As the theatre darkens, angry, homophobic slurs fill the Carol Belk Theatre, leaving the audience confronting the intensity of what it is like to be condemned for one’s sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Qtopia” is a new type of performance piece written by UNC Asheville students in conjunction with YouthOUTright, an organization that helps LGBT youth find resources and support.
This collaboration epitomizes community theatre, as it allowed members of the drama department and Youth OUTright to collaborate in a spirited production with people and organizations in the Asheville community who are equally as passionate about equality.
“This show was conceived within a particular style and genre of theatre that is often called community theatre or theatre for social change,” saidLise Kloeppel, an assistant drama professor. “The major premise of it is that art can serve a greater purpose or it can be efficacious and be not just art for art’s sake but art that can actually create change in the world.”
The play originated in Kloeppel’s Applied Theatre Service Learning Project class last semester under the auspice of questioning not only what it means to be queer, but what it means to be queer in Western North Carolina in particular.
Gender Fairie, Romantic Faerie and Sexual Attraction Fairie guided the audience from story to story with humorous shenanigans throughout the two hour run-time.
Played respectively by Coraline Badgett, a junior French student; Elizabeth Collins, a freshman drama student from Henderson, Kentucky; and Cathy Stephens, a sophomore drama student from Raleigh, the faeries seemed like saucier, modern versions of the constantly bickering trio in Sleeping Beauty, and definitely lent a sense of light-hearted humor amongst depictions of intense, uncomfortable situations.
The characters portrayed in the vignettes were not wholly depictive of individuals, but were instead composites of real people who had shared their stories with the class.
“There’s like a little piece of the person who wrote it in it, but we also did story circles and heard from other people,” Kloeppel said. “As we developed it, some of the pieces were actually separate characters and we kind of combined those.”
One of those characters was Mel, played by Rosemary Fischer, a junior drama student. Portraying a lesbian who felt initially awkward broaching the topic of her sexuality, Fischer said she relied on method acting to bring forth the tentativity, but also the relief, that came from voicing one’s identity.
“I tried to relive moments of my life where I had to tell people something they might not want to hear and where I was worried that they would get upset,” Fischer said, “I followed this with the memory and feeling of when it worked out.”
The characters’ stories in Qtopia are temporally focused on how past discomfort of hiding in fear, versus the freedom of openly acknowledging one’s identity, is a result of abandoning the gender binary that commonly divides people. This transition between the past and present form part of the framework for the class Kloeppel calls the “Story of Self, Story of Us and Story of Now.”
“No matter which side of the binary you fall on, if you have privilege and you’re more on the oppressor side or if you have been marginalized and discriminated against and are on the oppressed side, then you only have two options,” Kloeppel said. “That’s what we need to be working towards and that’s what Qtopia is about: finding that third space, beyond the binary.”
One of the most satirical and riveting parts of the play was when the ensemble each wore a sign that had the term for a different type of sexuality or gender identity, and walked around portraying the stereotypes a person with each label is supposed to fulfill, such as gay men and love of glitter.
“I thought it was really neat,” said Olivia Harris, a junior psychology and creative writing student from Pittsboro, North Carolina. “I thought they did a really good job of getting actual queer people to act like actual queer people, which was really nice, because you don’t see that a lot.”
The point of “Qtopia” is to portray what a queer utopia would look like, with individuals having an identity that is always in flux and ready to change based on dynamics of interaction.
An incredible result of the play was that the roles actors were used to assuming in real life, and the vulnerability of the social dynamics at play, were challenged in rehearsal when they sought to portray the world the class had worked on defining.
“What actually happened as part of this process is that people came in identifying as being from the queer community, and recognizing that they’ve been discriminated against and marginalized and discounted and silenced,” Kloeppel said. “As they gained agency, they actually slipped over to the oppressor side, so they were not being aware of their own privilege and the sectionalities of their own identities.”
Another component that made the play engaging was the use of media displayed in interludes on a projection screen. With everything from gender-stereotyped commercials to news reports from local station News 13 about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in Western North Carolina, the poignancy of combining the current generation’s struggle with free speech, and their subsequent obsession with the media, made for a genius cultural correlation.
Coupled with the way the players wove throughout audience territory while jubilantly encouraging them to sing along to the play’s theme song, “Little Boxes,” it was clear that the cast members of Qtopia knew how to engage the audience.
“One night during the scene between my character, Leah, and Michael, played by Ezra Campbell, audience members were actually shouting out their support and encouragement for the development of our characters’ relationship,” said Erin Owens, junior drama student. “That was absolutely amazing.”