How Performance Can Break Stereotype (Maybe)

Stewart Legere performing in Let's Not Beat Each Other to Death. Blue light hits him from behind as he sings into one of seven microphones hanging from the ceiling.
Stewart Legere in Let’s Not Beat Each Other to Death. Photo by Mel Hattie (Instagram @mel.hattie)

In the last post, “Rising Tide of Change”, I suggested there’s a cultural shift happening in Atlantic Canada. Xavier Gould is a big part of that: they’re confronting the structures that inhibit Acadian and gender identity expression, and their creations actually enact a more inclusive reality. The unapologetic presentation of a more utopian world is a useful creative strategy. It gives those who live and work on the margins an opportunity to imagine something brighter. Through the eyes of Jass-Sainte, they have a better view of what their world can become. I argue that the stereotype of the East Coast as “boring” doesn’t hold water, because fun and interesting worlds are continually being created by artists like Gould.

“I find that when people most successfully create art that allows others to step out of their particular boxes, they create a comfortable environment in which we can all explore discomfort together.”

Across Atlantic Canada, performers and creators are changing the assumption that the region has nothing going on. The Accidental Mechanics Group, for example, constructs live solo performances that speak directly to the queer experience. Their piece Let’s Not Beat Each Other to Death is described as follows:

Inspired in part by the brutal killing of a Halifax queer activist and an attack against an outspoken gay musician, its scope expands outward and becomes a search for explanation, compassion and catharsis on a larger global scale.

The performance is more than a written script presented on stage. In true queer fashion, its creators embrace a variety of performance methods. As a “participatory event” it refuses to settle on one form of presentation. I imagine its structure facilitates a more introspective reading for its audiences. Rather than offering one static “product” for its audiences to consume, the piece involves them in an experience. The multiple approaches to telling the story allow for more angles of perception: folks who can’t fully connect with the more “traditional” format of a play may connect better through music or dance.

The website describes the experience as:

Always a work in progress … [it] includes local stories in each iteration. Every new place sees itself reflected in the show, and the show leaves changed by each place it’s been.

Not only does the show play with structure, but it adapts after coming into contact with those who attend and participate. It doesn’t assume it knows what’s best. I personally consider this process queer and I make it a focus for decentre. Queerness is about always questioning: never settling within others’ expectations, but playing both within and outside of expected norms. Queer work like Let’s Not Beat Each Other to Death proves that the cultural practice in Atlantic Canada is much more than a 55-year run of Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™, or a musical about Newfoundland that’s presented outside the region and costs an arm and a leg to see.

Personally, as a queer person, I always have to look beyond the restrictions that are meant to regulate my lived experience. I don’t fit in the boxes meant to contain “everyone”. I find that when people most successfully create art that allows others to step out of their particular boxes, they create a comfortable environment in which we can all explore discomfort together. Queer artists in Atlantic Canada, for example, are living and making work that is moving Atlantic Canadians beyond fixed stereotypes.

Hands sculpting

The question is “how?” How are artists making “queer” work that encourages more complex imaginings of our realities? What are the actual techniques involved? It’s obviously a complex process, but one could maybe talk about three general steps to take in the creation of a piece of queer work.

1. Question. Scrutinize the powers that are holding you back, whatever they may be (shame? Injustice?) Try to unpack and understand how the world around you ticks, and why you and others are left on the outskirts.

2. Collaborate. Bring other voices into the room/process. Similar voices, contradictory voices, quiet voices, loud voices. Everyone brings something of value. Listen to what others can offer.

3. Play. Don’t take yourself too seriously all the time. Find the fun in being politically engaged. Try things out and grow from what you learn. It’s important not to delve so far into the social anxiety you’re exploring that you can’t find a way out. Learn to see all that is laughable.

Then repeat. Like The Accidental Mechanics Group acknowledges, we can never settle on a finished product. We may never find the answer to life’s most difficult questions. But we can sure as heck try, learning from our fellow artists and audience members as we go. Once you think you have the answer, question yourself. Find more people who have thoughts to contribute and chat with them, engaging in playful exploration until you move to another, even more pressing question. Don’t be afraid to fail.

I’d love to hear how you create queer art yourself. It’s through ongoing discussion and the sharing of knowledge that we can make kick-ass work that speaks directly to the current human experience. It’s only through honest conversation that we can develop and adapt our own stories and continue telling them in captivating ways. decentre encourages an exploration of how we can better support each other. Let’s not discourage each other from speaking up: let’s delve into connection and collaboration, constantly asking the big questions.

BTW: The Accidental Mechanics Group is developing a new piece titled The Unfamiliar Everything. Follow them on Instagram @accidentalmechanicsgroup. Watch a clip of Let’s Not Beat Each Other to Death here.

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