Theatre is a queer art.
This might be a bold, generalization, for surely there can be no cultural attachment to an artform, only works of art that are submerged within it.
But if we take a close look at theatre, at the driving force of an artform that requires men and women to abandon reality for greater truths. We can see hints of queer origins. Suspension-of-disbelief is all too common to anyone who identifies as “other.” Who better than a queer person to create safe spaces for identity shifting, exploring and revealing? For in theatre, even though the object is to become another person, the result is a chance to finally express every aspect of who you really are. This is not to suggest that theatre has a great track record of creating queer content, but it certainly has a great track record for allowing queer artists a place to play and feel more included. As Jaffe Cohen so succinctly put it, “High school drama club is basically a head start program for gay kids.”
This is a cultural examination. Not by taking the actions and behaviors of people of a certain minority in life and comparing them to the actions and behaviors of characters in a play, but, rather, by contrasting them. By seeing the differences, we are able to best understand the motivations of a work of art through a cultural lens.
This is an exercise in pedagogy. A framework, not meant to criticize, but outline a style of close reading that is necessary to the sharpening of critical thought-or at least examination.
There are two elements to discuss that are vitally important when dealing with an LGBTQ story, particularly a gay male one. The first is sexual relationships between gay male characters. This includes the need for escape from those sexual relationships, or, more specifically from sex itself. So, sex becomes a sort of given circumstance for gay male characters. The audience walks in with a general awareness that gay male characters will be mostly be hyper-sexual or completely non-sexual. For the latter, this is due to the fact that in order to assimilate to the people around them, they cannot “broadcast” their lifestyle, so they come across as a-sexual.
Both of these tropes are also true to life. So where is the difference? The difference will usually come, theatrically speaking, in the overcoming of the presented obstacles.
Let’s use a textual analysis:
Shooting Star, a self-described “revealing new musical” deals not only with gay porn, but gay porn with a Pollyanna twist.
It’s an accidental hero kind of story. In the play Taylor Trent (Taubert Nadalini) is a wide-eyed, saccharinely sweet young gay man who moves to Hollywood with dreams of being a famous actor.
The set-up is that this young man, whose naiveté rivals Cindy Brady, just wants to be famous and will compromise his way there by any means necessary.
So he’s ripe for corruption. Plot point number one. He’s also gay, so sex will be a way to corrupt him. Plot point number two. He’s good-looking and gay, and sex will be a way to corrupt him, so…porn. All the plot points point to an anti-hero’s journey. Which means the obstacles will determine the means. Just like Frodo, Taylor must be tempted to do wrong and come out right.
First obstacle: Taylor doesn’t want to do porn. Why? It’s demeaning, it’s gross, it’s beneath him. Enter Mr. Sue (Karole Foreman) a porn director who discovers Trent and sees his potential.
First obstacle is overcome when Mr. Sue, and co. convince Taylor he’ll be a star. Hesitantly, Taylor shoots a porn scene and is a natural.
Second obstacle: Taylor just wants to be in love. And falls in love with his first scene partner, Jesse Apollo (Nathan Mohebi). But Jesse, in a problematic dialogue, won’t date a porn star. But, you might ask, isn’t he a porn star? Yes, something about shitting where you eat (I understand this might be an offensive and insulting pun, but I stand by it).
Second obstacle will be overcome when the inevitable conclusion is presented to us.
Okay, so the driving force of Taylor’s character is the slow decent into a profession he didn’t want, pursuing a man he can’t have. Which of course turns him resentful, entitled and cruel.
Third obstacle: The young, bitchy rival. For this play that character comes in the form of JR Andrews (Carson Robinette) a drug-addled, sex driven twink who sees Taylor as his arch enemy. Why? Because he’s threatening to take over the role of youngest, hottest bottom. A role JR has been successful in thus far.
Third obstacle is overcome when Taylor proves to be more popular, thus diminishing all of JRs power within the first half of the play. Which is a shame because Carson Robinette is compelling and quite funny as JR, but isn’t allowed to be fully realized.
Fourth obstacle: Porn is bad. Taylor must get out. But it’s alluring because of fame. This is a tough one. Taylor is a character of such innocence that it’s hard to justify this turn. In fact, the play can’t. It’s relying on the given circumstances. Which is the point of this entire section. The cultural criticism must be examined if we are to understand the motivation of Taylor. And if we remove his homosexuality from the reading, and we just examine his motivations as a man, we would not be able to justify his actions.
