Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and other systemic problems, National Queer Theater’s artistic director Adam Odsess-Rubin is still dreaming forward. Founded in 2018, National Queer Theater is an organization committed to programming and fostering the creation of new plays and performances that uplift and empower queer folks around the world.
One of the organization’s most significant programs is the Criminal Queerness Festival, the next iteration of which is slated for June 21-24 at Lincoln Center in New York City. Now in its fourth year, CQF supports the development and production of new plays by queer international and immigrant playwrights who have faced censorship or criminalization in their countries of origin. Since 2019, the festival has produced works by playwrights from Syria, Venezuela, Iraq, China, Pakistan, Tanzania, Egypt, Mexico, India, and Lebanon. This year’s festival is curated by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, whose play Waafrika 123 was featured in the first year’s festival.
“The search was for plays that celebrate, champion, and center the complexity of queer life and loving despite or because of queer criminalization,” Nick explained of the curation process. “The festival is an essential part of the revolution; its irreverence takes a rad position in the face of erasure, silencing, voicelessness, and criminalization by giving the full queer experience a visible platform.” This year’s playwrights are Muleme Steven, Jonathan Opinya Wamukota, and Achiro P. Olwoch.
The latest CQF arrives not only during Pride but at a time when legislative attacks on LGBTQ rights in the United States are rising meteorically on both state and federal levels, while several Trump-era immigration policies remain in place which continue to make it difficult for LGBTQ asylees to seek protection in the U.S. for persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. While LGBTQ folks in the U.S. enjoy some protections not yet globally common, these days those privileges feel more and more precarious. Set against this bleak backdrop, creating space to dream toward better futures alongside international colleagues has never been more important. CQF is a reminder of the global stakes of the fight for LGBTQ liberation, and a reminder that Pride is both a celebration and an ongoing struggle toward a better world.
The festival isn’t National Queer Theatre’s only program. An essential partner in Write it Out!, a writing group for playwrights living with HIV, as well as DREAMing Out Loud, a program for young immigrant writers, NQT takes seriously art’s life-giving potential. NQT’s programming offers a masterclass in fusing theatre and political activism. When I served as the organization’s literary manager in 2019, I got a firsthand look at how the organization puts their values into action. I recently I sat down with Adam Odsess-Rubin to chat about the CQF’s evolution since 2019, the importance of civically engaged art, and his vision for theatre moving forward.
LINNEA VALDIVIA: I wanted to start out with a question that is asked in many a middle school English class: What’s in a name? NQT’s name is made up three major umbrella words: National, Queer, and Theater. Can you tell me a little bit about how each of these words is meaningful for thinking about the work you all do at NQT?
ADAM ODSESS-RUBIN: First off, I have to acknowledge that the name National Queer Theater was inspired by the National Black Theatre, specifically a talk that Sade Lythcott gave at the Brooklyn Conference in the fall of 2017. I was also inspired by New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco, an organization that went beyond putting on queer plays by also working to be in service to the local queer community; that was an early artistic home for me. When I arrived in New York as a wayward young artist trying to find my way into what can be a very exclusive industry and didn’t find an active queer theatre in New York City, I knew I was going to have to create one myself.
The first two words relate to our scope. New York City is a national city. It is a mecca for the LGBTQ community and a capital for theatre as the home of Broadway. The work we do acts locally while thinking globally. Queer theatres that preceded us didn’t use the word gay or queer in their name, because of fear of homophobia or transphobia. As far as I know, NQT is the first LGBTQ theater that has the “queer” in its name.
As for theatre, we both think about theatre as an art but also as a physical and emotional home for artists—a place for gathering community. So many of our artists and volunteers moved to New York City as young queer people looking for community, looking for family.
Could you tell me a little bit about the experiences that led you to dream up National Queer Theater? You mention seeking and building a queer artistic community, but what other goals did you have in mind as you were dreaming up NQT back in 2018?
I’ll start even earlier than that. When I was 16, I was a closeted gay kid in California who was bullied, anxious, depressed, even suicidal for a period. It wasn’t until my high school drama teacher cast me in a production of The Laramie Project that I realized I was part of a larger community and belonged to a culture and history of queer people that went beyond who I was attracted to. I was suddenly part of a community that I had known nothing about up until that point, even growing up somewhere as liberal as Berkeley. Theatre and these stories about queer culture and queer history saved my life. I knew from that young age that, for the rest of my life, I wanted to share that experience with others. I can draw a direct line between those early, life-giving experiences and the beginning of the National Queer Theater. The idea was born out of a desire to give back to the theatre and queer communities, communities that allowed 16-year-old me to grow into a healthy, happy adult. So that’s the emotional piece.
