Nowadays, it’s common to see one generation insisting that the other will never understand them, whether its Jerry Seinfeld lamenting that college kids are “too PC,” the drag performer Lady Bunny balking at “crybabies” and new pronouns, or tweens making memes decrying the whole bootstraps thing (every Boomer’s favorite piece of outdated advice).
Given this disconnect, it’s not everyday that you see a generational cross section of people in the same room together, let alone actually listening to each other. This rings especially true for people in the queer community, who experience generational differences in even starker terms because of the gaping hole that the AIDS epidemic left behind. But bridging this gap is exactly what La MaMa’s Squirts: Generations of Queer Performance seeks to do.
The festival, presented by La MaMa and The Helix Queer Performance Network is now in its fifth year. This time around, over the course of six days, six pairs of queer artists across disciplines and generations will unite on one stage for a unique and differing experience each night.
Squirts curator and host Dan Fishback, who has been creating performance work in the city since the early 2000s and directs the Helix Queer Performance Network, said that the festival came out of a need to create something that did not seem to be happening on its own.
“I’m very aware of how top-down curation–especially on an institutional level–[can be],” he explained. “And I believe very strongly that culture will happen no matter what. What I’m interested in is what won’t happen unless someone intervenes.”
Fishback, who counts himself part of a “bridge generation,” experienced this first-hand when he attended a La MaMa town hall hosted by influential lesbian performance group Split Britches. “I was one of the youngest people there, and all the old folks were saying, ‘Where are the kids? We don’t see them. When we were their age, we were causing all this ruckus,’” he recalled. That was when he said he “just kind of lost it,” believing that the older people just failed to see the young people that were out there doing things. “They’re around, but they’re not getting booked,” he said.
Thus La MaMa’s Squirts was born.
Part of this generational divide, he argues, is the lack of spaces that welcome up-and-coming artists. “For years, it felt like the only place for young, queer artists who were making scrappy work on a sort of grassroots level, the only place that we could really present was Dixon Place.”
For the most part, countless young queer artists perform in bars and nightlife venues–spaces that seem to be vanishing by the week. For Fishback, this shouldn’t be the only option, so he aims to “build something else,” in hopes of creating an experience that would welcome both the dive-bar fixture and award-winning type who’s been at it for decades– and give them both the kind of access to “higher production values” that are usually reserved for a small group of elite performers.
Another reason for this generational “disconnect,” in Fishback’s view, is the nature of queer performance itself.
In 2008, a show by Mx. Justin Vivian Bond called Lustre: A Mid-Winter Trans Revue at PS122, featured Bond alongside an array of younger queer and trans performers. Specifically, Fishback remembered a trans performer named Glenn Marla– who, for context, also has a project called “New York City’s Hottest Fat Go-Go Boy.” At Lustre, Marla did a burlesque act featuring tap dancing, during which he opened a bag of chips and poured glitter out onto himself.
“[The act] was so sublime and beautiful and The New York Times described it as ‘artless,’” he recalled. That moment was an epiphany for Fishback: “Queer performance is folk art. It serves a completely different utility than the rest of the downtown theater world. The heterosexual downtown performance scene is interested in form and a certain kind of aesthetic lineage; queer performance is about communities of people who do not see themselves represented in the art around them.” The takeaway, was that queer performance required a “different criteria” by which it should be measured.
In its fifth year, Squirts is at its most minimalist yet, with just one pair of performers going on each night. Some nights the artists will be creating a piece together, others will be performing individually, and some will be doing “a little bit of both.”
The lineup is diverse in both identities and content, including unexpected pairings, like that of transgender comedian Patti Harrison (fresh off a bizarre Christmas special comedy show at Ars Nova) performing stand-up with GLAAD-winning Latina comic Marga Gomez.
As we probably all know, putting older generations and younger generations in the same room doesn’t always result in a peaceful union.
“There have been years where the ideological difference across generations has been so overwhelming,” said Fishback. “And I really struggle with that my role is in that.” He notes that things don’t always play out that way. There was a memorable moment one year when drag queen Linda Simpson showed an excerpt of her Drag Explosion slideshow, which provides a window into the drag and queer scene of the ’80s and ’90s. (I first saw Simpson’s slideshow in an archival video while interning at Dixon Place.)
“She told this really interesting story about at first being really irritated by young people who didn’t want her to use the word ‘tranny,’ and then remembered a time when she was on some daytime talk show, and someone referred to her as a transvestite,” Fishback recalled. Apparently, she didn’t identify as a transvestite, which “made her feel shitty.” Suddenly, it dawned on her, “And she was like ‘Oh, how I felt then must be how these people feel now.'”
For Fishback, it was “amazing” to hear an older person actually taking into consideration what young people are saying. “I think that is the emotional subtext behind a lot of anger that older people have toward younger people,” he explained. “[It’s like,] ‘I’ve worked really hard to create the world that you can live in, and now I made this world for you and you’re just making me uncomfortable.’”
Though certainly not every interaction at Squirts will be so eye-opening, Fishback stressed that this is not the end goal of the festival. “At the end of the day, I don’t need everyone to agree, but I do need everyone to understand each other,” he said. “All I can say is we’re getting there. Slowly, slowly.”
La MaMa’s Squirts: Generations of Queer Performance, a Helix Queer Performance Network event curated and hosted by Dan Fishback, runs January 6 through January 15 at The Club at La MaMa. Tickets are $18, $13 for students/seniors.