But, he’s gay. So the corruptibility factor is higher because gay men search more desperately for approval. But also because the shame he feels doing porn is directly related to the slut-shaming problem in the world today.
Fourth obstacle is overcome when Taylor realizes porn is bad and that it’s changed him and he’s still just the boy who wants a boyfriend and to be a famous actor. The problem with this is that the script gives us all of that information on like page ten, and so by two and a half hours in, most of the audience has been sitting at the ending waiting for the play to catch up with them. We know porn, in this world, is a negative. That’s easy. When telling a queer story, however, this can be problematic. For this play, however, the gay element is surprisingly left to given circumstance. It dances around any political observations and leaves us with the idea that it’s not a gay story, they just happen to be gay. But then, the point of no return happens and we see all the problematic queer themes, and representations come flooding into the story. We will examine this much more in the next section.
Fifth obstacle: the men that try to corrupt Taylor. This comes in the form of his manager Tiger Black (Bettis Richardson) and the New York porn producer Martin Lords (Christopher Robert Smith) In this script, both characters are plot devices and don’t have many dimensions. They are villainous for the sake of the script.
So this obstacle is easy to overcome. When there’s no nuance, there’s no reward. So when Taylor realizes his life is bad because of his choices, these men are clearly discarded as equally bad.
We have five main obstacles. Now let’s examine all five, briefly, through a cultural lens.
- Porn is beneath Taylor. This is an obstacle that most everyone would agree with. So what’s the new statement here? From a queer lens, it would seem that the takeaway is that because Taylor is attractive and proves to be good at sex, his function can only really be a sexual one. Now this would be a wonderful cliché to flip on itself but alas, not here.
- Taylor falls in love with Jesse, who tells him he’ll never date a porn star. This obstacle is equally problematic. First, the judgment of Jesse against Taylor is a form of identity rejection, something queer individuals have all faced or feared. So, this play falls into the cliched trope of people who have too much sex cannot be good boyfriends. And it reinforces this theme at the end when Jesse is willing to date Taylor when he leaves the industry. Cultural message: gay men can only have meaningful relationships if they’re not too sexual.
- The pitting of JR against Taylor. Reducing two men to their sexual position. A need to prove worth by being the best sex object to the other men. This is an issue women have been fighting for-literally-ever and it’s happening in the LGBTQ community as well. JR is reduced to a desperate drug addict instead of humanizing and layering him. Why? Because through a queer lens, we can see that we don’t need to. We know this guy, we’ve seen him before and we accept him in the world.
- Gay porn is bad, it’s demeaning, it’s rife with drugs. This is an obvious obstacle and doesn’t need any clarity. Boogie Nights accomplished a look into the porn world in a microscopic and personal way that allowed human frailty, flaws and flexibility into the world. This play is concrete in its judgment of porn and all who inhabit it. It is a place to escape. End of story. Through a queer lens, however, we have to take into account the sex-shaming. It’s a statement about the problems gay men have connecting on any other level.
- Men trying to corrupt younger more innocent men. I feel like this is too easy. Without being redundant, the issue is that too many given circumstances, nothing new to add to the conversation.
The second element of LGBTQ theatre, from which we have not yet evolved is the queer character that cannot adjust to the “normal” world, and therefore is doomed. In Shooting Star this character is aging porn star James Grant (Michael Scott Harris). The thing about James is that he follows the trajectory of the fallen god, the character that was once in a place of privilege and glory and has declined. James even has a song called “Those Golden Days” which quite literally spells out the trope I have just described. This is by no means a uniquely queer trope, but when a gay character is stripped of agency because of age, and diminishing sexual utility, we simply cannot divorce ourselves, nor the character from the queer reality.
For both Taylor and James the gay life is one of despair and dejection. The difference, and this is culturally significant is that Taylor has a chance beyond his “bad” choices, because he’s young and attractive, and James does not.
The message to older gay men then must be, and I’m only using what the author has provided in the text, that you must have some use to other men in order to survive. For Taylor it’s finding love and fulfilling his desire to be needed. For James it’s too late. The older, lonely gay man archetype almost always ends in suicide, and it’s not because it’s inevitable, it’s because of course it does. It’s part of the narrative landscape now and there’s simply no other option.
Until there is.
I’m not suggesting the author did this deliberately, I’m pointing out a cultural criticism.
Hudson Mainstage Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Blvd
Hollywood, CA 90038
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