Locating Care in curating queer performance in Belfast and Manchester
Gemma Hutton and Greg Thorpe, interviewed by Alyson Campbell, Meta Cohen and Stephen Farrier
Belfast, November 2019.
GH: Gemma Hutton, Belfast-based artist and arts activist.
GT: Greg Thorpe, Manchester-based artist, curator and creative producer.
AC: Alyson Campbell, Melbourne-based artist and academic.
SF: Stephen Farrier, UK -based artist and academic.
MC: Meta Cohen, Melbourne-based artist and scholar. Recording and editing of interview.
SF: Alyson and I are working on an edition of Contemporary Theatre Review, which is an academic journal, on queer performance that we’re calling What’s Queer about Queer Performance now?, in which we will get essays from around the world about queer performance in particular contexts. We worked together on a book a few years ago called Queer Dramaturgies, and I think that we can look back at that book and think, there’s quite a lot of gaps in it, inevitably…So effectively, what we want to do is to make sure that makers have a really strong voice in that journal edition.
… So we’ll ask you what’s queer work in your particular context in which you make it, and we want you to tell us if we’ve got the questions wrong, because I think sometimes we’re asking questions that might be useful for us, but if we get the wrong questions, we want to know what the right questions are. We want to talk about who’s making queer performance, who’s watching it, and how’s that happening, and then maybe towards the end, we want to talk about what you think the future of queer performance might be, what it might look like and what it might do.
AC: So, look, what we could start with is just doing brief intros… Gemma, do you want to start?
GH: Sure. My name is Gemma Hutton. I’m a Northern Irish queer performer and comedian, and I’m based in a commercial sense in a place called Cabaret Supper Club, but I also help organise a non-prof organisation called Queertopia.1
GT: I’m Greg Thorpe. I run a project called Superbia at Manchester Pride, which is the arts and culture program, which has a grants program attached and a curatorial remit to support work all year round by LGBT artists.2 But I also make and curate my own work, some of which is performance, and I write about that kind of stuff a bit as well, so yeah…
AC: So Gemma: do you maybe want to be first off and talk a little bit about what’s happening in queer performance here. You could talk a little bit about your own work, but maybe the wider things that you’re seeing or sensing.
GH: I think it’s kind of multilayered over here at the minute. It’s an interesting … it’s kind of a double-edged sword in terms of queer performance I think, so obviously we have Outburst3 leading the way for many years, and bringing in international artists, and informing local artists, but there has been a real massive gap in performance in terms of we are exposing potential future artists and local artists to this international work, but no real space to develop that, or reflect on that and respond to it with their own work, which is kind of how we evolved Queertopia, which is what I support with, because we just didn’t have that gap, and I think there was just this massive unknown, certainly in mind as a performer, I started with my first show, Lesbytarian Misconceptions, and I think that was ten years ago, yeah, I talk about that in my show: how I am literally intimidated even by the word ‘queer’, because it was, even ten years ago, not one that was reclaimed in such a very outspoken way. Outburst was very much underground to me at that point, so I was completely panicked about being thrown into this world that I thought was for intelligent high-brow artists and performers – but sure, they let me in. I think that that has slowly crumbled away, that’s what I think Queertopia has helped do over the last few years, is get rid of that myth that it’s only for an elite, or if you’re other you have to be really other – you have to be constantly living that otherness. And now we have local performers trying stuff, who aren’t really performers, but have things to say, like, using spoken word and poetry. So that’s been a really good, positive thing to see, that we’re hearing much more… a broader range of voices than we had before, basically because there was just the drag scene – that’s all we had. Like I was the first ever paid woman to be an entertainer in Belfast, and that was only six years ago, and the second one only just got hired, so there’s still a way to go.
AC: in the gay bars?
GH: But that’s all there was, that’s all there’d been until now, but now I’ve started to help with drag kings and stuff, and although drag is still important and still valid, we’re starting to see that feed through. But the other flipside is that now queer has become this trendy ‘tag on’ word. What I’ve seen now is that people have noticed that and are now using it as almost a branding onto like nights out and stuff and, whilst they may identify as queer – and I’m not a gatekeeper of what is and isn’t queer – there is definitely a muddying of the term being used, which is now sort of saturated a little bit, and I think it’s kind of thinned the punch behind the term ‘queer’ when we look at art in Northern Ireland.
So what we’ve done is we’ve set up our base in a place called 343, which is an intersectional space of queers and feminists, and it’s in the middle of East Belfast, which is DUP land, and we have had the flag out outside the building.4 We’ve had no problems with anyone. We have drag storytime there, we have mental health check-ins and I think we’re trying to reclaim that term queer a little bit more in terms of performance space, safe space, and non-safe space where people can push themselves. And we’ve got some really interesting artists coming out, one called Sophie,5who [made a piece] ‘You Didn’t Ask What My Rapist Wore’. It’s just she’s a woman with a trans history and it’s a powerful piece, and we’re starting to see that coming through now. So it’s been a real mixed bag I think in NI recently where people are like ‘yeah queer’ and we’re like, ok that’s great, that’s exciting, that’s fresh and it’s edgy. And it’s also giving permission for classic drag artists to try something that’s different and expressive, and that’s wonderful, ‘cause that can only entice and encourage people who haven’t felt comfortable before to come in and that’s good and that’s important and valid. And we see people like Sophie and stuff coming through now.
