It was December 2021. The world had been hammered by COVID for two long years. Slowly and fretfully, society was learning to live with this world-wide pandemic, not by choice but by necessity. In the world of theater, as it did in so many facets and levels of society, that learning came with a cost. For Fuse Theatre Ensemble, one of Portland’s longest-running theatre companies, that cost was making the painful decision to suspend production on local playwright Mikki Gillette’s play The Queers. The play was to be Fuse’s flagship production at their new home, The Back Door Theatre, and Gillette’s first-ever full production of one of her plays. But with Omicron in full surge, there seemed to be no other choice. That reality didn’t make the decision any easier.
“Yeah, it was really hard,” recalls Gillette. “The day we decided that, I cried a lot (laughs). There was a lot of letting go.” Asae Dean, director of The Queers and an artist who’s collaborated with Gillette a lot over the past two years, agreed. “It sucked. It goes without saying that I’m grateful that people were healthy and that we didn’t get each other sick, and that we made the choice to keep everybody safe – but it sucked. We were in that final two-week zone where it’s really starting to cook and you can kind of see what it’s going to be for real.”
For Gillette, the halt had added pain: This was to be the first full production of a script she had written. “There were a few weeks where I was feeling this kind of emptiness. Everything was so exciting and suddenly we weren’t doing anything for a few weeks.”
Finally, last weekend, The Queers had its premiere at The Back Door, where it’ll continue through April 10. And inevitably, some things have changed.
Aside from the practical concerns of the theater and the space, there was the added artistic hurdle that several members of the original cast weren’t able to make the change. Of the seven-member cast, Kate Mura, Zeloszelos Marchandt, Alec Lugo and Juma DeJesus – four artists with distinct and impactful voices – were not able to make the alteration in the schedule work. Those are four very distinctive voices with unique skill sets. When more than half the cast is replaced, it’s a tectonic shift in any project. The entire vision for the show had to be re-imagined to accommodate the new artistic sensibilities involved.
“Kate [Mura] had been with the show – we did an internal reading just with Fuse,” recalls Gillette, “Fuse actors playing all the parts on Zoom. And from that point, all the way up through these rehearsals, Kate had played that role. When I learned she wasn’t going to be there I was like, ‘What? She IS this person!’”
“I’ve now been with this script through two versions and a workshop,” says Dean, “which means I’ve seen three different actors play Smith now. That part, because it’s a character that throughout the play doesn’t tell you what they’re feeling and shies away from doing that because they’re so about taking care of others – how that character carries themselves through the world is really influenced by the actor who plays them and what story they want to tell. I think characters who are like, ‘Here I am. This is my deal. Let me tell you all about my inner life,’ the writer has dictated who that character is. But characters who are more secretive and are like, ‘No, no, no, let’s talk about you…’ well, that character, you can take them in very different directions.”
“There’s this funny thing for me that I realize,” Gillette says, laughing. “The first time actors read a script of mine, some of them, I hear them and I’m like, ‘That’s just right.’ And others I hear and I’m like, ‘That’s all wrong.’ And then, after a week or two, those people are just the characters now. It stopped being the voices in my head and it’s these people who are doing this thing. And so, it did feel like a loss but then this new cast comes in and now I love all of them.” (The cast now consists of Naomi Jackson, Juliet Mylan, Harper York, Kyran McCoy, Cosmo Reynolds, Adriana Gantzer and former long-time Theatre Vertigo member R. David Wylie.)
Aside from the inner workings of a given performer, the approach to craft and storytelling and therefore the tenor and even intent of the production becomes very different when the cast changes so drastically. “I had a lot of very large, theatrical, physical skills in the first cast,” says Dean. “There was a lot of physical theater training, clowning, modern dance and opera. The second cast comes from more of a naturalist place. Both approaches are good. Both of them work. But it means that my job as a director really changes. So much of what you do as a director is utilize what people are naturally bringing, what notes are they hitting and how do I push the counterpoint where I need to so there’s enough variation and the right things get underscored?”
Gillette agrees. “We’re glad that we kept the people that we have but the new people are great too. The work has a different flavor. They’re more natural. It’s more grounded.”
That both approaches work is a testament to the vitality of Gillette’s writing. In her plays No More Candy, Mimetic Desire, American Girl, and a host of others, trans characters clash, cajole, seduce, push, rip, fight, and do whatever they need to do to create space for themselves to be the person they want to be. Oftentimes, this battle for self comes at a cost high to that self. The need for self-actualization does not automatically equip one with enlightenment. This is no different in The Queers.
For Dean, that rawness and intensity, the willingness to present all sides of her characters, was a major draw of Gillette’s work. “Mikki’s very much about fully humanizing her characters, which means they’re not always right.”
