Known for their original and important work elevating women’s and trans’ voices in the local theater scene, three seasons ago 20% Theatre Company used their previous work as a jumping off point to start a program that reflects where their true passion lies: Giving queer artists a direct platform to tell their own stories and create their own works. Thus Q-STAGE was born, and it has become one of my very favorite annual events. Each show is a surprise, and the four-show series combines mediums like movement and storytelling, music and theatre, and so much more (I don’t want to give it all away!). This third series promises to be the best yet — a perfect way to conclude this groundbreaking theatre company’s tenth anniversary season.
Director and Founder of the company, Claire Avitabile, says this about Q-STAGE:
The mission and vision of Q-STAGE are, at their core, the reason I started 20% Theatre Company 10 years ago. All I wanted – as a queer theatre artist myself – was the existence of oodles of opportunities for queer theatre and performance artists to develop, create and share new work, to challenge themselves, to feel empowered, and to receive the support and resources they need to grow as artists. 20% Theatre lives and breathes this mission/vision through all of our theatrical productions, but Q-STAGE is specifically where new work is created from scratch. Observing this six-month development process is magical and inspirational, and Q-STAGE has definitely become my favorite program of 20% Theatre. The artists this year are phenomenal, and many of the themes they explore in their work will hit home for all kinds of people, regardless of identity. I am the biggest fan of autobiographical work, or documentary performance (whatever you want to call it) – and the four shows this year are just that.
Because Avitabile and company create such a welcoming, creation-friendly environment, the process of creating a work itself is incredibly unique in this series. Creating or devising a work is not like simply performing in a show, or writing a show and shopping it around for production. JamieAnne Meyers who created “First Person: A Life in Transition” for Q-STAGE describes it as such:
Putting together a show for “Q-STAGE” is a very fluid process. My work began conceptually long before my proposal was chosen for inclusion in the 2016 Q-STAGE series. For several years I had this desire to create a play based on some of the many stories that I have shared publicly and also privately among friends and family about what it’s like to live my life as a queer transperson. I’m primarily a storyteller, and have been using this medium for many years in facilitating workshops, panels and discussions around social justice issues, especially those involving the LGBTQ+ community. The next step for me was to use some of these autobiographical stories to build a show that could eventually be “taken on the road” for education and entertainment through the medium of theater. The script just blossomed from there.
Syniva Whitney of Gender Tender and their show in Q-STAGE “Bent/Straight” confirms this rare, fluid, artist-centered approach:
As a non-binary person this process was an opportunity to dive deep into into some of the weirdness that happens as a so very bent person walking through the predominately straight world. [“Bent/Straight” has] also grown from the energy of what happens when you find a loved one in the muck navigating similar difficulties and desires as well in their body and mind. Will and I are a real life trans and queer couple so for sure its concepts are rooted in our experiences and our bodies. I always feel compelled to build the dream worlds that I want and that other people I love want and that thinking has found a place in this world. I also always want the freedom to change my mind and start again. at the same time I also find myself feeling powerless and limited in the face of opposition and economic reality and that darker material is there as well. This work has definitely been influenced by the excitement of adapting and improvising, making space, embracing failure, embracing the odd and the unknowable.
Q-STAGE is broken into two sets, with two shows performing back to back each night. Set A takes place THIS weekend (the 13-15th), and starts with Hector Chavarria’s “Big Gay Mexican Show”. I am ecstatic for this show — I’ve had the pleasure of seeing sneak peeks at Patrick’s Cabaret’s My Horrifying Love Life as well as followed online teasers and info that has surfaced. Chavarria’s comedic timing and quirky viewpoint are addicting to watch, but what really makes this show is the raw emotion and vulnerable heart he pours into this work. “The Big Gay Mexican Show” description chronicles the creator’s attempt at rising to fame and uses song, dance, and humor to touch on heart rending topics like body image, heartbreak itself, and the intersection of cultural, sexual, and performance identity. The question lying at the heart of the show: “Is American ready to allow a big, gay Mexican to become a star?” seems like a personal one to Chavarria, but will no doubt encourage those with a myopic view of “star quality” to open their hearts and make room for all. The show is directed by Stacy Schultz, and stars Donn Saylor and Jennifer Buckhout along with Chavarria himself.
