With this year being the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, The International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival has been inspired to take that monumental event as a theme for its latest programme. As festival founder Brian Merriman describes it, “Voices through decriminalisation. Those that lived with it and those that are now living in a new era.”
This seems fitting, as it was the after-effects of the moment for decriminalisation 25 years ago that provided a catalyst for the creation of the festival itself
“We were ten years free; we were ten years decriminalised at that stage, and I had been watching, really, that we hadn’t come out in society. I remember seeing a Pride photographic exhibition, and the pictures were beautiful, but I remember... I said, we’re ten years free and we’re still all wearing masks. And if you looked at the photographs of the time, everybody was in disguise, you know? And I kind of went we’ve really got to stop this if we’re going to take the next step forward.”
Merriman had just completed a masters degree in Equality Studies at the time, and he feels the combination of that research, his reaction to the exhibition, and the fact he’d just finished playing Oscar Wilde on stage, all came together to inspire the founding of a theatre festival focusing on gay characters, creators and stories. In a deliberate move, he rang a friend in London, asking him to bring a show to Ireland so that the festival could be dubbed International. This first iteration consisted of eleven plays, but soon expanded.
“The second year, I think it grew to 16 and by the third year 66 per cent of the programme was coming from abroad. George Bush was in power in America, he was cutting the arts and LGBT [funding] and we could have actually run the United States of America gay theatre festival in Dublin that year, we got so many applications.”
Merriman says that while the criteria for inclusion in the festival is that a play “must be either by a gay author, or have a gay character, theme or relevance, such as feminism, masculinity or gender identity,” the plan wasn’t “to be a festival just for us, with us; it was about getting the stories out there, warts and all. We’ve had some really ugly subjects. We’re not looking to say to people, ‘We’re really nice people, so like us’, we’re looking to say, ‘We’re just as normal, and as disturbed, as everybody else is’.”
With such an international flavour to the festival, Merriman never had a worry that Irish audiences wouldn’t be able to connect or find common ground with visiting productions. “You know, shame is imposed on us right around the globe, and what’s really interesting is all the plays that have come over the years, they don’t need translation, everybody understands. I’ve always argued that we are not a race, but we are a common culture, and that arises not only out of discrimination and oppression, but how we react with our behaviour, our rebellion, our codes, our language and our laughter, which is very anarchic when you’re up against oppression.”
The festival has made a point of welcoming plays from companies whose own countries wouldn’t necessarily welcome an LGBT+ theme. “I’ve had applications from Iran, and they go silent after a while, which is always a sad thing. But we got our first Iranian performer in the festival two years ago.We’ve had companies from the Ukraine. We’ve had companies from Zimbabwe; I’m delighted to get a company from Taiwan this year. I think the festival is seen as a home.”
In any festival managing to reach its 15th year, there couldn’t but be a raft of issues related to the LGBT+ experience dealt with. “In 2006, we had the first ever marriage equality play, we’ve dealt with HIV, with domestic violence, with chemsex and the holocaust. We’ve certainly given a voice to stories that couldn’t be told in their own era.”
For this year’s festival, Merriman tells me: “We have 25 plays for 25 years of decriminalisation.” He mentions a few shows to look out for.
We’ve certainly given a voice to stories that couldn’t be told in their own era.”
“Tab and Landon is coming to us from Alberta in Canada and it’s about an incestuous relationship, which we’ve really never dealt with. We’ve a piece called Easter Sunday, coming from the foremost lesbian writer Caroline Gage. It deals with women and alcoholism. And we have a lovely piece coming from the oldest gay theatre company in Chicago called His Greatness, which is about the final years in the life of Tennessee Williams. There’s a lovely Irish piece too, about a guy who was sold from one of the mother and baby homes – Three Lies About Brooklyn.
“There’s a queer and alternative play coming from a young female writer called Frannie McCabe from Canada, called Smashes, and our first Taiwanese performer is bringing a coming out play, Blue Island 99.”
As a new inclusion, Merriman is inviting back plays from past festivals, which he believes particularly resonated. “Returning to us from 2006, is a play called The Drowning Room, about a family who gather on a hillside to scatter the ashes of their loved one, and the same evening they learn that his murderers have been handed down a very light sentence. It is a terrific play, but also [with] the anniversary of the murder of Declan Flynn, it’s as resonant today as it was in 2006.”
A play Merriman wrote himself will also make its debut this year, in a reading performance. Called Party Boy, it’s “based on the real life story of a young Irish man who I know, who has made quite a career for himself in the go-go dance industry abroad, with naked photo-shoots and sex clubs. He sat down with me last year and told me his whole story and I’ve turned it into a play.”
With a wealth of productions being staged over the course of the two week festival, Merriman celebrates the visibility it gives the LGBT+ community, “The more out and open we are, the more we put our lives on the stage, the less opportunity there is for people to be hidden.”
The 15th International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival runs from May 7 to 20, for programme and booking visit gaytheatre.ie
Right Here, Right Now!
Now it its second year, the Where We Are Now LGBT+ Theatre Festival in Sligo and Manorhamilton brings a diverse mix of queer culture to the Northwest. Festival founder,Killian Glynn, explains why it’s needed.
Where We Are Now grew out of my frustration at the lack of queer theatre in the Northwest of Ireland, as well as a desire to see a greater diversity in shows throughout rural communities. Within the context of the arts, we don’t have a lot of queer representation active in the Northwest itself. After realising that I was waiting for someone else to do it, I had to bite the bullet and start to make this happen myself.
But I needed lots of help. I approached my friends, Sonia Norris and Treasa Nealon of The Rabbit’s Riot Theatre Company. They specialise in new and progressive work and when I explained how I wanted to bring queer theatre to the Northwest, they were just as excited as I was.
As they say, the rest is history and here we are, getting ready for the second annual Where We Are Now Theatre Festival!
Despite incredible progress over the years, culturally and legally, in the Northwest, there is still an air of discomfort when it comes to discussing gender and sexuality. We want this festival, simply by its existence, to let people know that the voices of queer people in rural Ireland will be heard. Their stories will be told, their families’, friends’ and partners’ stories will be told. They don’t have to wait to move to the city to feel like they have agency, or to feel like they are being represented.
As artists, we want to diversify and expand on what kind of theatre is being produced in our communities. With shows that discuss and engage the festival’s audiences in a dialogue about gender, sexuality, and the influence of those within tight-knit communities, we want to focus on the high quality of theatre in the region.
This year, audiences can expect a festival that is bigger and better than ever before, with a little something for everyone. If you’re an avid theatre fan, you’ll love the club-kids inspired Macbeth, set in the neon underground of ’90s New York City. Perhaps you just fancy a show to make you giggle – if so, we have brides-to-be and confused ex-lovers in Jungle Door. And for those who like something a bit different, we have physical theatre set to an urban soundtrack (Theatre Room), or a vicious rumour in a gangland city (Precisionism).
There’s an abundance of fantastic and riveting performances to choose from at Where We Are Now 2018. If you’re a bookworm or wordsmith, then we’re having poetry and spoken word (Illuminations) as part of the festival, as well as some fabulous social occasions for all the social butterflies out there.
Throughout this festival, we celebrate the diversity and cultural richness of rural communities and promote inclusion and tolerance.
So don’t be shy and step into the most colourful part of the Northwest. Everyone is welcome!
Where We Are Now 2018 takes place in Sligo and Manorhamilton from May 2 to 6, for more visit Facebook: Where We Are Now LGBT+ Theatre Festival