As far as Gillette’s concerned, there was never a choice. “They say transitioning is like a second adolescence,” she sys. “The Queers was me trying to make sense of what was happening early in my transition. I was going to support groups with other trans people. I remember seeing this person who showed up for her first meeting and, if you saw her, she was presenting completely as male, looked like someone who drives a minivan and has two teenage kids and works in an office somewhere and was talking about how they hoped their marriage survived and I thought, ‘Wow, that must be really hard,’ and that became the Terry/Andrea story, of this person who is new to the trans community. The story of Lisa getting accused of something at work, that actually happened to me.”
These characters, this story, have had a difficult time finding their way to the American stage. “I shared The Queers out to people ten years ago but there wasn’t really a foothold where trans people were getting stuff produced,” says Gillette. Trans playwright Jane Comer, whose I Am an Actress: A Passion Play premiered at Fuse in 2019, is the board president of Fuse. “That wasn’t happening in 2012. So, I think time has caught up to the play. People have lived with the idea that ‘Oh, there are trans people around me,’ for a few years now (laughs) and maybe they’re ready to hear about it.”
Dean concurs. “We need more trans stories in art and culture. We’re experiencing such a backlash and animosity against queer people right now. That thing in Texas where that D.A. is like, ‘I’ll investigate people for child abuse if they seek trans-affirming care – gender-affirming care for their minor.’ And we’ve obviously seen all these bathroom bills over the last several years as a new stand in the conservative culture war. So, I think a play that is about the trans experience with several characters who are nonbinary and trans is overdue. I wouldn’t say this is a good play for right now, I would say this is probably a play we’ve needed for many years.”
They are an unlikely partnership, Gillette and Dean, but the relationship was earned. They met years ago, when Gillette was a theater critic for PQ Monthly (writing under the name Leela Ginelle) and wrote a review of Dean’s production of Fool for Love (coincidentally, also at The Back Door Theatre). Later, Gillette came to Dean with a script she’d written. Dean had reservations about it and expressed those to Gillette. Gillette disagreed but remained gracious and later, brought other scripts for Dean to read. Those kinds of disagreements breed trust. One artist knows the other one is going to tell them the truth.
Previously, Gillette and Dean had worked on Mimetic Desire, doing workshops on it both here and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the Pittsburgh Classic Players1. When the opportunity to produce The Queers came up, Gillette knew who she wanted. “I went to Asae and said, ‘I understand if you’ve had enough of my dysfunctional trans characters but if you haven’t, do you want to work with me on The Queers?’”
Dean’s trust in Gillette centers on the fact that Gillette is willing and able to listen and can work fast. “I give Mikki a lot of credit. She’s a playwright who turns around rewrites really fast and she holds her ground; she knows what she wants to say and she knows the voice she wants her characters to have, no doubt about it, but she also incorporates feedback and was open to hearing observations – like, ‘In this scene I say this multiple times. Is it really important to the story that I say it multiple times? Or that I say it that way? I’ve worked with a variety of new playwrights. That ability to both turn things around quick and to continuously take feedback is rarer than you’d think.”
For Gillette, the bond goes beyond art. “I know Asae’s not going to be dumb about trans stuff,” she states, frankly. “A thing what happens sometimes is I’ll be in a room with five trans actors and a director will be like, (drops voice an octave) ‘What happens in this scene is so awful…’ and it’s like, ‘Well, no shit (laughs). We all know that. There’s nothing in this scene that hasn’t happened to any of us. We don’t need someone to underline that, we can just work on the scene. I know it comes from a good place but it’s nice to know that something like that is not going to happen with Asae. I already know this person is cool, that she’s going to be fine.”
Gillette is also filled with profound gratitude for Fuse Theatre Ensemble. Her relationship at Fuse started when she had her plays read at the OUTwright Festival, “which was great,” remembers Gillette. “It was the first time my stuff was getting out in front of audiences. Fuse is the first place that offered me a home, the first place that welcomed me in. Fuse opened the door.”
It’s been a long journey for Gillette and The Queers, but now the moment has arrived. “The Queers is special to me. When I wrote it, I would write a scene every day. It wasn’t outlined. It was just kind of coming out. It was this moment in my life where I was early in my transition. Kind of like the play, I thought that process was going to be one thing and it turned out to be something totally different. I didn’t know why I was so upset. I didn’t know why my life was so hard (laughs). I think this play captures all of that confusion and drama. It’s sort of special in that way.”
There’s a lot that’s special for Gillette these days. “It’s all new. I go to the rehearsals and it’s just new. I’ve never seen walls get painted as a set for my play. Or someone shows up with costumes, or people are off book and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, they’re off-book now.’ Every step is a new step that I get to experience. I’m just trying to soak it up.”
 Harper York, one of stars of The Queers, also happens to be the artistic director of the Pittsburgh Classic Players, who will be producing Gillette’s play, Mimetic Desire.
Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s premiere production of Mikki Gillette’s The Queers continues through April 10 at The Back Door Theatre, 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.
I heard about Mikki and The Queers on OPB radio today. I’m really looking forward to seeing it with my adult child!
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