But yeah, that’s just been the kind of thing that, you know, I panic when I see people use it as a “sexy” word; it’s been turned into a sexy adjective a little bit, which gives me anxiety. But it’s gotta happen, as with anything and, as I said, you know, I’m not saying that I’m a gatekeeper, the person that controls those boundaries. But I think, you know, when you’re very involved in your community, the intentions of those who are creating these events and spaces … so I think that’s where my apprehension comes from. But no, I mean, it’s been wonderful to see the different voices come through, and I think I’m at an age now where I’m starting to write my own show, my next show, which feels like the ballsiest show I’ve ever done,6 but I’m also at a point where I’m really enjoying mentoring other voices coming through, you know, as I sort of step into motherhood, you know. So yeah. Hope that’s not too rambly.
AC: That’s not rambly at all. There’s two ways we could go from here. One is to talk more about the work that you’re making or we could talk through the various pieces that you’ve made, if that sounds right, and just …maybe if you could just talk us through your main pieces?
GH: Yeah, well Lesbytarian Misconceptions, so that was my first piece at Outburst, and I was in a six- foot barbie doll box dressed in a black and white one piece swimsuit. So I dealt with that stuff coming out of a small town in Bangor, and navigating through my identity as a lesbian, which was the only word that I kind of… ‘Cause I was still totally intimidated to use queer or anything else really at that time. So that was kind of about that initial journey of moving from Bangor to Belfast and how that sort of opened my eyes a little bit. And about … that kind of finished just after my first marriage. I’m the Joan Collins of lesbians. I’m collecting them. But yeah, so that first show sort of dealt with that initial coming out and navigating with family and friends.
And then I did another show when I hit thirty called Hutton Dressed as Lamb,7 which was about hitting that next tick box really, I suppose, in the thirties, and how I’d become more confident within myself in terms of body. And I went on stage and I think I was in fishnets or underwear, I don’t even know how that happened, it was a long story, talking about more about my… what I used to identify myself in terms of words, but also just about how I was becoming more comfortable with that, and learning to find my tribe in our community. Because it’s, I think, [for] someone who, you know, is female, or perceived as female, it’s definitely a different kettle of fish. We don’t have bear nights, it’s really hard to get a female-led night to be sustained in our community, and I think that’s just because there’s just such a historic misogyny that we’re still trying to break through. And although it all looks equal and rosy I could probably destroy it within 10 minutes. So I think it was about discussing that really in that show about finding our tribe and how we do that, especially hitting 30.
And then this next piece is going to be about that, sort of, I’m 35 now and not worried about finding my tribe. But honestly, trying to work out when I’m creating a show, how I do that – because I now have created so many hats for myself in terms of identities and voices that you sort of get… We get [unintelligible] in terms of how confident you are, what you’re saying is valid to the audience – because you don’t really know who the audience are anymore. So it’s about how I actually write a show for people that will engage them, but also be like honest to myself about using my own voice instead of second-guessing constantly. So yeah. So that’s kind of where I’m at now about talking about being a mum and a queer activist and how those marry but also kind of contradict each other sometimes. So that’s what Heteronormative is about. So yeah.
And then sometimes I sleep.
SF: Interestingly, just reflecting on that narrative there about how ‘queer’ was a highbrow word, and was a bit terrifying – I think I’ve seen that – and then slowly, it’s morphed into a marketing term, and, interestingly, calling your latest piece Heteronormative, which is a very highbrow term… So there’s a bit of a narrative there, well, we might dig into that, that’s really interesting. Thanks for that, that’s great.
GT: Ask me the question again?
AC: Yes. Well. So what’s happening in terms of queer performance, and I suppose really it is in the way that you’ve addressed too that term queer, so again in the sense of what calls itself queer. I suppose that’s back to our bigger question, what is queer about queer performance now, and that goes through those sorts of trajectories like you’ve talked about here, but in Manchester. I suppose it is about the word ‘queer’, how useful that is in terms of the performance work being made and where you sit in that in the things that you’re doing.
GT: Yeah. So I guess the queer community that I’m a part of is, I mean, it’s diverse, it’s creative and it’s political. And mostly that’s artist-led community, I would say, so the projects that I’ve started, like the Queer Artist Talking Circle,8 that’s deliberately there as a kind of sober space for people making work to get together and talk, and the word queer is deliberate in that, because I’m trying to draw people who describe themselves as that. In terms of, like, queer performance, there’s like, it’s very embedded in kind of nightlife, those are available spaces and my background as a curator came out of being a DJ and then putting on my own nights, and then curating drag and vogue performance in those nights, and then wanting to get away from nightclubs so that I could curate longer pieces. Almost all of the work that I’ve done I would call queer performance, but thinking about how to describe the work that happens in Manchester, I wouldn’t say that an average drag night where there might be six drag performers doing work, I wouldn’t necessarily call queer performance.
