Gay at Christmas

December 30, 2010


Last week’s Queer Notions festival at the Project Arts Centre was creative, challenging, and showed how far gay theatre in Ireland has come, writes Caomhan Keane


‘ALL THE world’s a stage, yet not all the players are represented on it.” So says Willie White, artistic director of Project arts centre, home to the Queer Notions festival. A week of events that look at what it is to be an outsider within a culture, it has just marked its second year and was set up by This Is Pop Baby, a theatre and events production company that “rips up the space between popular culture, queer culture and high art”, exploring the idea of queer beyond sexuality.

“We were wondering if there was an interesting framework in which we could show queer artists that was true to their origins,” says Phillip McMahon, co-curator of the festival. Dissatisfied with the quality of the work they were seeing at the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, where being gay seemed to be the only common denominator, This Is Pop Baby staged some one-night performances which quickly morphed into a fully fledged festival.While the other gay theatre festivals seem more community-focused, looking to the gay scene to make up their audience, Queer Notions wants to shine a light on a culture and offer it to everybody.

“We want to separate gay from queer,” says McMahon. “Queer performance is about people who are free thinkers, who have been pushed to the outside and have been forced to really look at how they live their lives. It’s more cutting edge.”

As well as presenting plays, performance, readings and instillations the festival chaired a panel discussion called Queer Futures at Trinity College Dublin and hosted a series of Queer Spiels, where high-profile gays and lesbians interacted with big names from the arts in an open discussion which exposed the common divide between the young and the old, between men and women, the rich and the poor, be they hetero or homosexual.

One of the spiels was between Fiach Mac Conghail and Willie White, the past and present artistic directors of Project arts centre, which has always been a hotbed of queer artistic activity in Dublin, from the infamous visit of theatre company Gay Sweatshop in 1976 (described by one paper as “gutter culture from across the water”) to the production of Gerry Stembridge’s The Gay Detective in 1996. The latter was of particular importance as it proved that the Irish public was not apathetic to gay work, as claimed by director Patrick Mason when his own production of Angels of America died a death at the Abbey.

“There were a lot of playwrights who dealt with homosexual themes prior to this in very subtle ways,” says Dr Fintan Walsh, whose book Queer Notions acts as an anthology reflecting the past decade of queer theatre. “Frank McGuiness’s work in particular pivots on a queer dramaturgy. His plays often had homosexual characters, which he used to explore lots of other categories of difference. Of nationality, sectarian politics, history.”

Critics often failed to pick up on these themes and on occasion objected to them, as figurations of queer sexuality worked to unsettle the theatrical cannon, shaped by the Catholic, nationalist environment of its conception. “A development in Irish theatre and its journey from being literary-based to performance-based, as well as the emergence of the gay-rights movement, is what paved the way for what we have today,” says Walsh.

The Alternative Miss Ireland played a big part in exposing the public to this type of theatre.“It gave young queer performers an opportunity to perform that they might not have had without it,” says Rory O’Neill, aka Panti, whose show A Woman in Progress , helped bridge the divide between nightclub and theatre. “Going to the Alternative Miss Ireland inspires young queer performers to start performing and, without it, there wouldn’t have been as many places for that to happen.”

The ascension of White and Mac Conghail to their separate thrones, at the Project and The Abbey, allowed them to engage with the people who came to them, taking their ideas and working through them. Mac Conghail eschewed traditional tastes with his decision to allow This Is Pop Baby host Werk , a club night in the bar of the Peacock Theatre, one of the many ways This Is Pop Baby are cross-pollinating elements of the club world with the theatre world.

“They are a kick-back against anything that gay theatre might be responding to,” says Walsh. “In the past few years it’s become very single-issue focused. So they are a really important counter point. To remind us that LGBT issues aren’t just about marriage.”

“One of the problems with the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival was that they were buying in foreign shows and the Irish work was often lost or wasn’t nurtured in the same way,” says McMahon. “You go to New York and London and you see a multitude of queer performers and you think ‘We don’t have that in this country’. When we do. We try and bring these people together under this umbrella and encourage them to make something for us, very often for little or no money.”

At last week’s Queer Notions, Mark O’Halloran presented Trade, a reading directed by Tom Creed that marked O’Halloran’s first original play in 10 years, while the event’s highlight was The Year of Magical Wanking by Neil Watkins, which explored child abuse, sex addiction and self-loathing through the eyes of a chronic masturbator.

Touching on issues as diverse as having sex with HIV, loneliness, fetish porn, and a power struggle Watkins went through with his drag queen alter ego Heidi Konnt, The Year of Magical Wanking could be a little too pointed in its attacks on the Catholic Church and a little parochial in its humour, but it was also an astonishingly brave piece of theatre that few performers in this little pond would have the courage to tell.

“Gay people have gone through a massive shock in discovering they are gay,” says Watkins. “It’s a major obstacle to overcome and from an early age they have been asking questions others don’t really have to ask. So I think it’s because we have had to ask these questions that we get to a place of honesty.”

Does he think that being so open about his sexuality has limited the opportunities afforded to him? “The more I understand artists, the more I understand their resistance to being tagged as a queer writer or a queer director. But you can have a career as a gay artist. You just have to work in a different way. I have compassion for them but ultimately I think it’s tragic.”

“Its hard for some people to get their heads around their sexuality and what that might mean,” concludes McMahon. “All the choices I’ve made in my life have been based around what my sexuality has forced me to look at. So I think I would be a total fake if I didn’t see myself as a queer artist. Especially as all my plays are based on queer themes. But if these artists are still willing to present work in formats such as Queer Notions, well then it’s fine. The whole idea really is that you can identify queer as being anything.”

Queer Notions (edited by Dr Fintan Walsh, Cork University Press, €46.20) is out now.

FIVE HIGHLIGHTS

1) The Year Of Magical Wanking

Aiming to be a springboard for original, Irish, queer productions, this astonishingly brave piece by Nial Watkins is truthful, heartfelt and immediately identifiable. This may be a gay man’s story, but the shame, struggle and solitude expressed will strike a chord with anyone shocked by where their own mind can lead them.

2) Queer Spiel

Opening up the floor to a multitude of performers, producers and people from within the gay community this insightful series of talks looked at the gay experience past and present and revealed a community like any other – divided by age, sex and persuasion.

3) Swagger

Peggy Shaw, a sixty-something grandmother who looks and talks like Sean Penn, delivered a compilation of her four solo shows that followed her from her childhood to being a grandparent.

4) Queer Notions: the book

Launched in conjunction with the festival, this book acts as an anthology of queer plays and performances from the last decade and also explores what came before, both artistically and politically.

5) Queer Encounters

Held all over the Project Arts Centre these short, sharp pieces exposed us to the best of what Irish clubland had to offer in terms of performance.

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