The power of queer performance
Alyson Campbell will co-lead the Feral Queer Camp, hosting activities about what makes performance queer and how we might develop a network of queer thinkers
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
Alyson Campbell is Associate Professor in Theatre (Directing and Dramaturgy) at the Graduate Masters Coursework Program, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Her work is also about developing dual strategies around her own queerness and the queerness of others: what she describes as “running interference'' and “going feral”.
In 2021, Alyson and Steve Farrier will lead a hybrid digital/face to face version of their Feral Queer Camp, hosting activities about what makes performance queer and how we might develop a network of queer thinkers, all stemming from the performances in the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne.
Details of the Feral Queer Camp, open to all, are in the podcast program notes.
Alyson Campbell sat down for a Zoom chat about her work with Dr Andi Horvath.
Alyson, what is it that you teach and research?
Well a lot of the time I am teaching dramaturgy and so dramaturgy is one of those words that’s so off-putting - and there’s lots of different etymologies and arguments about where it comes from, but what I would talk about in terms of a contemporary dramaturgical thinking or even a dramaturgical consciousness is all that comes into play around the awareness of the composition of a piece of performance.
Now, dramaturgy can be applied to all sorts of things actually. It can be taken off into political thinking in all sorts of ways but it comes really through from theatre and it is actually about how elements are arranged and are organised. So it’s compositional thinking, the selection, it’s all about the arrangement of the materials. I think that’s dramaturgical thinking.
But what I would really stress is that dramaturgy is not just about the internal composition about a piece of artwork, like how choices in costume or lights or the text or the nature of the performance style or any of those things, how they work and how they cohere or don’t cohere. It is vitally about the relationship between that internal world and the external cultural, socio-political environment. Why would we do this piece of performance now? Why here? Who for? To what end? Those are the driving questions around what I would call a dramaturgical thinking.
You also research it.
I also research it and that has really - so really my research teaching and practice have now really coalesced over at least 10 years, for a long time now around queer performance. So that might have, for example, I coedited a book with Stephen Farrier who is at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, a book called Queer Dramaturgies, International Perspectives of where Performance Leads Queer. The subtitle is really important because what we were arguing was rather than there’s theories and we’re illustrating them through performance, we were saying that actually performance can teach us things about queerness and that we can speak back or have a dialogue with theory. It’s not that one has a hierarchical position above the others.
But I’ve also got a real passion and long-time relationship with work around HIV and AIDS. So a following book was a collection called Viral Dramaturgies which was really looking at representations of HIV and AIDS and performance from what was called the Lazarus Moment in 1996 when antiretrovirals come into play. It’s a kind of - that initial stage of AIDS crisis and the kind of performance work that was made around that would have been the driving force in making work around HIV and AIDS to a period that comes after - which of course was not an after for everybody in the world, it was a Lazarus Moment for those who could afford those antiretrovirals and has access to them. So the world of HIV and AIDS and the performance connected with it is an extremely complex one.
So as a director and a maker, and I would describe myself as a maker because often I’m not just taking a script and directing it, I’m kind of leading projects and thinking through how to work collaboratively to make those pieces and they can be led in lots of different ways.
Can you explain what queer performance is as a genre?
Sure. Actually it’s so funny because in writing queer dramaturgy, Steve and I of course had to set out what is a queer dramaturgy or what are queer dramaturgies and what do we mean? Of course, the plural is very important. There is not one. But we really ended up doing this thing which again, I laugh wryly, given that queer is so resistant to binaries of gender and sexuality and of anything really, we’ve created this binary between gay theatre and queer performance. So we felt that this was sort of foolhardy but we tried to kind of get at something. Even if we then had lots of people saying, look, no, you can’t claim this, at least it would be a conversation.
So where we ended up with that if - for instance, you might have a company that decides to do - the National Theatre might decide to do a new production of an old play like Angels in America by Tony Kushner, who - it’s clearly a play emerging from the time of the AIDS crisis, it’s very much got sexuality and gay male sexuality really in the heart of it.
But actually if that company is going to maybe not - the audience is definitely a mainstream kind of mostly bourgeois middle-class audience at the National Theatre in London and the director or the team or the actors may not be queer identifying or gay. Then that’s one mode of performance and we might say that the gay theatre really has been so important in terms of representing the LGBTQI+ community and that those representations on stage have been hugely important. But they might still sit very much within a kind of normative or heteronormative model of theatre, which is character-based, psychological realism.