I guess my anxiety around the use of the word queer is that it can very easily be exclusive in the way that Gemma described. But actually the people who are using that description, they’re… they’re marginalised people, they’re trans, they’re struggling to get access to healthcare, they’re HIV positive, they’re older, they’re only just starting to make work, so they are disenfranchised, but also they are really engaged with what is queer and how do we use it. Sometimes that’s what the work’s about. And I guess any work that comes out of that community is queer performance. Because I’m sort of interested in the term and how it serves us, and not the other way around, I do engage with that work and think, you know, I probably wouldn’t describe this as queer performance. And what’s interesting is when performers are taking kind of standard formats that I guess used to be queer, so like, the three-minute drag lip sync, that once upon a time might… and then making it work for them in a different way. And that tends to be kind of trans and non-binary performers, who are like turning the whole gender of that thing inside out.
But there’s something about drag as a format that is just available. You can learn to lip sync, and you can choose a song that you’re familiar with, and you can pitch it to a cabaret night, and it’s just really available, but I think it is really ripe for queering, and that’s happening a lot. And I guess in terms of my own work, like, I do occasional performance work that is designed to be a piece of queer performance. And so the things that I’m interested in are kind of pastiche, and cover versions, I guess, which are kind of adjacent to lip sync and things like that. And the things that I’m interested in performing about are things like loss, and shame, and to me that’s what makes them queer performance, because, you know, those are the areas that have been influenced by other queer performers.
So the first time I came to Outburst, I did a piece called A Little Emerald Bird at the Barracks,9 and it was a cover version of Patti Smith singing In Memoriam, which is the song that she wrote for Robert Mapplethorpe, but actually I covered the whole thing, so the audience shouting out – ‘cause it’s a live version – so I covered her preamble and her stumbling over words, and these really like faggy New York audience members shouting out ‘we love you, Patty’, and, like, I covered the whole thing, ‘cause what I wanted to cover was that moment in the history of AIDS, do you know what I mean?
GT: So it both is and isn’t – it’s not a lip sync, it’s like… to me, that’s deliberately designed to be kind of queer.
And then in terms of like the politics of it, so, I mean, because I’m adjacent to like a gay institution, if you like, cause I do work through Manchester Pride, but there are things that I do with that hat on that I won’t call queer, because I’m concerned that it becomes institutionalised, that it’s very white, that it has funding attached, and that it dilutes the potential of capital Q Queer to be a force that critiques those things. And very often, I take – I always describe it like – I take the political fall for my artists. I say, I’ll sort out the funding with this institution and you make the work you want to make, and if the work is about critiquing Pride, go for it. Do you know what I mean? But,[unintelligible], for instance, I wouldn’t programme a queer film festival through my role at Pride, because I don’t think that’s possible. That would be an LGBT film festival to me.
So I’m constantly like moving around that word. But not with a struggle. I make it work for me, you know what I mean? And if someone wants to challenge my use of the word queer then I’m there for that, ‘cause I know that there’s some artists of colour that I work with that are like: that’s not really queer. And I am happy to give ownership of that conversation to them. And to invite them to make work about it, which they very often do.
So, I mean the stage is very much where we’re kind of acting out these conversations, actually. And we tend not to like sit and have an intellectual conversation, even in the talking circle, we tend to make a bit of work about it, do you know what I mean?, So yeah. That’s a very complicated overview.
AC: No, it’s really good. I’m sort of interested if Gemma that sets off anything for you in terms of Queertopia, the institutionalising of things, how things get funded, the relationship with funding.
GH: We’ve always got money from Outburst, like Ruth’s been very good in terms of helping us generate like a bit of money here and there to get stuff off the ground.10 And we’ve been told ‘you should get a committee, and you should get funded’ blah blah, and I think the second we start doing that we’re fucked really. Because that’s kind of … there’s places for that, that’s not what we’re about. And I think once we started getting funded, especially here in Northern Ireland, the terms and conditions that come with that just kind of … that’s it, you’re already pre-empting and adding rules onto what your work is, and it’s just there’s no point. There’s places for that and that’s not what Queertopia is for. It’s for no conditions no money, so starving artists. But it’s also about… so we start off with someone and, say they have a raw idea, then we come in and we have a coffee and we have a talk about it. And then we have a thing called the lab, so we create the lab and then we do maybe once every two-three months. And it is essentially an open mic night, but I will curate six–seven acts who come forward and tell me what their ideas are, and we’ll curate that. And we’ll pick and choose, like ‘you’ll go this lab, you’ll go the next laboratory’ and we do it that way. And then people pay a tenner and bring your own booze and that covers our room hire and travel expenses. And we also say, if anyone has any expenses for props or costumes, if they want to make something, we’ll help with that. So basically it’s kind of like a Kickstarter for them too, for their idea. And then we’ll have a conversation. Because the other thing that we don’t have in Northern Ireland is any real way of teaching people how to become, make that step from amateur to professional. So, like, none of the artists that come through our doors knows how to invoice, and it’s a really basic thing but it can sometimes put people off even asking to do paid gigs or to feel like their own sense of self-worth because they don’t have the toolkit to take that next step, so they just stop.
