Arts & Humanities

Constructing Gender

A Reed theatre class explores the relationship between gender and performance—on stage and off.

By Randall S. Barton | September 10, 2018

Put your hand to your chest. Gaze at the audience. Achingly. Strut in time with the beat. You own the stage. As the NSYNC dance hit Tearin’ Up My Heart reaches its climax, spin around and slide forward on your knees, stretching your fingertips towards your adoring fans. Drink in their rapturous applause.

On one level, the students in this Reed theatre workshop are learning to perform a classic boy-band routine from the 1990s. But on a deeper level, they are learning to perform masculinity itself—or one flavor of it, anyway.

“Performing masculinity means taking up space,” explains Max Voltage, a Portland drag king who is leading the students through the routine. “We’re taught that femininity is performative, and masculinity isn’t. But there is a space that allows for feelings and sensibility in masculinity—for only a short time and not for the old—that’s called boy band.”

Voltage, who performs as Peter Pansy in the boy band Turnback Boyz, is one of two local performance artists who have been invited to lead a workshop on drag as a part of Theatre 280, Gender and Theatre, taught by Prof. Kate Bredeson [theatre 2009–]. The course uses performance as a lens through which to study gender and sexuality—on stage and off—while at the same time using gender as a lens through which to study theatre.

The course has earned a reputation on campus as challenging, rigorous, and meaningful. The syllabus is composed of readings in queer theory, performance studies scholarship, plays, video screenings, workshops, and end-of-term performance projects. Like all classes in the theatre department, it combines theory and practice.

“Our students right now are really hungry to talk about social constructs; to dig into race, class, gender, and sexuality,” Prof. Bredeson says. “That reflects the cultural moment we’re in. We are in the midst of a massive moment around trans rights, breaking down gender binaries, and intersectional feminism, and students are excited to have some places on campus where they can talk about these things in an academic way.”

Redressing the Canon

Gender play is as old as theatre itself. In ancient Greece, for example, male and female roles were both usually played by male actors. Prof. Bredeson’s syllabus focuses primarily on the 20th century, however, zooming in on theatre that undermines or disrupts established systems of hierarchy. “Every time we make something—a theatre production, a work of art, a syllabus—we subscribe to some kind of belief about power,” she says. “As artists, how do we use what we have learned to shake that up?”

One tool is “queering,” or looking at a text or performance through the lens of queerness to challenge binaries and assumptions about an object of study.

Exploring this and other concepts, the course devotes several weeks to queer performers and drag—a medium that deals explicitly with gender and performance. Students study the history of drag and read work by scholar Marlon Bailey, author of Butch Queens Up in Pumps, an in-depth look at the contemporary ballroom scene in Detroit, as a reminder that for performers from marginalized communities, drag is not a hobby, but a survival strategy. Indeed, to perform gender can result in violence and death for the performer, particularly the performer who is a person of color.

After reading A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and watching the 1951 film, the class studies Belle Reprieve by the lesbian performance group Split Britches (coproduced with queer performance group Bloolips). First performed in 1991, it queers Streetcar and marks the departure point for the class in terms of analyzing a play. Students read an essay by Alisa Solomon on redressing canonical plays in queerness and drag, and study the tradition of military drag performances during the two world wars.

But the highlights of the unit are the workshops led by visiting drag artists such as Kareem Khubchandani—an assistant professor at Tufts University by day, and a radical-feminist, bi-curious Bollywood drag queen by night. “Gender is a social, cultural system that is used to regulate our bodies,” Khubchandani tells the students. “Some bodies are given more privilege than others.” When he performs, for example, his body is more subject to objectification; strangers come up and touch his padded bra.

During the classroom conversation, a student explains that the class has been studying queerness, not just as an identity, but as a process of destabilization.

“Queerness is a way of seeing,” Khubchandani replies. “Performance is a way of understanding people who do things differently. Living in the margins of sexual identity and gender helps us see things differently.” That evening, Khubchandani performs a solo show, Lessons in Drag as LaWhore Vagistan onstage at the Performing Arts Building.

“All of us are involved in gender play every day, in terms of how we are in the world,” Bredeson says. “Drag is not performing an opposite, it is performing a gender. I think one of the reasons this class is particularly memorable to students is we don’t just study gender and sexuality performance by reading about it—we explore it with our bodies.”

Students learn drag moves from Pepper Pepper, a Portland drag artist who uses drag to practice theatricality, exploring the intersection of power and gender to grow as an artist. “I use the mask to become myself, not hide behind it,” they explain. Clattering forth on platform heels, Pepper greets them, “Relax! This is a warehouse party with no bar.”

Performing can be intimidating, but it can also be invigorating. “Try new things and be generous with each other,” Bredeson encourages her students as they commence following Pepper’s instructions. The immediate enterprise is performing attitude—using your face and body to punctuate the drama as you move in and out of the spotlight. Pepper breaks down the formula: use the music to make choices, and follow through with a progression of motion, stillness, and presence.

“Distinguish yourself with movement,” Pepper explains, “and then there is a dramatic stillness when you hit the light. Crystallize it, and then melt out of it.”

Students practice moving toward the center spotlight and, as the light hits them, pose in frozen tableaux, the ones in front shadowing those in the rear.

“Find your light!” Pepper cajoles the shadow dwellers. “The drag attitude is, ‘I’m going to die if you don’t pay attention to me.’ You’re serving to each other and fighting for the audience. I want to see your personalities exploding!”

Setting the Stage

To ensure that students in class can discuss the sensitive issues and themes in the material, Bredeson establishes a common vocabulary. Language about gender is rapidly changing—some terms that were part of the vernacular back in 1995 are patronizing or offensive today. She begins the class by introducing students to gender theory and queer theory so that the subject matter becomes accessible to everyone, regardless of how familiar they may be with the work of bell hooks or José Esteban Muñoz.

