It’s June 20th, our third night in Toronto.
The connectivity in the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (BIBTT) space is out of control. All of us are paired off and scattered throughout this bright cavernous space like glitter. Five intergenerational queer artists from About Face Theatre (AFT) in Chicago and 22 from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (BIBT) in Toronto. We are about halfway through our three-hour international queer youth theatre exchange (the first-ever international queer youth theatre exchange).
I’m sitting across from Sina, this young theatre artist, originally from Iran, and the two of us are perched on the corner of the stage. He has long curly brown hair, which he periodically pulls out of his inquisitive grey eyes and flips behind his shoulders with an elegance that is beyond me, beyond this moment.
Sina hesitates, then says, in a thick Iranian accent, “You know, I don’t relate to the concept at all of ‘coming out’ or declaring your pronouns or whatever. It’s a Western thing.”
“What?!” I blurt out, but then catch myself. “Oh, sorry—“
See, we’re in the middle of this story-sharing exercise where one of us has to talk for five straight minutes, responding to the prompt, “Talk about a time in your life when you came out, that didn’t relate directly to your sexual identity.” It’s Sina’s turn, and I’m supposed to stay silent, except to repeat the last word or phrase that he has just said, in the form of a question.
“Sorry, I mean…” I say, scrambling to remember the last thing he said, “A Western thing?”
“Yeah, it’s this concept of the individual as the most important entity. Like, the self knows the ultimate, pure truth, all you have to do is voice it to someone. To declare something. That’s a very Western way of thinking. To be centered around the self that way.”
“Well, in Iran,” he continues, “in more Eastern philosophies, the truth doesn’t lie in the self, it lies in the space between the self and the other—in the interaction. It doesn’t matter what I say I am. What precedes that is what someone perceives of me. I can learn about that perception based on how he approaches me, and I can respond accordingly, and there—there the truth is right between us.”
I realize at this moment that I’m having one of those double-self moments—you know, where you kind of split consciousness. As I’m listening to Sina’s words, I’m also looking at the wide range of ages, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, sexual identities, voices, and LQQKS** in the room. The space has changed drastically from the night before when 250 audience members were cheering, cat-calling, clapping, ‘ooh-gurl’-ing, and snapping in this raucous choir of community support for the culminating performance of the BIBT Pride Cabaret. The energy was so similar to the way audiences in Chicago responded to our latest youth show What’s the T, that it felt like home.
Sina, awkwardly clears his throat, snapping me back to the present moment.
“Oh—sorry! Uh—sorry,” I stutter, a little embarrassed.
Sina chuckles, draping the hair from his eyes, “Was that too deep? We can talk about gay shit if that would be easier.”
“No No! Not at all, I’m so interested in this. I’m just thinking… that thing about the truth being between us.”
I’m lucky he chooses not to chide me about how applicable that last comment is to this moment.
“Okay, well,” he says, tucking the hair behind his ears, “it can be transferred to art, too. When you were talking about the work you did in Chicago with your theatre, it was very political, clearly. A lot of American art is trying to communicate something specific. A voice. A message. Again, this obsession with the self, right? In Eastern art, the goal is not to communicate one message or the author or director’s voice—no, it’s about creating a piece of work that the audience can then make meaning for themselves. It’s a conversation. And the artwork can mean many things to many people.”
I think about the space between us in this conversation. Between our two youth theatre programs meeting. Between our two countries.
“Okay, if I say, ‘the lion runs,’ to you, it might be a metaphor for struggle. To someone, else it might mean strength or family. To me, could be escape. None of these are wrong. They are all true. And people are ever-changing, so a work of art may change meaning for a single person many times throughout their life.”
“So the viewer has to engage with the work and apply meaning from their life,” I say, thinking specifically about my work at About Face Theatre, about audiences in Chicago.
“It’s the space between the work and the viewer, not the artist and the viewer.”
“I think American audiences expect to be given something at the theatre. To receive.”
Sina nods, “It’s the same in Toronto. For me, art is all about creating a beautiful, perfect metaphor. It can exist on its own. That’s why I like metaphors so much.”
A month after this conversation, as I think back on our trip to Toronto, this conversation with Sina surges to the forefront of my memory. Our conversation that night continued through the vogue-ing workshop that followed this story-sharing exercise, and into the pub afterwards, where Sina gave me a palm reading in the middle of a long table seating all 30-or-so workshop participants.
It was a fierce connection.
In the space between now and then, I have relayed this conversation to other artists, applied many new meanings in remembering, and even wondered, “Is it possible for a conversation, in and of itself, to be a work of art?”
Sara Kerastas is the Education Programs director for About Face Theatre, where she manages the Education Outreach program and the Queer Youth Theatre. She is also an Artistic Associate with AFT. Across Canada, she has directed with Pi Theatre, The Havana, Le Cagibi, F4L Productions and Théâtre Ste. Catherine. In 2010, she received a Windy City Times 30-Under-30 Award for her leadership within and contributions to Chicago’s LGBT community. Sara is a regular storyteller and former Associate Artistic Director of 2nd Story, and will be published in their new anthology with Elephant Rock Books. She received her BA in English-Drama & Theatre and Women’s Studies from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.