The following is a transcript of my talk: “Oh… There I am”: the Significance and Process of Queer Inclusion in Mainstream Musical Theatre. Please excuse any typos as this was written for presentation.
Before beginning this exploration, I define queer as an umbrella term for bodies that exist outside the heterosexual, cisgender, capitalist mainstream. I see queer as something that is ever evolving and whilst present in our lives is somewhat utopian. As Munoz writes in cruising utopia, queerness is an ‘ideality…[a] warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality’ that ‘exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.’ (Munoz, 2009, p1). Seeing queerness in this way enables a framework to see beyond the heteronormative mainstream, whilst envisioning new futures and ways of existence. Legacy Russell notes in Glitch Feminism how Queer is radical, constantly pushing, shapeshifting and change allowing ‘new possibilities [to] gestate’ (Russell, 2020, p107). A space that applies Russell’s concept of Glitch ‘imagines, innovates and remixes’ to embrace difference, the self and identity, ‘gestating new possibilities’ of being (Russell, 2021, p.106).

In order to understand the processes of making representation, we must bring into name what representation is. Representation is an act of describing or depicting a portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature.  When I began my producing career I was drawn to what representation meant and what that feeling is. Celebrities will use words as representation being enriching”, “important”, “to be seen”. When starting to reflect on my practice via my PhD felt it important to find away to define what this feeling is.

This led me to a performance by trans performer Alexandra Billings at Broadway Backwards performance of Mr Cellophane. She recounts the first time she saw herself reflected in media. The performance is introduced with a monologue, where Billings recounts feeling lost in the darkness of finding herself when she saw a transgender person on a talk show for the first time. She recounts: 

‘I said out loud and to the universe, oh. There I am. There I am.’ (Billings, 2022)

When art reflects back who we are and in that moment, we become validated. Our uniqueness feels shared thus representation is required to see the beautiful diverse range of queer identities that exist.

Sarah Whitfield echos this sentiment when exploring bisexual representation in musical theatre and the complicated notion of seeing yourself on stage. She writes of seeing a 2018 production of The Colour Purple, seeing the ‘First positive representation of my own sexuality’ (Whitfield, 2020). She finds herself ‘crying because it’s complicated. Joy? Sadness? Recognition?’ (Whitfield, 2020).

This complicated feeling I express as the oh feeling: a moment where what we want to see, but often haven’t seen, happens. The oh feeling refers to a moment in life, culture, or space where we feel ourselves reflected, seen, or held. It is a feeling that glitches against the norms of society, disrupting the heteronormative constructs making space by force or by opening to see other ways of living. Oh links to Munoz’s idea of ‘anticipatory illuminations of queerness’ (Munoz, 2009, p22): these warm glimmers of queerness emerge in popular culture that allow us to recognise ourselves in that moment. To hold ourselves.

A moment of intimacy. A moment of joy. A moment that is queer. That makes us feel overwhelmed. Consumed by emotion. A feeling of being seen.

Oh is recognition of oneself through the a presentation of a part of oneself. Oh distorts binary- it can be complex and evoke positive or negative emotion. Oh allows us to celebrate and sit in the warmth of goodness. The warmness of the horizon of queerness. Oh is an ever continuing work- it will age and change and shape and shift with time. Whitfield notes how ‘each moment of [queer] inclusion still matters and makes space for the next. (Whitfield, 2020). The work is continuous to ensure as identities and experiences evolve, they remain represented.

The oh is a complex speech act that can be euphoric and sad at the same time. A release or a loss. Oh is seeing and unlocking a part of oneself. 

Be funny here with the sense of oh (ask the audience to think) - 
Think for a second where you may have encountered the sense of oh. 

I myself, perhaps rather cliche, found understanding my identity through musical theatre. A tale as old as time for many queer bodies. Be it the first same sex kiss I saw on stage where Hanschen and Ernst share a romantic four minute moment on stage, where I proclaimed “ohhhh, it’s possible the crush on that boy in six form is more than just admiring someone” as Hanschen seduces with his own romantic “oh”. Or the first time I saw Hedwig blast out defiant anthems that disrupt gender that made me go “oh and understand by own bespoke relationship with gender.

My practice as a queer musical theatre maker and producer is routed in generating this sense of oh. Since 2020, I have worked as a queer musical theatre producer and developer offering support and opportunity to over 100 theatre makers, the majority telling queer stories through a curated mission to generate these oh moments for both audiences and the artists making them across digital and physical stages.

