Growing up on the coast of Oregon, my exposure to live performance was limited to community theatre and high school productions. If I was lucky, my parents would spring for a trip to Portland where we would rent a hotel room, dress fancy, and go see a touring Broadway show at the Keller Auditorium. I loved going to theatre and any chance I got to perform, but I never seriously considered the performing arts as a career.
Nothing against community/high school theatre, but companies and drama departments do not often have incentive to venture out of comfort zones. Non-profits and schools are choosing what show will be profitable/won’t draw too much controversy (when I was a kid, parents thought our high school’s production of Grease was “too risque”) So I loved seeing big musicals and every version of A Christmas Carol you can think of, but I never really saw theatre that exposed me to the possibilities of changing form
University helped to expose me to all kinds of new theatre, and working in Portland has only widened my knowledge base. I had shows and styles I wanted to work in, but I never really knew about what type of theatre I wanted to create.
Part of the issue is that often we are told “write what you know:” art is often linked to personal experiences, or the opportunity to express identity and culture. If you don’t think that you have anything interesting to say, or don’t think that your experience is unique, what direction to you go? Growing up, my writing never went beyond imitation: parodies of greater works I loved, attempts to write what I believed other people wanted. That isn’t inherently bad, but I never knew where to grow as an artist.
Which brings me to The Importance of Being Frank.
I’ve worked with Rusty Newton Tennant on several different occasions, and have the utmost respect for him as an artist and as a human. On March 16 2019, they performed a one person show as part of the exhibit: “InkBodySkinPaint+Fire: David Slader & Owen Carey” at Gallery 114 in Portland, Oregon.
This version of The Importance of Being Frank was the eighth iteration of a show that had originally been created several years before. In the show, Rusty touched on what we as a society know about Shakespeare, and how much we don’t know. Throughout the performance Rusty puts forth the idea that there is a huge possibility that Shakespeare was gay, and that the powers that be destroyed evidence (much of the sonnets) and white-washed his queerness. I’m simplifying a staggering piece of work for the sake of keeping this blog short, but Rusty ties their own sexuality and upbringing to Shakespeare, and the need for queer role models, especially artists.
It’s taken a while for me to write about this performance because it really touched on a lot of things for me. I am bisexual/queer, but it has taken a long time for me to be forward with that (even writing it now makes me feel nervous, given how long it took for me to even acknowledge to myself that I might be anything other than straight). I’ve been wanting to create and perform for a long time, I just often struggle on how to present it. Procrastination and anxiety go hand-in-hand, and I want to create good art while still being honest to myself.
The Importance of Being Frank has reinforced something I’ve been realizing for a while: I have to be honest with myself through my art, and through how I present myself to others. Growing up, what would have happened if I had seen more role models in the media who were LGBTQ+? Would I be more accepting of myself? Would I be more open about writing and creating openly queer art?
Over the last year, I’ve begun to make more changes to my body, to my lifestyle, to how I treat myself in order to be the person I want to believe I am. It’s difficult, and while I can’t go back in my life and change things, I have to acknowledge where I came from and the choices that brought me here, to being the very person I am right now. Theatre is where I want to be, and I’m so glad I am here.
Rusty Tennant is a Portland, OR based actor, writer, theatre professor, and all around badass. See their IMDB page here.