WORDS BY KATIE DOHMAN
Walken Schweigert and Katie Burgess go way back, first meeting in 2004 when they were both worker-owners of the The Spokes Pizza Collective out of the Seward Café. They discovered a mutual love for street performance and began busking together a year later. Then, they founded a company to tour a piece of street theater down the Mississippi on a raft they built themselves.
Their paths have intertwined, and intertwined with art and activism ever since. Burgess gained national notoriety as executive director of the Trans Youth Support Network around the case of Cici McDonald in 2012. Schweigert is a Jerome Foundation Fellow, American Composer Forum awardee, and a nationally recognized composer and librettist who’s also enrolled at United Theological Seminary, studying queer and trans theologies.
Together they founded the queer/trans Open Flame Theatre, and for the last two weeks of May, will be premiering an original new opera, The Garden, at the Southern Theater, which explores the horrors of conversion therapy, ultimately leading into an “affirmational anthem for trans communities and trans lives.” It’s an opera that’s by trans people for trans people, and was made possible through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
The opera, which features both spoken text and music by Schweigert, is a psychological thriller which follows a young trans man named Hayden (played by Schweigert) who is forced into conversion therapy. Desperate to escape, he opens a portal into Hell where he hopes to find safety with the Devil (played by Burgess). As the synopsis reads, he instead “finds himself thrust into the midst of a spiritual and existential battle where he must learn to reclaim what he has been taught to fear if he is going to survive.”
The piece obviously lands at a time where anti-trans vitriol is at a fever pitch, and Schweigert says The Garden, which is actually the second part of a triptych, is part of a “profoundly personal journey.”
“We know the fields of battle, where we’re fighting these [legislative] bills, but there’s another battle happening to our ability to love and support ourselves and each other in community,” Schweigert says. “What are the jails we are holding ourselves in in our souls and spirits? That’s what we wanted to address.”
While everyone is welcome to see the play, Schweigert says the all-trans team made this specifically for trans people and it has a certain intensity. “This is not trans 101. We’re not going to define what a deadname is. We’re not going to explain pronouns,” Schweigert says. “It’s surrealist and a psychological thriller and scary, hopefully, in parts. There’s BDSM in it, a lot of sexual content.” There’s also complexity around finding liberation in hell, which is in part why some of the performances will include talkbacks with invited members of several faith communities.
“To me, there are so many ways to be a revolutionary, and what I’m in the process of researching now is like, what if I want to play the role of just strengthening ourselves and providing healing,” Schweigert asks. “If we’re talking about self-love and thinking about trans euphoria—we’re going to need energy to be in dialogue with people who think we aren’t human, and where does that energy come from? Hopefully it can come from love. Ultimately what we’re trying to do with the show.”
WHEN YOU GO
The Garden, Southern Theater
May 19-21 and 26-28, sliding scale tickets
Saturday evening performances are “Indecent Theology Nights,” which offer conversations facilitated by queer/trans theologians discussing the spiritually liberative aspects of the opera after the performance with invited members of several faith communities.