We empathise with the character who in this stage of this we suddenly would have maybe a gay character, which already was radical and needed to be done, but it’s still following that formal model which is based on psychological realism. We empathise with this character perhaps and perhaps know something more about what it is to navigate the world of the gay person.
Where Steve and I tried to come up with what are queer dramaturgies, we posited, you know, we kind of suggested that maybe to make work that is queer relies on the maker actually identifying as queer, and that being a philosophical position. Because of course queer, unless it’s being used as its umbrella term which is not very helpful, queer is absolutely a philosophical position and political positioning.
So it would be about makers identifying as queer and then thinking about the relationship between that work and its audience, who is coming to that? Is it in a venue that we would know of as being a gay or queer venue? Also, it’s about the processes of making and that is largely around collaboration and who else is in that team and is this being driven by this kind of commitment to challenging normative forms and structures as well as perhaps, say, telling gay stories.
I like that. You’re introducing the notion of queer gaze like we know about advertising through the male gaze, which a lot of females felt disenfranchised from. You’re sort of creating the queer gaze.
Yeah, and I think I mean, queer is such a complex term. There are many people who - not that much older than my generation, who really still, the pain in it is too much to get over, even to use it as a disruptive term. Then there is, as I say, the unhelpful kind of just using it to actually replace gay and lesbian and bisexual and all those very diverse groupings that get sort of clobbered together, and queer is a handy monosyllabic way of doing that. But it’s not that useful.
Again, because some people don’t want to identify with that term, coming from a place of deep hurt and wounding. Then we’ve got the sort of relationship between queer theory and queer self-identifying and queer emerges out of academia but not only out of academia. So queer studies and queer theory sort of emerge in the early ‘90s, start of the ‘90s, but it’s also picking up from activist, on the street movements.
So groups like Queer Nation in the US who were really kind of inserting a really resistant mode of going around, being in the world, that wasn’t about the rights-based kind of agenda of we’re gay but we can’t help it and we need to be treated equally as a human right, which is also extremely important, but it’s very quickly an assimilationist thing into same-sex marriage, which is assimilating into heteronormative institutions. Or it was very much driven for a while around gays in the military and different things which are all assimilationist things into bigger power structures and institutional structures.
So Alyson, how did queer culture as an academic research field start?
So really in those years of the early ‘90s, so there’s feminism and feminist theories and women’s studies. Then there’s also the emergence of masculinity studies, finally, as if finally we realised that men are worthy of study because they’re not just the default that everything else has to be studied around. So that is happening and then it’s really Teresa de Lauretis who is a feminist film scholar, who called a conference which for the first time I think raised the idea of queer as a scholarly enterprise.
It also coincided with Judith Butler’s work, very well-known work, Gender Trouble, which raised queering questions around feminism in terms of a feminism that sits very firmly within a binary. Butler was really kind of opening up this field where queer might - or any sort of thinking actually that would challenge this binary of male and female and look at a wider spectrum of gender. So that work is really quite foundational to our thinking around queer as an academic investigation.
But in that book, Butler also uses drag as an example of the performativity of gender, and that became very confusing, but it was - it leads us into a field where performance scholars went, oh, okay, right, so we’re in the field of performance and performativity, so surely in theatre we’ve got something to say about this. But actually I’m often exercised in teaching the difference between performativity and performance, which I’m not sure you’ll want me to go into right now, however that sort of emerges as part of these questions.
So we do end up with a growing field of scholars looking at gender and sexuality and performance. That was coming through, again, I’d say from feminist theory and great feminist scholars and feminist theatre scholars. So a lot of work by Jill Dolan, Sue-Ellen Case, Elaine Aston and Geraldine Harris. But those are US and UK, so there’s all that complication in it too, but where this discourse emerges from and who it sits with.
I mean, I’m naming the female identifying scholars. Queer theory has quite rightly been accused of sitting with the gay white cis men. So it’s got its own issues and I suppose as a female identifying and quite femme, cis woman myself, there’s always this kind of deliberation about whether I move into feminist working groups or stick in the queer ones. Because sometimes it can get a lot with all the boys. But I feel it’s really, really important and I have so many allies amongst those scholars too.
I was interested to hear that you said there were various misconceptions about what queer was and that in a societal sense we automatically default to the male queer.
Well, it’s so complicated, because certainly there’s layers and layers of this and one is again, to reiterate, there’s a mainstream kind of conflation of queer as standing in for lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, intersex, all of those different categories and many others, and gender non-binary. So that’s a kind of populist kind of grasping of that, which doesn’t really help.
