Friday, July 1, 2016

"Ze" : queer as fu*k ! Review and Interview

They're crying rainbows, and vivid makeup streams all the way down their cheeks. Their grimace makes their emotions seem real, despite those cheerful colours. The poster shows someone with short hair, too. Polished promotional material led me to believe this could be a slick, amusing rather edgy show, and the image suggested trans elements. It's a testament to broadly-based, clear trans promotions and publicity lately that I felt quite comfortable with those ideas, as if already familiar with their culture. “Ze” : queer as f*ck! was also not quite what I expected in some ways, yet I felt glad of that. I saw this performance at the beginning of its short season. By the end of its run the houses were packed, and deservedly so.

Photo from the flyer - by Virginia Guy with Graphic Design by Riley Vladyr Burns 

The person in the promo photograph was neither male nor female, to my way of seeing. More succinctly than before, the language for communicating about people who identify as another gender has changed, and grown. In my naive sophistication I also believed I knew quite a range of facts and terms, regarding this group of people, and perhaps I knew most of it? Personal stories make great monologues, too, so I looked forward to some truth told with personal style and maybe a few odd details I'd find surprising. Quite true. This show is also much much more than that.

Gay or queer or whatever you call culture that's not heterosexual, often emphasises sexuality to the degree that it can seem as if that's all there is, perhaps. I expected some sexy bits and a few shocks. Despite my worldly experiences I still find discussing sex openly with strangers, or seeing any kind of sex portrayed in public, somewhat disturbing in some ways. It feels like a violation of intimacy at times. I'm also aware that the charged atmosphere with this kind of performance may cause trouble, from others, and that can bother me. The atmosphere at Garnet Station's Tiny Theatre is however so welcoming, inclusive, and safe, that my concerns were considerably reduced.

All other photos by Goad Studio 

We all have idiosyncrasies, except arguably for identical twins, everybody experiences their own individual reality. Humans mainly all feel to a degree, alone. But in marginalised or unusual situations we may feel more alone. Those sidelined or outcast can experience extraordinary trouble with communicating, or getting whatever's wanted or needed, more than those with more common backgrounds, do. We've become accustomed you could say, to hearing about the struggle of somebody to come out, for instance, as a lesbian, or to admit to be a cross-dressing, sado-masochist for that matter. Some as well realise they possess a highly individual, startling identity, or unusual persona, which they want known to maintain their happiness and well-being. I expected issues with relating to families and the general public to feature, and this was the case in “Ze” : queer as f*ck!

Tiny Theatre at Garnet Station Cafe, a converted tiny house down the back of the property seems rather like an old country church, or schoolhouse, (with some irony). Many shows there present genuine edginess, with startling qualities. Although everything I've seen so far is also professional, and highly original. Anyway I walked in, the first punter of an almost full house, to see on stage a short distance away someone doing calisthenics. An army-style warm-up, with loud dance music playing. This athletic figure on stage in tight grey camouflage shorts and grey marle singlet, had short dark hair, but also sported a large transparent purple dildo, well-attached and completely visible from their fly-front shorts. A blatant scenario, albeit rather workaday too like an exercise class. Wide-eyed I sat at the front as the technician/stage manager suggested, by the wall for support.

Subtle elements of Michelle Lunicke's true story, ze (or they) perform as Michelle/Ryan, 

presented in a deeply personal but amusing manner, and sometimes shocking details also 

surface. This confessional or honest narrative eventually makes the audience feel like close 

friends of this accomplished performer. Humour and empathy created a genuinely pleasant 


A simply dressed stage with black surrounds, to the right a blue felt rectangle board such as at a Sunday School, set up holding various symbols in bright colours like a red felt heart, a flesh-coloured brain, and a yellow geometric shape with various sexuality symbols jutting from it. Props in some cases look jolly, or funky like a teenager could make. Michelle/Ryan produced various stick-on symbols to indicate their emotions, their thinking, their sexuality, (quite a complex drawing) and other such particulars. Cut out shapes from that blue felt board were easily peeled away then patted into place on Michelle/Ryan's clothing. A cartoonish quality, amusing, also crafty, and touching. The homey tone and look of some of this show endears the character's tale and persona to us. We're drawn in closer, and Michelle/Ryan gets across the development, awareness, bewilderment, relationships, and pleasures of their existence in a manner that convinces the audience every word's the truth. This definitely matters.

