You’re not necessarily encouraged to cry at a performance from the collective Queerdos, but you’re certainly allowed. Their shows, a concoction of catharsis and entertainment with a dash of eroticism, are all about processing trauma within the queer community. Founder and co-artistic director Cat Jugravu knows firsthand how it feels to tap into this wellspring of emotion. “We don’t aim to make people cry, but we recognise the beauty when it happens. Tears often signify that our performances touch on underlying ideas and feelings that resonate deeply and connect us all.”
Queerdos began in 2018 as a spoken word and performance night in the venue Monarch at Kottbusser Tor. The early events were loose and free flowing, with a lo-fi production style. Different performers would take to the intimate stage and read their poetry aloud, or recite a monologue they had written. The format might not have been new, but the subject matter and approach felt like something different – carving out a new artistic stage for queerness and expressions of what it means to be queer in today’s world.
People come for the poetry, for the erotic moments, to see a bunch of misfits being their queerest unapologetic selves
Fast forward five years, and that kernel of an idea has evolved into a full blown collective creating high-concept productions with elaborate costumes, lighting, sound design and dramaturgy. Queerdos have graduated to performing in some of Berlin’s most esteemed institutions, most recently selling out multiple nights of their The Sultry Bitch Theory performance in the prestigious Volksbühne Grüner Salon.
It might not have worked out this way, though. Jugravu started out in the world of drag, performing under the name Cher Nobyl. They were working on a drag-theatre project called Career Girls, and wanting to keep shifting in a new direction. “I had this idea that I would like to step out of drag and more into queer performance art. I didn’t want to reproduce a model that I had already seen but create something unique,” they say. At the time, they were reading a lot of poetry. “I had just discovered Ocean Vuong’s poetry book, Night Time with Exit Wounds. The poignant yet sensitive manner in which Vuong approached deeply personal topics of love, desire, memory and grief left a profound impression on me,” they recall. The thematic grounding of Queerdos was born. “It prompted me to question, what if our community could express these emotions beyond the confines of nightclub toilet stalls and dance floors and onto a stage? Would that bring us closer, heal us, transform us?”
Jugravu soon connected with Lolsnake, aka Danielle Rahal, the founder of queer party series Weeeirdos, and the pair dreamt up a new format. “We combined the Weeeirdos flair and an overdose of vulnerability and queerness, and Queerdos was born,” says Jugravu. “Danielle and I wanted to create a space where friends, lovers, and queer/trans* siblings could come together to embrace their beautifully weird and vulnerable selves, tapping into the rich landscape of the queer hyper-emotional state under the roof of poetry, live music and performance.”
At their first performance at Monarch, “every nook and cranny was packed with sexy, sweaty queers eager to enter a new state of listening”, remembers Jugravu, a Romanian who came to Berlin in 2014. “On that amazing night, [we] set that tiny stage on fire.” Since then, their group has developed into something much bigger, working with numerous collaborators and becoming an officially registered GbR (multi-partner business) this year, though Queerdos still embody the ethos of a collective.
Jugravu now runs the show alongside UK-born managing director Jenny Browne and co-artistic director Trace Polly Müller. The collective has performed countless shows across Berlin with more than 60 Berlin-based performers and taken their work and workshops to five other countries. “To see the growth and expansion of this tiny event into a collective that curates and produces their shows in collaboration with Maxim Gorki Theater and Volksbühne is pretty amazing,” says Browne.
Their shows have changed significantly in the five years since Queerdos’ inception, broadening in scope and deepening in process. “The form in which we stage our bigger performances has evolved to being more theatrical, more dramaturgy-led and also our texts have expanded beyond poetry,” says Jugravu. “These days we work a lot also with choral text, monologues, poetic dialogues and sometimes even with theoretical input – we have been looking over the years to develop a sensitive yet impactful form of queer spoken word theatre addressing the daily life constraints of the migrant queer* artist in Germany.”
The actual process of creating a performance involves collaboration and innovation. The collective works with a rotating cast of contributing artists, as well as some fixed members of the Queerdos team – sound designer and music composer Andrei Raicu, production manager Micayla Smith, photographer Roni Lugassi, and dramaturgical assistant and graphic artist Pieter Defrane. Selected performers for a given show are tasked with crafting texts on the show’s theme – past ones have tackled and been titled Violence, Transformations, Heimat (Homeland) and Grief. “The concept usually comes from reflecting on what happens to us once marginalised, and the many recent news stories which lack a queer perspective, from domestic violence to gentrification . What is lacking in this moment in queer performance art, what themes are still taboo, what is still not being discussed,” says Browne. “We celebrate all bodies, experiences, abilities, all queer* individuals. Poets, erotic performers, directors, actors, writers, spoken-word artists, dancers, porn-film makers. Our doors are open. These individual voices and stories are the basis and backbone of our shows.”
