National Queer Theater was founded in May 2018 by Adam Odsess-Rubin out of a need for a queer theater fostering community and positive representation and a long tradition of queer performance in New York City. The name was inspired by culturally-specific arts groups, and theater companies using art to promote social justice across the country from Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles to National Black Theatre in NYC.
the company produced its first shows, including DREAMers at NYU Steinhardt using first-person narratives of undocumented queer youth, Speechless at Theaterlab based on interviews with people living with HIV in Jackson, Mississippi and NYC, and the Queer Village Reading Series at Arts on Site in the East Village. The series included Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, which inspired NQT’s acclaimed Criminal Queerness Festival (CQF), which showcases LGBTQ playwrights from countries that criminalize or censor queer artists. These events paved the way for explosive growth ahead of WorldPride in New York City.
NQT debuted the Criminal Queerness Festival at IRT Theater near The Stonewall Inn during WorldPride. The festival was featured in The New York Times and The Advocate amongst the top things to do for Pride. That year also featured NQT’s immersive Kinky Pint-Sized Plays at The Eagle, NYC’s premiere leather and fetish bar, and the beginnings of a partnership with playwright Donja R. Love, founder of Write It Out!, a free playwriting program for people living with HIV.
National Queer Theater was awarded the NYC Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact for its work on the Criminal Queerness Festival in partnership with Dixon Place and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. NQT successfully pivoted to a virtual festival in 2020 due to the pandemic, featuring work by Omar Abbas Salem, Migguel Angelo, Shayok Misha Chowdhury, and Raphael Amhal Khouri. NQT also partnered with Love to launch Write It Out!, which featured 10 emerging playwrights living with HIV, leading to an online performance with professional actors on World AIDS Day. In 2020, NQT co-founded the Queer Theater Alliance, a national network of theaters serving LGBTQ+ artists and audiences. These programs solidified NQT as a leader in socially-engaged art in the theater industry and broader LGBTQ+ community and allowed NQT to hire staff who were integral to the organization’s growth.
NQT collaborated with PEN America and New York Theatre Workshop on DREAMing Out Loud, a free virtual playwriting class for undocumented and immigrant artists. The company also produced the Criminal Queerness Festival outdoors both at Lincoln Center and on the streets of Midtown Manhattan through a pandemic-era program called Open Culture NYC. The 2021 festival featured the work of DREAMing Out Loud teacher Victor I. Cazares and a solo show from Lebanese artist Dima Matta. As part of the festival, NQT brought a group of artists to Mt. Tremper Retreat Center in Upstate New York to develop Martin Yousif Zebari’s play Layalina, which led to a successful World Premiere at The Goodman Theater in Chicago.
2022 featured the first performance of the New Visions Fellowship, a commissioning program for Black trans and gender non-conforming artists led by Roger Q. Mason, with Ayla Xuan Chi Sullivan and Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko serving as the first fellows. Carnegie Hall presented Jubilee for a New Visions at MCC Theater Off-Broadway as part of their Afrofuturism Festival.
Meanwhile, the 2022 Criminal Queerness Festival, back in-person and indoors at Lincoln Center, featured the works of Jonathan Opinya, Muleme Steven, and Achiro P. Olwoch from East Africa, with the final show live-streamed by Lincoln Center around the world. That Fall, NQT partnered with St. Ann’s Warehouse on Little Amal, a global human rights and puppetry project, bringing a 12 ft. tall Syrian refugee puppet to meet drag designer Machine Dazzle and attend a Drag Story Hour at the Brooklyn Public Library.
National Queer Theater launched Staging Pride: Queer Youth Theater, a pioneering after-school performance program for queer youth at The LGBTQ+ Center in Manhattan, led by Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Amy Ackerman. For NYC Pride, the 2023 Criminal Queerness Festival will feature queer artists from Eastern Europe, highlighting the ongoing plight of LGBTQ+ people affected by the war in Ukraine.
In the future, National Queer Theater will continue to serve as a hub for queer creativity and community through its innovative performances and free social justice programming.