Tall tales can be completely fictional or fantastical — but set in a familiar place.
Here, LGBTQ identity serves as the familiar, but the stories come from six very different Pittsburgh artists in an all-queer theater production.
“These personal stories, these narratives, are inspiring and allowed me to feel safe to create something I could put out there for other people,” said cast member Harry J. Hawkins IV, performing in “Queer: New American Tall Tales.”
Folklab brought together the ensemble through a process known as devised theater, where the work comes from a collaborative and improvised effort rather than from a script. “Queer” was developed in three weeks as a part of Folklab’s “In Our Voices” program, meant to create stories that center on oppressed or underrepresented groups of people.
Abigail Lis-Perlis, Folklab’s founder and artistic director, said putting together each of the six artists’ 10-minute segments was intense, but rewarding. “It can be overwhelming … but at the end of the day, it forces you to be more creative and produces more inventive work,” she said. “I’m constantly surprised in the rehearsal room.”
Abigail Lis-Perlis, Folklab founder and artistic director, talks with stage manager Gwen Vickinovac before opening night of "Queer: New American Tall Tales."Stacey Federoff / For The Incline
Performer Michael Young related the process to a quote from theater director Anne Bogart about creation as a violent act. “Every time you make a choice, all other paths are destroyed,” they said. “That forces you to make decisions very quickly. Although there are challenges to it, it still can create some interesting work.”
Six more performances of the hour-long production are set to take place Saturday and Sunday at 3577 Studios on Bigelow Boulevard in Polish Hill. Tickets can be found here, and advanced purchase is recommended.
After a previous production called “Femme” and this week’s “Queer,” Folklab already has plans to host the third production in its “In Our Voices” series, “Other: Multiracial folklore,” set for Dec. 12 to 16.
So what can you expect this weekend? Each show’s 20-person audience is led by Tragedy (Gwen Vickinovac) and Comedy (Lis-Perlis) to the opening segment by Matthew Russak. Then, the group is split before being guided through the studio space to see four separate vignettes, then gathered together again for the finale. Some have traditional seating, others do not.
In one segment, performer Princess Jafar plays the role of a reclusive bird lady, which she said is an allegory for transgender identity and exploring queerness in private. “I tried to play with the audience’s expectations of reality,” she said.
Using paper planes to a similar effect, Young’s piece seems unremarkable at first. “Mine started with the idea that queer people just live ordinary lives, so it takes place in my apartment, going through the routine of life,” they said. “Molding that with the tall tale element … it starts to get a little surreal and gets interrupted by this extraordinary happening.”
Michael Young performs using paper planes to make the ordinary into a tall tale.Courtesy of Adrie Fells / Folklab
In other segments, Olivia Wahlberg asks the audience to participate in devising new commandments in the Jewish tradition.
Olivia Wahlberg rehearses their segment of "Queer: New American Tall Tales" that addresses creating new commandments in the Jewish tradition.Stacey Federoff / For The Incline
Gia Fagnelli uses audio and video elements through headphones to convey isolation. Being able to adapt to different parts of identity at different times has fostered “self-confidence and standing alone,” they said.
Headphones and projectors are ready for audience members to participate in Gia Fagnelli's segment.Stacey Federoff / For The Incline
For the finale, Hawkins grapples with how to present his identity by choosing an outfit when facing death at a party during the apocalypse.
Harry J. Hawkins IV performed a dance-infused piece about choosing an outfit for a party during the apocalypse to reflect identity in the face of death.Courtesy of Adrie Fells / Folklab
All of this allows the audience to experience firsthand Folklab’s standards of fair representation, compensation and access in the performing arts. Lis-Perlis said equity means accessibility, not only for the audience to share in the art, but also for diverse artists with things like full-time jobs and backgrounds in different types of performance.
“We need more work. We need a canon. We need more archetypes that are created by the under- and misrepresented, so we can have that equity everyone deserves,” she said.