In the generalized malaise and mediocrity of bourgeois theatre, one experiences little more than the spectacularized pangs of normalcy and reification. Or that of a sad nostalgia parading as passivity. This nihilistic sadness, often found in populist theatre, attempts to glimmer forth as something other than that in which it is; a boring act towards the same theatrical reproduction of oppression, neglect, and erasure.
As an old friend of theatre, Antonin Artaud, once wrote, “I destroy because for me everything that proceeds from reason is untrustworthy. I believe only in the evidence of what stirs my marrow, not in the evidence of what addresses itself to my reason. I have found levels in the realm of the nerve. I now feel capable of evaluating the evidence. There is for me an evidence in the realm of pure flesh which has nothing to do with the evidence of reason. The eternal conflict between reason and the heart is decided in my very flesh, but in my flesh irrigated by nerves...” This sensuous interrogation of the nerves, it would seem, could be the fragmentary makings of a revolutionary theatre as revolutionary gesture.
A rad and friendly Tucson based theatre project aims to shatter this shallow thinking within normative structures of storytelling and theatre. Our friends dare to set fire to this worn-out aesthetic in capitalist-colonialist theatre. They do so by profaning the very heart of the tradition of western theatre – Shakespeare. These friends push the boundaries of not only theatre but the reality of where theatre is drawn as a stage of combat.
Shakesqueer is opening Shakespeare’s plays to a queer becoming. And within this loving recognition and experience of our comrade’s blood, sweat, and tears, we could do nothing other than sit down and ask them about their beautiful and longstanding communal project.
Shakesqueer is staging 3 performances of Romeo & Juliet at the BCC (101 E Ventura St, Tucson) from April 8-10. Doors at 6pm. Show at 7pm.
1. [L&F] First things first, please tell us about the Shakesqueer project: how did it come about, what has been, and where do you hope to see it go?
[Maggie] In the fall of 2016 I was intentionally taking a break from both school and work and had some extra time on my hands. Glen had recently moved to Tucson and in getting to know him I learned that he had done theater, both in high school and beyond. I had always dreamt about doing a play with my friends but literally had no idea how to actually put on a play and doubted that such a task was feasible. My own experience with theater was mostly in the realm of being a spectator.
As a statewide requirement of public schools in Utah, our 6th grade class put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sparked an interest in both theater and Shakespeare for me. My mom, excited by this new found interest, started taking me yearly to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, Utah. I became quite familiar with Shakespeare plays through this festival and as I further got to know Glen that fall I asked him if he had interest in putting on a play and Shakespeare seemed like an easy choice for what we would put on. We played around with the idea, roped in some close friends and then started seriously taking steps toward putting on Twelfth Night.
To my surprise, people started coming out of the woodwork saying that they were interested and by the end of December we had a cast list and a schedule for rehearsals. We put on Twelfth Night in the Spring of 2017 and in the following year there was again interest in putting on another play. By that point we had a loose framework for how to do it and a number of new people interested in joining. I think it has largely survived this long due to a nice mixture of long running participants and new folks bringing in fresh energy. Since 2016 we’ve put on three productions, Twelfth Night in Spring 2017, Macbeth in Spring 2018, and As You Like It in Spring 2019. We were slated to put on Romeo & Juliet in Spring of 2020 but had to delay until this year (2022) due to the pandemic. I am honestly still in awe of how this project has grown and continually inspired by the creativity that I’ve witnessed. My hope for this project is that it continues as long as people have the energy and drive to keep it going, but maybe more importantly hoping that it inspires other projects, theatrical and otherwise. At this point we have cultivated a lot of skills around theatrical productions and I believe those skills have and continue to shape how we approach other projects in our community.
