The word “curate” has its roots in medieval Latin–cura “care” and curare “cure.” If curating now connotes choosing the right art for gallery walls, it began with a church curate taking care of the souls of people in his parish, his community. The curate, entrusted with the souls and lives of his parishioners, created religious ceremonies to move and inspire them. In this series, I interview Los Angeles curators who create responsive, illuminating experiences that are grounded in care for their communities. For the first interview, I talked with Gina Young, a writer, director, and performer who created SORORITY, “a performance k-hole that centers the work of women, trans and queer performers.” Her thoughtful approach to curating this theater performance series makes each SORORITY an exciting, transformative event: “Curating is that I want people to feel held. From the minute they walk up to the theater to the minute they leave, I want them to be in the grips of an experience that has been thoughtfully planned and well-executed.”
Adrienne: I want to start with some questions about how the SORORITY theater series got started. Tell me about how SORORITY began—and why it happens at the Lyric-Hyperion Café in Silverlake. It started last Spring in 2016, right?
Gina: Yeah, we did four SORORITY shows last Spring, three that summer, then two at the Hammer, and three this summer. I usually write and direct a play every year, and last year, I was going through a breakup and going through some stuff, so I was having a hard time. And I have a great relationship with the Lyric and Mark Sherman, who was like, I want to give you space and have you do something here. I was like, no, I don’t have a show in me. Then he pitched to me that I didn’t have to do a play, but could do whatever I wanted. He had late-night slots to fill and was trying to bring in a new audience.
Adrienne: I’ve been to a few SORORITY shows—they’re great. I like that it’s in that small room in the back of the Lyric. It feels really private, intimate. How has it been having SORORITY there?
Gina: The Lyric has become less an improv club or comedy theater, and more of a place where people come to try out new work. Mark is responsible for that—he came in with this fresh energy, and he’s the nicest dude. He saw the possibility for this space to be a community center, so he came to me partly wanting to bring in more of a queer audience and more of a theater audience. I originally was going to call it QUIT—the show, that was going to be the name instead of SORORITY—I wanted to quit theater.
Adrienne: Because you were in the middle of a breakup or because of the difficulty of doing theater?
Gina: Yeah, I got frustrated over everything. Theater is not easy, it’s not a place that you go to make money or for anything to be easy. I think that for those of us who are called to do it, it’s a little bit of a curse—in some ways—where you’re just sort of like this is what I love, this is what I’m compelled to do, but it’s probably the least likely thing to make money or be seen by a large audience. I could like sneeze on YouTube and it would be seen by thousands more people than a play I would labor over for years—that’s the nature of the beast. I always sort of circle back around to theater, like falling in love with it again after getting furious, being like I’m not doing theater anymore, I’m going to do TV, whatever.
Adrienne: It sounds like a long-term relationship. Is that your relationship with theater?
Gina: It’s funny, I don’t even think of it as a relationship, it’s just who I am. I’ve tried to do other things—I’ve wanted to do other things, but this is what I do. I started as an actor, and very quickly became a writer and director as well. Right now, I’m interested in pushing the entire form forward and trying to figure out basically everything that it’s doing wrong, and how I can sort of recreate the big picture. So it’s sort of a tenuous relationship, really. I guess because there’s a lot of push and pull in me, I have a lot of critiques of the theater establishment; there’s a lot of me wanting things to be different and to completely revitalize it.
Adrienne: In the Facebook invites to SORORITY, you call it “a late night literary k-hole.” I admit I had to look “k-hole” up to find out it means taking too much of the drug, ketamine—Special K—and losing your sense of time and place. The three shows I’ve been to felt like that. Being in that dark windowless room together for a few hours–it feels exciting, surprising, and like identities, or roles or categories, are being played around with, and that it’s a safe and fun place to do this, like we’re all together and temporarily apart from the outside world.
