Reflections on Performance Art among Friends
In 2003, two years after I began attending Hartford (Conn.) Meeting, I went into a clearness committee, worried the weighty Friends might dismiss my attempt to artfully and comically explore my bizarre coming out experience, that they might judge it a sensational, self-centered, shallow parody, which had no place in serious Quaker circles. I began to relax after the first 30 minutes of the meeting, feeling comfortable and affirmed. But then Bill, a retired child psychologist and the most secular of all the people on the committee, jarred me when he said, “It sounds like yours is a prophetic ministry.”
I suddenly felt cornered. I explained I had attended Pentecostal and Evangelical churches for nearly 20 years. The words “ministry” and “prophetic” stirred up trauma for me. The “ministry” I had received attempted to “de-gay” me and destroy much of my personality. The prophecies, at times literally yelled in my face, served to undermine my sense of self. Bill nodded and listened. His tone softened as he assured me, “I am talking about something different. You are speaking truth to a generation that needs to hear a message about justice and equality. You are pointing out wrongs in the world and showing people a different, better way. Your prophetic ministry gives light for straight people like me who need to see the world in a fresh, new way.”
As I considered this, I relaxed back into my seat; my fists unclenched. His description of prophetic ministry was getting closer to what I sought to do with my play Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House, but still, something unsettled me. After a period of silence I spoke, “I hear what you are saying, but it is hard for me to accept that position. It sounds like you see me as a preacher, but I am not; I am a performance artist.”
The members of the committee wanted to know more about this difference, and I have been trying to answer that question ever since. In my one-person comedies, I take on deadly serious issues: justice for queer, transgender, gender non-binary, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people; white male power and privilege; climate change as a human rights issue; discrimination by lesbians and gays toward bisexuals, gender nonconforming, and transgender people; and the death of both of my parents from lung cancer.
While many individual Quakers love and appreciate art for art’s sake, we often look for a message in a work of art.
Beyond sharing a message, I understand the role of performance art is to open up the audience to thinking, feeling, remembering, reacting, and responding. A preacher has a clear message to communicate, while I, as a performance artist, toss out into the air images, characters, and scenarios. I trust the alchemy between my audience and my art and me will create multiple messages and lasting impressions.
After a performance, it is common for an audience member to approach me: “During your show, you said … ‚” and here they share something that moved them deeply and thank me for reaching them. The strange thing is I never intended the message that moved them, but they heard it all the same. In the artful telling of stories, the characters on stage and the word images repeat and bend in ways so subtle the audience is hardly aware of what is happening, and messages are formed in their minds. My art created an opportunity for them; their openness allowed them to create along with me. Of course, this can happen when someone gives a lecture or a message in meeting for worship. It happens so frequently around my performances, however, and with messages that are so original that I have to believe the artistic presentation fosters the incubation of deeply felt personal messages, which audience members then attribute to me or one of my characters.
While many individual Quakers love and appreciate art for art’s sake, we often look for a message in a work of art that deepens our already deeply felt worldview or one that challenges us in fresh, new ways. A fellow playwright will ask me, how did you structure your play? or, how do you use language and setting to build tension? A representative from a Quaker meeting looking to book one of my performances will instead ask, what is it about? Political and moral messages upholding our testimonies of equality and peace are valued among the unprogrammed Friends, progressive churches, and religious institutions that host my presentations. The artful ways these ideas are presented is no doubt valued, but the message is primary.
Since that clearness committee meeting in 2003, I have written more than 12 plays. Typically I write a play the way I wish to present it: as art, and then I adapt it to a format I call a performance lecture. Think of this adaptation like the work of the clothing designer who displays unconventional fashion concepts on the Paris runway and then must alter them in order to sell on the racks to the public.
I adapted my play Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible into a performance lecture. The original version was inspired by scholarship I did about gender nonconforming Bible characters. I love the narrative arc of the piece and the almost hidden but constant conflict in it. I include references to the Gospel of Thomas as the narrator, an unnamed disciple of Jesus on a journey, talks to the strangers who host him. He tells stories leading to a personal revelation he knows might result in his hosts turning on him to kill him. While the audience doesn’t know what is at stake at the beginning of the play, the tension in the performance and in the script builds to the courageous disclosure at the end.
