About a year ago, I directed a little play called The Transition of Doodle Pequeño by Gabriel Jason Dean about a Mexican immigrant boy, his trilingual pet goat, and his new friend, a boy who likes to wear dresses. Doodle is an anomaly. There is very little queer representation in the larger world of entertainment for kids, let alone theatre for young audiences, let alone touring in schools. Doodle is one of two plays I have directed with these themes (the other is Emily Freeman’s awesome And Then Came Tango, about gay penguins) and I seem to have exhausted the supply of plays for young people (specifically elementary and early middle school ages) with progressive and explicit queerness. Why is this? Why aren’t playwrights exploring this subject matter? What are the roadblocks and how can we move past them? Why aren’t playwrights and artists creating queer pieces for these audiences? How can we push the boundaries of content and subject matter? And how can we get theatres to produce these works?
Now, before I begin an attempt to answer these question, you might be wondering, how does queer TYA fall under the umbrella of “non-traditional” TYA? Let’s look at the words “traditional” and “queer.” Just putting them in the same sentence feels off putting. The word “queer” does not always mean LGBT. According to queer theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, queer has a much broader definition, that of the interruption, of the other, of that which is not of a normative, or tradition. You see, for something to be traditional, it must identify itself with a normative position within a construct or discourse. And in order for something to be a normative, it must exist. Period. Queer TYA barely even exists. Queer TYA is not only queer in content; it is queer in its position within the broader genre of TYA. Therefore, I must conclude that queer TYA is inherently non-traditional.
Now, how do we create queer TYA plays when the category is still so scarce? Well, playwrights, queer and ally alike, could sit down and write them of their own volition. But this does not seem to be happening. Self-censorship pervades. It is a vicious cycle. Theatres turn away queer scripts because “audiences are not ready yet,” or they are scared of backlash from presenting “risky” material and worry about ticket sales and parents who complain about “inappropriate material.” If theatres turn away already written scripts, then they certainly are not commissioning them. It is no wonder playwrights are not developing these stories.
Where else can we turn? I think we can turn to the kids. Kids are inherently queer. I am not just talking about kids who identify as trans, or queer already. I am talking about all children. Kids are naturally pre-structuralist. Kathryn Bond Stockton’s book The Queer Child: or growing sideways in the twentieth century discusses this theory in great detail, outlining the queerness of children in archetypes as the ghostly gay child, the grown homosexual (the retrospective queer child), the child queered by Freud (the not-yet-straight child), and the child queered by innocence or queered by color/money (the separation between adult and child controlled by the discourse of innocence and economic hierarchy). So, what if we look to these queer young people to create their own stories? Would queer themes naturally emerge? When kids create stories, their complex ideas of gender naturally emerge. This winter I worked with Tricycle Theatre in London on their new project, StoryLab where they went into local primary school classrooms to source stories, which then went into a professional rehearsal room to be theatricalized and then presented back to the students.
The students’ primary materials came riddled with a huge diversity of characters; male protagonists, female protagonists, agender aliens and creatures, you name it. Their characters and storylines reflected the queerness of the children’s’ imaginations which were then expanded on by the cast where cross-dressing abounded. While there were no explicit LGBT characters or storylines present, there was ample opportunity. And because the kids themselves are coming up with these stories, there is far less fear of any kind of subject matter-related backlash from educators and parents. I wonder what a story would have looked like if there had been a trans child in one of the classrooms, or a child who was differently abled, or a child with gay parents. Might there be explicit LGBT and queer content in those stories? I wonder.