A chat with director Yony Leyser about queer history, time travel and his theatre debut at Gorki.
Yony Leyser is a staple socialite of Berlin’s queer underground. The 34-year-old Chicago-born film director and writer is behind such scene chatter like 2015’s divisive Desire Will Set You Free and the 2017 favourite Queercore: How To Punk a Revolution. Now he turns his attention to stage with a debut at the Maxim Gorki Theater. Premiering at the institution’s Pugs in Love – Queer Week festival (check out our guide), which this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Leyser’s W(a)rm Holes casts an international perspective on Berlin’s queer history through personal and political herstories from a diverse crop of five performers.
You’ve made a name for yourself through films on queer subculture. What’s brought you to theatre for your latest work?
Theatre contributes to the national dialogue in Germany. There’s ample room for experimentation and it’s well funded, whereas in the States, it’s either Broadway or a tiny black box theatre where nobody has any funding or input into public discourse.
Both your films Desire Will Set You Free and Queercore capture and preserve a certain underground zeitgeist. Was that the aim with W(a)rm Holes too?
Definitely. I want to document queer history and I’m working with underground performers in Berlin that have lived through different generations in order to do that. I think it’s important to preserve these histories through culture.
Theatre can be quite a transient medium in comparison to film though. Its artistic content is only accessible to people who are actually able to see the performance.
People like to think that film lasts and it does physically but honestly, we don’t watch a whole lot of old films, only the big classics or films that make a huge impact. About a hundred films a year get preserved in the sense that people watch them again and again for decades to come, but most films people forget about after the initial release.
Both these films also have a strong visual aesthetic – from the DIY cut-and-paste zine animations in Queercore to the A to Z of queer hangouts in Desire. How have you translated your visual style to the stage?
We have some great stage designers. Shahrzad Rahmani and Camille Lacadee have actually constructed a beautiful wormhole. And a lot of the performers already have great personal costume aesthetics so there’s going to be a lot of colour, costumes and stage design.
Are you teleporting the audience through the queer spacetime continuum through the use of wormholes?
Recent thinkers have philosophised that the future and present happen at the same time. If that’s the case, maybe we’re also connected to the past. There are some interesting books on the subject: Cruising Utopia by Jose Esteban Munoz and A Queer Time and Place by Jack Halberstam argue that queers can time travel. If you’re overlooked by society to the point where people don’t recognise you, you don’t have a 9 to 5, you exist in the nightlife and don’t have children, then maybe you can also time travel. We’re playing with these kinds of concepts and breaking away from lineal notions of time by having our five characters time travel.
Who makes up your queer time travelling team?
Zazie de Paris, a French-Israeli-German transwoman, former club owner and now Tatort star who’s lived in Berlin since the 1970s, Adrian Marie Blount, a non-binary African-American performance artist new to Berlin, Jair Luna, a Colombian dancer from Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and the performance artist and band duo Hyenaz. It was important for me to have these queer Berlin histories told from an outsider perspective, à la Christopher Isherwood, from people who live here but don’t feel part of society. Because the truth is, they are. They’re an integral part of activism, art and queer life in the city – just as queer people have been in Berlin for the past 100 years.
Have you noticed a generational shift in the queer experience of your five protagonists?
In one sense, queers used to be a lot more radical. Zazie’s generation had to fight a lot more than the younger generations, who are now more involved in political correctness, infighting and narcissistic identity politics. It’s become a much better world for a lot of people. And there is a greater queer consciousness that enables people to reject traditional gender roles.
Your work often has a humorous tone but is humour even appropriate for what are often traumatic (personal) histories?
Humour is always the right tone. And there are a lot of personal experiences in the piece, from the performers’ first time in a dark room to various sexual experiences. It’s going to be both sexy and funny, because otherwise it would just be boring.
This June marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots, which was the inspiration for this year’s Pugs in Love festival. Is a riot half a century ago on the other side of the planet still relevant for Berliners today?
That’s the most neoliberal question I’ve ever heard and a horrible approach to take! Why is anyone that fought for our freedom important if we can enjoy those freedoms today? If we don’t investigate whose blood is underneath is, then we’re in trouble and are doomed to repeat history. The Stonewall riots were the start of an international gay rights movement and Berlin’s queer scene has a long, radical tradition.
You’ve previously described yourself as an activist before turning your attention to film and now theatre. Can art change the world? Should it?
It can but it rarely does. But that’s also why I’m trying a new medium with theatre. Because once you get into something static, you stop being as radical and you stop experimenting as hard. Career directors often don’t care about the activist elements of art. It’s just become their 9 to 5, their daily grind. I hope we can open some kind of wormholes with this show for people to crawl into and learn about queer histories and futures.
W(a)rm Holes, June 12-13, 21:00, Maxim Gorki Theater, Mitte