The team consider the Heimat show, which ran at Maxim Gorki Theater last autumn, one of their most exciting milestones, serving as an acknowledgement of their work and vision. “Heimat was a real pinnacle,” says Browne. “Talking about the queer* migrant experience in a German setting is so, so vital right now.”
Drawing inspiration from Augusto Boal’s concept of theatre of the oppressed, Jugravu highlights the power of performance art to re-enact unjust situations and stimulate societal change. “Call us Art-tivists! I do think of theatre and performance art as having immense power over what it means to reshape, retell and reconceive society,” they say. Müller emphasises the creative side of what they do. “I personally try not to have illusions when it comes to the limitations of performance art – I think it is, first and foremost, entertainment and self-expression. That’s not a judgy thing, but rather it’s about seeing that actual radical change happens elsewhere,” she explains. “So accepting that performance is first and foremost entertainment, I try to have actual pleasure thinking of musical structures, song dramaturgies, setlists, when thinking about ‘balancing’ a show’s dynamics.”
Audience engagement at performances is, of course, encouraged. “It is utterly gratifying to have people approaching us after a show and express their desire or need to be on our stage for the next performance,” says Jugravu. “It is the most beautiful post-performance ritual when people come and talk to us.” After a performance of their show Grief in 2022, an audience member wrote to them. “I just realised how important it was for me to allow sadness and grief… I wanted to say thank you to the rest of the Queerdos for sharing with me and everyone else this healing moment.”
What if our community could express these emotions beyond the confines of nightclub toilet stalls and dance floors?
“To be able to hear from the audience that something performed on stage really resonated with them – that is a magical thing,” says Browne. “There are of course also moments when performers get sexy onstage, and those moments are always a hit. People come for the poetry, for the erotic moments, to see a bunch of misfits being their queerest unapologetic selves.”
The performers, Müller says, are having a similar experience. “Since we often work with ‘non-professional’ performers, it is also super central for us that performers get something out of this – that they feel somewhat empowered, liberated, strong, bold, that feel like they wanna be more visible, more mournful, more vengeful,” she says. Browne echoes this thought. “Queers in Berlin can be fragile, exhausted, running on zero, so I hope to empower people by helping them with their writing and performing texts, often through one-on-one meetings to workshop and [provide] feedback. We don’t have many spaces where it feels safe to talk about how we feel, our intimacies, our experience, so we work to try to provide this platform of empowerment,” she says.
Queerdos are especially hopeful that first-time performers will get something profound out of participation. “The first time you get up onstage and perform something which you have written, it is hugely cathartic, and also terrifying,” Browne explains. “It opens some doors inside of you. It feels like a form of therapy in many ways, and if Queerdos can help Berlin’s queers find what they want to say, to process, then that for me is the most beautiful and vital thing.”
The team also attempts to help people find what they want to say through their workshops, which aim to dismantle barriers and foster inclusivity, particularly in providing a space for people to access queer knowledge. They ran their first ‘ACTing Up’ workshop in 2019 in Budapest, have since expanded their reach to Austria, Norway and Moldova and plan to continue next year in Kosovo. The collective is acutely aware that they encounter vastly different situations for the queer* community beyond the borders of Berlin, especially in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. “In these regions, being queer or gay often necessitates discretion and remaining undercover most of the time. Being trans* can mean becoming invisible and sedentary, while the daily violence leaves indelible marks that solidify into trauma, deeply affecting the way individuals lead their lives. To alter this reality requires immense courage, access to information, and a supportive community, which is often lacking,” says Jugravu.
Their 2022 ACTing UP Summer Camp workshop in Moldova centred around exactly these struggles. Performers wrote about queer ancestry and eradicated histories, and penned a manifesto that Müller, who is based in Cologne, helped work into a chorus. They performed in public spaces across Chişinău to highlight how stepping outside their homes was in itself a political act. “Our performers, the youngest 18 [years old], scrawled their manifesto and shouted their demands through a megaphone on the steps of the government building, which was such a powerful moment of protest, given the political unrest in Moldova,” Browne recalls.
The team is very aware that there are already initiatives and individuals across these regions doing fantastic work, and that they take steps to approach each unique community with sensitivity and respect. “We try to provide gentle cues and support while being sensitive to the potential perception of ACTing UP as a colonising force,” Jugravu says. “To do this, we prioritise educating ourselves about the local contexts and communities before travelling, ensuring that our performances are informed, respectful, and contribute positively to the ongoing dialogue surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights and visibility in these regions.”