Marginalised people vary, but perhaps the most isolated are those for whom no language exists to describe them, or to allow those people to explain who they are to others, and of course themselves. The genuinely rare, for instance (to take a quite different example), like the mere 20% of humanity considered highly sensitive, with them other more common types do at times notice an unexplained difference. The less sensitive may act upon their alarm in hostile, dangerous, or outright criminal ways. If a marginalised person has something unusual about their gender, others' reactions can manifest dangerously then too. Worry may come from a perceived lack of order, an inability to know who someone is, or what to say. But apt work like this play with its blatant title offer language, including visuals, audio, and humour, and a friendly intimacy to explain or define. This work defines gender-queer. Such an intelligent and witty performance, testament to the acting skill, writing ability, and layered thought processes involved with the whole production. Director and dramaturg Peter Larsen, and the writer/actor Michelle Lunicke and their lighting technician and stage manager together, present something not only thought provoking, but heart-felt, and highly amusing.


“Ze” : queer as f*ck! proved extraordinarily revealing, clever, and definitely entertaining, with a sense of something new. Michelle/Ryan's showed their own startled amazement that they were as they are, then what that meant in a so-called rainbow community. Multifarious people too have their mainstream, conservatives, some rude and annoying folk, their own in-groups and out-groups. Even there in the sometimes defined as queer community, you're more acceptable with an easily defined sexuality, anything obvious is best. Such sobering and upsetting details are also made clear in this performance.

Various essentials are revealed about the life of a particular individual who identifies with no gender at all, and who can swap from one gender to another, in a breath, or literally appears as genderless. They're still without a doubt also attractive and sexy, but no sexual identity creates a kind of blankness at the same time, in the mind of the viewer. What this means includes not just exploring sexual activities. Their life provides a strong narrative in this show. But yes, Michelle Lunicke derives wry satisfaction in explaining some sexual behaviour, however quite often it's like they're describing a recipe method, or a particular way to do exercise properly. Refreshing to see unusual sex discussed so plainly. Then the unexpected ways these interactions affect our hero/heroine are revealed, and people's reactions to zir. When some others realise what a complex being Michelle/Ryan actually is, delight, curiousity, consternation, distress, and other reactions abound. Many tend to want a comfortable label, to move on in a fashion that's not offensive, that's hopeful, and kind, (or in some cases that allows avoidance). This show openly explains that some never fit an easy to understand picture, and nor should we.
All of us, after all, possess some highly individual qualities. No one's entirely simple, nor created the way an object is, able to be taken apart and examined, entirely. This is a good thing we need to accept, but can we all do this?

Zir (or their) show also explores themes of loneliness and cruelty, the role religion plays in what a family allows or does not allow, and debunks the notion that our sexuality is a choice. It seemed to me if Michelle/Ryan could choose just one way to be, at a few points in their life they would've chosen, for respite. They lacked a decent-sized group to belong to, and suffered from general prejudice, within and without the gay community.

But the varied story also segued into the delights of exploring where few could've wanted to explore before. Gender-queer combined with high intelligence, good looks, fitness, and a spirit of adventure means this character grew quite inspired towards a myriad of relationships, and curious activities. A kind of sportiness pervaded the whole show too, adding to the humour and revealing the character's penchant for plain, simple decisions about complicated notions. Michelle/Ryan appeared capable of simply trying something out to see how it went, rather than agonising for too long over possibilities, first. Sensible use of a rubber glove ensued.


Inventive stage lights and management added details and moods to the work which expertly set it off, and in some cases definitely offered more depth, or emphasis. Bright, clear lighting at the start felt strangely reassuring, even if also confronting, it was like they were saying, “Nothing to hide here, come on in.” Amusing elements worked visually as well, like with the blue felt board props, but also such as with the rather hell-fire lighting when the actor produced a half-metre high, white wooden Christian cross. Lights shining upwards flashed red, as if from the open gates of Hades.

I've seen many theatre productions, in countless settings indoors and outside. This show now sits in my top ten best of all time stage shows. Sure, the delivery at times may've been better a little less frantic, a little less hurried, and sometimes words perhaps would've registered more effectively with better enunciation, while slightly tidier, or slicker props and costuming could also lift the visuals into another league, but the overall effect of the performance, writing, staging, lights and sound proved excellent. Insights offered into not only the life of one highly idiosyncratic individual, but into how human beings behave quite often no matter who we are, provided a fine sense of shared experience, trust, and hope. Valuable, brave, what we need more of, arts which go to the heart, soul, and truth of human experience, stating without a doubt that we need to know such details so we communicate more effectively about so much more, too, and survive in much better condition in future.