Through my practice based PhD, I have been afforded the space to unpack the processes of making oh in a honest and upfront manner. Theatre producing is facing growing challenges with increased costs and greater amounts of personal and emotive labour making it harder to make work which has become a heavy focus of my thesis. 

Donovan in Queer Approaches in Musical Theatre notes how ‘queer representation in musicals is simultaneously contracting and expanding’ (REF). Whilst one could argue we have seen a strong boom in queer representation across stages, I have found in the UK climate in particular, the challenges of doing so are becoming harder and harder and in my experience the labour in doing so makes for a difficult process of making.

When developing moments of oh, we have to consider the relation of making queer art in an increasingly capitalist environment such as the mainstream. Donovan notes how we should ‘ask whether queerness and capitalism can co-exist as well as to consider what role mainstream culture plays and the historical implication of the tension’ (Donovan, 2023, p9). 

Queer provides a tool to understand and unpack the mainstream artform of musical, which Donovan notes are ‘exceedingly heteronormative’ drawing into question how ‘queer approaches in and to them ever function’ in the ‘financially lucrative theatrical form…. unabashedly capitalist- all of which rather flies in the face of queerness’ (Donovan, 2023, p9).

I strongly believe that queerness needs to be represented in the mainstream, yet as Donovan mentions we need to question how the two co-incide and what best practice exists to create work in a beneficial, supportive and important way. 

How can we make practice that challenges the norm, celebrates queerness, centres representation, makes space and generates the oh in an environment that is increasingly capitalist.

To break this down, I’ll explore headline provocations on what making oh should look like through a variety of case studies from my career.

Firstly, making oh should be artist led. During 2020, I curated queered: a digital concert of music videos and performances that offered LGBTQ+ bodies the space to reframe musical theatre in a way that spoke to their identity. Performers suggested what they wanted to do, what experience of queerness they wanted to share and we made it happen, curating and supporting as needed. This dabbles in the notion of Russell’s “remix”- Queered and Broadway backawrds offered a glitch in musical theatre for artists to activate their queer readings of musical theatre and emote through the art form. The artist steers when reflecting their identity. 

Making oh requires safety for performers. The discourse of queer roles being played by queer people is a complex one that has led headlines over the past few years. A most notable example was Heartstopper star Kit Connor’s forced coming out as bisexual after pressures from areas of fandom and audience to disclose his sexuality. How then do we ensure artists feel comfortable when representing queerness. 

Navigating outness is complicated. Our identities are never fully cooked and Equity guidelines on casting queer roles are in place to ensure someone is never forced to come out in a space. It feels important to understand the needs of the show and how we lead the space in a queer manner that feels comfortable for people to express, explore and emote their relationship to queerness, disclosing what feels comfortable to do so. Making space for open and honest conversation, whilst respecting privacy feels important particularly around sexuality based narratives. 

Where lived experience feels significant to a role such as gender, transness, ethnicity and disability, we must look at how we recruit roles through open calls, workshops and direct invitation away from traditional more closed of casting processes. Honesty and openness feel key to the success of building queer teams and opportunities.

Alongside navigating outness, safety is requireD from a practical point of view. Making queer work in the current tense political climates, where queer lives are at risk and transphobia and homophobia has been drastically on the rise, can feel vulnerable and open to aggressive right wing challenge. 

Theatre company ThisEgg’s The Family Sex Show: a piece of educational theatre aimed at families which “offered safe and positive learning to children, young people and guardians about rights, bodies, sex and relationships, advised by safeguarding and educational specialists” was cancelled due to online abuse and threats. A statement noted:

"It is regrettable that violent and illegal threats and abuse directed at the company and venues by a small group of people with extremist views has prevented families from opting to attend something that was transparent, consensual and legal.”

As producers and supporters of work, we must find ways to ensure artists feel safe and secure in making the work and make necessary intervention when needed.

Making oh should be care and access driven. Making oh requires a space that allows actors and creatives to play, express and emote with comfort. To feed in and contribute whilst emphasising notions of play and care.

In order to establish this space, we need easy ways of opening conversations around access, triggers and working patterns to devise making spaces that are safe and supportive. Display Questionnaire

My approach is a set of questions which gives space for people to relay potential requirements, feelings or work processes in a structured manner that could be answers as a meeting or an email. Simplifying the means of delivery over a formal form to best gather information.

