Queer & Now: Sync or Swim
Beginning in elementary school, Garrett Sager has been involved in the world of theater. When he started at the University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College in 2015, it was a “natural progression” for him to continue studying it at a higher level. After traveling to South Africa during his sophomore year, Garrett had the opportunity to see performances using “physical theatre,” which is storytelling that uses the body, as well as devised theater, a type of collaborative theater-making that is created using ideas from the performers.
Fast-forward to his senior year during which Garrett was inspired by these forms of performance art to create his own piece, “Queer & Now: Sync or Swim,” for his honors thesis project. “We started looking at what a world would look like if we had water rising, which is where we’re going toward, and what it would look like if our borders totally changed and we had to come together—and that’s how the myths progress throughout the show,” Garrett explains. “They tell the future of a world where the water is rising and we all have to come together as a community in solidarity.”
Gender stereotypes, drag, and queerness form the foundation for the encapsulating experience that is, “Queer & Now.” Garrett describes “queer” as being anything that is “non-normative,” “explosive,” “unique,” “anti-capitalist,” “anti-establishment,” “inclusive,” “new,” and “groundbreaking” – “[Queer] is all of those things,” he says.
“Queer & Now” diverges from script-based theater and is a visual performance that explores the concepts of social identity and interpersonal relationships using dance, movement, music, and lip-syncing as the main modes of expression. Garrett reflects on his time in high school when he developed an interest in drag and lip-syncing, which has influenced his work in college.
Garrett’s first iteration of “Queer & Now” was created during an Honors Independent Study that he chose to do during the fall of his junior year under the support of professor Meghan Lewis, in which he looked at drag and lip-syncing “as a tool of political descent.” “Sync or Swim,” the second iteration of “Queer & Now” and Garrett’s Honors Thesis, is brought to life using the same modes of performance but with the more cohesive theme of mythology. Garrett explains that he has chosen this particular route to convey these ideas because of “how we use our bodies to then create a future that we hope to see.”
Each music piece that was chosen to be featured in “Queer & Now” has a reason behind it. Garrett explains the collaborative process that went into selecting the stories that are played out and the soundtrack that goes along with them, noting that while he is technically the director of the project, his experience has been more as a curator. “Everyone is their own performance artist in this particular piece, so everyone came in with their own stories.”
In order to formulate the story line, Garrett met weekly with the performers where they shared the stories and songs that they were interested in exploring. Some of these narratives are ones that are well-known and pervade our society, so Garrett and his fellow performers determined ways in which they could incorporate updated versions and re-tellings to encompass alternative possibilities and new endings to these stories. From there, they determined songs that would go along with these pieces, relying heavily on collaboration throughout the decision-making process.
In describing his process, Garrett emphasizes the fact that he wanted to “use practice-based research of creating theater as a form of research to then write about.” Garrett’s vision is to be able to be “both an artist and a scholar,” and for this reason, he is using the opportunity to create the project as his research and a written piece to accompany it.
For Garrett’s journal article, he will be interviewing the performers involved in his project to get their feedback on how the process was for them and how they view their identity and their queerness. “That is the data, and that is enough,” says Garrett. “You don’t need anything else from that.”
The journal article will be about “queer future through performance” and will look at “the ways that we can develop possibilities for queerness in the future.” Garrett is looking to submit his piece to journals that focus on queer world-making and queer utopias.
Garrett also hopes to continue to look at drag and explore it beyond the binary perceptions that many people have of it as a mode of expression. “I think that part of the queer future is creating new versions of ourselves that we don’t get to see every day.”
When many of us think of Honors Theses, we often tend to think of lab work and research pertaining to the sciences. “It’s a really tricky thing to have data in the humanities, but a lot of really fabulous people in humanities have figured out a way of doing that,” Garrett explains.
His advice for anyone considering a thesis project in the humanities is to question what we consider research, explaining that “a thesis is what you want it to be. Anything can be considered data, anything can be considered research, and if we stop looking at research as being STEM-based, and we look at it as being researching literature, researching bodies, researching people, I think that’s when we find really beautiful things.”
Garrett credits members of his committee, including his committee chair and advisor, Harley Erdman, and a former independent study advisor, Megan Lewis, both from the theater department, for supporting him throughout the thesis process as well as in his work leading up to the project. “I had these really good relationships with Harvey and Meghan, and it just became a really natural relationship that we developed… they’re both really strong mentors for me.”
As part of his thesis, Garrett and the other performers in “Queer & Now” will be doing a tour during the month of April. The UMass Amherst College of Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA) has a space in New York City called NYPOP where this will take place.