"This is the woman, but not this the man": Queering Community Theatre

I love community theatre. I used to help run one in a little place called Saxapahaw, North Carolina, and after relocating to Oxford, Mississippi, I was excited to make community theatre a part of my life again, so I auditioned for Theatre Oxford’s Spring 2022 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Not only did I get to immerse myself in a community of interesting and vibrant artists living and creating in a small Southern town, which are some of my favorite kinds of people and places, but I also stumbled across a unique situation that has lent itself to a study of the intersections of queer performance, performative agency, and Southerness.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about overlapping classes of people; we have the fairy realm with its royalty, the Athenian realm with its royalty, and the mechanicals, the lower-class laborers, who despite their positioning at the bottom of the social structure, find themselves performing their own romantic tragedy (though comedically), for the queen at the end of the play.

In a play that is already experimenting with meta-representation by reproducing its own couplings and hierarchies in triplicate, the Theatre Oxford production took things to another level. Each couple in the play had their lines swapped, so that the male character, still played as a man and by a male actor, said the lines of the female character, and vice versa. In addition, some male roles were played as men but by female and genderqueer actors. Lastly, while the rest of the play was staged in the conventional, though always somewhat mythical, Anglicized, and anachronistic Renaissance Athens, the mechanicals’ speech was altered to imitate that of modern-day American Southerners.

I chose to document this production because it offered a layering of gendered performances through the drag written into Shakespeare’s original play-within-a-play motif, the gender nonconforming casting that has been done for this production, and the gender swapping of lines that is also being experimented with, and all of that is not to mention the legacy of drag inherent in Renaissance drama with its historical exclusion of non-male actors. The goal of my documentation was to highlight how each of these layers is a form of queer art making individually, and to discover the additional depths of meaning that can occur when they interact.

I have an ongoing fascination with inner narratives, the story-within-a-story structure, and how it often allows for the artist, writer, director, etc. to show the audience what it looks like to them, or what it ought or ought not to look like depending on what the artist chooses to present it with.

It can be a moral tool which dictates the range of appropriate responses to certain kinds of performances, and all with an unavoidable reflexivity, a collapse of inner audience and outer audience, of inner artist and outer artist.

There is of course the theory of gender as performance, in which an audience is necessary and gender must be performed and perceived in unison, but I am curious about investigating how this shifts and changes when there is more than one audience in play, particularly an audience which is also a part of the performance, an audience which is performing a particular kind of perception that the outer audience is meant to perceive as a part of the gendered performance.

I aimed to document the multiplicity that goes into a production like this; the relationship between performance and perception is reciprocally generative on its own, but I wanted to additionally show how nuanced the identities performed and perceived can become when so many artists, both here and now, and those present in the legacy of a production, come together to create, especially when they make an effort to engage with the individuality of the people and place they are performing in.

I’m a poet. I think of myself as a visual person, obsessed with space and dimension and interaction, but my craft is in words. I don’t know anything about photography except that I like to look at it. Figuring out my methods and style for this project involved some trial and error.

I knew pretty much immediately that I would use Polaroids, despite the fact that I did not and have never owned a Polaroid camera. My favorite theatre critic and perhaps favorite critic altogether, Leonard Cabell Pronko, writes about the intangibility and ephemerality that makes theatre unique as an artform. Recordings of staged productions exist, but so much of the experience cultivated by the artists consists of the contextual arrangements of the production (how the stage and audience are situated, lighting and sound choices, who you happen to be seated next to, etc.), that the recording is an entirely different art object than the experiential, distinctly non-object that is seeing the play (Avant-Garde 129, 197-199).

Thus, theatre resists captivity.

So, naturally, I set out to capture it. The analog distillation of a Polaroid seems on the surface to be the most static and inappropriate medium for this job. They are small, dark, and low-resolution compared to more advanced digital photography, and especially video, which seems like the most obvious choice for getting as close as possible to the experience of performance.

However, it wasn’t actually the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I wanted to capture. Like Pronko says, that moment is over the second the house lights come back on, and is certainly not consistent across individual performances. What I was interested in was the process, the decision making and discovery that performers undergo as they collaborate over the course of months of rehearsals, deciding what versions of themselves and their characters that they want to present and how. Ultimately, Polaroids ended up being the perfect medium for this goal, but not in the ways I expected.

Polaroids are loud. And the two I used for this project at least were not equipt to shoot from a long distance. These things, combined with an intrusive flash and uncooperative stage lights, made them the wrong choice for shooting actual moments of onstage rehearsal. I tried to do this for a while, and ended up with small, dark images. Some of which I find somewhat haunting and interesting, like this one.