And so we help with those kind of things with the Lab, and we basically say to people: if you’re going to come to the Lab, it’s rough work, it can fuck up at any moment, we are not promising you polished entertainment. You’re paying a tenner to support local queers, clap when you’re meant to clap, and if you don’t like it, give some constructive feedback. Literally the audience are told what to do. They’re not, you know… we don’t pussy-foot around it. They’re there to help and support and they do that. It’s an atmosphere like I can’t even explain, like it’s literally 40-50 people in the room, and it feels like a revolution by the end of the night. You know, and some of it is shit, and some of it is wonderful, and some of it creates a spark for somebody else, or maybe somebody connects with it, one of the performers on stage, and then they decide they’re going to perform and that’s how it all happens.
But I’d say with every Lab that we do, there’s one piece in particular that we go ‘that’s nearly there’ or ‘have you thought about meeting with this person’ and we’ve put people in touch with people, and a couple of the Burlesque artists have taken … One of our, the guy that used to do our tickets at the door, he sat and he watched every show, and he said he wanted to do Burlesque. And his biggest thing was about getting glitter on his scars from his top surgery. But he would not even have said boo to a goose when he started doing Queertopia. Actually doing the door was his way of building his confidence talking to people. And he just got the nips out, full wings, Isis wings, about three months ago and has been performing since. And he went under the wing of other nonbinary Burlesque artists that we’ve had on. They now have their own night, so it’s all kind of starting to splay out which is wonderful.
And that’s kind of the point of Queertopia, because we put no terms and conditions on anything, and then we’ll always have a little bit of safeguarding. I’ll always be hosting, or at the very side of the stage if someone flounders, panics or needs a bit of a pep talk, then that’s what I’m there for. We’ll give them feedback, we’ll give them advice and contacts, and then we just send them off. And that’s kind of how we’ve worked, but we think if we put funding on that, then we’ll start tainting it, and it will become something that it was never meant to be. It’s meant to be, sort of, that it can disappear tomorrow. And that’s it.
AC: I kind of love this though. I love that you’re making that work in this model. I think one of the things that comes up so often, certainly we talk about a lot is, you know, well what’s the relationship of queer artists to funding and money, and are they destined to always be on, you know, poor, and not make money through as artists? And I think there’s something that’s so difficult about queer’s anti-normative stance that it just poses all sorts of difficulties with relationships with those institutions and those kind of … like that just sounds like a kind of amazing model. So, for me, I kind of just love hearing somebody that says I’m not interested in those mainstream models and all of the compromises that come with.
GH: It’s like you said, like, you’ve made it work for you in Manchester. Like I watch your Facebook constantly and your …. Josh Hubbard and he’s now elevated and gone round the world,11 and I think it’s also about teaching queers not to be ashamed of making money. That if you’re doing art and you’re getting money and you’re earning a living from it, that doesn’t mean that you’re a shit queer because you’re not starving and struggling. I think it’s that thing of being an activist and a queer and shirking against all of the capitalist stuff, but also realising that you live in that world, and that you have to survive, and your existence itself is a protest, and whatever form that takes, you know, to stop… That’s kind of what the Heteronormative show is about: the whole thing of me feeling really guilty that I go on to a cabaret stage and I, you know, humour the masses of the middle-class Protestants, but I have a child to feed and I need to stop that guilt because it also facilitates me doing the work that I want to do. And that’s what you’re doing. You’re also creating a bridge between LGBT and queer, and there’s probably a lot of information that would never have happened had you not bridged that gap.
So it’s about not having that – maybe I’m speaking for myself here – you know, that shame of ‘I’m selling out because that’s branded and sponsored by Smirnoff but I’m over here protesting at a rally about capital’, you know. It’s about balance I think as well, so…
GT: I think that’s exactly how I would describe it. And part of the project that I have set for myself is like to queer Pride. Like, I probably wouldn’t describe that to them that way. I think they might actually be more open to it now that I’ve been there for four years. But I mean, just anecdotally, in terms of money and getting funding, when I curate a gallery show every year of queer artists, and most of them haven’t shown work before and they’ve got bedrooms full of stuff and it’s their first audience so I’m like really mostly working with untrained artists. And when I emailed them about invoicing, like two of them went off at me, ‘cause they thought I was asking for money from them… I mean, this is how far they are from a professionalised practice. So it’s exactly like you said: I’m like, ‘just put this in an email and I’ll turn it into an invoice for you’. And the emotional fallout from working with them is like – it’s a lot. I mean if they don’t hear from me for two weeks, they’re like ‘I’m really sorry, did you cancel my show??’ I’m like, but you know, holiday, that’s all like.
GH: You’re a queer, you don’t get to holiday
GT: But these are people who are used to being, you know, forgotten and all of that stuff. So that happens really frequently, and I’m always encouraging them to professionalise their practice, for want of a better term. So that, if you’ve got a brilliant little performance, you’ve got product, then, that you can pitch to other nights. So one thing that’s happening back home is the Queer Arts North Network,12 which will be a system of sharing talent and connections. So that if I have, like, a handful of really great performances, I can very easily get in touch with curators in, like, Leeds and Durham, or whatever, and they might want to book those artists. Because the artists do not have the means to do that themselves for the most part, and they need someone to tell them – to support them: ‘get to the train station, we’re gonna put you up, this is what time you’re on’. Like, to do all the really, like, loving administrative things that they will get from me, to make sure that they get that when they get to Liverpool, or whatever. So, strategically, there are things that are changing but also I’m wary that, until that happens, I’m like, right you’ve got an amazing, polished performance now, that’s it, there’s only one or two places that you might be able to perform that in Manchester and the audience is the same in both places, so… do you know what I mean? I’m wary of, like, setting them up –
GH: That’s exactly what happens with us, that we get, like they get out of the Lab, they do a big Queertopia in the Black Box and then it’s like anywhere that anyone gives a shit about what you’ve just done is literally…
They’ll still go though. They’ll still go and support it, which is lovely. But I know what you mean. Like, I actually did a counselling degree. Because I think when you’re a curator of LGBT art, if you do any sort of curation or community-based work with queer performers, you become a mother, you become a pastoral carer, you become so much more and like….