Gina: Yeah, and the shows are all so different too. That’s the thing I try to impress upon people: that it’s not the same experience every time because, I mean, sometimes it’s more interactive, and sometimes it feels more polished, and other times, it feels really raw. The main thing I was trying to do was to create a space that LA didn’t have; it was weird to me that LA didn’t have it, coming from New York. Like New York has it, and most cities, I think, have some sort of performance/ theater scene that’s very queer, and very you know, sort of dirty and experimental. LA really didn’t—although there are so many people doing awesome stuff. Ian MacKinnon, has been doing Planet Queer for 5 years, which is another late-night performance series—it’s very similar to SORORITY, except I wanted one that was explicitly feminist and mostly women, which I think is the main difference. And I wanted it to feel like a party—I mean tons of people don’t drink and that’s great, but I wanted it to be a place where you could drink and be loud…
To me, SORORITY really is a theater event, but I use the word K-hole and stuff like that instead because when you hear theater, I think of old white people. I think of sitting in that plush seat very quietly with my phone off for hours. I wanted it not to feel like that, especially because so many people—or so many people of my generation and younger—are openly hostile to theater; they’ll say they hate it, they feel trapped by it, and they don’t want to go. I am trying to flip that. It’s interesting though, that when you don’t use that language—theater—people start putting their own language onto it; someone called it a storytelling series in an article this week, and I was like, it is not a storytelling series. Certainly, people have told stories, but to me this is performance; it’s interdisciplinary performance, it’s bigger, so I guess I get sort of defensive about what people call it. So yeah, it’s literary, but it’s not.
Adrienne: Do you say that because people have negative connotations about the word, literary? Or that they might feel like they’re not a writer, not literary, so they can’t perform what they write?
Gina: Literary to me implies quiet, stuffy; not to be a jerk, but I feel like at most readings people don’t bring presence. Poetry-voice is a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate how a lot of people hide behind the page, and you feel their love of their own words—you know there’s sort of a narcissism in their voice. They are precious, super-controlled often. That alienates me a little bit, and I think it alienates a certain subset of the audience. SORORITY was a place to get away from that, to be like, don’t be precious, don’t be vain, try to make work that inspires the community. Try to take a risk, I’m always telling the performers—do something you’re not sure about, do something you feel uncomfortable doing—don’t get up there and read the thing that you know everyone loves.
Adrienne: Yeah, that hasn’t been edited and revised a million times.
Gina: Yeah, and that you’ve performed sixty other times. Use this as a space to take a risk because the SORORITY audience is so warm and so supportive, and they’ll be so kind to you; challenge them and challenge yourself, you know.
Adrienne: You characterize SORORITY as “boundary-pushing”—is that what you mean?
Gina: Well, it’s a place for new work, I always tell everyone to take a risk, to do something they’re afraid of doing. It’s also very interdisciplinary, blurring a lot of lines between different types of performance. And sometimes we’ll have people working across disciplines; dancers doing their first reading, or a band making a theater piece.
Adrienne: I’m curious about how you choose the themes of the shows. Last year the themes were MUSCLES, MONEY and MOLLY. And this summer there’s been PISSING, PASSING and PROTEST.
Gina: The themes are always something zeitgeist-y, something that I feel we as a community should be talking about. Sometimes it’s a theme I already know a lot of people are making work about, other times it’s something I think we should be making work about—and I ask people to go there. The recent protest theme was actually chosen back in May because it’s been such a year for activism and upheaval and amazing protests in this country. And then it ended up being super relevant this week with what went down in Charlottesville. I think that this type of theater is definitely important for its temporal nature; if I write a play, it’s often years before it gets produced, and that creates a weird pressure to try to be eternal and speak for all time… My play, Femmes, already feels a little bit like a period piece, and that’s great, but I like to be able to react to things quickly! The internet reacts quickly, theater should too!
Adrienne: Is this how you curate theater, or the shows? I’m curious about what curating means to you, and particularly what curating SORORITY means to you.
Gina: Curating is that I want people to feel held. From the minute they walk up to the theater to the minute they leave, I want them to be in the grips of an experience that has been really thoughtfully planned and well-executed–
Adrienne: —that sounds like how I think about teaching.
Gina: Yeah! This doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes sloppy or wild, but I do put a lot of work into the flow of the evening, and how the different acts connect to each other. I don’t put them in an order about who is better, or more experienced or professional. Like the “best” or “most famous” doesn’t necessarily go last. I don’t see the writing in advance, but we have conversations, and I get a feel for what they’re planning to do—and I’m usually familiar with their work or what it is about. It’s meant to feel like a utopia. There’s definitely performances that are challenging, or unexpected, or upsetting sometimes, but you know it’s a space where there’s a collective intention to keep racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia as far outside as possible. That doesn’t mean it’s always perfect, but just that both performers and audience feel like it’s a place of immense love and support.
