An Interview with Will Wilhelm: Shakespeare, Tarot, and Creating Queer Spaces in Art

This week, our chief editor Regina Victor had the chance to chat with Chicago-based actor Will Wilhelm (they/them) about their interview podcast, Teacakes and Tarot. Topics discussed include reclaiming Shakespeare, and how to create spaces for queer artists that aren’t just based around explaining things to the cishet crowd. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: You have had guests ranging from Jehan Osanyin to Robert O’Hara. How do you select the guests for Teacakes and Tarot, and what has been your favorite thing (or things) you’ve learned from them? 

A: During the first season of Teacakes & Tarot: Conversations with Queer Futurists, I was really excited about highlighting and further excavating conversations that I’ve had in my personal and professional relationships. When I find myself in public conversation with other queer artists, it is often formatted as some sort of panel discussion for the benefit of a majority cis-het audience. I find that I have so much to say in these settings, but it takes so long to get everyone on the same page around basic rhetoric and cultural awareness. So, my co-creator, Erin Murray, and I decided to create a space where I could have intimate and in-depth conversations with the people who inspire me and simply allow the audience to observe. They’ll learn what they learn, and some things may go over their heads. Ultimately, though, we thought the conversations would be more substantive and focus more on how queer and trans folks would structure our industry if we were given the power. So, in season one, I invited a bunch of friends and colleagues to share space with me and shed some light on their personal experiences.

Our producer, Island Shakespeare Festival, was quite pleased with the content and decided to sponsor a second season. We also quickly realized that the conversations, which were originally broadcast live, deserved to be accessible for those who might want to tap in at any time in the future or revisit what a particular guest has to say. Thus, the podcast was born! In season two, we decided to reach beyond my personal contacts and talk to theater artists from all over the country who have been pathmakers in their individual facets of our industry. With so much talk of a more inclusive future, we wanted to hear from folks who have already walked the walk. The queer perspective is endlessly complicated and nuanced, so diversity has been hugely important as we cultivate our circle of guests. We have been in the habit of announcing three guests at a time, so assembling exciting, intersectional trios of artists has been a great way to guide us. I think what I’ve been most moved by is that every conversation has overlapped with the topics that have already been discussed and groundwork that has been laid, while also adding a new element and idea that is utterly unique to the guest. I think of the entirety of Teacakes & Tarot as a web that is being woven with various interconnected strands, each guest adding their special contribution to the larger constellation. I love that so many queer people and artists have used this time to explore how they can unapologetically take up space as their authentic selves.

Q: How long have you been interested in tarot, and why is it the perfect mystical element to mix in when talking theatre?  

A: Tarot is something I’ve been around for awhile, but I am new to practicing it myself. It is a spiritual tool that my partner, Christian Bufford, uses often. Its presence in this interview series was the suggestion of my co-creator, Erin. She loved the metaphor of the archetypal characters that appear in tarot, especially in the major arcana, and how they mirror the way that actors filter their own human experiences through the lens of a character onstage. We talk a lot about queering Shakespeare on Teacakes & Tarot, so we decided to incorporate sonnets into our readings by creating a custom deck. Ultimately, we created this series at a time where there was a lot of exploration into digital theatre. We didn’t really want to make a Zoom play, but we wanted to offer an experience with the liveness and unpredictability that theatre offers. We thought a tarot reading fit the bill perfectly. Moreover, I love that it provides our guests with a little gift of their own. Whenever queer folks talk about their experiences, especially around exclusion and trauma, they are offering education to the listener at a certain cost to themselves. The guests, who I call my artistic crushes, have been so giving of themselves, I wanted to offer them something in return. So, with that format decided, I actually started doing tarot readings of my own in anticipation of this project! It’s been a wonderful skill to learn and very personally rewarding.

Q: What have you discovered about the queer experience as an artist, and/or about yourself, in the making of Teacakes and Tarot‘s first season?

A: I have discovered that there is an immeasurable power that queer people contain when they don’t worry about asking for permission, myself included. In many settings, I have waited to be asked for my input on a particular topic, rehearsal room challenge, best practice, etc. Normally the feedback given to me is along the lines of, “Wow! How articulate you are. Thanks for helping me understand what queer people might be experiencing in these situations.” I realized that I had all of these skills to promote conversation, but I was waiting to utilize them at other people’s convenience. With the encouragement and enormous help of Erin, we decided that I could simply take the initiative, make these conversations available, and arrange them around the topics my guests and I find interesting. People want to talk a lot about pronouns because they’re still getting tripped up on that. After having that conversation endlessly for the last several years, I’m bored of it and I think there is plenty of information about that that you can Google. I’m ready to go beyond that, so I empowered myself to start running and see who follows along. I also have learned how crucial community is to me. As a trans/non-binary artist, I am very often the only one in the room. Naturally, I get asked to speak on behalf of the trans experience on my own. Our community, however, is endlessly diverse, and I can never represent it alone. As someone who does want to be a leader and champion of trans and queer voices, I have been so fulfilled in creating a platform that highlights our complexities by spotlighting the experiences of other artists. I spend a lot of time and energy educating for the benefit of the cis majority. In putting myself in dialogue with other queer folks, however, our mutual energy is spent uplifting each other and validating our common experiences. It has given me an emotional momentum to keep going in a way that other forums have not been able to.