[I] I first came into Shakesqueer quite by chance. I was living in North Carolina and visiting Tucson in the winter of 2017. I had lived here before, but was just popping in for a week. Within hours of being here someone asked if I was going to see the Shakesqueer play and I had no idea what they were talking about. A couple hours later I was sitting in an old auditorium in Arivaca, Arizona and watching some friends put on Twelfth Night. I was instantly enamored of the project and the creativity that I saw being brought to a play I knew almost nothing about but had read in highschool. The next year I happened to be visiting Tucson when the auditions for Macbeth were going on. I went to audition and thought it was the most marvelous thing.
I quickly extended my visit by like two months to participate in the play. It was my first time acting or doing anything like it and I LOVED it. I then started to plan my yearly trips around participating in the play. The following year for As You Like It I ended up jumping into co-directing because of a last minute change in which play we were going to put on and the sudden need for new direction. Each year I feel like some new larger component gets added to the production, which has been endlessly exciting to be a part of. Twelfth Night brought subtle changes in setting to greatly transform the feeling of the play. Macbeth brought in action and sword fights and a lot of new technical skills.
For As You Like It we re-wrote large portions of the play to confront problematic components and further amplify queer and anti-authoritarian narratives already present in it, doing a lot of script work to make it more accessible to a contemporary audience, as well as adding components like puppetry and expanded the amount of live music in the production. R&J in its first imagining expanded on all of those concepts. It was deeply saddening to not be able to perform it in 2020. It’s my hope in years to come that we can just continue to build a lot of these skills as a commuunity making each production more and more elaborate or to start writing our own plays.
2. [L&F] On average how many folks are involved in each production and does this number shift a good deal between each performance?
[Maggie] Every year is different depending on interest and the play itself, but I believe that we usually have around 20-30 people involved in each production. This is usually about 10-15 people in larger roles like acting and directing and 10-15 people taking on much needed support roles like media, set development, lighting etc. Roles often overlap, so it’s usually the case that if you are acting in the play you have some other role in putting on the production.
[I] Every year brings a lot new people, which is always a really wonderful part of the production. There have always been long term members of the group, and it feels like every year we lose one or two that are involved in the larger production outside of support roles, but we also gain a new recurring member or two every year. It feels like an amorphous project that hopefully can exist in a variety of capacities and will essentially be whoever picks up the reins each year.
3. [L&F] What do you think it means to be contemporarily queering a theatrical tradition like Shakespeare in which drag and gender were performed and deployed in the Globe Theater? Do you all resonate with this particular lineage and reading of Shakespeare or find yourselves opening and deactivating this tradition via your own queerness and relation to theatre?
[Maggie] The renditions of Shakespeare I experienced in my youth at the Utah Shakespeare Festival were quite traditional and most themes of gender or drag were used as comic relief. I think many of the changes made in our renditions of Shakespeare have been to take those themes seriously, to explore how those themes change when we reflect ourselves within the characters.
What happens when drag is not a joke? What happens when a person falls in love with multiple people? What happens when heterosexuality is not the norm? I’m unsure if we are continuing some sort of lineage or turning it on its head. I do feel confident that what we are doing is making these stories our own, pulling out the themes and ideas we find compelling and taking a lot of liberties to have them reflect ourselves and our perspectives.
[Egg] In our rendition, we work to create expansive relationships between characters. I think Shakespeare’s writing—in his plays and sonnets alike—is rich with the possibility for complex relationships between people. The relationships in his writing are replete with ambivalence and with many different kinds of love that we might call queer. Such complexities disappear if characters are played in a heteronormative way, for example a man and woman as lovers, and two men as platonic friends.
And in our production we also explore expansive possibilities beyond gendered casting or the genders that the characters have traditionally been played as. This may seem a bit obvious, but is still personally meaningful. When I did theatre in high school, I was once cast in the role of a teenage boy, which, to my confusion, the director changed to be female in order to fit my supposed gender. I understood then that theatre is about inhabiting another self: why constrain actors to roles with which they have superficial things in common? You would be missing something of much greater importance—the ability to create an emotional world for that character that makes them come to life.
