Gina Young is actively queering L.A. theater with her SORORITY performance series, Feminist Acting Class, and plays like Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo and Femmes: A Tragedy. Her experimental musical, sSISTERSs,, examined memory, mortality, queer feminist identity, and shifting ideas of sisterhood.
She bills her newest project, Butch Ballet, as “a love letter to female masculinity.”
Premiering this weekend at REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival, Butch Ballet is both satirical and emotional: A series of vignettes about butch identity created by five gender-nonconforming performers who celebrate (and poke fun at) lesbian stereotypes from sports bras and binders to flannel to Phranc.
Jess Imme serenades the audience with songs by Chavela Vargas and k.d. lang, while her cast mates play basketball, fondle their rings of keys and show off their swimwear (which range from wrestling singlets to rash guards and board shorts).
Young says she was compelled to create Butch Ballet after serving as a consultant on productions where producers wanted an “authentically lesbian” feel.
“I had to sort of be like, ‘butches are not just femme girls wearing a man’s shirt,’” Young tells NewNowNext. “It’s a culture that you can really research, the same way you would something from a different place or time.”
She recorded interviews with the cast and used their discussions to drive the Butch Ballet’s choreography and skits. (Bits of their conversation are interspersed throughout Butch Ballet.)
“We spent so much time as a group sharing and discussing what butch/masculine identity means to us and how we express it through movement,” says performer CT Treibel. “The show provides access to the private moments where a person creates their identity and to the private moments butches share amongst themselves when they feel free and seen.”
In the context of the show, “butch” is a catchall term used interchangeably with “masculine” “masc” “masc of center” and “trans masculine.” The cast members identify differently, but are all comfortable with the butch label.
“Butch identity directly challenges the normative assumption of dichotomous gender expression, the idea that cisgendered men act and look certain ways and cisgendered women look and act another,” Treibel says. “In general, I spend a great deal of time worrying about how I perform butch identity. Like, ’Am I doing it well enough? Do people believe me? Can they tell I used to wear tutus in ballet class?’ Going through this allowed me to really play with all those parts of my identity and get comfy with being a lot of different things at once.”
Butch Ballet offers a diverse group of identities—and bodies—rarely seen on stage, and is driven by their thoughts and experiences. Usually butch women are presented in pop culture as either the butt of a joke or a predator.
“On one hand you have the idea that all butch women are stomping around Home Depot in Doc Martens and flannel shirts, yelling at cis men about the proper way to build a bathroom,” Treibel says. “Then within the queer community, I think we reinforce a chauvinistic expectation of stoic masculinity. That masc people don’t have emotions.”
Like Young’s other works, Butch Ballet speaks to an experience rarely depicted on the stage, and brings in an audience that typically might not go to the theater.
“[Lesbians] don’t feel represented by other theater,” Young maintains. “People will come to my shows and say ‘I should see more theater,’ and someone else will say ‘It’s not like this.’ Because we don’t see ourselves represented.”
Theater is seen as the provenance of gay men and straight women, something Young wants to change. “I think lesbians feel alienated by theater, and that’s just something I’m sort of trying to rectify by writing pieces that feature queer women.”
The one recent exception, of course, is Fun Home. But Young takes issue with the Tony-winning show.
“The biggest missed opportunity with Fun Home is that [Alison] gets action in college but where is she now? Where’s her partner now? That was my sadness,” she says. “I loved Fun Home but the whole audience is wondering ’Do you have a partner?’ Are you alone? Are you sad? Well, maybe not the whole audience. Maybe just us.”