But I think that then there’s an internal, within the, [let me call it, now] the queer communities, which is that, first of all, who gets access to academia and who gets access to knowledge? Who can actually read some of these extremely complex theorisings around queer identity that are part of a body of work around queer theory?
Which is what really drives a lot of my work around what I’ve called my Feral Queer pedagogies. Which is about how do you take this knowledge back out of the institutions, the academic institutions, which are deeply normative and quite exclusionary to queer people. How do you kind of have conversations that draw on those very productive ideas that have come from deep thinking through theory, but have those in the queer community, not reliant on people who have made it past all those barriers to get into higher education.
Believe me, those barriers are high if you are a queer identifying person who maybe has not felt comfortable within higher education or even previously, and more likely, within secondary education, or that you’ve gone into higher ed but actually it doesn’t really deal with your life at all or feel relevant. So the strategies that I’ve been working on around feral pedagogies are very much around how do we have these conversations? What can we take from the academic body of work around queerness and what it is to identify as queer and navigate the world as a queer person, but outside of those kind of very elite environments?
I’m really keen to know more about your project Feral Queer Camping.
Yes, I’m delighted you’ve asked about this. So when I was thinking about feral pedagogies, and the idea of feral is the domesticated gone wild. I loved this idea because I see myself as having been domesticated into the academic institution. What would happen if I were to de-domesticate myself and run wild. So with my great research partner, Steve Farrier, we were talking through this and we came up with this idea of the Feral Queer Camp.
The camp essentially runs alongside a queer arts festival because we need the partnership, the partnership there is really great because that’s when most queer performances are happening all at once. At a time of year where we’re gathering a lot of things together, and that can give us access to that performance. Basically the invitation was precisely to say, look, any of you who have either been in higher ed and it didn’t work, didn’t get as far because you weren’t interested, or have felt like you couldn’t, or you’ve been through and you still want more, this is an invitation to become a feral queer cohort who see performance together throughout the duration of the festival and then work out ways to talk about it.
I will just really strongly emphasise here that I might be a facilitator, and Steve and I might be facilitators, but we are learning as much from everybody who comes to the Feral Queer Camp as they are learning from us. What we might bring is the stuff, that stuff that we bring as academics, knowledge about queer theories and its trajectories and its ideas, but we’re also really coming at it as theatre makers and theatre teachers.
So that we’re kind of trying to open up the conversations within queer communities, to do that conversation about the work that we’re seeing and making and experiencing. Because one of my great arguments is that if mainstream reviewers ever come to queer performance, which mostly they don’t. So firstly, they don’t come, and we suffer from that. Then when they do come they actually are not necessarily understanding what I was talking about earlier, which is a resistance to normative forms.
So it’s actually trying to work in different ways from normative theatre. So if you come with a lens that expects it to perform in a certain way and it doesn’t, well then actually those reviews don’t help us either. So my great mission in the world is that we have more of us from within the queer community who could actually really talk through what it is to be at that performance. What it feels like for us, what it does, what the thinking is doing, and actually be able to talk about that composition and that dramaturgical arrangement of things which mean that the choice of content and the mode of delivery and where it is and how it functions is all part of the discussion.
It’s not just about let’s tell us what this play was about. Sorry, I’ve just done air quotes around play because mostly queer performance isn’t plays and they don’t work according to classical ideas about what a play is or isn’t supposed to do. So if you’ve got a resistant set of aesthetic strategies going on, actually you want people who can read and translate those for other people and so that we’re really building out understanding and wealth of discussion around what we might call queer performance.
That’s really nice, that sort of sharing of knowledges and experiences of the performance. Have you had to reinvent the notion of performance in this pandemic world?
Oh, yes. Yes, we have. Look, I would say that, like everybody, the queer community has really suffered from lack of being in spaces together, particularly if you are a group that really does not thrive in mainstream environments and actually seeks out spaces where we can acknowledge our ways of doing things. There’s many, many diverse ways within that, let me just ensure that I’m not trying to claim some stock queer way of existing in the world.
I mean, that is many and diverse and full of complications but actually in many ways and at many places we seek spaces to go and queer performance is one space that queer identifying people will go to to be with their tribe. Theatre is a way of collectively thinking through the world. We’re actually in a space together and something is in front of us and we’re kind of working our way through it together. So the Zoom performance does not give us access to that kind of affective quality or what Butler might talk now about that kind of - the importance of assembly and gathering together.