Whilst a slightly more casual tone is adapted, I designed the questions to be as conversational or formal as the individual desired. Once everyone had responded, I sorted through the responses to create an access table, documenting any relevant information for other team members and allows me to effectively plan to give space as needed and deliver a successful process.

This ranged from anything from preference in script format, pre-rehearsal preparation and content, preferred ways of working, methods of communication and most importantly for queer work, Content Questions and Concerns.

This question enables people to begin a pre rehearsal dialogue about aspects of the script that feel perhaps personal or triggering. Queer work is potentially vulnerable and exposing, thus this allows us find a way to navigate the material safely via adapting, giving space to discuss and input in how that should be told. This could be anything from identity related to costuming to comfort around staging intimacy. This initial conversation opener then allows me the headspace to think and discuss openly, giving time and space to the experiences of the company.

Responses to this approach were positive. Non binary actor Elliott Wooster (they/them), who led a 2023 fringe production of The Unconventionals by Jude Taylor (a musical comedy inspired by real queer lives in 1930s London), noted how the communication ‘really set the tone for a process as it gave me a private space to voice any concerns that I had going in…I walked into day one knowing that everyone knew everything they needed to know, and I could focus on the work.’ (Wooster, 2023). Offering this space feels a crucial starting point to a process as, particularly when working with new collaborators, it felt important to understand how they were arriving to the process in a 1-1 space.
Making oh requires spaces that allow work to be showcased, tested and supported.
Oh cannot be felt by audiences unless it is staged. I believe that we should embrace launching work in spaces that are fair and equitable to the companies and artists making them. We should be brave to share work with the world in order to enact the oh. Typically this is fringe spaces. Critic Andrezej Lukowski quotes: ‘There’s still nothing quite like the…Fringe in terms of the sheer, stimulating, brilliant volume of new work’ (Lukowski, 2023).

In the case of The Unconventionals, the musical made its debut in 2022 after being developed for over a year and a half. It’s first outing was with a Arts Council Funded digital production and a concert staging led due to the Covid Cancelation of VAULT Festival, a fringe festival of art, theatre and cabaret in London.

This presented an interesting notion around space: presenting a new work in varying ways allowed us to unpack and understand what the material was. It was presented fresh, as new, almost as if in workshop due to it’s shifting nature of presentation. This allowed us to gage audience feedback and understand the form that would best serve the musical.

A year later, a week long, independently funded fringe run of a redeveloped script was presented at Vault Festival 2023, yet a complex financial model made it difficult to financially be successful. 

Without dwelling into long and bleak spreadsheets, the costs of producing work on the fringe becomes impossible to derive any financial breakeven. VAULT, like many fringe festivals, operated on a box office split against a high guarantee to the festival. It became practically impossible to fairly make the work without subsidary. 

Gain was made in creating oh for the audiences that encountered and the actors that took part. Equally, the space felt safe as queer artists, Wooster noted how: “I felt safe and validated”. However the labour and space to do so requires money and a need to operate in a capitalist form.

Theatre critic Lyn Gardner notes how ‘the fringe is good at selling dreams’ and how the environment of fringe has become what was a fun opportunity into a desperate necessity: ‘one that turns UK artists into gamblers staking every last penny they can raise on a single number of the roulette wheel’ (Gardner, 2023.) She states how ‘proper, sustainable support schemes’ that invest expertise and talent over time could remove the risk artists face of gambling so much. Yet, she writes ‘it makes the fringe a crucial staging post in an artist’s career’ (Gardner, 2023): a significant step on the growth and journey of an artist.

How can we ensure this crucial step is held in a way that is is supportive and enables a level of capitalist success?

Thus making oh requires support structures and financial models that are fair and practically achievable.
Financial risk is always a part of theatre, thus we require funding and financial models that support the artist. The Uncovnentionals 2022 outing was subsidised by the arts council England with guarantees to the artist offered instead of box office/guaruntees to the venue, ensuring high rates of pay and the ability to make. Yet subsidiary is limited. Creative Lives in Progress note how the national average success rate for submissions to ACE is approximately 10-20%. The capitalist completive nature feels prevalent here making it harder to make work in a way that fairly pays all. 

Production at VAULT was private money that was not recouped and meant great personal loss. Budgeting needs to be clever, looking at what to prioiortise in the early outings of work. In our case, Priorities for this production centred on fair pay for performers and ensuring access requirements could be met, comprising on artistic elements of the show focusing on ensuring moments of oh and safety could be met.

