Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Camp Dilemma


In celebration of Indie Theatre Week (July 23 - July 29, 2012),  we asked members of the OOB community to share some of the Indie Theatre moments that inspired them.

Contributed by Joshua Conkel

After a performance of my play, The Sluts of Sutton Drive, a straight friend of mine said sheepishly, “I liked it. It was kind of… campy?”

“Campy?” like that, with a question mark. As if this friend were afraid to call it camp, like something couldn’t be campy and be thoughtful, smart or touching. But I wear camp like a badge of honor. It’s my art, and as much as it sucks that you may not get all the fancy awards for writing camp, I proudly place myself in a long line of tough, funny queer playwrights like Charles Ludlam, Chris Durang and Nicky Silver etc. People try to discredit camp, but it’s always been a part of the queer vernacular.  I think it’s useful and powerful and important, so I could only laugh when my straight friend was afraid to use the word as applied to me.

A random woman who didn’t know I was the playwright (or maybe she did and just didn’t care) liked the play less. She left the theater saying to her husband, “I hated it. It was just plain nasty.” What? I’d only wanted to make people laugh. Who were all these pearl clutchers, anyway? How had I written what I thought was a fun comedy, but somehow alienated a large portion of my audience?

I remember the first time I realized there might be a brand of queer, campy humor that is sort of exclusive. The play was Okay by Taylor Mac, a play in Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 75th Marathon of short plays. My friend Mallery and I held each other’s hands, trying hard to hold back laughter, whispering, “Oh my god,” to one another in disbelief at the audacious comedy we were watching. The play was hilarious, vicious and oddly… beautiful. Yes, beautiful. It’s still my favorite short play of all time.

We left the theater beaming, ecstatic, thrilled to see a play that was funny and bold and queer and young and how we wished more plays could be. This was years before I was in Youngblood or a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre myself or even knew who Taylor Mac was, which I can hardly believe now. What I remember most about Okay though was finding out after the play, by reading reviews and later in conversations about the play, is that some people fucking hated the play.

I’ve since learned that people felt the play was mean, ugly, exploitative. One critic made a point of leaving out the actors’ names, saying that he or she didn’t want to link the wonderful actors with such a disgusting piece of work. I was shocked because to me it was just a kitschy comedy, and sure, it was an over-the-top comedy, but certainly nothing to get your panties in a bunch over.  Clearly I was the play’s intended audience.

I thought of Okay again recently while reading the reviews of David Adjmi’s 3C. I finally decided to email Taylor Mac and get his opinion on the matter.

“What is funny to me is often horrifying or aggressive to those who don't consider themselves queer.  And when people who aren't queer are confronted with queer culture they can sometimes get defensive (as if someone else's culture is an attack on theirs) rather than curious and celebratory.”

But here’s my question: what if our campy plays are attacks on mainstream culture and we just don’t realize it? It’s true that camp is an important part of the collective queer voice, but it’s also always been a way for queer folks to write about a mainstream culture that excludes us. Camp, by definition, is the art of finding humor in the banal. Well, I certainly find mainstream culture banal and I’ve definitely made a career or making fun of it.

The error in judgment I’ve made is to assume my audience is full of people like me but clearly, as evidenced by Miss Pearl Clutcher, they are not. I think of plays as rollercoasters and myself as the designer. I want to take the audience on a fun ride full of shocks and laughs and surprising twists.

It’s easy to forget that lots of people don’t like rollercoasters.

Taylor Mac understands my dilemma. “As queer artists this means, to me, that if I want a non-queer audience to hear my play I need to think of ways to set them at ease and invite them into the world before jumping in hog-wild with my queer sensibility.  It doesn't mean censoring myself, but holding back before the onslaught is usually a good technique.”

I agree, but it’s also annoying. I can’t tell you how many straight people plays I watch where a straight couple shuffles around a fixed set for two hours (usually a Tribeca loft or a vacation home somewhere) and talk about money or their babies or whatever it is they talk about. Personally, I think these plays about neurotic wealthy people are more offensive than anything Taylor or I could ever write, especially given the state of our nation right now. Maybe that deserves to be made fun of?

I guess the dilemma is this: how much should queer writers soften their voices so as not to exclude mainstream audiences? I guess that depends on how established they want to be. In an American theater trending toward understated realism, their chances of mainstream success aren’t great anyway.

Charles Ludlam once said, “Straight people don’t understand camp because everything they do is camp.” When it comes to mainstream audiences, was he right?

Editorial note: I use the terms “queer” and “mainstream” somewhat loosely. There are lots and lots of straight people I’d call “queer” and lots of LGBT folks who are “mainstream".


Joshua Conkel is a playwright and the author of The Chalk Boy, MilkMilkLemonade, The Sluts of Sutton Drive, I Wanna Destroy You, Sprawl and The House of Von Macrame

1 comment:

  1. As the actress who created the role of Nola Noonan in Jackie Curtis's legendary "Glamour, Glory & Gold (the Life & Legend of Nola Noonan, Goddess & Star)," I am proud to say we were the play that created camp. Jackie and Candy Darling played my sidekicks from burly-house to Hollywood stardom. I wouldn't say we were challenging the mainstream; I would say we were honoring the movies of the '30s & '40s, movie stars, and somewhat mocking what the studio system did to people, although our characters could be just as ball-busting as the studio heads. The trick to camp is to emulate (and maybe go a little bit farther -- too far and you're just mugging). Camp is closer to satire than anything else. Sure, it has its own rhythms, double-takes, spit-takes, and such, but if it's not played for real and evoking some sympathy, it's not camp. Evidence Charles's Camille, where you suddenly snap to and realize you were almost weeping for this lost soul... with a hairy chest, strawberry off-the-shoulder frock, and sausage curls. And to tweak an old phrase, You don't have to be gay to be camp!