So my self-care was horrific, I was a shocking self-care person, and I thought ‘oh well I’ll do the counselling, and then sure that’ll help me be more self-aware of what’s ha-’. So stupid! I just absorbed a lot more with people. I would just say now when you’re curating or working in a community-based queer arts, you become a mother duck, like, people refer to me as the mother hen and stuff. But I now like monthly go book an Airbnb in Belfast and I just… the only person allowed to contact me is my wife, so that I can stay night night to [Gemma’s child] Frankie, and obviously if anything happens. But I take 24 hours out where no one else is allowed to contact me, which I would never have done before.
GH: I know, I know – see!
GT: I mean I think what I’m finding is that because I guess the origin of Superbia as a project is that it’s like ‘oh it’s for mental health’, it’s that ‘creativity is good for marginalised people’, and that’s the remit behind the funding, but it’s exactly as you described. I mean, if you look at my messages from the artists I’m working with, it’s like half of it is about the show or whatever and the other half is what time’s my hardship appointment for the HIV fund, or can you tell me who the security firm is for this thing ‘cause I’ve had problems with the gendered toilets there in the past. I’m like, ‘I’m not there, I’m in Belfast, I don’t know’, do you know what I mean? Because I can never leave anyone hanging, and it’s part of it, it’s part of supporting queer arts because, without exception, they are making work about themselves, even if they’re making work about, you know, the new Gender Recognition Act or whatever, they’re almost all making work about themselves, and I would say that that’s one of the hallmarks of queer performance.
GH: Yeah, queer’s great at putting a huge massive chunk of your soul into something, and it’s not all about them, but –
GT: You have like be there to honour that
GT: as the furthest set of ears on it, but like it has a huge emotional toll. I’m only just kind of … I think that I might want to start some kind of surgery where me and the artists sit and we don’t talk about the work, we talk about how you are, or how I kind of support that, and also, which is my favourite thing to say: you don’t have to make it.
GT: You can pull out the second before we announce you and that’s totally fine. Someone to tell them that as well, like, ‘cause my nights have been, like, amazingly chaotic and catastrophic and sometimes things fall apart, sometimes everyone’s high …
GH: We get like get ten people and you get seven perform, ‘cause you know that people will pull out, but that’s why I overbook because then I go-
GH: There’s no pressure
GT: Yep. And I always say to them, like, they don’t … the audience has already had their money’s worth. As soon as they sit down they’ve had their money’s worth.
GT: D’you know what I mean? Like they don’t know the work and care, and they need you. And that’s the other thing I keep reminding my artists, it’s like: programmers need you, you know, funders need you, those guys need us to do this like… know your worth in a cultural sense, d’you know what I mean? We were speaking before about I’m trying to get the ears of non-queer performers and venues in the city to say ‘you’ve got no queer programming, you’ve got eight performers there and none of them are queer. Come to me.’ And that will be my next stage, and then the duty of care is, do we need to trim this for a regular audience, what does that look like? I think that’s really crucial. I wish I had more time – I do that project two days a week otherwise I’d be doing those things, d’you know?
GH: Yeah. I think that’s quite hard to navigate as well because I think it’s really important, we need to not just … like, it’s ok pouring your heart out about being someone with a trans history and that lived experience, but a lot of audience will connect with you because they’ve had some sort of relation to it, or connection with it, or friend. But the point of the art is to get out of there and express that and get people to think and listen and change their minds, so we need to put it in non-queer spaces. Then you’ve got to navigate: is that space really queer-supporting? We’ve had a couple of, like, comedians, for example, who have been told, ‘absolutely create! … but maybe just don’t talk as much about the trans stuff, it’s a lot of trans stuff in there’. And you’re like, ‘and off you fuck’, you know. And it’s just, they’re like, ‘no we want to support them’ and I’m like, ‘well no, you want to, you know, pacify, and you want to look like a good guy, but you’re being a dick’. So that’s a thing to navigate-
GT: Yeah. Censorship as care is like…
GH: Yeah. There’s a balance between going: ok this crowd isn’t going to be used to this, so lead in with this, maybe cut that one, but go in with this one. It’s about choosing the right material not choosing the right content.
SF: Makes me think of the way you were talking earlier about funding and how that changes the kind of work and that some queer work does get funded, but it’s like you can be anti-normative to a certain extent, but can’t you know… So that you can say, ‘well we’re really inclusive because we have a lot of queers in the space, and we’ve done…’ but actually, content might require that space is not going to be safe for those people to do that kind of content, and that is… Those are the strings, I suppose, that you are thinking about.
