it for as many people as possible, so I can affect a group of people that come from all different social contexts.”

Calpurnia Descending is at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne until 30 November. The House of Yes is at Theatre Works, Melbourne from 27 November to 13 December

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