Another part was countering the homogeneous theatre industry landscape, even specifically queer theatre spaces. I wanted to make space for diverse, inclusive, radical, queer theatre by a new generation of artists that could tell stories they saw reflected in their communities. Stories that go beyond the early queer plays of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, beyond the AIDS plays and beyond gay marriage. Asking: What does the future look like? What is queer theatre for a new generation?
You’ve hit on something I find very important about theatre: It allows us to access stories of our past, allows us to engage with our communities in the present, and allows us to dream forward into a better future. And we get to sit in each of those spaces all at once. Switching gears, I’m curious if you can talk to me about what is it in National Queer Theater’s values or mission that allows the organization to put on such a flexible and engaged programming?
A big part of our mission is focused on uplifting and empowering the queer community through fighting for queer liberation and visibility. That is infinitely more important to us than this nebulous idea of “artistic excellence” that gets thrown around in the theatre industry. So it’s really thinking about how we can use theatre as a tool and as a resource to build pride and impact. Sometimes that’s through putting on an incredible show, and sometimes that’s organizing a playwriting workshop for people living with HIV. One is not more important than the other; they’re both critical to making good art. You need good politics to make good art, and you need good art to create political impact.
When we’re thinking about programming or season planning, we start from the question: What stories are not being told? Whose voices need to be centered in our current conversation? What can we do with our resources to support those most marginalized within the queer and trans community? It’s about inspiring queer audiences, supporting queer artists. Starting from that place allows us to create programming that directly responds to the needs within the community. Programming that, if we do our job well, actually has a real utility to the communities that we’re serving.
Thinking about visibility, responsibility to communities, and impact, I want to talk a little bit now about the Criminal Queerness Festival. Tell me about how a program like CQF fits into NQT’s larger mission and values.
When we think about LGBTQ rights in the United States, we clearly have a lot of work to do, and yet we have a lot of privilege compared to many queer people living in countries that explicitly criminalize their existence. In 70 countries around the world today, LGBTQ people are being imprisoned, in some cases killed or forced to become refugees or asylees just because of who they love or how they express their gender.
It’s vital that Americans create space for international queer artists and build political pressure for decriminalization worldwide. The Criminal Queerness Festival has been successful because I think folks understand the power in the idea of providing a censorship-free space for artists facing criminalization. There’s no other program like the Criminal Queerness Festival in the world, because most other queer theatre festivals focus on North America and Western Europe. Hearing stories of queer people from the Middle East, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe, we really get a better understanding of who’s in our community and the stories that are made to be invisible through censorship.
It’s one thing to read an article about human rights abuses in Iran or Chechnya, but it’s another thing to witness someone’s personal narrative, someone’s love story, someone’s struggle. It builds empathy, and that empathy can translate into policy.
What makes a festival like the Criminal Queerness Festival important for audiences, whether they’re regular theatregoers or not, and specifically in 2022?
I think it’s very important that we Americans understand the issues affecting queer folks around the world, outside of our American or New York City bubble. The fact that this festival is during Pride and is the official theatre partner of New York City Pride is significant, because it’s a reminder that Pride is about human rights—that it goes beyond a parade or a celebration, and reminds us of the work we have ahead for us.
I would say we have two audiences for this festival: the first is immigrants, and especially LGBTQ immigrants, who might be seeing a queer story from their country of origin or ancestry onstage for the first time and having a powerful experience of recognition and of representation. And then we have American audiences, many of whom know nothing about LGBTQ life in these countries, or even anything about the broader culture of some of the countries represented in the festival. It’s an experience of cross-cultural education, of inspiration and activation.
One thing that I find so special about NQT as an organization is that so many of NQT’s projects programs are put on in collaboration with other community organizations that directly serve the queer community. Can you tell talk to me a little bit about what makes a successful partnership between theatres and civic organizations? And why is that important for theatre?
It’s critical that theatres partner with civic institutions that can bring the work of artists beyond the walls of the theatre. When NQT partners with community organizations, we bring in new audiences and serve communities in ways that help us earn our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Theatre is often seen as a safe space for us as queer people. It’s a place where we’ve been able to see our stories and histories told time and time again. For Lincoln Center to present this festival in partnership with New York City Pride demonstrates a radical support for smaller, community-based organizations and for the LGBTQ community. Offering a platform for this difficult, highly political work shows that this large theatre takes seriously the work of diversifying their stages and giving their space and their resources to marginalized artists. The fact that these larger organizations are taking the work of small community-based grassroots theatre seriously signals an important change in our industry and artistic ecosystem.
That makes me think about how many theatres have historically treated programming new work—and especially new work by multiply marginalized artists—as “risky” in some way. Which always seemed to me like cowardly doublespeak for financial and audience loyalty risk.
