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World Premiere Wisconsin premiere of I CARRY YOUR HEART WITH ME at Third Avenue PlayWorks.
27 June 2023

Rainbows Forever: Reflections on StageQ’s CapitalQ Theatre Festival

Mike Fischer, for World Premiere Wisconsin

In March, the Waukesha School District banned Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton’s “Rainbowland” – an innocently utopian yearning for a world free from intolerance and hate – from being performed at a first-grade spring concert because it “could be perceived as controversial.”

When veteran teacher Melissa Tempel spoke out against the decision, she was placed on leave, in a District that had previously suspended kindergarten teacher Sarah Whaley for refusing to take down an LGBTQ pride flag she’d hung in her classroom.

I was thinking about these latest state-sponsored Wisconsin hate crimes – as well as the hundreds of laws introduced and frequently passed in state legislatures this year seeking to erase trans and nonbinary individuals from public life – as I watched the first three of nine plays I saw during this past weekend courtesy of Madison’s StageQ and its CapitalQ Theatre Festival.

Presented through four themed showcases featuring a total of 13 short plays, the CapitalQ festival was StageQ’s World Premiere Wisconsin entry.

Selection from CapitalQ. Photos by Misha Latyshev.

The Awkward Age

I began my CapitalQ weekend on Saturday afternoon with the “Teen Spirit” showcase, featuring three plays involving the sort of high school students directly harmed by intolerance in places like Waukesha – bearing in mind that the latest Trevor Project survey on LGBTQ Mental Health confirms that nearly 50 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide during 2022. Fewer than one in three transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender affirming.

Given this context, it’s no surprise that the transfeminine Penelope (Apollo Manteufel) is scared to tell her parents that she’s not a boy, in Maddie Hill’s The Transgender Terror. Pen’s nonbinary friend Cliff (Priyanka Guptasarma) role plays with Pen, preparing her for the big reveal.

What struck me was how awkward these two teens were with each other; referring to each other with gentle teasing as “dork” and “dummy,” they underscored how hard it often already is for young people to reveal the depth of what they feel, even to those they love most. Adolescence is the awkward age; adults don’t help when they compound matters through their intolerance.

Selections from CapitalQ. Photos by Misha Latyshev.

Such intolerance has scarred Mackenzie (Lauren Iverson), the closeted teen lesbian we meet in Caroline Hull’s Foul Lines.

When the male softball coach learns that teammate Leah is gay, Leah is kicked off the team; despite being involved in a long-term lesbian relationship, Caroline responds by chastising newcomer Riley (Nat Long) for being openly gay. Riley therefore assumes Caroline is straight, underscoring how easily intolerance divides potential allies through misunderstandings that shut down communication.

Sometimes, suggests Elizabeth Shannon in The Weird Ellen Prom Queen Trendsetters, those allies might even turn out to be adults.

Wendy (Iverson) is at the salon with prom date Francesca (Rose Bechtold); Wendy’s adult stylist Ash (Mel Hammond) asks well-meaning but clueless questions involving prom dates that make clear she assumes Wendy is straight.

But wonder of wonders: once Ash inadvertently learns she’s wrong, she responds with support rather than ridicule. Ash’s support takes her beyond her comfort zone, and she makes mistakes. But she goes there anyway. “I want my kids to grow up to trust me,” Ash had said earlier. The humorously delivered message of Shannon’s play is that fostering such trust requires acceptance.

Selections from CapitalQ. Photos by Misha Latyshev.

Fantasy Island

Wendy sums up how many queer teens feel in our culture of rising intolerance: while she’s fine talking about who she is with other queers, she’s not comfortable exposing herself to the straight world.

In several of the plays I saw Saturday night (the “We Are Who We Are” showcase) and Sunday afternoon (the “Lesbian Power Hour” showcase), stifling heteronormative expectations fostered queer fantasies that somewhere – elsewhere – there’d be a place where one could be oneself.

In Val Dunn’s lyrical A Shock of Wheat, queer teens Charlie (Abby Pawelski) and Harper (Ev Poehlman) escape into a wheatfield, imagining it as a safe space in which they might find themselves and each other. But the world follows them there, invading their thoughts and inhibiting their growth into the couple they might have been.

In Trish Cole’s satiric Life on Mars, the red planet has become a penal colony for lesbians; even as earth’s last remaining lesbian (Ren Kaspar-Tracy) bids a sorrowful goodbye to life on earth, she imagines Mars as a “Garden of Eden” in which imprisoning hardships are offset by the prospect of rejoining her sisters – without her former wife, who’d married a man to save herself.

In Carolyn Gage’s Planchette, transmasculine Jude (Kalea Bicoy) and lesbian Mollie (Julia Olson) dream of escaping an adolescence endured within a puritanical nineteenth-century New England by going West.

Also set in nineteenth-century New England, Hope Campbell’s New Bedford profiles lovers Peggy (Miranda Belle) and Maria (Kyla Vaughan) – now pregnant after marrying a whaler (Curtis A. Fuller) and choosing the ostensible safety and security that marriage provides.

That’s not good enough for Peggy, who has no interest in sharing Maria with a man – even during those infrequent periods when he’s not whaling. Tired of living a lie, she urges Maria to tell hubby Richard the truth so that she and Maria can ditch New Bedford for a place where they can be together – even if that means killing Richard because he won’t let them fly free.

Selections from CapitalQ. Photos by Misha Latyshev.

Writing a New Story

Peggy’s refusal to continue living a closeted life underscores the limitations of all trips to fantasy island: they’re ultimately constricting, because they run from the world rather than actively fighting its limitations. Living a secret life is akin to traveling to Mars – and surrendering the right to live a full and free life on Earth as a result.

The final two shows I saw – both on Saturday night – were less interested in trying to escape imprisoning master narratives, choosing instead to radically rewrite them.

In Beck Keller’s Bio 504: The Birds and the Bees, the transmasculine Kevin (Nat Long) and Ryhann (Julia Olson) reach a crossroads when Kevin sleeps with a man and Ryhann realizes she’s more interested in women.

What to do, when it’s nevertheless clearer than ever that Kevin and Ryhann genuinely love each other? As Keller’s play winds down, we watch them move toward an answer that privileges intimacy rather than sex – thereby offering a broader understanding of all that a loving relationship might be.

Selections from CapitalQ. Photos by Misha Latyshev.

Charles (Donnovan Moen) and Robert (Jay Edgar) travel the same road in Jeffrey Neuman’s delightful Kindred Spirits, in which two gay men who’ve been friends for nearly four decades reject the briefly entertained notion that they should have sex, deciding instead that their longstanding friendship is its own inimitable blendship.

I’d have loved to see the blends being explored in the fourth and final showcase, “Family in All Forms,” with a title suggesting the many ways in which kindred spirits might express their love and contribute to a broader, more inclusive understanding of all family can be; my schedule didn’t permit me to see it.

But as I left Madison Sunday afternoon for the final WPW opening that night in Green Bay, I took solace in how successfully the CapitalQ festival had imagined a more expansive vision of how we might choose to love and be together – bearing in mind that a rainbow isn’t just gloriously multi-hued. It’s also a promise of a better future.







Stage Q’s CapitalQ Theatre Festival is now closed. For more information on this festival and every WPW show, visit

Meet Mike

Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at

Mike’s work as WPW’s Festival Reporter was made possible through the sponsorship of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). Learn more: