3.1  Pre-production: initial thoughts and concerns.

A year before I started writing Neptune, when I only had a vague concept in my head, I already knew who I wanted to be a director for this play. Greta Ómarsdóttir was the first person I asked to join my creative team, and, luckily for me, she agreed. We met while working on the production of Look What You Made Me Do (a reimagined version of Jean Jenet’s The Maids), where Greta was a director, and I was an assisting dramaturge. Despite some initial work disagreements, it was immediately clear for me that we had very similar vision, and that I could totally trust Greta’s judgment and creative choices. So, not only in this part, but in the whole chapter, a lot of the things I will be mentioning and discussing, will be either our collective decisions or some Greta’s suggestions that I agreed with. The writing process was mine alone, but in production, I relinquished control as much as I could. However, before I dive into specifics, aesthetical choices and organization of rehearsal process, I need to start from the beginning, which is some initial thoughts and concerns that I had regarding this production before we even started it. I will focus on three main themes: documentary aspect and what constitutes as documentary theatre, the importance of humor and entertainment elements when conveying a political message, and problematic nature of staging a queer play in an institutional space. In this part, I will only discuss these issues with comments based solely on my own views, and in later parts, I will be talking of mine and Greta’s mutually agreed choices and decisions.  


Documentary aspect

To be honest, from the beginning of writing the play to the final performance, I thought of Neptune as a documentary project. My main questions in this thesis were using such wording as ‘documentary narrative’. I was sure of my understanding of what ‘documentary’ was – which I thought was ‘anything based on a real story’. However, the more I thought about it, compared it to my previous actual documentary projects, and read various discourses on the subject, the more I started realizing that Neptune cannot be called ‘documentary’, even if it uses, or at least was initially using some documentary elements. I also started thinking that there is no equality sign between ‘autobiographical’ and ‘documentary’ that I somehow accepted as default.


In the introduction to Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, its editor Carol Martin writes in detail about the differences between documentary and all other forms of theatre. She believes that the main distinction lies in the fact that documentary theatre is created from a specific body of archived material: interviews, documents, hearings, video, film, etc. In other words, documentary theatre is based on archives. Or, more specifically, “the process of selection and presentation is what should be perceived as the core work of documentary theatre” (Martin 2010, 18). My initial idea for Neptune was to include some archival materials, such as screenshots of massages between M and I, or some photos. However, for ethical reasons mentioned above, I quickly rejected those ideas. After reading Martin’s definitions of documentary theatre, I started mentally scanning my play, and realized that I indeed substituted ‘autobiographical’ with ‘documentary’.


I really like the thought Martin expresses later in her book: “what is real and what is true are not necessarily the same. A text can be fictional yet true” (Martin 2010, 24). That is exactly the issue that confused me in case of Neptune. It is my true story, it is based on true events, but how real can they be if they are written from my memory, after going through a filter of my sole perception? There is nothing objective or reliable about Neptune. The word ‘documentary’ itself suggests that there should be some documents, archives that the play is based on, and in my case, there were none.


With that being said, I still believe that there are some elements in Neptune similar to a documentary narrative, but it would be more appropriate to define them as elements of oral history, which I believe to be a sort of sub-genre of documentary. Oral histories are pretty much witness statements. An account of events told by a spectator or a participant in those events. In her book Remembering: Oral History Performance, Professor Della Pollock states that performance of oral history “translates subjectively remembered events into embodied memory acts, moving memory into re-membering” (Pollock 2005, 2). That is how I would describe most of Neptune.


Speaking of oral history performance, I very much appreciate the idea of ‘politics of the near’ that Pollock expresses in her book. She believes that history cannot be held privately. It is something close and intimate to the narrator, but at the same time it can be close and intimate to someone else. No one ‘owns’ a story. Any story is embedded in layers of remembering and storying. She also talks of impossibility to distance yourself from a story as a listener by stating it is someone else’s and does not affect me – there are inevitable social connections that attach everyone to any story. (Pollock 2005, 5) Reinelt express a similar idea on documentary narratives being something shared between people: “documentary is not in the object, but in the relationship between the object, its mediators (artists) and its audiences” (Reinelt 2009, 7). I mentioned an idea close to that in the previous chapter where I was describing ethical concerns with using someone else in your story, but the arguments Reinelt and Pollock have seem to be more positive.


Wrapping up this short discussion on notions of documentary, I want to note that even without the context of Neptune, the concept can seem a bit shaky on its own. Martin expresses this sentiment by stating that “phrase ‘documentary theatre’ fails us – it is inadequate. Poststructuralist thought has correctly insisted that social reality – including reporting on social reality – is constructed. There is no ‘really real’ in the world of representation” (Martin 2010, 23).