GH: Yeah, there’s someone that goes around Belfast and reports burlesque in the council as public exposure, and then they put complaints in to the council… And they go around all the venues, and they do that. And you can get reported for blasphemy I think still as well.
GH: So there’s probably someone that goes round and does that too.
AC: Welcome to Northern Ireland!
GH: The poster for Pride said ‘Fuck the DUP’, but they take the ‘U’ out and put Pierce Brosnan’s face, or someone’s, on, so they got away with it, but the police were involved. Someone put a complaint in.
GH: But yeah. So there is all that to navigate round when you’re applying for funding, so I just don’t bother, I just don’t bother. It’s the people with the coin purse that are holding back everything – like, literally, they assumed that people couldn’t handle the word, but people are ready for the word ‘queer’. The only way people are going to learn that ‘queer’ is a part of the community is by being exposed to it and accepting it and seeing that it’s not that secret monster behind the door. It’s beautiful and colourful and artistic and wonderful and engaging and accepting.
And then the other part of it over here is the fact that 343, our queer feminist space, everyone was like, ‘fuck, don’t put in the East’, and we’re like, ‘well, yeah, that’s exactly where we’re going to put it’.
GT: It’s beautiful seeing that flag out there.
GH: Yeah! No-one’s touched it. No-one’s threatened us. We’ve had no complaints. Dawn13 actually at one point was taking cupcakes round to the UDA man to get the other flag removed!14 But there are conversations being had. You know, these guys – these big heavy guys that have the guns and the baseball bats – have gay sons that they’re very proud of, you know, like slabber on about them, you know. There’s no illusion now anymore in any of our communities that queer or LGBT doesn’t exist. It’s the media, which is controlled – The [Belfast] Telegraph is pretty much controlled by the DUP. It is all just being filtered through that it’s still this big, scary monster that doesn’t really exist, apart from in that wee quarter in Belfast. And we’re literally doing work every single day that is challenging, and that door is left open, and there’s a chalkboard at the front that says exactly what we’re doing. And we have a mental health check in because, like you say… and anyone in the community can come in. We have a mother-toddler group, which, you know, we have same sex parents and parents from the community, women who just need to get out of the house and have a cup of coffee and a chat, all come into that space. So it’s important, and we’re looking at doing another one – maybe in the Shankill,15 in a church that has been closed down, which is just, I mean, the heartland. So yeah, I think that it’s actually the people that are controlling the funding and the events, the festivals, the big ones, that are actually stifling it a little bit.
I sometimes think as well, though, that spaces think – again, it’s a communication thing – but I think that they assume that we don’t want to be seen on a commercial stage. Like part of our thing is ‘well, we don’t want to perform to straight people’ – that’s the narrative that goes on in their brain when we create queer work. ‘We’re making it for queer people, you wouldn’t get it’, you know, and it’s frustrating. So the opera,16 whatever your thoughts on it were, you know, it was on a main stage in Northern Ireland, which was huge and important. And opera is another piece of theatre that is seen as ‘for others’, you know, upper class, or, you know, people with money, who can afford to go and see operas. So, for that to then be put through into a queer context was huge. It sold out, and that is something to achieve in the Lyric, from the previous works that are there – that every single show is sold out, that that doesn’t happen in that theatre. And, you know, it’s something that they really need to reflect upon in their future programming, because the fact that we keep putting on these wonderful pieces about Northern Ireland’s history – and we do love to go over our history an awful lot and relive it an awful lot – it’s not putting bums on seats, because people have heard it; they’ve seen it; they’ve maybe lived it. And the nostalgia is lovely and wonderful, but it’s not packing out the theatre. What people want is new stuff, and the fact that those sales happened illustrates that. But that’s this thing of exposing people in an honest way that you know-
GT: But you’re taking the audience with you – that’s amazing. So the kind of gigs that we might have got booked for when we did Drunk at Vogue,17 which was a big kind of performance disco and house night. People love that kind of thing for launch parties, so we’ve done festival launch parties – we did Meltdown at Southbank,18 that kind of thing. They know it’s going to be spectacular, because they look at our photos and go ‘amazing’. But sometimes what we choose to do is say ‘you’ve signed up for voguing and drag’, but the vogue house was House of Decay,19 who you saw in the film last night,20who might come in, like, zombie couture-
GH: And Josh21 loves to get his asshole out-
GT: It’s practically a contractual obligation at this point! So, it does what it says on the paper – but they might not be expecting to see that. And they might not be expecting to see trans people with their scars out who are also drag queens – we have to take them with us. But in the energy of the night, it just all happens. It just all unfolds, and you’re dancing while you’re seeing it. And sometimes it’s very violent-
GH: It’s about keeping the energy right as well, though, isn’t it? It’s like ‘no, no, no, you’re not meant to laugh at me. You’re allowed to laugh with me.’ And it’s about navigating that with them as well.
GT: Yeah. And that happens working with like fat performers as well, mostly talking about Fat Blokes through the night,22 where it begins with two of the boys taking their clothes off. And in our community, they’re, like, our community leaders. They’re our creative powerhouses, and our friends, or whatever, and we never see them with their kit on, you know! But the divide in the audience was the people who were sniggering, and that’s where the show stops and Scottee says, ‘What are you laughing at?’ And it’s a genuine question – why are you laughing? So he does that too, you know, brings the audience with – I mean, that’s what you’re there for. So it’s a really queer dynamic.
