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Features Published 23 February 2017

Queer women on stage: Representation v. exploitation

There's a long history of same-sex romance between women being exploited as a male fantasy. Naomi Westerman talks about the difficulties of queer representation, and her new play Puppy.
Naomi Westerman
Puppy - Main Image

Naomi Westerman’s play ‘Puppy’ is on at Vault Festival 2017.

One of the earliest lesbian stage plays, The God of Vengeance, caused a scandal with an on-stage passionate kiss between the two female leads. Produced first in Berlin in 1922, the full cast where arrested on obscenity charges after its opening night on Broadway a year later. But was the male-authored, male-directed play’s intent to represent, to scandalise, or to titillate? Should queer audiences accept representation where we can find it?

Researching this piece, I found a positive cornucopia of gay male plays of all kinds. But a look at drama about queer women reveals far fewer works that have achieved lasting, mainstream success – and most are from America. Perhaps the first was Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour: two female teachers have their lives destroyed by the false rumour they are lesbians. Confessions of a Female Disorder from the 70s was a sexually frank lesbian coming-of-age story, but elsewhere the rise of feminism and the lesbian separatist movement rejected anything that courted the male gaze. The 80s were awash with plays about the growing AIDS crisis with little for women – apart from a subplot in Rent. In the ’90s Stop Kiss saw a young women beaten into a coma for kissing her girlfriend (in the same decade, the wonderfully named Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler, a series of monologues from performance artist Holly Hughes, did not get anywhere near enough attention). More recently, Broadway has led the way in representing lesbian stories, with acclaimed adaptations of The Color Purple and Fun Home.

Coming back to the UK, what do we have? Bad Girls: The Musical? Over here, it’s been up to fringe venues to show female same-sex stories. Last year’s Camden Fringe presented Oscar, a dance/stage/puppetry show where the spirit of Oscar Wilde helps a young women come to terms with her girlfriend’s brutal murder. The Hope Theatre might, pardon the pun, be one of the best hopes for lesbian theatre in London: last year they produced Her Aching Heart, a musical romp about two women who fall in love, and Rafaella Marcus (who directs my own lesbian play Puppy) directed The Wild Party (in which an openly gay character sings the Old Fashioned Lesbian Love Story) in January 2017; another production opened at the Other Palace weeks later.

Some wonderful plays, but an awful lot of death and misery, and queer women as supporting characters in someone else’s story.

I am a playwright. I am a women. I am queer. I am disabled (and apparently a diversity questionnaire’s dream). And I write about many things, mainly about women. Sometimes my characters are somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. Mostly, my characters are not defined by their romantic relationships, their sexualities being almost incidental.

My first play Tortoise revolved around three women a locked NHS psychiatric ward. One of them bisexual, another in an unhappy heterosexual marriage, the third an adult virgin. None of these women were defined by their status in relation to others, but stood alone as characters in their own right. Too often female characters are reduced to “the mum”, “the wife”, “the daughter”, “the girlfriend” in a way male characters rarely are. Even female leads frequently find their stories led by their relationship status. Setting the play in a secure hospital ward removed the characters from their familial or romantic context. Only one of the women significantly mentions any family or romantic partners, and this in order to examine and deconstruct her position as a wife and mother and the role this played in her breakdown.

I was proud of it, but started to wonder if by avoiding portraying women in a romantic/sexual context I was abdicating my responsibility to LGBT representation. With the exception perhaps of people who identify as asexual/aromantic, romantic and sexual relationships or the search for them are crucial parts of most people’s lives.

Since then I have written plays about loneliness (the sole survivor of a nuclear incident, in a bomb shelter); loneliness and unrequited love (a one-women show, a kidnap survivor); feminism and protest (elderly Jewish women in a Florida retirement community plan a women’s march); feminism and murder (set on a beach!); futuristic science fiction (what if you could buy and sell memories?); and Jewish history. But I have not, much, written about romantic relationships.

My current play Puppy was supposed to be about sex. It was supposed to be about feminism, politics, and protest. It was not supposed to be about relationships or lesbianism. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but when I wrote the original ten-minute dogging play that would be the genesis of Puppy, it featured a heterosexual couple. The decision to change the love interest from male to female came about originally due to casting issues (there are so many incredible women actors out there in need of decent roles; why are so few writing for them?) but when I made that change, everything fell into place. Without that, I doubt I would or could have adapted my silly, casual little ten-minute joke of a play into the sturdy, angry, funny, sexy beast it is today.

But where do playwrights and theatre-makers draw the line between representation and exploitation? The Lyric Hammersmith’s 2015 adaptation of Tipping the Velvet was criticized for representing lesbian sex in a stylised way, using aerial silks. Given the mainstream media’s long history of exploiting the male fantasy cliché of women together, how do we represent female sexuality without either pandering, or shying away from showing anything in detail?

Several interviewers have asked me why I wrote a play about queer women going dogging, a stereotypically heterosexual activity. It feels subversive, certainly, but I didn’t do it with a deliberate political intent. I just don’t want to be restricted to only writing about heterosexuals doing this or non-heteros doing that. But how do you put women having sex with each other on stage, without being accused of (or feeling like) you are courting the male gaze? In Puppy I have created a play about lesbianism, dogging and porn without any nudity or graphic sex (sorry if that’s why you bought a ticket): my hope is that the emotional truth of the women’s connection will make more explicit staging unnecessary, but I don’t want to short-change an audience desperate for representation.

I was an actress for more than fifteen years, and for most of that time I was not closeted, but not out in any public way. Becoming a playwright three years ago has liberated and politicised me in equal measures. As a queer woman writing about feminist and queer issues, I am acutely aware of the responsibility I have. There are just so few of us, each female-led LGBT play has to shoulder far more weight than a play representing the majority. But playwriting has given me a voice I did not have before, and all I and others like me have to do now, is figure out what to do with that voice. So call me a “queer playwright” or a “disabled playwright” or even a “female playwright”, as long as you do call me a playwright. Because one thing’s for sure, I won’t be staying quiet.

Puppy opens at VAULT Festival on 23rd February – click here for more info.

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