“I have a lot of students in my classroom who are new to all of this,” she says. “At the same time, I have a lot of trans students who need a space where they can study, speak, and learn in a way that is supportive to them. I want to honor both of those experiences—and those are not opposite experiences. This is a space where all of the voices in the room are welcome, and we’re all coming together in good faith in a thoughtful and compassionate way.”

Gender and Theatre was the first theatre class Juliana Cable ’19 took at Reed, and initially they found it intimidating, despite having led a theatre club in high school. “I didn’t even know that theatre theory existed, or who Brecht and Artaud were,” they remember. “But Kate does a good job of creating a foundation at the beginning of the course.”

Bredeson is a proponent of student-led learning. Early in the term, each student selects one of the syllabus topics and devises discussion questions for that day; they then write a critical analysis on that theme. Classroom conversation is not limited to staged theatre performance, because it quickly becomes obvious that gender is something everyone is experiencing, and experiencing in their own way.

“Before taking that class, I was under the impression there were only a handful of different ways you could experience gender,” Cable says, “or that other people were experiencing it the exact same way that I was. I learned that even though it’s something that we perform in public, gender is an incredibly personal experience. Seeing the artwork of so many different human beings and so many different very gendered bodies helped me to understand that individualism, and to have a lot more empathy for people who are having different gendered experiences than I’m having.”

Taiga Christie ’10, a graduate student at the Yale School of Public Health, describes the class as “an oasis where the contributions of queer and feminist artists were acknowledged and celebrated. Kate’s class taught us the legacy of queer and feminist performance art in the U.S., a vital piece of the industry’s history that is often overlooked. But it also gave us, as students, space to be entire beings, to struggle through the ways our own relationships to gender influence our art, and to question norms we had previously taken for granted.”

When Helena Pennington ’15, dramaturg and literary associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, took the class as a first year, she was excited about studying theatre through the lens of gender studies and queer theory.

“That class cracked my freshman world wide open,” she says. “It was my introduction to feminist theory, queer theory, postcolonial criticism, post-modern criticism, and, surely, a host of other modes of literary analysis that I’m forgetting to name. I’ve only just come to appreciate the care and the acumen with which Kate curated this course’s comprehensive—and essential—selection of artists, scholars, and performance models, which provided a sturdy foundation from which most, if not all, contemporary American theatre can be analyzed and understood.”

Breaking the Fourth Wall

The class also explores how performance helps shape culture, and conversely how culture shapes performance. They study the landmark case of the NEA Four—performance artists Tim Miller, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck, whose proposed grants were vetoed by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, based on alleged obscenity in their work dealing with sexuality, gender, and queerness. They examine the glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which revolves around the adventures of a genderqueer East German singer (who is obsessed with the classic passage in Plato’s Symposium where Aristophanes explains the origin of love). They read contemporary plays and examine contemporary artists such as Beyoncé and all-women Japanese drag troupe the Takarazuka Revue. Each time she teaches the class, Bredeson refreshes the syllabus in order to to incorporate new artists such as Taylor Mac, the Kilroys, and Nicki Minaj.

Noah Atchison ’15 does research on the criminal justice system for the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City. He explains that theatre classes were among the most intellectually rigorous courses he took at Reed because they required a quick transition between learning a theory and recognizing how it is practiced. As an economics major at Reed, he decided to take Gender and Theatre in 2014 after becoming intrigued about concepts that were originating in gender studies. Bredeson became one of his favorite professors at Reed.

“Navigating conversations about gender and queerness when students face discrimination and violence for expressing their gender requires a professor to both maintain the safety of queer and gender-nonconforming students while making sure that students who haven’t thought about these ideas before have the space to learn,” he says. “The way the class was structured put complex theories into contexts that made them seem intuitive. This is difficult subject matter, but Kate successfully navigates some potentially very difficult discussions, and because of this the class was able to delve deeply into topics that I had only seen given lip service before.”

For their final project, Bredeson divides the class into small groups; each group creates a performance by taking on one of the companies or movements studied during the term, such as Split Britches or RuPaul’s Drag Race. Bredeson then asks each group to perform a scene from a classic play. Students choose whether they want to design, direct, perform, write, or act as dramaturg. Within their groups, students work to make 10–15-minute performances that take place around campus (in the PAB, in the Paradox, on the front lawn, in the chapel, and more), and write a critical analysis of their project. For example, Helena Pennington adapted the malt shop scene from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the style of the feminist performance artist Karen Finley, reconfiguring the teenagers’ fledgling courtship with the heightened language of Finley’s taboo-flouting monologues.

Shabab Mirza ’15, who works at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C., took the class in 2014. For that year’s final projects, the groups adapted scenes from My Fair Lady. Mirza writes of the class, “What I loved about Kate’s class was that it wasn’t just about living the life of the mind in a bubble. She also created opportunities for us to put academic ideas into praxis, not unlike the ethos of the Reed thesis. We would take our learning and create, and often the messy process of giving life to our visions was its own lesson—it’s one thing to discuss misogyny and hyperfeminine beauty standards in RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s quite another to embed those critiques into our adaptation of My Fair Lady as a competition-elimination reality TV show.”

For Bredeson, the final projects are the highlight of the whole semester. “The projects are always fun, beautiful, irreverent, and often deeply moving,” she says. “It’s important to me that the class is not just reading about drag or transgressive gender performance or solo art. We have to put our bodies on the line and do it, too.”

Tags: Professors, Academics, Performing Arts