SF: It’s fascinating that there is a sense in which ‘queer work should be like this. It should be like this because it believes in this stuff’. But actually, it’s way more diverse, isn’t it, and way more in the communities that we think it doesn’t necessarily sit. And if queer has taught us anything, it’s taught us plurality – that you can absolutely play to a room of 70 and that’s exactly what you need to be doing for that moment, and then the following night, you might be doing a completely different kind of gig and playing to 700. And that’s ok too – they’re both queer, they’re just queer in different kinds of ways.
It’s interesting how we might do the policing through form, where ‘does it tick the box of queerness?’; ‘is it… well, I’m not getting funded’. And I love the idea of alternative, queer modes of making work that might be more…
But that’s really interesting, that sense of how work is more kind of diversely presented to diverse kinds of audiences, but also made in diverse kinds of ways. And there’s some resonance with… I think about British theatre history, up until the late 60s, also went through censorship. But there was still loads of queer stuff going on, it just went on in a different kind of way. I’m not saying it’s the same, but different… it’s kind of stitched in, somehow. So it makes it less…
GH: But I think people often think queer has to be serious, you have to… ‘if it doesn’t have a trauma in it I’m not fucking interested, basically’. And that’s not… honestly, I used to panic that there’s not enough diversity in my work – ‘I can’t just go on there and be queer and be funny’. But I can, actually. And, like, we do drag storytime, and it’s queer, but, you know, I never strap my tits, and those kids never question me. They never question the ghostbuster with the beard and the tits, they just want a story and someone who’s good craic and acting like a bit of a dick, and that’s what I do.
So, you know, things like that, we’re starting to do more of well…
GT: And also, it depends what the artist is queering – that’s why we’re talking about it as a verb. So, like, Kate O’Donnell,23 who I work with a lot, and I’m part of Trans Creative, which is her trans arts company – I mean, she’s a song and dance girl. She used to be a drag performer, you know. She’s a trans woman in her 50s. There are not many people who look like her on stage, and she uses song and dance – like, in one of the shows, she transitions from ‘Fred’ to ‘Ginger’ because she’s hanging it onto a binary that people will understand, but she’s very much queering that form. And halfway through the show, you get to see her plane tickets to get her surgery in Thailand, and her first gender recognition document. And she takes you there – she pulls you in with all this love and humour, and then she’s like, ‘this is what I went through. I want a witness’, d’you know what I mean? And then she shows you her whole body, and because you’ve gone there with her, it’s such a beautiful moment. But also, like, it’s not traumatic, but it’s about trauma in some sense.
But I did this performance called ‘I drank everything he drank’,24 and it was about breaking up with my partner, who was an alcoholic. And I was doing it because I was part of a group of queer artists in recovery. And we hadn’t set out to do a performance – we were making a documentary, actually, which was called My Recoverist Family,25 which you hopefully will see someday. But we had the opportunity to have a gallery space, and I think they thought that we would show work, but we decided to do a performance. So it was very on the spur of the moment and we all decided to use artefacts from our lives and to approach it in a queer way – so, you know, disrupting and speaking a lot about shame and trying to replicate what you do in a 12-step, or what you do in smart recovery,26 for a gallery audience. To sit in a circle and say, ‘this is me at my worst’. And some of it was really funny, but it was definitely, like, a queer project. And I read a letter that my boyfriend had written to say ‘you need to stop drinking’. And, like, I cleared it with him, and I didn’t know whether he would come or not, and it was all very up in the air. And he did come, and he ended up sitting right next to where I did the performance, and it was very, very intense. But it was like therapy – it was amazing. And that was just one of those opportunities – we were just building it as we went, and went ‘should we try and replicate what we’ve been doing in this group for fifty strangers and see how that feels? And then we’ve got each other’s backs and whatever the fallout is, we’ll just deal with it’. And it was amazing. And now it’s like… I just felt like that was a really beautiful thing that only us people at that moment could have done.
So that was very queer deliberately – like, my friend, she’s a compulsive self-help book buyer, and she made a stack of self-help books about two and a half metres high, and she had a library stamp and she stamped them and gave them away. She’s a hoarder as well – so it was a really big deal for her. So she walked in that gallery with, like, hundreds of books and walked out with nothing. And it was amazing. Yeah, it was beautiful.
AC: I love that.
Then the conversation gets very messy, in a good way, and Alyson and Steve thank Gemma and Greg for their time and their wonderful queer work.
