Peterson Toscano is a theatrical performance activist using comedy and storytelling to address social justice concerns. Through his one-person comedies and lively lectures, he has delighted audiences throughout North America, Europe, and Africa as he humorously explores the serious topics of LGBTQ issues, sexism, racism, violence, gender, and climate change. He lives in Pennsylvania with his husband Glen, and blogs at www.petersontoscano.com
Why do you think that the dramatic arts are a good way to pass on messages of faith and inclusion? What makes this medium effective?
What is lovely about theatre and storytelling is that it helps the listener to get outside of their head. Good theatre moves the audience to feel about an issue and to not simply think about it. It can create empathy, and reveals when we are in collusion with oppressors. Also, we listen to stories with a different part of the brain, one that is not as critical and judgmental as when we listen to a lecture. We let our guard down and hear messages we often filter out or reject. In that way theatre can be a subversive art. I see the parables of Jesus working in this way, opening up the mind to a greater understanding, leading to critical thinking and deeper feeling.
Many of your performances employ humour and comedy to make serious points about LGBTQ+ inclusion, gender, climate change and other issues close to your heart. How does humour help you tackle these and other issues?
Humour relaxes the body and the brain. When we experience fear and shame, we physically tense up. This tension happens in the brain too - neural pathways close making it harder to reason and retrieve information. This is why when we begin to panic, it’s easy to forget simple instructions. Comedy helps to loosen us up. This is especially important when talking about hot topics like sexuality, faith, gender, climate change, and justice.
Comedy also helps to shed light on issues and expose injustices. While it is true that comedy can be violent, for example when it mocks others, it’s a powerful tool to help us see our own shortcomings as well as to highlight the flaws in systems and in the way the world works. The role of the court jester is not simply to entertain, but to say the things that people are often too afraid to utter. The comic jab can lead to revelation and action.
You speak courageously and openly about your experiences of conversion therapy and being queer in evangelical environments. What would be the main message you would want people to take away from hearing you talk about these topics?
The main message I get back to over and over is that we need to be concerned about people, not politics. Much of the suffering I experienced in churches and ex-gay ministries was from people who truly believed they were doing the right thing, but they did it in an environment that insisted only heterosexual unions were blessed by God, and anything other was less than and needed to be destroyed. This in turn dehumanised lesbians and gays and bisexuals and transgender people. The political belief that it was wrong to be LGBTQ caused good people to act cruelly in the name of God.
You are active in climate change activism and awareness – what role does your faith play in your work on this?
I am curious about climate change as a pastoral care issue. Think of the emotional and spiritual needs of a people on a planet that is changing so rapidly. Consider the risks we face and the existential crisis of living in a world that seems ready to eject us. There are of course moral issues to consider too. I see climate change as a human rights issue that calls on people of faith respond with all the tools at our disposal.
Personally my faith has been reenergised as I have taken on climate action as the primary focus of my work. I need God, time in quiet prayer and time with my Quaker community more than ever as I study climate science and better understand what an extraordinary time we live in. I have experienced fear on a new level, and a leading from my conscience to respond to the climate crisis creatively. I feel inspired to hope and pursue solutions. And I feel the desire to bring comfort and hope and highlight the message that we each have a role to play on this new planet.
You can read part two of our interview here.