Why is the documentary discussion important to me in analyzing Neptune’s production process? It is mainly connected to the deliberate choice not to use any actual documents confirming the reality of situations presented in the performance. The choice was ethical, and I tried to allude to the subjectivity of the play as much as I could. In the staging process, accents were also made on the fictionalized approach: it is especially prominent in costume decisions, e.g. the main couple M and V only wearing black and white. With this deliberate step away from anything that could be seen as an archival document, I can no longer call Neptune a ‘documentary performance’.


Humor and entertainment

I have always thought humor to be an essential part of most political art works. Here, I will try to explain why.

In her book Don’t Be Quiet, Start a Riot, Tiina Rosenberg express a belief that despite of the prevalence of negativity and depression in contemporary performance and queer theory, a critical intellectual does not have to be a negative one. While negativity is an important artistic technique, it should not be a criterion for art. Rosenberg gives an example of the Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek, who announced that all her creativity comes from negativity and that she is unable to create anything positive, and that a statement like that sounded like a contemporary manifesto. Another example Rosenberg gives is Sarah Kane’s plays. According to Rosenberg, Kane sees theatre as confrontation with reality, not an escape from it. In her plays, she aims to shock and provoke a certain reaction from the audience, and there are no taboo topics in this conversation. (Rosenberg 2016, 187)


As the opposite of that, Rosenberg gives some examples of the idea of using humor as a method in activist performance, such as Guerrilla Girls, who described themselves as “fighting discrimination with facts, humor, and fake fur”, and Absurd Response To An Absurd War group, who tried to convey anti-war message through humor, theatre, and fun. Political agitation, according to Rosenberg, often uses humor because it is disarming, and more importantly, because “humor is communicative and makes the audience feel included rather than accused” (Rosenberg 2016, 196).


I gave such a long account of Rosenberg’s thoughts and examples because I personally could not agree more. In my opinion, humor is a great tool to get a point across, especially if you are talking about something quite serious. So, while writing Neptune, I was constantly thinking of how to hold this balance of serious, heartfelt, and just funny. The same thought process was accompanying the production.


I also really like how a lot of theorists mention famous German dramaturge and director Bertolt Brecht when they talk about ways of making political performance entertaining and accessible. For example, Jill Dolan mentions that a lot of critics specifically promoted Brechtian style for queer and political performances, “with actors’ commentaries and apparatus of performance being revealed” (Dolan 2010, 16). In Acting Queer, Alexandrowicz also repeatedly throughout the whole book, suggests that the most appropriate form for a queer performance is Brechtian model, with an allusion that so-called ‘realism’ or Stanislavsky method would not be appropriate (Alexandrowicz 2020). Part of me gets joyful when I see scholars expressing those thoughts because I remember being a teenage student in my Russian Theatre Academy, discovering Brecht for the first time and thinking that I actually finally found something fun. Perhaps, that is why Brechtian model and the whole ‘alienation’ technique is so popular in queer performances in general – it feels like theatre creatives were also looking for the element of joy and found it there. I cannot truthfully say that the production style of Neptune can be called ‘Brechtian’ since I do not think we were following a particular model, but it is clearly closer to that then to realism.


Institutionalizing queer narratives

This is a long and complicated debate, so I have to note that here I am only addressing it briefly, and, unfortunately, not in depth that it deserves. However, I still believe that it is important to start with a slightly broader question: How can being supported by an institution affect a political performance in general? A performance focusing on politics of queer identity is assumed here to be part of political performance by extension.


Many activists believe that to be politically relevant, theatre must leave the theatre. In his book ‘Theatre-in-the-Street’ and ‘Theatre-in-Theatres’, playwright Peter Handke expresses an opinion that political solutions cannot be provided in a play (Shalson 2017, 26). Handke believes that theatrical protest in a theatre holds no truth: “committed theatre these days does not happen in theatres – it should happen in public spaces, like stores and churches” (Handke 1969, 9). Being skeptical of the efficiency of political theatre in institutional spaces, specifically those connected to education, scholar Glenn D’Cruz poses a question: “How much scholarly work informs political activism and does it contribute to its effectiveness?” (D’Cruz 2019, 174). Roland Barthes partially answers this question by describing something that he calls ‘inoculation effect’: “tendency for society to tolerate radical ideas in restricted social spaces, like university, in order to sustain political status quo” (Barthes 1972, 77). All those arguments make me think of a political performance made in an institution, especially a university, as something so safe and ‘toothless’ that it will surely never cause any ripple effect, since it is being contained and, therefore, tolerated and accepted by society. I think of a political performance made at a university as something of essentially little consequence, but I do not want this statement to be perceived in a negative light. By writing ‘of little consequence’, I mean either good or bad. It works both ways – keeps the status quo, but also keeps the ones making such political statements safe. I have seen the other side of this situation, and by knowing what it feels like to make political theatre in the streets like Handke writes, I was able to make an informed decision to make the political statement of Neptune in an institution, precisely because it felt safe.