[I] There are many elements within Shakespeare plays that are already incredibly queer anti-authoritarian. I feel that one thing we try to do is amplify elements of those pieces that are already there. One thing that is difficult about the tradition of Shakespeare is the way that drag and gender confusion was used as mostly a joke. For instance in As You Like It the central joke is that the main character is a woman (played by a man) disguised again as a man wooing a man who the main character loves. All of these turns are meant to be jokes, not heartfelt realities.
The main character disguised as a man is also flirted with by another woman adding to a set of jokes created for cis-heterosexual audiences. In our renditions drag is used as a way for a character to explore a different aspect of themself and maybe realize they are trans or non-binary. In our versions the confines of monogamy do not stop someone from pursuing multiple loves and non-heterosexual love is never a joke. We also try to play with and queer language and jokes written into the play. There are a ton of jokes about gendered violence and assault in Shakespeare plays.
Sometimes we confront and critique them and sometimes we cut them out and sometimes we rewrite them to be playful and non-violent. It also feels incredibly fun to amplify some of the already present historical footnotes in the plays. Were the witches in Macbeth the real protagonists for driving a tyrannical king to his death? Is a bunch of nobles abdicating class and station to live in the forest with a bunch of peasants the ultimate example of cucking the king? And what happens when a city of angry peasants finally gets fed up with the rich nobles for sewing discord?
4. [L&F] Romeo & Juilet is an iconic narrative of tragic romance - what led you to decide to do this play for the 2022 production?
[Maggie] Well, we first decided on this play in the fall of 2019 and although my memory is fuzzy I believe we were all excited about doing this because it’s such a classic. When a few of us met in the fall of 2021 to decide future possibilities it was ultimately decided that we revisit Romeo & Juliet because we had put so much work into it. We were literally a week from performing it in 2020 when the pandemic hit, so we had a set, costumes, theme, so many excel spreadsheets, and much more. It felt stupid to throw all that work away to do a new play this spring.
[I] We had a couple other ideas of what to do that I can’t even remember now, but we felt very excited about finishing what had been started with the first iteration of R&J. It’s also very rare that we have work like having a set already done out of the way. I believe what initially led us to picking it the first time, though, was the desire to do something simple and classic, something that felt a little less convoluted and distilled, a simple love story. The love stories we have done in the past were all comedies and so they had incredibly complex plots.
I think there was a desire to instead take something simple and classic and really get to spend time working on the relationships within all of the characters and the setting without having to worry too much about the plot. Everyone knows the story already. It being a tragedy, I was personally very excited about taking what elements we could that were already present in the play and exploring the latent horror in the interactions and see if, through the simplicity of the plot, we could create super emotional and powerful moments that we wouldn’t have to rush to keep up with the plot, all while amplifying the tragedy and horror.
I was personally very excited about some of the slight historical footnotes present in the source material that really helped create the world behind the story for R&J, the class tension, the unexplainable feud between noble houses and the horror of two young people trying to escape the fates that their parents with their enmity built for them.
5. [L&F] Have there been any exciting challenges that have arisen during this production? If so, please tell us about some of them.
[Maggie] So many challenges, but I think the most exciting challenge that has come up is upping our ability to convey tragedy. As a cast we have discussed how it takes a lot of vulnerability to express the emotions that this play encompasses. In past productions we have largely relied on humor to engage the crowd and in a lot of ways it is easier to be silly on stage and gain confidence through the audience's laughter. It is a much harder thing to convey horror, panic, and misery. To trust our acting and our storytelling in this regard is, I think, our biggest challenge.
[Egg] Within the context of the pandemic, but also in all other ways, those of us involved in this show are working hard to care for each other, to keep each other safe, and to take on all the many, many tasks required in making a production.
[I] It has felt really exciting and challenging to create a super concise vision around the world that R&J occupies while telling a tragic story. While the cast has been constantly working to occupy the emotionality of tragic love and death (during a pandemic no less), we’ve also been working to tweek the story and narrative in whatever ways we can to lean into telling a story that’s both sad and heartfelt.
