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23 Jun

It took a long time and a lot of community-building for the Twin Cities to get to the point of having one of the largest Pride festivals in the country with the Twin Cities Pride Festival this weekend, and to snag The Advocate’s ranking of “Gayest City in America“. Our thriving arts and theater community are definitely a part of that building effort, with performance and theater artists pushing the bounds of comfort and expanding diversity. One of the events that has built a loyal following in the past years has been the Queertopia cabaret, an all-encompassing event that Queertopia founder and performer Jeffry Lusiak calls a “love-fest”. CakeIn15 sat down with Lusiak last week to talk about the cabaret as an alternative to Pride, “queer” as an open term of acceptance and finding space for art in the Twin Cities. Queertopia opens tonight at Intermedia Arts and runs through Saturday night.

CakeIn15: Queertopia is in its sixth year now. How did you get started?

Jeffry Lusiak: Well it started off with Eleanor Savage, who used to do Dyke Night at the Walker for many years and she stopped doing that about seven years ago. I was artistic director of the theater company called Outward Spiral at that time and we were looking to do something for Pride, and we were like, “Well, would Eleanor want to do something else?” So we approached her and Eleanor and I sat down and her thought was that Dyke Night was a very specific genre, you know, “It’s for the lesbians!” And she was curious about opening it up and that’s what I was totally into, so she kind of gave wisdom, in no way was this like “Dyke Night Redone!” It was using her wisdom for the first two years to kind of help form it at Intermedia Arts and it was smaller, we would do eight act, fifteen minutes and it was always from the get-go, trying to program as diverse as possible. So cross everything we could, we were trying to represent as many everythings as we can in eight slots. The second thought process of that was creating a sort of alternative Pride for, I know myself, I felt very disenfranchised by what goes down with Twin Cities Pride, which is great for a lot of people, but I don’t want to take my shirt off and stand in line and go to the Saloon block party. So it was it was, “How do I celebrate my queerness?” And that was through art and performance art.

C15: You’ve started in on this, but last year you gave an interview to the Downtown Journal saying that Queertopia “…is for people who may not want to try to fit into what Pride feels it is to be queer,” and I was hoping you could expand on that.

JL: I guess I’ve softened over the years. [Laughs] You know, in no way shape or form is this like, “Radical reaction, down with…!” I’ve really grown to see that there’s this place for everyone, it’s not an us against them philosophy anymore, it’s more of who just naturally doesn’t feel like that’s their gay, and saying, “That’s not the only way to celebrate.” It is for a lot of people, we’re the what, second, third largest Pride and that connects with a lot of people and that’s really important, I never want to take away from that. It’s a personal journey of, I don’t want to celebrate in that way. It’s not me, I don’t want to just deal with that. And knowing within the queer community itself, the very different cultures within that. That kind of culture is not what vibed with me and it was something for my own personal journey which I tried to fit into for many years, because especially for my generation, that was shown as “it”. I think Minneapolis today has a more diverse queer culture than what I was witness to ten years ago. So me trying to witness that mainstream gay culture and be like, “I wanna fit into that!” But not, and then always feeling like an outsider and finally finding my community or helping to create my community here was like, “Well, can’t we celebrate Pride too?” And then creating that. So at the beginning there was subtle or not-so-subtle undertones of “Fight the Man! Fight Consumerism!” And all that, but now I just see it much more as creating a space where people who don’t want to celebrate in that way can.

C15: How do you define the word “queer” for yourself? It is obviously a differentiation, but carries with it also some oppositional and theoretical overtones, so there is some baggage attached. How do you use it in your own life and identity?

JL: I think I started using “queer” when I became artistic director of Outward Spiral, we changed the mission because I inherited a theater company that was very specifically GLBT and I was raised in that wave of, “We’re all letters together…but we’re all our own letter.” For me, “queer” became blurring the lines of all that and saying we don’t have to define it. For me, “queer” was just the basic fact of feeling outside of the norm. I feel other. I see society in this way and for some reason, that doesn’t fit me, which again, is my own history of, if someone just told me the rules, I’d follow them, but no-one gave me the handbook. So it’s always feeling like that outsider and “queer” is that person feeling on the outside of mainstream.

C15: Which is both outside but also inclusive, because it includes anyone feeling outside.

JL: Absolutely! For us, we had that discussion with Outward Spiral because our focus was people who felt outside of the mainstream because of sexual orientation or sexual identity or gender identity, that group of outsiders, but also being very open to, you know, “I don’t care who you sleep with but do you share the same philosophies of acceptance and love and questioning what norm is?”

C15: What’s this year’s selection of Queertopia acts looking like? Is there any kind of over-arching theme in the acts that people are bringing, given that we are in a really charged time of movements forward and backward in the politics of same-sex, queer and GLBTQIA politics?

JL: Yes…question mark? [Laughs] Kind of the beauty of Queertopia is that I really don’t know what everyone’s bringing until next week. [Laughs] It’s a beautiful thing with artists. What I love is how it used to be was very much that I would go out throughout the year and see specific pieces and be like, “Oh, I want you to do that at Queertopia!” But now people are creating work for this cabaret specifically, which is beautiful. So the things that I know so far, Bedlam is wrestling with the question of “What is your Queertopia?” And I said that to all of my artists, this year’s theme, loose theme, is “What is your Queertopia? How do you define your Queertopia?” I’m sure marriage amendment stuff is going to make it’s way in there, but I don’t know, honestly. I’ll know on Tuesday at Intermedia! [Laughs]

C15: Is it sort of a homecoming for you to be headed back to Intermedia after two years at the old Bedlam space?

JL: It’s totally a homecoming. It’s like, “We’ve been away two years and so let’s come back with what we’ve learned.” When we left Intermedia for the Bedlam, it was because we wanted to break out of that traditional cabaret performance and explore some of that party atmosphere that Bedlam was supplying then, and Intermedia knew that and understood and they were great. So now we’re coming back with that knowledge and we’ll be doing performances in the lobbies and we’ll be serving booze, so really great to come back to Intermedia.

C15: What could be done better for artists in the Twin Cities? What is it that we need?

JL: Space. [Laughs] We need space for artists here so badly. There is such a lack of organized and open space for people to work, it’s always like, “Where are we going to play?” It’s what forces people to do shows in community centers and in some ways that’s great but we could totally use more space.

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