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WATCH: Actor explains how he came to cherish his queerness and resists being 'less gay'

John Jarboe thought theatre would be his safe space … until a director told him to be ‘a little less gay’ on stage

WATCH: Actor explains how he came to cherish his queerness and resists being 'less gay'
Performer John Jarboe (Image: I'm From Driftwood)

A US actor and cabaret performer has shared what he’s learned about the way he presents himself. It’s the latest video offering from the I’m From Driftwood website.

I’m From Driftwood is building as video archive of LGBTI voices and stories for future generations.

‘I thought theater was a safe space for me’

John Jarboe grew up in Warren, Michigan. He says his family is very conservative: ‘Republican Polish Catholics.’

After trying – and failing – to excel at sports as an early teen, he instead became drawn to the theater.

An early role in a production of Pippin firmly instilled the acting bug in him.

He says he remembers feeling, ‘this is where I belong. These are my people. So I invested in theater and I thought theater was a safe space for me.’

He relocated to Philadelphia and joined a local theater group. He took on a role as the husband in a husband and wife scene.

‘And the director kept saying to me over and over again, “Can you make that – it’s a little gay. Can it be a little less gay?”

‘And this was a, this was a person that was, thought of themselves as kind of hip and maybe a little bit queer themselves, so they felt like they could talk to me in that way.

‘So I was running into a lot of those circumstances as someone who is transformative but because of who I was or how I was perceived, people, directors would speak to me in a particular way, too. They would either expect me to butch up or they felt like they could talk about my identity in a way that I would understand as direction.’

A subsequent theater head asked Jarboe if he’d be interested in coming up with some cabaret.

At first, Jarboe was resistant, not knowing all that much about the art form. However, after doing research, he came up with a piece about gay soldiers who have to hide their love during World War II.

The show was a hit.

‘That snowballed into people – people saw that and they wanted me to do more work. I ended up doing an Edith Piaf show where I played Edith Piaf among six other dancing, singing Edith Piafs.’

Finding his voice

An acquaintance who had previously seen him in several productions was blown away by his new roles. Her words struck him.

‘She said to me, “You know, I’ve seen you so many times in so many things and I just didn’t know who you were. I didn’t remember you. And then I saw you in this and I was like, that’s John Jarboe. That’s who you are. This is who you are.” Basically, I think she was saying, “I heard your voice.”

‘I didn’t even know that my voice wasn’t being heard in the other projects until someone said, “That’s your voice.”’

Those comments made him double down on his efforts with the cabaret, and he’s now carved out a career. He puts this down to embracing his queerness rather than trying to tone it down.

‘I’ve always thought about queerness as sort of a seed, a question that’s planted in you at birth, and I’m grateful for it. I’m most grateful for that question.

‘That question was not only something that allowed me to break from an identity, it also allowed me to find a different artistic voice and a different artistic form. You have to be rigorous about how you, about the responsibility that comes with, I think, the gift of being queer.’

H/T: Read more of John’s story at I’m From Diftwood


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