As for Berlin, Queerdos sees both an abundance of culture and an untapped potential. “There are so many queer cultural offerings and still, Berlin is a city that is lacking in patience towards otherness, lacking nurturing behaviours towards people that find themselves in crisis, or people that are struggling with addiction,” reflects Jugravu. “It is very easy to overlook the depth of losing people in our community. It is very easy to move forward and say that a way to honour these people is to keep going as usual. This is what our performance ‘Grief’ tackles. It addresses our need to grieve. So Berlin is not yet a safe space.” They see unexplored depth in Berlin’s queer community.
“I love our scene, and I keep falling in love with it every time I get the chance to dive into it. Like any community, we have our share of challenges, particularly as our scene initially coalesced around nightlife. However, we also possess an abundance of talent, resilience, fiery determination, and undeniable sensuality.” they say. “The key lies in adding a touch of accountability, responsibility and respect for our scene’s elders to the mix. With these elements, we can overcome any obstacle that comes our way.”
One such obstacle is often funding, and the ability to pay queer artists what they deserve. “For me the biggest challenge is managing to pay ourselves and our performers for their work,” says Browne. “We all work full time and freelance jobs outside of Queerdos. We are exhausted and doing a hundred things at once. For our shows, our only revenue comes from ticket sales, and generally we have anywhere from five to 15 performers and collaborators working with us on each production: lights, sound tech, costume, stage design, photography and more. And our collaborators work their asses off with us so graciously, despite knowing there will not be a big reimbursement at the end. This is what we are pushing to change right now.”
“My dream would be that we all get paid well and equally,” adds Müller. “That we get to take care of each other, our loved ones, ourselves and our bodies – most of them in transition – as well. That we get to see the day where the work we do is actually sustainable and replenishing.”
There is a delicate balance between offering a platform for queer catharsis and infusing moments of levity and entertainment. “We have been called ‘a sad collective’ a few times, which is fair,” Browne, who first performed with Queerdos in 2019 for their ‘Body’ show, admits. “Every time I perform it’s 110% sad-dyke-in-therapy energy, but that’s my thing, and performing those intimacies empowers me.” She and the other Queerdos see opportunity for lighter shows as well – spaces of healing and tenderness. “Like ‘QUEERDOS: Clouds’, where we all float about and talk about our dreams for our collective future,” muses Browne. “I think that we often reach these moments of light and warmth within our productions, spaces of care and softness. When the audience is silent and all eyes are on the performers in their most delicate and private moments, these are glimpses of feeling held and supported in the face of adversity.”
Jugravu agrees. “We are not fetishising trauma, we do not provide therapy, but we try to help build communities. Once we build these communities, we can embrace and hold talks of trauma and heal,” they say, adding that building moments of lightness starts at the top. “To create and uphold a fluffy space one must be fluffy themselves, which I am now. Even more than that: I am f*cking hot.”
Lighter moments, more fun and more erotic, is exactly what Queerdos’ latest performance series is about. The Sultry Bitch Theory explores “a different realm” of the queer experience – sex, sexuality, and the profound need for intimacy. “As trans* and queer* individuals, we sought to examine how our bodies and minds experience and yearn for desire. We were curious about the labels that society often attaches to such experiences – labels like ‘hedonistic’, ‘obscene’ and ‘animalistic’,” explains Jugravu. The performance takes inspiration from Cassius Coolidge’s famous ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ painting, with three performers sitting around a table in the middle of the room, wearing dog masks and playing poker as they take turns delivering monologues. “It was about creating a show that is almost erotical, almost theatrical, almost theoretical without offering resolve or a fixed representation. Pure edging is to be expected, if you ask me.”
As their shows, workshops and series continue to draw larger and larger audiences, the creative team is focused on taking care of themselves, so they can keep tending to the community they’ve created. “I would say that one of the biggest challenges is and has always been not to burn out, to not exhaust ourselves and each other, and to keep our human and friendship interactions and bonds afloat and functional while we work on things,” says Müller. “For me personally, we can talk all we want about healing and care, but if we do not manage to show up for ourselves and for each other inside of the collective while we work on this with others, if we do not take ourselves and our needs seriously enough, we will simply crash in the long run.”
Jugravu hopes to take that sentiment and eventually create a show on the theme of ‘Love’. “I can almost feel it coming,” they say. “I do realise that there is still so much healing work which needs to be done to reach it, and I am fully committed.”