In its second year, Funky Little Theater Company's [Spectrum] LGBT New Play Festival offers a satisfying variety of queer voices that feels damn good given that we theater fans are painfully used to watching LGBTQ narratives fall to the sidelines.
In everything from community theater to classic Broadway, LGBTQ people tend to become caricatures — identified as queer only through our ster-eotypes. Instead of starring in our own stories, we fall into the roles of the Gay Best Friend or the Lesbian Life Advisor. But, while instances of well-represented LGB people do exist onstage, it's not easy to find any mention of trans or gender non-conforming characters, let alone positive representation.
So on the baseline, I appreciate what Funky set out to do with Spectrum, though I admit I had some trepidation when it came to something so intrinsically queer in the hands of an ally rather than a queer person or organization. I will never downplay the importance of allies to the queer community; allies give us access to privilege we don't have, and oftentimes their voices can make a major difference in garnering outside support. I simply mean to say that some things are best executed with the benefit of lived experience. But Funky, whose membership does include queer people, has made a concentrated effort to step up for LGBTQ folks and others, even offering cast and crew as volunteers for our local PrideFest.
But even with good intentions and the active involvement of LGBTQ people, last year's festival saw some problems. Seven out of the eight plays presented in 2016 represented queer life well, a series of snapshots of actual human beings in actual human situations. I hoped as I left Funky last year that the one play that came across as transphobic and misogynistic (The Authoress), could be chalked up to growing pains in a first-year festival and the need for more queer involvement.
This year, one could clearly see the influence of LGBTQ people on Spectrum's selection and execution. Indy columnist and genderqueer spoken-word poet Nico Wilkinson contributed a play and some poetry, and local Will Driscoll wrote and performed an inspirational story about his experiences as a trans person. Alongside submissions from all over the country, these two shone as excellent representations of queer characterization and of local queer theater.
Some plays came off as stronger than others, of course, but none read outwardly offensive, and some absolutely delighted. A personal favorite: Shel & Luce, featuring Sophie Javna and Ambrosia Feess-Armstrong, two of the strongest actors of the festival. Feess-Armstrong delivered a poignant and likable Luce in the best performance I've yet seen from her, alongside an emotive Javna, whose frustration and confusion read genuine and sympathetic.
Another honorable mention goes to Brokendown, about a mother's surprising, funny and heartfelt acceptance of her daughter's sexuality and choice of partner, successful in part due to a particularly realistic performance by Teri McClintock. It explored relationship dynamics outside the typical romance storyline we see so often in LGBTQ media, something I also appreciated in What If Cliff. There's a humanity expressed in exploring different relationships in LGBTQ storylines, showcasing the diversity of identity and family.
That being said, Spectrum did contain moments of discomfort: A transgender character's lack of autonomy at the hands of a cisgender writer in Write This Way, and the use of stereotypes in Kylie & Janet & Robyn & Cher, but these issues lose a lot of their offensiveness when, as in these instances, they are written by queer people. Still, best consumed with a grain of salt.
One warning, three of the nine plays do mention suicide in one form or another, which inspires mixed feelings. Suicide should be addressed when it comes to the LGBTQ community, especially involving youth, but with one-third of the presented plays addressing it, the tension can paint queerness as tragic, and can exhaust an empathetic viewer.
It Doesn't? however, treated the issue with interesting staging and a creative character dynamic (a gay teenager and an older gay man answering the queer youth hotline) that realistically set out to answer the question: "Does it really get better?" When dealing with the issue of suicide, this felt far more sensitive, realistic and unique than its fellows.
This year's Spectrum landed well — a pleasant ebb and flow of comedy and drama, often melding the two in realistic ways. Considering LGBTQ media sorely lack realism a good chunk of the time, Spectrum serves as much-needed validation for the queer and allied alike.