I think many older, larger theatres are really starting to interrogate who their work is for. Right now, many theatres are struggling to attract younger, more diverse audiences and stay relevant. When I talk about risk, I’m referring to bringing in and cultivating new voices, yes, but also new forms of storytelling—new ways of sharing stories and new ways of creating work, such as co-producing, partnering with other theatres, letting go of a little of the creative control, putting trust in the community.
There’s this annoying, pervasive underlying assumption that some art isn’t political, and that to put something that is overtly engaging with politics onstage is seen as risky—as if putting on a Golden Age musical isn’t also a political statement.
Can I spill some tea?
I’ve been collaborating with a Broadway production of an older show with a lot of queer themes that have a lot of resonance with issues facing the queer community today. When I talked to their marketing department about posting about some events in the news affecting the LGBTQ community that relate directly to the play’s themes, the response I got was that they let the art speak for itself, that they don’t post about politics.
When these organizations have five posts about Tony nominations and zero about gay rights when they’re producing LGBT work, it makes me question who they’re producing this work for, or why they’re telling the story in the first place. If these organizations aren’t investing in our livelihoods, are these bigger theatres just profiting off our stories? Why program these shows if you’re not invested in what’s happening to our communities now? So yes, all theatre is political. When I see Broadway or Off-Broadway theaters producing work that’s actively turning away from issues in our society, it says a lot to me about their priorities. It’s a missed opportunity to engage. Theatre is a tool for political discourse, for understanding social movements.
The operative word for me in your last thought is discourse. Theatre isn’t merely political statement; it’s about inciting conversation and action. The reckonings of past several years have exposed and re-exposed so many fault lines in our industry. Can you talk about the challenges you’ve seen in the last couple years?
The closure of so many new-work development spaces in the last few years highlights the need for theatres to allocate resources to supporting emerging writers, for nurturing the next generation of playwrights and storytellers by giving pressure-free space to artists, supporting readings, workshops, and residencies. While that work doesn’t sell tickets and isn’t audience-centered, it’s vital to building the next generation of new American plays and musicals. It’s a bit like planting a seed. That tree might not grow for 10, 20 years, but it will grow. And we will all reap the benefits.
I mean, think about Michael R. Jackson and A Strange Loop. He developed that show for over a decade in places like the Musical Theater Factory and Page 73, and now it’s a Broadway hit that’s nominated for 11 Tony Awards! For A Strange Loop to be a contender for a Tony Award for Best New Musical and to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and for Jackson to be on the Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2022 list, it needed that early reading with music stands.
Beyond the plays, actors need those opportunities to build their resume, to hone their craft, to network and meet collaborators. And directors need those play development opportunities to cultivate their style, to build collaborations with writers and actors. We need to create space to develop new work. Investing in the future of queer theatre looks like investing in emerging artists.
Dream with me for a second. Tell me about where you see the Criminal Queerness Festival and NQT in five years? 10 years? What’s coming down the pike?
Of course, the ultimate goal of the Criminal Queerness Festival is for it not to be necessary, because queer people are no longer criminalized or censored anywhere in the world. Until then, we’re working with a limited pool of playwrights of LGBT playwrights with new plays in countries that criminalize same-sex activity who are willing to share their work. We’ve had many authors in different countries who are too afraid to share their plays to submit to the festival for fear of very real repercussions from the state or from their local communities. So I think our next step is to create a writer’s group that works with international LGBT artists to write new plays with mentorship from established queer playwrights. So that we are creating new works for the festival in house and giving a supportive, censorship-free space for artists to create new work.
Another dream is to find a physical home for National Queer Theater in New York City and to attain a level of long-term sustainability. Starting a new theatre company is really hard financially, especially when something like 90 percent of the theatre funding goes to the same handful of large Off-Broadway or nonprofit institutions. We haven’t even been eligible for government funding until this year! So financial stability and space are certainly major priorities. Ultimately, I hope that the kind of work NQT is doing can be seen as an indispensable integral part of the larger movement for LGBT rights.
What do you imagine for theatre dreaming into the future?
I think we need to radically reimagine how we make theatre. We’ve taken this art form that has historically been so civically engaged and accessible and made it inaccessible. How do we expect our industry to survive when tickets to a Broadway musical can go for over $500? Not only do we need to radically change the stories we’re telling, but also how we run these organizations and recreate them in accessible ways.
I think the future of American theatre is diverse. I think the future of American theater is queer and trans. I think it’s popular in the same way that Marvel movies are, or Kylie Minogue. Theatre is for the people! It’s for all of us. We’ve gotten a warped sense about who theatre is for. The needs, hopes, and desires of my generation are ignored by institutional theatres, and it’s up to us as young makers to change that. We need to be responsive; it’s imperative. We need to talk about current events. We need to start thinking about the future and make way for this new generation of theatre artists that want to create something new.
Linnea Valdivia (she/they) is a professional dramaturg, producer, and playwright based in Chicago. They are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theatre & Drama from Northwestern University.
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