Interview on the Last day of the Two Week Run May 2016 Garnet Station Cafe Westmere, Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand

Michelle/Ryan's been performing this in Australia, and opened “Ze” : queer as f*ck! in Perth at Fringe World, then also staged the show in Adelaide, Dunedin, Whangarei, and next is Toronto and Vancouver.
Ze said in the regional culture near Canada where ze was born, there is a passive aggressive, polite PC sort of attitude which Michelle/Ryan only discovered in contrast when Michelle/Ryan moved to a more cosmopolitan region within Canada.
Despite being in an fairly unchurched part of North America, Michelle/Ryan grew up exclusively in private Christian schools, Christian youth groups, bible studies, churches, and associated church activities. The only interaction with the secular world was the occasional visit to the local community theatre. Ze never visited a major city without supervision from Christian adults until ze was 18 years old. In Canada's wider concept of religion and "being in the world," ze became a person.
There Michelle/Ryan enjoyed the opportunity to explore the world and develop beliefs and ideas on zir own, with “some kind of background to build a foreground from,” not only the church. All of a sudden there was independence, career options, new culture.
You can't possibly know who you are until you have a few things to choose from, before you know who you are not.” Michelle/Ryan had left zir religious cloistered life “to live a hair's breadth from a metropolitan city, and attend university.” This meant enormous changes. While ze explained these to me zir animation emphasised how exciting it felt, the changes, the newness, the huge range of choices, suddenly.
I asked, “Were you shocked after realising how sheltered you were?”
“At 18 I was, I thought, pretty sophisticated. Pain has a way of maturing a person. I'd been through a lot of pain,” ze relayed this information in a matter-of-fact manner. Michelle/Ryan appears to have come to terms with zir difficult experiences. “The one thing my family could not shelter me from was me. The family itself also was this incredible suffering. All this incest and hitting, and a lot of emotional abuse, and what I would call spiritual abuse – using religion to shame someone as if it will make them a different person. But like I say in the show it was all considered normal.”
Michelle/Ryan also emphasised she blames no one in her family or community for their behaviour, because when you live in a closed world you have no idea there is any other way. Her compassion appeared genuine, and touching.
Religion anyway became the ultimate relief, in such a place. It's the community identity, the hope in religion provides a kind of sustenance, routine helps to lull people, and religion grows to represent a part of who a person believes they are. “You cannot spend five minutes speaking with my mother, without at least once discussing God,” smiling, Michelle/Ryan says this lightly, she's accepting of the way things actually are, and displays a great deal of understanding.
Leaving that religious, protected culture at 18, “...despite the suffering, despite the maturing in a tight cask...” suddenly being in the world there was a strange juxtaposition in being experienced with life's pain, but not being able to deal with it all that well, except with religion.
Michelle/Ryan had various concerns, she told me, while we sat in Garnet Station Cafe that afternoon for this interview, sun streaming in the big window, “I don't get gender. I've never got gender. I looked at the whole 'man head of the house, women submit' thing, and wondered why that was a recommended world. The answer I was given was that is how God made us different. Then I couldn't see how we were different.”
This discussion grew intense, Michelle/Ryan's sincerity apparent, zir voice calm and measured, “ When I came out as a lesbian, was when I finally accepted how different men and women were. How I created gender parity was by dating the same gender. [But] I don't think men and women are all that different. I didn't like how I was being treated differently as a woman, but as a lesbian you do not deal with gender inequality within the relationship the same way. It's not a claimed source of misunderstanding so you don't hide behind it. There are no pink jobs and blue jobs. [But] the world seems to think there are different ways of talking to men about some things, because they're supposedly so different.”
We both agreed these supposed gender differences made for some strange communication, at times.
The more roles are divided in a hyper way the more inclined I am towards eliminating that difference.”
I guessed in this case ze meant that extreme compartmentalising is done around gender roles and work, but it's truly not needed, or sensible.
In a lesbian relationship, ze noticed, “There's no issue about who's going to initiate affection, who's doing child rearing, who earns wages, who's more equipped to do certain tasks. The same socialisation's happened with both of you, when you're in a lesbian relationship.”
Listening to Michelle/Ryan, I gained insight and felt grateful.
Gender-queerness changed all of that. I realised it was all made up and could be remade.”
Ze also noted other effects of gender-queerness, and how there are biases against it within the gay and queer communities, for various reasons. “There are gay women and men who would be a bit more gender-queer. But they don't want to take the step of admitting that, and lose the significance of their place in the gay community. After years of fighting for all of that, some of the men might be women. Their orientation could be a bit in question, but this questioning could start a giant domino effect, with various other changes ruining the stable, secure image they want to project, to be validated by many in the straight community, and their own groups too.”
One plain decision to be more flexible with their gender identity could create so many more changes, some seem to not want to tell the wider population any new ideas about themselves.
I want belonging without the fitting in. Fitting in sounds like a real strain. I guess what I really want is unconditional love. I think if time is [always] now, then yes unconditional love exists, but humans change constantly.”
We discussed the philosophy of loving someone no matter what they did or said, no matter what they were like in their complete self. We all need to be accepted as we truly are and cared for, but boundaries and limits also need to be evident. It's also not possible for anyone to be perfect, to always love ideally, either, or to come out as they are then lead a trouble-free existence due to their clarity, and honesty.