Adrienne: So what was it like when SORORITY happened at the Hammer Museum? I know it was a part of a program or series called the Bureau of Feminism Initiative…
Gina: It was very exciting to me how much programming they did that was explicitly feminist. I was excited to see them being so excited about that.
Adrienne: I’m doing this series in which I’m talking with curators about the spaces they curate, and I’m less interested in public or institutional art spaces and more in spaces that are created and kind of community-based, like SORORITY. I know the Hammer has good people doing exciting shows and programming, but I’m sure it felt really different for you and the folks performing SORORITY in that space, and I’m curious about that—unfortunately I missed it.
Gina: Right, I think that’s interesting too because I really did set out for this to happen in a black box theater—in that very small womb-like space of the Lyric Café. But the Hammer performances were amazing because we reached a much broader audience than we usually do: more men, more people over 40, more people from outside of LA and other parts of LA beyond the hipster East Side. It was incredibly validating and special to do this kind of radical work inside of an institution like the Hammer. It was a different vibe, though, because it was outdoors in a courtyard on a chilly December weekend; whereas we usually perform cramped in our tiny, hot, womb-like black box theater late at night. So there was less drinking, and perhaps a lot more pressure on the performers. They felt more pressure to have polished, good work. But it was still really great. It’s also the only time SORORITY has ever been recorded, so it’s cool to have the show preserved; you can stream it on the Hammer website. (https://hammer.ucla.edu/programs-events/2016/in-real-life/sorority-the-woods-and-the-internet/)
Adrienne: So switching gears a little—how did you start being involved in theater?
Gina: I don’t even know where to begin. I was definitely singing and performing as a child, and it’s what I went to college for; it’s what I have done with most of my time—everywhere: school, church, DC. I’m from DC, born raised in DC, and was always involved in music and theater. I mean, I went to Catholic school, and there was so much music and pageantry involved—it was the only thing that kept me there because I knew from a very young age that the politics were not for me. I definitely diverged in thinking from the church, but the music—some of the greatest music of all time.
Adrienne: Yeah, I grew up in a small town and did a lot of community and school theater, and I loved all the church singing too and at church camp—the singing and reciting of Bible passages. They’re great stories.
Gina: Oh yeah, we performed Bible stories, I remember needing to find things at home to make you know scarves and baskets and stuff to act out Bible stories in class—I lived for that, I loved that. Some religious references found their way into my most recent play, SISTERS, which has a song that flips the genders on the Stabat Mater. When I was older, I made it a point to read the Bible cover-to-cover twice, like in high school and college. I was really stunned at how much had been made-up, you know what I mean—the story in the Bible is actually two sentences long, and yet somehow in school we learned it as a whole picture book full of interpretation and layering…who fleshed out the stories?
Adrienne: The way you talk about theater and the way SORORITY works makes me think of the feminist theater group, Split Britches, who I’m sure you know about. I recently discovered them–I wrote about them for the art journal, Pastelegram. They were really feminist foremothers of queer performance art. When Split Britches did their shows in New York City in the 80s, they never had money, got their costumes and props from thrift stores, and had to have rent parties for their space. And they appropriated Bible stories, fairy tales, popular culture, and played around with queer sexuality and gender roles–and their skits dealt with personal and social issues of their communities—economic concerns, women’s experiences, housing and class issues…
Gina: Yeah! I actually started at the WOW Cafe Theater in New York City, around the turn of Y2K, which is where a lot of the most famous queer feminist artists have come out of—out of that theater. Yeah, I am definitely part of that genealogy.
Adrienne: What do you feel like you learned from being there and brought to Los Angeles?
