• By Ryan Oliveira

Jellyfish Queer, Post-Mortem (Livem?)

Alright, now that I'm less exhausted (and awake, lol): Long Post Warning.

I guess it all started with Ken Weitzman. Karaoke was on offer at Sewanee Writers’ Conference and I took full advantage: “Free Fallin’”. “Purple Rain”. “My Heart Will Go On” – which was Britton Buttrill’s suggestion, but I went along with it. Inspired, I poured a little singing into my miniature stray reading at the scholars’ showcase. Ken witnessed all of that. And he told me that I needed to perform - to put that karaoke into my writing.

Didn't think much of it, but I was like, yeah, sure, one day.

Didn’t know when was a better answer.

A year later, I grew so frustrated that people didn't get my work, or that I couldn't cast a queer Brazilian (or Brazilian-American). One problem was…well, it’s Chicago. Portuguese-speaking actors are in short supply. The other problem was…even in New York, New Jersey? Either companies wanted something wildly experimental (like the Portuguese avant-garde) or traditional (read: straight, comedy). Or y’know…Sarah Ruhl. Which is fine, we can do Clean House as many times. (She’s a wonderful playwright by the way, no T, no shade. Eurydice still breaks my heart every chance it gets.)

When Ana and Tara couldn’t find any Portuguese-speakers for one role, I thought, fuck it. I’ll do it. So I played Caio. I would play a lot of my own characters.

But after the umpteenth time – the umpteenth rejection, the umpteenth theatre that didn’t get it or said (in coded language), “When we say Latinx, we really mean Spanish-speaking,” I said, enough.

I wrote. I vented. I melodized.

Most people don’t know this, but before writing? Singing was my first love. When I was five years old, I would craft random songs and sing them out the window. I would improvise melodies and lyrics out of thin air and sing them back to…no one. Myself, maybe. But then my dad secretly recorded me and played back my voice. And even at five years old, I hated the sound of my own voice. And my lyrics. They weren’t perfect. They were about wondering where the clouds went. Who the fuck cared. My dad got a huge laugh out of it. I kept silent. I wouldn’t sing again until church, when I was maybe 14. And that’s where my love stayed.

I’ll never forget how angry Daphnie Sicre – then, my drama teacher; now, one of my mentors – was when she found out I could sing. It was Celine Dion’s “Then You Look at Me”…I was goaded by fellow peers, it was senior year in high school and my family life was absolute shit, right as I was going to graduate and attend Cornell University. She hit me in the shoulder and said, “Why would you hide this? We could’ve developed it, we could’ve gotten you some training?”

‘Cause I never thought I was beautiful. I thought people would laugh.

I’ve never received vocal training – not since starting vocal therapy this January for an injury I sustained while – but of course – performing George Michael’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in front of a very gay crowd at karaoke. Eager to please and impress and emote, I pushed and pushed…and essential sprained my vocal cords. It’s taken me months to learn how to use my voice – not just for singing, but for speaking. I was ok, last night – speaking was actually fine! Singing in Act Two? I was pushing it because I didn’t think it was good enough, that the emotions weren’t there. (My vocal therapist and I are devising a plan to get me singing lessons so I can learn not to do that – to trust my own voice.)

Which leads me to Jellyfish Queer in front of a live reader-audience last night.

I never thought I’d put my own writing, let alone my own singing, in front of people. But Isaac Gomez - dear friend, mighty writer, and Semillero guru - was adamant; he encouraged me to make what I had written my public reading. And I trusted Isaac's instincts because Tauruses have damn good instincts, and they've never steered (get it?) me wrong.

And then the process became one thing after the other after the other. Laryngeal edema in the beginning of the year forcing me into vocal therapy, which actually improved my stamina enough to get me through Act One last night. Baseline-composing all of the play in a matter of two weeks. Changing up all the songs (there are literally 3 drafts of the final song within 2 weeks and still more drafting to be done). Juggling it with Chaos edits being as chaotic as their namesake at the same time. Emotional hardship – who the fuck would care about what I wrote?

Am I completely satisfied with what I did? Definitely not. There are sections that I think could flow better. I could feel some songs and moments in performance not registering. I could finesse the functions of some songs better. I could use a composer to bounce ideas – that’s more my creative process, to bounce off another artist and create in collaboration. I don’t do loner-writing all that well.


I took a risk. I gave it heart. I gave it extra. Because I didn’t want it to be a straight-up a cappella, look at me talking to you slog. I wanted you to experience a taste of it. Impulses into where I was going. Braving my own body insecurities. Participating in my own experimentation. I wanted you to hear all of me. I don’t mark – I make happen.

Last night was a relief. It was exhausting – not just the energy I put out, but the words I put in. Taking the audience in and pulsing it out was…it’s what I wanted. All I hoped for was to gift the audience with me, as much as I could…and I hope they got that. That they wouldn’t have to feel alone. That they could understand. That they could find some solace in their oceans, even if they were lonely. That they weren’t lonely. (And also, that they laughed and enjoyed and had fun, in spite of the serious sections.)

I basically performed two hours of solo material – sung, spoken, costumed. By solo standards, it’s unheard of (90 minutes no intermission is high-end of time limitations). By musical standards, it breaks rules (songs can either be narrative-driven or commentary on action, but neither both. And the “I Want Song” is…not really one?) But I performed something that was uniquely me. A quirk-collage. And I’d like to keep working on it…though I also want to take a break.

I’ve been reading the post-show comments – Topher mentioned that performing Jellyfish Queer was like giving someone a Christmas present you couldn’t wait to have them open. Feedback was in the reverse. I was expecting some hard truths – I always do. I know there are. They always exist. You know what I found?

In varieties of wordings: “Finding your place in the world.”

That it was 100% me. But also 100% anyone else – more so if you were queer.

They got it.

They got me.

(They also got me crying in this bed right now, but it’s okay.)

And most importantly...

This might be the first time where I’ve been 100% proud of what I put out there.

And if there was any Pride gift I could give myself…or to anybody…I’m glad Jellyfish Queer was it.

Many thanks go to Isaac Gomez, Ken Weitzman, Topher Leon (director and wonderful, supportive, bowtied human being), Nancy Garcia Loza, Freddie Ramos (especially for being such an awesome sport with QLab), Lucas Garcia, Nancy Garcia Loza - all of Semillero, really - Kyle Whalen, Uriel Gomez, Daphnie Sicre, Jonelyn Langenstein, Michael Mallory, Sara Warner, Sam Collier, and to everyone who came out last night in support, modest audience as it was... I appreciated all your words and ears to this draft of a piece. Love you all.

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Ryan Oliveira

Ideas.  I'm full of them.

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