I have a wonderful PhD student at the moment, Regan Lynch who is writing his PhD on queer performance spaces in club performance in Melbourne and a bit beyond, but really focused on Melbourne. When the pandemic started, there is the crisis moment of what do you do when your work was going to be really field work in those spaces and now those spaces don’t exist.
What’s happened is that he has been able to recalibrate that so much because people did want to talk when those spaces were removed, they really did want to talk about the value of them and how they work. He has also been able to analyse Zoom performances that emerged and really do a beautiful analysis of what stays in in terms of the Zoom performance. A lot of that is about history of live performance and drawing attention to the history and memory of that. I mean, he would talk about this much better than me but I think in terms of the question you were asking, he is someone who is already really in great depth and with great rigour investigating exactly that question.
What would you like to activate in society?
Gosh, that’s a big question.
Mm, I’m putting you in charge of the country’s and the university’s agenda. What would you like to do with it?
I would answer this differently every single day and maybe at different times of the day, but I do feel like our institutions, and the closest one that - the one I know most intimately of course is the academic institution, is that they are governed by very outdated systems and colonial systems.
Do we burn them to the ground? Which would be - some days that’s my answer, burn all these institutions to the ground and start again. Or do we work from inside to try and change them? I feel like, along with a lot of people, I’ve really struggled over the last few weeks with everything happening in Canberra and the ingrained misogyny and patriarchal governance. So to queer it, we would literally need to throw out all those systems and start again, to genuinely queer things. We’d need to throw them out and start again.
So my answer for today is that’s what I would do. I know that’s not possible so in the meantime it’s working from within and outside. So for instance when I talk about feral pedagogies I talk about a dual set of strategies, and one is feral queer camping for instance, which is taking the knowledge, and believe me, as much money as I can get out of the university and taking it outside.
The other one is what I call running interference which is my term for what I do within the university which is kind of to get on committees and take on roles where we can do small things, which are big things, which are whether that’s around the way toilets are organised on campus, whether it’s about holding staff accountable in terms of language which is not binaried. All of these things which over time add up to make somebody’s experience on campus difficult or impossible, but bit by bit, to make each of those somehow a little bit better.
So that’s the slow mode and it brings small little successes that are just about enough to keep you going and then yes, in my utopian version though, is that we’d rethink it all again with a great community of elders and talk about what learning is actually and how learning happens over our whole life.
Admirable indeed. So, Alyson, next time we wander past a flyer that advertises some queer performance and we decide to attend, what would you like us to think about?
I think probably the first thing would be an open-mindedness around what galvanises someone to make a performance and identify it as queer. Know that that means it’s not necessarily telling stories about gay or lesbian or trans or bisexual or intersex people, but that it will be telling - actually, I’m not even going to say telling, I would really try to resist that. It would be giving an experience that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules of going to the Melbourne Theatre Company or going to something at the Arts Centre for example. That it would ask you to perhaps suspend expectations for a little while and sit in that world and see where you emerge at the other side.
Associate Professor Alyson Campbell, thank you very much.
You’re very, very welcome, it’s been a great pleasure.
Thank you to Alyson Campbell, Associate Professor in Theatre (Directing and Dramaturgy) at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on March 22, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
Queer performance is one space that queer identifying people will go to to be with their tribe, says Alyson Campbell, Associate Professor in Theatre (Directing and Dramaturgy) at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne.
“Theatre is a way of collectively thinking through the world. We’re actually in a space together and something is in front of us and we’re kind of working our way through it together.
“It’s actually trying to work in different ways from normative theatre. It’s about the processes of making and that is largely around collaboration and who else is in that team and is this being driven by this kind of commitment to challenging normative forms and structures as well as perhaps, say, telling gay stories.”
In 2021, Alyson and Steve Farrier will lead a hybrid digital/face-to-face version of their Feral Queer Camp, hosting activities about what makes performance queer, and how we might develop a network of queer thinkers, all stemming from the performances in the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne.
“Performance can teach us things about queerness and that we can speak back or have a dialogue with theory. It’s not that one has a hierarchical position above the others.”
“I will just really strongly emphasise here that Steve and I might be facilitators, but we are learning as much from everybody who comes to the Feral Queer Camp as they are learning from us.”
For more information about Feral Queer Camp.
Episode recorded: March 22, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer, editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images
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