Gina: First, it’s critical if you are a woman, a queer person, a person of color to keep making work, be as prolific as possible. Do it now. And yeah it sucks to not have money, to not have institutional support. You don’t actually need it. I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from WOW Café and that legacy. A lot of things get made there. No boundaries to entry—except being female-identified. You help produce a show, and then you get to produce your own show. With no money, how would I have been able to produce a first show? WOW is what gave me the ability to do this. Don’t wait, just do it. Almost everything I’ve done has been on a shoestring budget—people are amazed at what I can do with no money. You just figure it out. And I think that creates a certain aesthetic. A lot of my work has a low-budget aesthetic. And I think that resonates with people. I think if you see too much money on stage, its grotesque. You see a play that doesn’t mean anything, or mean anything right now…they’ve spent money on all these nice sets… such a waste. That makes me so angry, like when I see anything on stage that doesn’t speak to what’s going on right now.
Adrienne: Yeah, but it’s difficult to always make work quickly—it takes time to create it, get it out or up. So it can’t always be temporal or timely, or immediately responsive to what’s going on, right?
Gina: And the internet is responding instantly, like some Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and boom, memes, graphics, videos… Nobody wants to wait five years for a play on that. I’m super mad it took forty years for a hip-hop musical to be a hit on Broadway. Hip-hop has been the dominant American genre for forty years—in popular music—and guess what, Theater, that’s too long, that’s a problem. If most young people are listening to hip-hop, why doesn’t theater reflect that? I have a play Femmes: A Tragedy—available to watch online (https://youtu.be/IithUimbPa8)—that was a direct response to some stuff going on in our community. And it might already be a period piece! It was very much like, there’s some shit going down and we need to talk about it. I loved when it premiered—it’s a comedy, and I don’t think of it as controversial—there were a lot of people in the community that were like, wow, was that about me, or were you calling out this person? No!—it was inspired by a play from the 1930s! I wrote it through a queer lens about stuff going on in our community—but everyone took it personally and wondered, is that about me? That’s really exciting. It’s a work of fiction, but it made everyone respond.
Adrienne: It sounds like it really resonated with people and that they were trying to figure it out in relation to themselves—and that you were a person to whom they could ask those questions, like you’re a safe person to talk to about the topic. Often with art or films or shows, we don’t know what to do with our questions, who to ask…
Gina: Yeah, they were trying to put themselves into it and wondered is this me, am I responsible? Art isn’t accessible, or we assume the art has nothing to do with us. So often we see queer representations in mainstream film and television that feel so removed from our experience; it’s so not on the nose, so inaccurate, and we think, that’s not about me or how our community is.
Adrienne: Yeah. And then there’s so much pressure on representations of gay or queer relationships, issues and communities because they’re scarce… I’m curious what you think makes SORORITY unique to Los Angeles and our communities here.
Gina: Well, I think SORORITY is a piece of both New York and LA. I really feel like SORORITY was inspired by the performance scene in New York City in the 80s and 90s—I’m just bringing a touch of that to LA, but of course, it’s different, I mean it’s a different time and it’s a different place, so it’s not exactly the same, but I wanted SORORITY to be dirty and queer and late night, and I wanted it to be very feminist and women-centered, and even a little bit sloppy. I think that we have amazingly high caliber work, but the goal was never to be like, oh this is the best, like this is the best performances from the best performers. I love bringing in new performers, or first timers. There’s been so many first-time performers, or people who are working in a different discipline that’s not what they do. I keep trying to get everyone to just write theater scenes, even though most people are not playwrights and don’t come from that world. But I’m like, just do it, get some of your friends to write a scene—so some of it is sloppy and kind of bad except not—it’s all good.
Again, I feel like if you curate it right, even if something is messy, not fully realized, and maybe doesn’t even make sense yet, if you put it in the right spot in the line-up people are just so appreciative of it. Sometimes even if someone’s not the strongest writer in the world and not a confident performer, sometimes you are just so in awe of their essence and who they are. That happens all the time where someone will be super nervous, and they are a first-time performer, and they still have a whole audience in tears because everyone’s just like who is this beautiful person up there, who maybe I’ve seen at an event once, now up here sharing themselves, and you are like, oh my god, they are so beautiful, you know? I would love to believe that every person has a story and every person has something to contribute.
The next SORORITY show is October 11th on National Coming Out Day and is part of the LAX Festival at the Bootleg Theater, a project of Los Angeles Performance Practice. The lineup will be announced soon. (Link for tickets and more details: http://performancepractice.la/portfolio/sorority/)