We really wanted to explore ways that grief can over take someone, and how hard it can be to break out of socially and familially defined roles, and how hard it can be to make good decisions in a chaotic world or how hard it can be to escape things like intergenerational trauma. We wanted to add depth, tension, suspense and surprise to a play that everyone already knows the plot of while not changing much about the basic plot. To further amplify the elements that the story and acting were trying to convey we looked for ways the imagery, set pieces, lighting and music could further resonate what the cast was already doing so well.
I personally as the creative director was looking for ways to explore the latent horror within the fairly simple plot and character interactions. We looked for minor alterations we could make in the script to clarify intentions, deepen emotions, add complexity to characters, add depth to flatter interactions, and visually build a backdrop for the reimagined world of Verona which sits near an abyss, where wealth and nobility are an abnormality, and mysterious creatures whisper in the ears of lovers driving them towards their inevitable ends. And we’re always trying to make the language more accessible. Oh and money. We started with production this year with a budget of $0. That made it pretty hard, but the community has really come through in aiding the completion of this production!
[Dominique] One particular challenge that my castmates encouraged me to speak on is this play's theme of death in the context of a global pandemic. My name is Dominique, and I play Romeo in this year's Shakesqueer production of Romeo & Juliet. In my working life, I'm a registered nurse and work at a hospital in the intensive care unit, and am also the union steward for the nurse's union. To say the least, it’s been difficult to witness the effects of this disease on our patients, and on each other. Myself and many of my nurse friends are dealing with the long lasting effects of PTS, and I hope with all my heart that eventually we will be able to heal from what we've experienced, and are still experiencing.
That said, as the new year crested, I was excited to try out for a Shakesqueer play, having seen and LOVED previous productions. I’ve never acted before, not even when I was young, and I took this crazy leap because I craved creative escape from the constant pain and stress that has been my work, but I also wanted to be a part of something beautiful and collaborative. Whilst preparing for this role, I saw that this story wasn’t the refuge I'd imagined; in addition to being a beautiful love story, there is a lot of death in this play. A lot. What a wild discovery that was though! These beautiful monologues, written so long ago, serve as meditations on death that remain relevant. Upon first reading, then memorizing, then reciting by heart these contemplations, I was invited to come to terms with the enormity of their weight.
In particular, the feeling I've been trying to grapple with, and have been thus far unable to digest is: what does it feel like to witness someone die who had so much more life to live, whose death was senseless, preventable, and (in a word), tragic? Further, how then do you hold space for their loved ones who are left behind– the parent, or child, or partner who wails to the skies and begs for this reality to not be real? That helplessness and sorrow I still can’t swallow, and I sometimes wish I didn't know it so well, but I'm grateful to engage with it here with these wonderful friends, and release it (at least some of it) as art.
I'm really proud to be a part of this production, amongst so much talent and drive. Art at its best disturbs the comfortable, but it also comforts the disturbed, so hopefully through our efforts, both the brutality of loss and also the bliss of budding love is felt this weekend by the audience.
6. [L&F] Anything else you’d like to share about the show and the project?
[Maggie] Holy shit it takes a lot to put on a play and it is a sort of hard earned magic that we can’t wait to share with everyone.
[I] One of my favorite parts of the productions has been the play bills that get created for them. This year’s playbill includes a wonderfully visioned and written introduction to the semi-fantasy, goth fairy tale world that we created for Romeo & Juliet. It gives context to the things people see on stage and fills in some of the gaps that we can only go so far at hinting towards on stage. It also contains a synopsis by act, hoping to bridge some of the troubles many people have with understanding Shakespearian language. It has some lovely footnotes that give insights into character motivations, historical footnotes within the source material and thematic inspiration we used to produce it. There is also a thrilling soundscape that one of our collaborators created specifically to underscore some of the feelings and emotions the characters are wrestling with.
[Dominique] It's gonna be wild and great, a true feast from start to finish. Bring a date! and a chair!
Photos courtesy of Tyler Espinoza. View his work on Instagram at @tyler.espinoza.photo or at tylerespinozaphoto.com