Whose Story Is It, Anyway? Out Philly Theatre Artist Emma Goidel on Privilege, Playwriting, and Orbiter 3

Emma Goidel

Emma Goidel

Emma Goidel‘s trip to Sénégal changed her life. Literally.

The then “out” college student, who was traveling abroad to study dramaturgy, quickly embarked on a personal journey that lead her to a series of questions about sexuality, culture, and privilege that, in essence, became the driving force in her own creation of art.

When she arrived, Goidel was quickly told that “gay people don’t exist in Sénégal.”

“I remember thinking immediately, ‘That can’t be true,'” she told me. “I was in the closet to all of the people that I was meeting in Sénégal, but at the time I had a faux hawk and I looked super gay. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I needed to hide or what. I was really struggling with being invisible but also afraid of being seen.”

“I was dealing with my own turmoil,” she added. “What does it mean to go back into the closet as an adult? I wanted to find people and I wanted to prove that people like me exist.”

What complicated matters was that one of the only friends that Goidel met, someone she lovingly referred to as her “homestay cousin,” a compassionate, kind person, had very definitive views on being gay.

“We connected on all of these other things—religion, gender—and we were just jiving,” she recalled. “But when homosexuality would be brought up, he’d say, ‘No, I don’t associate with those people. It’s against God. When I see a gay person, I walk across the street.'”

Goidel was too nervous to come out to her friend, but she had an idea: She wanted to find other queer women in Sénégal and document their lives in a play so that she could show him that there were other gay people, and that they weren’t morally corrupt or unethical.

“The problem was that in the process of finding this community, I also found a lot more questions,” she said. “What does it mean as a white American from an elite university to enter a group of people who haven’t been to school since third grade? I had many, many questions, so I came home and I had to write. It was transformative. It was how I came to playwriting. It was a necessity to make sense of what I had seen, heard, and done.”

The result has been a lucrative career as a theatre artist, and the creation of her newest play, A Knee That Can Bend, which premieres this month with Orbiter 3. One of the big questions that Goidel has had to struggle with is how to represent marginalized communities through writing, and it was a professor of hers, who happened to be trans, that provided an “a-ha” moment for her.

“He said, ‘Listen, Emma: You have to ask yourself whose responsibility is it to make the earth a just place. It’s everyone’s responsibility,'” she recalled. “That doesn’t give you carte blanche to appropriate other people’s experiences, but it is a question that we always have to ask as writers. You have to say, ‘I’m not from this community, so I have to ask permission. I have to gain the right permission, and I might mess it up, but I’m going to constantly ask questions about how to create something with authenticity.'”

“The fear of causing harm to a community is productive,” she added, “But when it becomes inhibitive, that’s the problem. The dominate rationale is, ‘I don’t understand that, so I’m not going to write about it.'”

Luckily enough for Goidel, her Orbiter 3 colleagues have made it as easy as possible for her to tell this story. The cohort, which consists of local Philadelphia theater artists, is dedicated to empowering new plays through immense support of the writer.

“It empowers the playwright as the lead artist in the process,” she explains. “That means the playwright has the final say on design elements and artist questions. There’s a conversation between the production team and the playwright, but the buck stops with the playwright. We’re trying to bring the playwright into the room in a way that isn’t always standard practice. We’re forcing the idea of the playwright as the active artist.”

And for those who haven’t been to an Orbiter 3 production, Goidel shares what they can expect.

“They’ll see a play that’s been realized with great thought and vision,” she said. “They can expect a very warm atmosphere. We are a working, artistic family and we want our productions to have that warmth and welcoming spirit.”

“We also see this as an experiment,” she added. “Don’t get me wrong: We take our art very seriously, and producing theater is no joke because it requires immense financial and material resources, but we don’t know what the outcome will be, and that’s okay. It’ll be a beautifully-done show. This isn’t a new play that someone is producing in their living room. It will be beautifully produced.”

Part of that beauty, no doubt, is allowing Goidel to come full-circle with her own personal story and experience with her team of creative colleagues.

“It’s been really empowering and enlivening and exciting,” she said. “Orbiter 3 just feels like the right tone for this play. It’s so deeply personal that it feels like home.”

Goidel’s ‘A Knee That Can Bend’ runs at Studio X from November 28 through December 20. For tickets and more information, visit the Orbiter 3 website.