“Mostly what I make theater for is to find people to date, make people who’ve broken up with me like me again, or to make people who already like me like me even more,” Elizabeth Dahmen tells me as we seek out a dry patch of grass in Central Park where we can sit, talk and observe the weekend crowd. Once we’re settled, she goes on to describe her creative work as a writer, actress and as the co-founder of Coming Out Soon Productions, an organization that brings the cinematic and theatrical endeavors of Dahmen and longtime collaborator Cheryl Furjanic under a common banner. When I ask her if there are central issues or ideas that she and Furjanic try to address in their work, Dahmen looks me in the eye and sums it up with more than a hint of irony: “My whole career at this point is based on being desirable, so a lot of my work is about dating and relationships.”
What’s more striking than Dahmen’s blend of humor and candor is her miles-long creative curriculum vitae and the staying power of her ambition. A 28-year-old Seattle transplant, Dahmen estimates she’s been directly involved with at least a couple of hundred performances (theatrical, musical, variety shows, short films and other events that she’s emceed or performed at) since enrolling as an undergraduate theater major at NYU in 1996. Since then, she’s played the role of a queer activist, writer, vocalist, actor and educator.
How Dahmen, who works part time at a high school and runs various educational workshops (she holds an MA in educational theater from NYU) has time for a day job is anybody’s guess. Somehow, between writing and producing a one-woman show, acting in various short films, organizing and hosting her seasonal, multi-act variety show Lip Service and appearing with her band the Lesbian Overtones, she manages to pay the rent without collapsing.
This isn’t to say that New York’s theater scene has always been an easy thing for Dahmen to navigate. By her own account, she’s been studying and working in the city for the better part of a decade and in that time, she’s taken her licks, had her bad shows and has learned a few lessons the hard way. Apparently, being a queer, theatrical Jane of all trades isn’t as easy as it looks.
“If I had 10 years of straight theater credits (and I mean that theatrically, not sexually, or do I?) I think agents would take me more seriously than looking at a resume that reflects 10 years of work in about 12 different mediums,” Dahmen tells me.
Additionally, being part of queer culture and the theater scene has presented her with the dual challenge of creating work that is relevant to (and respectful of) the queer community, but that also speaks to the public at large. Creating work that is vital and interesting to a broad, diverse audience is, it seems, one of Dahmen’s primary concerns.
“Maybe when I was younger and was coming to terms with my own identity issues, it was really important to see queer images and television, and to create theater where my own sexual identity was prominent,” says Dahmen. “Of course, people are so multidimensional that to assume your sexual identity is going to make up everything you perform and be at the core of everything you do for the rest of your life just seems kind of silly.”
Still, because much of her work deals with the ups and downs of interpersonal relationships and is at least in part written from experience, queer characters and situations play a major role in Dahmen’s work. Take, for instance, the series of short films created by Furjanic and Dahmen called P.R.I.I.D.E. (People Really Interested in Dating Etiquette). Each film in the series is shot and edited in the style of a public service announcement and illuminates a humorous and poignant point of dating etiquette, like “Don’t Make That Call” when you think about calling an ex on the telephone or “It’s Okay to Lie” when telling your lover why you’re breaking up with her. In each film, though the relationships portrayed happen to be lesbian, the gender of the individuals seems somehow negligible.
That broad thematic relevance of the films seems to be just what Dahmen’s aiming for in much of her work. As opposed to the theatrical groups and festivals that prepare performance pieces especially for Pride Week, Dahmen works year-round on projects that she hopes are, above all else, deeply and memorably entertaining.
“At this point, I don’t feel the need to stand up and perform as a lesbian per se,” says Dahmen. “My band, the Lesbian Overtones, has done really well with straight audiences because, well, we don’t care that we’re gay. We’re not performing because we need to speak out or promote gayness, nor are we doing it because we need to work out or provide lesbian imagery. We do it because it’s hilarious.”
More generally, Dahmen’s philosophy of performance seems to suggest that the best way to break down the barriers between “gay” culture and “straight” culture, mainstream and alternative performance, is simply to create work that’s honest, intelligent and interesting. Seems like a simple enough standard until you stop for a moment and realize that honest, intelligent and interesting art is hard to come by. Her suggestion for upping the ante in the world of LGBT theater seems almost radical in its simplicity.
“We have to just do what we do, make what we know,” she says. “Maybe that’s what we [queer artists] have always done and it’s just been labeled as ‘other,’ but now, mainstream representations of queer people are so funny and out there that it’s become just as important to say, well we’re not like Queer Eye or Will and Grace either necessarily.”
It’s not surprising that Dahmen’s summer performance schedule is packed. The next installment of her variety show, Lip Service, is July 19 at Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg and she’ll be performing her one-woman show at the Dixon Place HOT festival on July 11 and August 8. As for who the best audience for these shows might be, perhaps Dahmen’s rhetorical questions for me may provide the best answer: “Who can’t relate to a bad break up? A broken heart?”