Also in Set A is Twin Cities darling JamieAnn Meyers new work, “First Person: A Life in Transition.” Meyers developed this show as a way to tell her own story. This is a deeply autobiographical work, and so I spoke to Meyers directly, who had this to say about her work:
We need a great variety of stories from the trans and gender non-conforming community to help break down stereotypical barriers that prevent people from knowing us as an incredibly beautiful and varied spectrum of individuals. Each of us has a different story, and First Person is my unvarnished truth. It’s the story of my life-long transition, a life that’s being lived “halfway up, halfway down,” in-between, and my claiming CHANGE as my identity. I want the audience to leave the show with an understanding of the complexity, struggles and joys of a trans person’s life. I want the audience to get inside my head and understand that each of us is different, that each of us struggles with many conflicting emotions. I want the story of my lifelong transition and the complexity of living “in-between” to emerge.
Several of my personal favorite performers (and Meyer’s friends), Erica Fields, Zealot Hamm, Suzi Love, Beckett Love, and Pearl Noonan agreed to join “First Person” as a “Greek Chorus” at director Shalee Coleman’s urging. You will recognize most of those names and faces from another of my favorite 20% projects — the Naked I series. Meyers is so excited for people to see the show, and offered this info about her favorite things about “First Person: A Life In Transition.”
“One of the interesting aspects of our work is that we’ve turned the trope of having cis actors portraying trans characters on its head! My trans and gender non-conforming actors play cis characters throughout the eleven scenes of the show. Having this fabulous chorus working with me to tell my story has been the best part of the entire process! In addition, the very creation of the play has been very cathartic for me, therapeutic in fact. That’s the way storytelling is.”
Catch these marvelous shows in Set A, which performs May 13-15th at Intermedia Arts. Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30, and Sundays show is at 2pm.
Set B takes the theatre world by storm next weekend (the 20-22nd) and promises to be just as breathtaking as Set A. That one kicks off with “Bent/Straight” by Gender Tender. Syniva Whitney of the duo directed and choreographed. One of Gender Tender’s greatest strengths is in their uncanny ability to seamlessly incorporate other mediums into their performance art, and “Bent/Straight” is no exception as this “story of two non-binary bodies in queer love” finds the duo creating a fictitious home for themselves via dance and acting. They’ve added additional elements by bringing in installation art by Madeleine Bailey and music by Ariskany Records. In this show, Will Courtney and Syniva Whitney (who comprise Gender Tender) become Scout and Wizard, who are faced with inner demons as they fear losing their better half and then face existential questions about what that phrase even means. They also face outer demons like a binary world in which they can not find a space for themselves. It’s no secret that I am a hard core fan of this innovative duo, and I’m thrilled to see them creating something new and newly innovative by their own standards.
Rounding out Q-STAGE is “The Grief Experiments,” created and performed by A.P. Looze, a performance artists well-known in the Twin Cities Avant Garde scene who is getting a much bigger platform with this piece. Zoe Michael directs “The Grief Experiments” which takes a hard look at grief and how we face it when it’s staring us down or sitting right in the room with us. This show has a huge air of mystery around it, with the show describing Looze’s “Most Honored Guests” as taking part in these experiments without any listing of guests or description of the experiments. Having lost several really important people in the past several years, I am equally excited and nervous for this show. One of my favorite things about queer art in general though is how unabashed we in this community are in handling universal material. Everybody grieves, but straight society insists on so many mores rooted in politeness and hiding your emotions. Looze and company, in true queer art fashion, spin those mores on their head, forcing audience members and those illusive honored guests to face some of our darkest moments down.
Set B takes place at Intermedia Arts as well, May 20th-22nd. Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30, Sunday’s matinee takes place at 2 P.M.
Both Friday night sets have an opening night reception afterwards, and both Saturday performances have a post-show discussion with the artists involved. To buy tickets or learn more about Q-STAGE, 20%, or the artist’s themselves, visit www.tctwentypercent.org.