Now, I want to narrow down the question of political to specifically politically queer. What does it mean to present a queer performance in an institutional space?


Dolan speaks of an idea that in institutional spaces it is common to take for granted that what we see is heterosexuality. Everything becomes heterosexuality by default (Dolan 2010, 2). With this comes the debate of heterosexuality as norm, and what constitutes as ‘norm’ in general – which feels like one of the most prominent debates in queer studies overall. According to Good, ‘queerness’ as a term “has transformed significantly, now being inclusive of gender as much as sexuality, but even beyond that of everything opposed to the ‘norm’” (Good 2018, 192). Such theorists as Lynda Hart, Peggy Phelan, and David Savran thought of relations between theatre forms and LGBTQ representational content that is used in those theatre forms in a way that should underline not just what those representations are but what they should be. They proposed that theatre should not just reflect reality, it should instead create what we consider reality by enforcing conventional notions of ‘normal’ (Dolan 2010, 14). Contributing to the debate of normal, institutional, and queer, Australian researcher Alyson Campbell poses my favourite set of questions so far: “What does it mean when one of the fundamental principles of queer is that it sets itself up against what is normative, for a queer creator to be employed or facilitated by an institution? What happens to their queerness? How does a queer-identifying theatre student fit into the academy with still persistently lingering outdated notions of realism and truth?” (Campbell 2019, 177). Campbell then proposes ‘feral strategy’ as a solution to those problems, which by her definition means to take institutional resources and run wild. Or to go the opposite way from the mainstream notion of success – instead of aiming for bigger commercial institutions, go for guerrilla forms and non-theatre spaces (Campbell 2019, 177). That is certainly one way to go about it, however, it might seem a bit radical to some. So, what are the other solutions?


Can we make some sort of queer norm (in an institutional context)? Jill Dolan asks another interesting set of questions: “Does the audience need to be queer in order to understand? Can all spectators read performance through a queer lens regardless of their own sexual identity? How might spectators, directors and designers ‘queer’ a performance?” (Dolan 2010, 2). The last question echoes in a lot of other scholarly works, including Alexandrowicz’s book Acting Queer that I already mentioned earlier: “Is queer something one is or something one does?” (Alexandrowicz 2020, 21). Dolan replies by giving the example of Stacy Wolf’s book A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, where she used the noun ‘queer’ as a verb by arguing that theatre narratives can be ‘queered’ – which meant practice where critics, spectators and artists reread any representation from a queer perspective (Dolan 2010, 17). So, in short, it seems that yes, narratives and performances can be ‘queered’, even if they are presented in institutional spaces.


For me personally, the issue of space is quite strong. I mentioned above that I did not mind presenting Neptune with all its political queerness at the Theatre Academy, and not only that – I sought this opportunity. I knew I would be safe there, and I desperately wanted to be safe. However, it would be hypocritical not to admit that it did not feel right. For me, it was not the issue of theoretical debates that I just described, it was not the issue of ‘norm’ per se, but more so the issue of the right audiences and yes, perhaps, the slight fear of losing my queer identity.


It is a very different feeling to perform in queer spaces, like clubs and cabarets, and it is a very different level of performers-audiences understanding. It is also a matter of who this play and performance are for. It would be great to say – ‘it is for everyone’ – and surely, why not. But this total inclusion is rarely the case. Of course, I hope that people enjoy my play, that they find something there that resonates. However, I never intended it to be for everyone - I wrote it for myself and for those who would recognize themselves in my story (which admittedly happened a few times during the run). There are many plays and stories for cis straight people out there and not enough queer ones, which essentially leads to this ‘queering the norm’ narrative, or ‘queer readings’ - trying to find something between the lines in so-called ‘normal stories’ that can be interpreted as queer. I did not want that, I did not want to ‘queer’ anything that was not already queer, I did not want to leave anything up for interpretation – Neptune is explicitly about same-sex relationship and absolutely every element of this play and performance are drenched in queer culture and aesthetics. As such, a performance like this, should, in my opinion, be shown in a queer space, where it would feel right in its place and right for its target audience.


Finally, I want to state that as a queer writer and performer I do not want to be in political opposition to institutions, including educational ones. I do not want to use Campbell’s ‘feral strategy’. I want to collaborate, be seen and accepted. I do not want to ‘queer’ narratives and ‘queer read’. I want queer norm, queer as a norm, but at the moment I do not see us quite there yet, and that is why performing in an institution feels weird and isolating still. I hope one day it will not be so.



3.2  Production: creative and aesthetical choices.