Q: How has the last year and a half of the pandemic transformed your perspective on how we make theatre and who is invited to the table, and how does that come to play in your interview series?

A: As an actor, I had always seen myself as someone who vies for inclusion in the visions of other people: directors, writers, etc. People had been telling me since college how important it is to create your own work, but for some reason that didn’t feel appealing or sexy to me. I knew I had something to say, but I was looking solely for external validation and then trying to wedge my piece in once I got into the room. Especially when compared to other trans and non-binary theatre artists, I think I’ve been given a lot of opportunituties, partially because of an inseparable mix of my training and relative privilege. I have always been a person who wants to leave the door open behind me once I’ve gained entrance to a room. My overarching objective is to make these conversations and battles easier to navigate for the TGNC folks who come after me. I think I can be most effective in that mission by creating more affinity spaces: our own rooms with our own tables. Queer folks are so smart, so adaptable, so resilient, and so keenly aware of the nuance that is the human experience (you know, that thing that we’re tasked with exploring onstage). Instead of seeking so much acceptance and inclusion from the outside, I was able to take steps back and focus on investing in our own container. I want to leave a window available for the outside world to see what we’re doing and what we can create without having to cater to their needs at any given moment. The queer perspective is a gift and an asset to any team, but I’m frankly tired of trying to convince anyone of that. For those who underestimate our ability, they will learn what we have to offer when they can see how we teach each other. How we care for our community and ourselves. Overcoming shame as a queer person is no small task. To arrive at a place of genuine self-compassion and self-love is a radical act in and of itself. I want Teacakes & Tarot to allow people of marginalized identities and intersectional identities to be fully themselves, and for other folks to realize that they actually may want to earn the right and honor to come sit at our tables instead.

Q: What makes you so interested in classical work, and what made you want to talk with other queer folks about it?

A: I think it’s very obvious to anyone that’s paying attention that there is a dearth of really exceptional queer storytelling that involves complicated characters. This absence is even more apparent when you look for positive trans representation in the theatre. There is a very small but mighty group of emerging voices who are diligently creating a trans body of work that will one day be our canon. But plays take a really long time to grow, and it’s just not enough. So I think it’s equally important to look backwards and reclaim narratives that we’ve been erased from. Queer people and trans people have existed for all of recorded history. Our language around those topics has evolved; our understanding of social identity has evolved. What we today describe as “queerness” has always been present. So I think of it as a duty to go back and reinsert ourselves where we’ve always belonged. It’s also really not hard. The Greeks? Queer AF. Shakespeare? QUEER AF! There is so much fluidity with gender and sexual attraction that is IN THE TEXT. I’m really not digging very deep here; there just has to be a willingness to look through that lens. Unfortunately, far too many artists (and humans in our western society) will default to seeing heteronormativity unless they’re explicitly hit over the head with its subversion. Queer folks get that, and we have a history of adapting narratives that were not necessarily marketed towards us to fit our own needs. I love to talk to queer people about how they would reinvision classic narratives because we’re constantly translating and reinvisioning the world around us. We’ve had a lot of practice, so we’re particularly skilled at doing it in a magical and exciting way.

Q: Is there something that you feel is missing from the majority of modern adaptations/productions of classic stories that you want to see more of?

A: Theatre is meant to be ALIVE. Storytelling by nature evolves as stories get told and repeated again and again. This is true of everything from ancient mythology to family folklore. What bothers me about productions of classics is when they are so adamant about preserving the way a story was told forever ago. Half the fun of a story that survives is how it can bend and adapt to find new meaning! Otherwise, it would’ve been irrelevant and died out. But we choose to preserve and pass on these stories to new people today. How can we be aware of a history without feeling beholden to it in a way that binds? I mean, sure, I live for a beautiful period costume, and we can still have that awe and reverence without creating an entire museum piece. Shakespeare’s audiences were largely illiterate; very few women were allowed to watch theatre, and there are so many references that mean almost nothing to contemporary audiences! If we want to praise these stories as universal, make them universal to today! Make them universal to our complicated and sometimes beautiful society of humans! If they’ve been performed a billion times, try to push the limits and see how much they can possibly contain. I think we’d be surprised if we actually tested the boundaries. I’d love to see more invention. I’d love to see more voices that sound like the voices we use today being filtered through the gorgeous language. I think modern audiences would have an easier time tapping in. Shakespeare’s plays explore so many themes of power, social norms, gender, family, love, war, etc. It really runs the gamut. What can we reveal about our own world through the retelling of those stories? Let the story serve you; don’t spend all your time being indebted to the story.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add? Any exciting upcoming projects? 

A: Teacakes & Tarot was born out of a solo show that Erin and I have been working on called Gender Play. In it, a genderqueer actor called Will seances with the spirit of a famous playwright of the same name.  Together, they conjure binary-breaking pathways into the Bard’s iconic works. Gender Play uses the canon as its source text and infuses current meditations on gender. As Will embarks on their own journey of self-discovery through the classics, they invite new audiences to the work while disrupting archaic methodology. I’m really excited about the future for this piece, which is being written to give TGNC performers the opportunity to occupy meaningful and central space in America’s classical theatres. We are currently pursuing some development opportunities for this work and hope to be able to premiere it in 2022. Stay tuned!


Teacakes & Tarot: Conversations with Queer Futurists is available to listen wherever you get your podcasts, as well as through Will’s website and the Island Shakespeare Festival’s YouTube channel

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