And this one.

But others, not so much.

I continued to document rehearsal with a digital camera, which was less disruptive and produced higher quality images, and leaned on my Polaroid for close ups. The images that resulted are more intimate than the digital ones, and come so much closer to being documents of the relationships, processes, and discoveries I set out to capture in the project.

To reiterate, Polaroids are loud, and bright, and enchanting by way of their novelty. Not one of these photos was taken without the pictured person’s knowledge of it. Because of this awareness, and the fact that my photographic capabilities were limited to offstage, pre- and post-scene moments, these photos reflect a performance just as much as the digital, onstage photos do, but it is of a different kind.

It is my hope that these photos document some of the moments of choice and process in the development of an actor’s performance. The actors pictured knew they were being photographed, but with varying levels of preparation. I sometimes asked if I could photograph them practicing a specific aspect of their performance.

I most frequently photographed them with no warning until they saw the camera and its flash, at which point they often posed. Increasingly, as time went on, they would see my camera and pose together in conventional group arrangements.

By the end of the production, the cast was so used to me taking photos and the novelty of the Polaroid had worn off so much that the effects of the sound and flash resulted in a different kind of responsive posing, in which the person did not react.

These photos were taken across two months of rehearsal, and so they show two months of development of performance. When I look at these photos, I feel that I can discern some in which the actor is posing in character, some in which they are posing as a version of themselves, and some which display some other experimental posture. Interpreting these dynamics is a different kind of process in the early photos when the actors look more obviously like themselves, than in the later ones when they are in costume and makeup.

In addition to a change in presentation, the progression of the play resulted in interpersonal changes. Not only did actors quit the play, leading to remaining actors taking on new roles with new and different demands, but actors grew more comfortable with each other and more playful in their performances and poses, both on- and offstage.

In choosing moments to capture, I looked for process. Sometimes this meant taking the photos that they asked me to take, as I wanted to know what was important to them in their experience of the rehearsal process.

Sometimes it meant taking photos of literal processes, such as makeup application,

costume trial runs,

and rehearsals of specific gags and stunts.

Sometimes it meant capturing the significant amount of the theatre experience that is killing time.

And in what I’ve found to be my favorite photos, I’ve tried to capture a performance process— a process of deciding who and how one wants to perform.

In these photos I took of Jake, who first played only the Philostrate, but later took on the additional role of Francis Flute, who also plays Thisbe in the production’s inner play, Pyramus and Thisbe, we see him pose both in his Philostrate costume and his Thisbe dress, and know that a performance is being given, but without the contextualization of the play’s narrative, we are left to attempt a reconstruction of the performance.

I chose to display these photos out of sequence, and stopped manually dating them early on in this project, because I found that to do so would be counterintuitive to documenting the rehearsal process. Developing a performance is anything but linear. Not only are there setbacks and hurdles such as those we faced in this play with actors dropping out and needing to be replaced, but the act of rehearsal itself is done out of sequence. When you step onstage to perform a character, you have rarely performed their other scenes in an order that would lend itself to narrative or emotional continuity.

In addition, each of these photos was posed for and taken with myself as the audience. It is significant that I was a part of this production, situated within it rather than an outside documentarian. When my castmates posed for me, they were giving a performance to a viewer who had all the possible context. When I see these photos, I know whether Jake was performing his male or his drag role, just as when I see this photo of Kate and Connor, I know that they were practicing masculine versus feminine posturing for Kate’s own drag performance in the play.

For these reasons, I wonder if I am the right person to make claims about the queer performances that took place in this production, and that I attempted to record the development of. I may know too much about what each performer strived for and worked on and thought about to really determine whether or not those things were captured. And yet, a performance requires an audience, and changes its nature based on that audience. So perhaps the performances that I received and captured are simply different than those another viewer would see. That is, after all, what Pronko says. Theatre happens in our heads and stays there. Though it may be the most communally-experienced and community-dependent artform, it is also inherently individually processed.

To this end, I give you these photographs of poses performed for me specifically, with all the context assumed in my insider situation, but I also give you the digital photographs of performances intended not quite for the public just yet, but certainly for a broader audience with a more diffuse range of contexts. Lastly, I’ve reproduced portions of interviews with several cast members here, so that they may themselves articulate their processes and performances, both as they would speak about them to me, and also with an eye toward a future outside audience. Naturally, these interviews contrast and contradict each other, showing how performance choices that affect the whole production are processed and performed differently by individuals with different goals for their performances and different audiences in mind.