Alyson Campbell is an award-winning director, theatre maker and dramaturg whose work spans a broad range of companies and venues in Australia, the UK and the US over the last 30 years. Alyson is a Professor in Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne. Her research, artistic practice, teaching and activism converge around gender and sexuality, particularly queer performance and dramaturgies and contemporary representations of HIV and AIDS. She has written widely on these areas, most notably coediting the collections Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer (Palgrave, 2016) with Stephen Farrier, and Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the 21st Century (Palgrave, 2018) with Dirk Gindt. She now likes to write about feral pedagogies and is passionate about Feral Queer Camping. http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0253-5135
Meta Cohen is a queer composer, sound designer and dramaturg with work spanning music, theatre and interdisciplinary art. Their music has been performed across Australia, the UK and the US, and they prioritise LGBTQIA+ work where possible. Meta has applied their compositional training to their work as a theatre maker, sound designer and dramaturg. Their research focuses on the intersection of theatricality and sound, specialising in sonic dramaturgy and musical thinking in theatre making. Meta is currently undertaking a PhD at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne. https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6100-0264
Professor Stephen Farrier is Director of Research and Head of the Postgraduate School at Rose Bruford College, UK. His work focusses on queer performance, popular forms, queer histories and research ethics. Of note is his work with Alyson Campbell, particularly the edited volume Queer Dramaturgies, International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer(Palgrave 2016) and with Mark Edward the two-volume project Drag in a Changing Scene(2020; 2022). http://orcid.org/0000-0001-8471-4307
- From Facebook home page: ‘QUEERTOPIA is a safer space for the development of bold, unashamed art through acceptance and a tonne of glitter!’ https://www.facebook.com/queertopia/ ↩
- Superbia. From website: ‘Superbia is Manchester Pride’s year-round arts and culture programme designed to support artists and performers’ mental health and wellbeing through creative arts’, https://www.manchesterpride.com/superbia-weekend ↩
- Outburst Queer Arts Festival has been running in Belfast, North of Ireland, since 2007, put together by Outburst Arts https://outburstarts.com/ ↩
- The DUP is the Democratic Unionist Party, an extremely socially conservative Protestant, unionist and loyalist political party that dominated North of Ireland politics for many years. For brief overview see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Unionist_Party ↩
- Gemma is referring to Sophie Williams – Chair and co-founder of The 343, Belfast https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/tributes-tonorthern-irish-trans-artist-and-activist-sophie-williams-following-hersudden-death-40466577.html ↩
- At the time of the interview, Hutton was referring to her show Heteronormative. See https://cathedralquarterbelfast.com/whats-on/gemma-hutton-heteronormative/. This show later became I/Mother: See https://cathedralquarterbelfast.com/whats-on/outburst-i-mother-gemma-hutton/. ↩
- You can hear a recording of the show here: http://alexandercharlesadams.com/audioblahblah-blog/2017/9/3/hutton-dressed-as-lamb ↩
- More info here: https://superbia.org.uk/events/queer-artist-talking-circle. This is a recurring event, mostly organised via the Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/446197705903014/ ↩
- More info on that performance here: https://www.gregthorpe.eu/art-1#/little-emerald-bird/ ↩
- Gemma refers here to Ruth McCarthy, Artistic Director / CEO of Outburst Arts ↩
- See Joshua Hubbard: https://www.facebook.com/joshuahubbardofficial ↩
- Queer Arts North Network: https://curiousarts.org.uk/queer-arts-north . They mostly communicate via Twitter: https://twitter.com/queerartsnorth?lang=en ↩
- Dawn Richardson, co-Artistic Director at 343. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/feb/26/the-343-belfast-feminist-lgbt . ↩
- ‘The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) is an Ulster loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulster_Defence_Association. As part of the history of sectarianism in the North of Ireland local areas have long been divided up into Protestant and Catholic enclaves, with East Belfast being one of the Protestant areas. These latter are often very recognisable from their pavements painted red, white and blue and the flying of Union Jack flags (showing ‘loyalty ‘to the British Crown). ↩
- The Shankill, an area around the Shankill Road, is another loyalist enclave where paramilitary activity was rife throughout the period known as ‘the Troubles’ or Northern Irish Conflict (loosely 1986 – 1998). See https://www.britannica.com/event/The-Troubles-Northern-Ireland-history ↩
- Abomination: A DUP Opera premiered at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, as part of Outburst Festival (2019). Based on verbatim quotes from members of the DUP party on ‘gay rights, trans lives, marriage equality, ‘poofs’ and ‘perverts’, Abomination sets these quotes to music. https://www.thebelfastensemble.com/abomination. The work was recently performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats-on/abomination-a-dup-opera/ ↩
- See https://www.gregthorpe.eu/dav ↩
- Meltdown is a music festival in the UK. See https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/festivals-series/meltdown?utm_source=organic_social&utm_medium=twitter_header&utm_campaign=organic_social ↩
- House of Decay is a ‘creative kiki house of Vogue, Dance, Drag, Art and Fashion’. See https://www.instagram.com/thehouseofdecay/?hl=en ↩
- The film Greg is referring to is Deep in Vogue (2018). The film was screened at Outburst Festival 2019, where this interview was recorded. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt12766708/ ↩
- Joshua Hubbard, founder of House of Decay. See Footnote 12. ↩
- Fat Blokes, by Scottee and Friends. See https://homemcr.org/production/scottee-fat-blokes/ ↩
- See https://transcreative.uk/kate-odonnell ↩
- See https://www.gregthorpe.eu/art-1#/apples-other-fruits/ ↩
- You can watch a clip here: https://vimeo.com/210983214 , and a trailer can be viewed at https://www.gregthorpe.eu/art-1#/apples-other-fruits/, lower on the page ↩
- See https://www.smartrecovery.org/ ↩