Making oh isn’t easy- a sentiment shared by many producers of queer work. Jake Orr, a Creative Producer, tweeted: 
'When are we going to admit that its not just the theatre industry is broken, it't that it cannot be fixed' (Orr, 2024).
Orr cites many of the points discussed previously: how limited funding, a government minimising arts opportunities, the emotive labour and privallage is king. It is also worth noting at this point, the VAULT festival has closed due to failing to secure funding for a new space. Whilst difficult to succeed there, the spaces to even try are now dwindling. 

Particularly making queer work in an already broken industry is a challenge seeped in what can feel like personal failure. After the losses sustained on The Unconventionals, I paused producing because I found it impossible to navigate how to make things happen.

This has all perhaps felt rather doom and gloom. Apologies. But I return to the significance of the oh. It has to be made, to be felt and be seen. This is where I turn a key aspect of making oh.

Making oh is automatically failed by a capitalist heteronomaritve society, embrace the failure
Jack Halberstam's writes in their 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure that ‘Failure goes hand in hand with capitalism. A market economy must have winners and losers, gambles, and risk takers’ (Halberstam, 2011, p88). Their writing calls for failure to be a means of critiquing capitalism and heteronormativity. They note ‘while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative effects, such as disappointment, disillusionment and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.’ (Halberstam, 2011, p3) 

Halberstam proposes queer failure as ‘a strategy of reading as well as a way of being in the world’ (Halberstam, 2011, p98): when placing failure as its centrepiece in art and critiquing the world, we begin to unravel and unpack productively society and capitalist structures.

The capitalist failings making oh can detract from what we can achieve through the work of making oh. Halberstam cites Quentin Crisp in defining queer failure: ‘if at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.’ (Crisp, 1968, p196). If we embrace the potentially of failure before we begin and step away from the capitalist drive of success, we enable ourselves to focus on the joys the making oh can allow and did through this process. 

I proposed a question earlier how do we support practice that challenges the norm and generates moments of oh. Whilst I do not have all the answers, this is a call to action to imagine, innovate and remix the capitalist systems of entertainment representation is presented in. 

We should envision new spaces for stories to be told: what may digital spaces offer? What may fringe spaces look like with artist led deals? How can we hold ourselves in the existing spaces, whilst protecting our own need?
We should interrogate the financial models of fringe festivals that have grown increasingly inaccessible with growing financial barriers and pressures. 
We should reconsider financial viability of work and consider ways of valuing the joy and recognition representation can make whilst also holding the makers of the work financially and mentally.
We should find ways to let the artists identity and voice sore, whilst also understanding the complexity of being out and the safety around this.
We should reframe failing in the context of making theatre.
We should envision the emotive labour of the work and consider how we hold that through access

As I return to producing, I lead with these as questions, embracing the capitalist failing queer work faces. 

Billings continues after saying “oh there I am” with the following: ‘Art is the reflection of the human experience. If we do not see ourselves reflected in art, we disappear. And we need your help right now because I feel we’re disappearing.’ Making representation is ever political and we must use that politic and desire to make moments of oh happen to challenge and queer the form of producing.  

Her words echo how representation is vital, lifesaving and essential. Billings powerful story holds testimony to this. By seeing our difference to a heteronormative world be proudly proclaimed and shared in media allows us to feel less alone and acts as a gateway to a place for us in a vibrant, ever evolving community of queerness. To be fully seen:
Broadway Backwards (2022), Alexandra Billings ‘Mr Cellophane’ – Broadway Backwards 2022 Accessed at 
Chromatic Creative (2023) The Unconventionals, accessed at
Crisp, Q (1968) The Naked Civil Servant. Plume, New York
Donovan, R (2023), Queer Approaches in Musical Theatre. Methuen Drama Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, Great Britain
Gardner, L (2023) Going to the fringe should feel like a fun opportunity, not a desperate necessity. Accessed at
Halberstam, J (2011) The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, Durham and London
Lukowski, A (2023) Broken but brilliant: awakward truths about the Edinburgh Fringe. Accessed at
Munoz, J (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then And There Of Queer Futurity. New York and London, New York University Press
Russell, L (2020) Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. London and New York, Verso
Taylor, J (2022) Is He Musical? Performed at The Performance Hub, Curve Theatre and The Other Palace
Whitfield, S (2020) A Space Has Been Made: Bisexual+ Stories in Musical Theatre. In Theatre Topics, Volume 30, Issue 2 
Back to Top