An issue I have often is a sense of ‘queer imposter syndrome’ the idea that I’m just not quite queer enough for the spaces I occupy. In part, this comes from identifying as pansexual and feeling like there’s not quite a place for me. It also comes from the fact, as someone who doesn’t limit romantic and sexual attraction by gender…that shockingly neither do I limit my writing in that way.
That said, when my play Don’t Send Flowers was first performed (in 2019 by Cardiff based theatre company Clock Tower), I felt a weird sense of discomfort that as a queer person, I’d written a very heterosexual play. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (to quote the old Seinfeld line), but still I felt some level of if not discomfort then disconnect with it. Perhaps in part because it was a play I’d actually written some years earlier before I was as comfortable and open with my own identity. Either way, I was proud of the piece but it somehow didn’t feel as authentically ‘me’ as it once did, along with that sense of it being not ‘queer enough’ that my own sexuality sometimes gives me. It’s troubling to me that we often expect queer artists to ‘prove’ their sexuality, their place at the queer artist table, through their work. Not everything I write is derived from personal experience (ironically this play is in fact deeply personal), so therefore not every play is as ‘queer’ as I am on first glance…yet I feel pressure to somehow make my work ‘more queer’ to be accepted. As it happens, this time, that occurred almost by accident.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m reworking the piece with new collaborators. World events meant the planned production of it was postponed (and postponed again), but we did have a chance to do some research and development work with some students. In that process, we gender-swapped a role, and started to wonder, ‘could this work?’ So much so that when it came to auditioning for the production itself, we saw all genders identities for that role, and eventually we settled on the fact that a female in that role gave us a chance to tell a different story.
So ‘John’ became ‘Joanne’ and our story shifted. It’s been an interesting experience because it didn’t come from a place of ‘let’s up the women in this piece’ or ‘let’s make it queer’, but rather from a place of genuine curiosity as to what the play might look like with a woman in that role. The decision shifted lots of things; how we think of her professionally (she’s an academic), in her family life (she’s a caregiver for her brother), romantically (unattached), even how she faces the illness she has shifted with gender.
What excited me about these shifts was the fact that it’s now a queer show without necessarily being explicitly about queerness. Don’t Send Flowers is a show about love and friendship in various forms. It’s a story about facing hard times with humour. Nobody has to awkwardly ‘comes out’, they’re just there, living queer lives and facing what life throws at them. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t given new meaning along the way, but it’s not what the play is about. It’s both ‘incidentally queer’, while having queer characters front and centre, and I really like that.
It often feels like there’s pressure on queer writers to address ‘queer issues’ in everything we do, to be out, proud, and political in every work. It can feel like there’s pressure on us to always be directly and explicitly addressing contemporary queer concerns or revisiting themes of coming out, rejection, and homophobia. Don’t get me wrong, all those stories are valid stories, they’re stories we’ve needed and continue to need, but there are other ways to be political, there are other ways to write about being queer, and sometimes the best way to tell queer stories is just to put queer people in them.
For me, the political too comes in the slightly skewed axis of life from the ‘heteronormative’ that the inclusion of queer people in stories that aren’t just about queerness presents. In my story, Joanne is queer, and also facing a terminal illness. For me as a queer writer, I immediately wonder whether her sexuality was ever an issue. Did she have to disclose it? Were doctors ever a problem for her? Similarly, I wonder what her academic workplace was like for her ten years ago when she started. Is her lack of confidence in her abilities because as a queer woman she’s been othered and feels like an outsider? What about her family. How did her brother react to her sexuality as a kid? All of these thoughts aren’t written into the play explicitly, but these questions—and a 1000 things besides—will float around her character for queer audiences, they’ll ‘see’ her like they see any other queer person, with a knowledge that all these factors are part of her story.
For Joanne, we get to see her take on love as a queer person. Anyone who knows me, knows I am a child of rom-coms and sitcoms (yes, there’s a sitcom reference in the play) and Joanne is our romantic lead. She makes so much more sense as Joanne, rather John, as the charcter once was. Maybe because she speaks the words of my heart better as a woman.
And yes, by the way, I’ve written a (queer) romantic (dark) comedy for the stage, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. High concept isn’t all that we need, and I firmly believe in human stories for the stage. Just like I believe in queer rom-coms with my very soul. I think I never wrote Joanne as Joanne before because I’m not used to my romantic lead being allowed to be a woman, and queer.
As I mentioned above, this play is deeply personal for me, and maybe in a way, it’s grown with me. As I’ve grown more into my identity—become more settled in my queerness with each passing year—so this play naturally ended up right there with me. For this play, which is so very much a part of me, that feels right. I understand my characters more as I understand myself. I don’t believe that every play has to be a queer play just because I’m queer, but I do believe in characters telling you their story, and for me, these characters are finally telling their most authentic story. So perhaps instead of making things ‘queer because I’m queer’ I’m just telling my authentic stories too.
Don’t Send Flowers plays London’s The White Bear Theatre from August 30th 2021 until September 4th 2021.
By Dr Emily Garside