In 2011 I was invited to perform Transfigurations at the Transfaith of Color Conference, attended by mostly African American and Latino transgender and gender nonbinary Christians. During the last ten minutes of the performance, I began to hear weeping in the audience that turned to sobbing throughout the hall. After the finale, I conducted a question-and-answer session. A man stood with tears streaming down his face, “You brought my ancestors back to me. I thought I had lost them, but you showed me where they have been all this time.”
The characters and the performance of gender and gender nonconformity are central to this piece. That weekend different audience members explained they felt echoes of their own life struggles in the dialogue and the emotions portrayed. Beyond a message about inclusion or equality, they experienced beauty and revelation, and this moved them deeply. This was the experience of many LGBTQ people who saw the performance during the first few years.
But as this piece was performed more widely, Quaker audiences, leaders from various Christian denominations, and the many LGBTQ people who came out of traditional Christian backgrounds wanted and needed something more than the art. For them, the question-and-answer sessions became as long as the play, with audience members probing me for the details that led to my original interpretations. Some revealed they felt their heads would explode by the end of the performance because there was so much more they wanted to know about the scholarship. They were moved by the art, but they also wanted more of the ideas behind it.
The performance lecture form seeks to give these three roles each equal pull, like the cords that enable a tent to hold its shape.
After breaking my wrist a week before a performance hosted by the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, I knew I could not perform the piece as designed. Hopped up on pains pills three days after surgery and with my arm swollen and in a sling, I reworked the presentation while traveling on the train to New Haven. I decided to perform excerpts while adding a mini-lecture between scenes to explain the scholarship and the ideas about gender explored in the text.
This is the sort of presentation I did three years later at the Friends General Conference gathering in 2012 when presenting the Bible Half Hour. In fact, I went one step further and even led the audience in theater activities that allowed them to experience the Bible stories for themselves, so they too could embody the characters. The response stunned me as LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ Friends came to me throughout the gathering in tears sharing revelations they had about the Biblical texts and themselves. What moved people most though was the scholarship—what it was about—and I recognized the value of the performance lecture hybrid presentation.
The performance lecture not only worked for my audiences, for whom the message was often primary, but also for me as I moved in the world as an artist, an activist, and an academic. These roles pull at each other, competing to take the primary role. The performance lecture form seeks to give these three roles each equal pull, like the cords that enable a tent to hold its shape.
This works well with Quaker audiences at gatherings and yearly meetings, in meetinghouses, and at Quaker schools and universities. Our strong commitment to education and scholarship coupled with our history of engaging in social justice issues melds well with artful presentations, particularly with word-based art like my performances or the work of writers and singer/songwriters.
My messages are not always direct and can be misinterpreted, as Quakers misunderstood the performed acts of James Nayler and Benjamin Lay, two fearless Quakers of old who experienced rejection when they got too creative with their preaching.
The one place I can run into trouble though is with comedy. Our custom of speaking plainly in meeting for worship can make the wordplay essential for some comedy challenging for Quaker audiences and, as a result, for me as a performer. Satire and irony, especially when it is subtle, done in character, or relies on tone can be misunderstood when taken literally. Friends can get so caught up in the words that we miss the point. It is never fun explaining a joke to a Friend, but even that interaction is part of the work of presenting performance art for Quakers. We are committed to fairness and love. Comedy can be used to hurt others or to make light of serious issues. Unpacking a joke can lead to rich discussion. I seek to use comedy to shed light on important issues. Still, some Friends prefer the straightforward message over the comic performance.
That may be why I do not call my work ministry or refer to myself as a minister. My messages are not always direct and can be misinterpreted, as Quakers misunderstood the performed acts of James Nayler and Benjamin Lay, two fearless Quakers of old who experienced rejection when they got too creative with their preaching. Fortunately, Quaker audiences today are more open to artful approaches. Even so, I never use any of these techniques during a meeting for worship.
Since that initial clearness committee 15 years ago, I have made one adjustment in describing the nature of my work. Yes, I am a performance artist, but the general population and many Friends are not regularly exposed to the political and social aspects of performance art. Today when people ask me what I do, I tell them, “I am a theatrical performance activist.” I then apologize, “It’s hard to explain. I think you have to see it for yourself.”