I asked where ze gathered their ideals from. Michelle/Ryan answered with the day drawing on and zir show to start in only a few hours, the last night in Auckland. “Idealism comes from, in some ways, from being raised so religious. I have experienced miracles, the unexpected, profound love, compassion and acceptance. [But] I don't think we can have unconditional love all the time and I don't think we can thank or blame religion for that.”
“It can be in a state of flux?”” I asked ze.
“Yes, we go in and out of our unconditional love, like it's a muscle. We flex it. You create an environment where that can happen. I do want to live in a world where we all belong, and I'm going to work to create it as much as possible, and inspire other people to create their own sphere of “unconditional positive regard” (Rogers said that, a psychologist who developed what become Positive Psychology, Rogerian psychology), and appreciation for diversity, and curiousity. Whitman said - Be curious not judgmental- by the way.”
The cafe patrons came and went while we talked, and I typed up as much as I could, trying not to get distracted. A fascinating subject, erudite and forthright too. Michelle/Ryan observed each question carefully, and answered with obvious intelligence, quickly and in-depth.
Do you think the show creates more open-mindedness?” I asked as time ticked on, and shifted in my chair at the big white table.
Ze smiled and hefted her phone, looking pleased. “I get calls, and I also have people coming up to me saying they have to go home and think again about quite a few things.”
I nodded, thinking I did the same.
I always get at least one phone message every morning, from someone the night before saying they realise there's a lot more running around in their minds. I'm paraphrasing. They have more to think through than before. And they're grateful I put words to so much of it.”
It seems to be zir function, one of them, to make it clear to people that we need to see how useful boundaries are, in fact. Do any limits we place upon ourselves give rise to useful actions and desires?
I'm pretty utilitarian. If someone has a boundary... like how do they define their gender?” Ze said the function of boundaries needs to be understood. Ze wanted to get across that people need to see what their definitions actually do for them. “If the definition's used as limitation, or to bolster an overly patriarchal hierarchy then they're not so great.”
We discussed such matters more intently as time passed, and grew deeply interested in various philosophical notions. Ze prompted me to look up a quote about contrasts, and I found this, “Contrast is important.... We understand what light is because we can compare it with what we know is dark. Sweet is made sweeter after we eat something bitter. It’s the very same with sadness. And it’s important to experience sadness, to embrace it in order to truly know happiness.” Tarryn Fisher from F*ck Love (co-incidentally)
Pain is just a shadow in order to contrast light,” ze asserted. “I have such an immense contrast of pleasure with the pain I've experienced, I show that in the show.”
Working with first nations in America and Canada, a few people called ze “Permission Giver” because ze has a tendency to say, “Everything's all right. You as a person are not in need of 'fixing'. Some perspectives could need tweaking, but all is not lost.”
My identity comes from how I respond to the world around me, I say in the show. People who do some mighty cruel things are both creating the environment and a product of their environment at the same time. We'll always have to find creative ways to deal with them. Occasionally you have to isolate those cruel people, but that's a much smaller minority than we may assume.”
The sun lower in the sky now, we needed to wrap the interview up but our conversation in the cafe did keep us both intrigued.
Authenticity is in some ways in a dance with belonging, because you can't feel like you belong if you don't feel authentic. But also you may be authentic and not belong.”
Ze has a somewhat casual or generously accepting attitude to the profound nature of zir work. It's up to each audience to decide what they want to take from “Ze” : queer as f*ck!, while writer and performer Michelle Lunicke as Michelle/Ryan gets whatever they wish from it too. “I'm saying what I want to say in each work, even if most of it passes quite a few people by. I feel pretty solid, secure as a person to know that what I am saying and doing has some underpinnings for me, about what I am saying in the world and what it is and how it could work.”

We said goodbye then and Michelle/Ryan went to get ready for zir last show in Auckland. Next, Canada, and then, who knows?
Flyer photo by Virginia Guy with Graphic Design by Riley Vladyr Burns 
All other photos by Goad Studio 

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