Rather than presenting an explosive documentary style exposé or factual synopsis of what the chemsex scene in Ireland is, Party Scene by choreographer Philip Connaughton and writer/director Phillip McMahon explores the emotional experience of this somewhat underground scene, ranging from ecstasy to loneliness.
This piece of dance theatre doesn’t claim to be anything other than what the audience makes of it, representing a multifaceted scene that is often subject to a limited number of defining characteristics.
Speaking about where the idea for the show came from, writer/director McMahon said that much of both his and his collaborator’s previous works are “concerned with queer themes”.
“We were talking about chemsex a lot and how drug culture and nightlife in Ireland has changed. We also wanted to challenge the idea that the gays are ‘fixed’ post marriage equality. There’s so much trauma within the queer community that’s not fixed. How do you look out for your gay brothers but also celebrate sex positivity and not inflict shame on people? We thought, ‘Let’s make a piece that pulls on our knowledge base’, creating this very queer piece that is coming from inside the community and just asking if everybody is okay.”
Sexuality free of shame was clearly very important when creating this piece. Choreographer Connaughton explained, “Quite often when we talk about chemsex, people, especially from outside the queer community, don’t even know what it is. If something isn’t known or understood outside our circle, what resources really exist for it?
“We’re simply presenting something, hoping that a conversation begins to form around it and that it creates a bit more awareness.”
McMahon added, “The subject matter is niche. There is also a responsibility to not create any kind of moral panic around the subject matter. If somebody is involved in chemsex or is in recovery from drug addiction, they’re going to view the piece in a much different way from someone who simply just came to see a dance piece. The job is just to shine the light in a corner and allow people to take from it what they will.
“This is not a documentary in any way. This is a piece of art that is about planting moments and an idea in people’s heads and seeing what comes from that.
“Something that we’re really mindful of is that Irish people have been taught to feel a lot of shame around their bodies and sex. For queers of various generations, that’s exacerbated. Queer bodies have been made to feel like they’re disordered, that their desires for intimacy are disgusting. When you start to talk about sex in the queer world, you have to be really mindful about what issues there are around queer sex historically.
“For a lot of people, chemsex is a shortcut to pleasure. They’re trying to short circuit things that they’ve inherited and to get to a point where they can actually vocalise what they want to do in the bedroom and where they can enjoy sex for pleasure. You have to really celebrate the idea of pleasure for pleasure’s sake.”
Party Scene was presented as a work-in-progress piece at the 2021 Cork Midsummer Festival and provoked intrigue from those who viewed it, with McMahon describing the post-show discussion as “electric”.
“It made us realise that it’s an important subject matter that is worth discussing. It’s something that is incredibly sensitive but worthwhile presenting on stage.”
Connaughton added, “I don’t like to think too much about the audience’s response. I don’t like to make work thinking about the hype around the work. There’s not one story in this scene. There are lots of stories. You could very easily delve into tragedy and it’s not always tragedy. We’re not trying to tell a sad story here. We’re not being moral about it.”
The creators were adamant to explain that Party Scene isn’t designed to be a shocker. While there are moments of celebration, there are also heavy themes such as loneliness, self worth, identity and addiction explored in the piece, something which the pair revealed sometimes “takes its toll”.
“We have immersed ourselves in researching this for a couple of years now. We’ve watched every documentary, read every paper we can and spoke to relevant people. We’re also deeply embedded in the queer community,” McMahon said.
“We have had friends who have died tragically and we’ve had friends that have gone too far down the rabbit hole and have had their lives turned upside down. It all feels deeply personal. At some stage you have to separate yourself from that and realise we’re making something that’s abstracted and is a piece of art.”
Connaughton added, “It’s trying to stay in this space where you present it, recognise it for what it is in every aspect of it, and also just allow it to be.
“This is the interesting genre to present this with. It requires conversation afterwards. If we can do anything with this work, that’s the best thing to achieve. We allow ourselves the permission to not take that on and work the way we want to. We don’t have to approach something in a heavy way for it to be heavy.”
For some, being presented with this subject matter kickstarts a journey of thought about the queer experience at large. Chaotic, traumatic, sexy, fun and funny are some of the terms McMahon uses to describe queer life. Speaking of the show, he said, “We use so many tools in queer life to represent ourselves and mask ourselves. The show can move in so many spaces because queer life gives the cues to do that.
“Although we’re dealing with sensitive and heavy subject matter, we’re also celebrating things around partying. An audience can expect this high octane dance theatre show. It’s an hour of an explosion of the senses. People are not coming for a dismal lecture or anything like that.”
A format such as dance theatre gives the piece a unique opportunity to portray the chemsex scene in Ireland in a way that is truthful and impactful. In fact, the two don’t think of it as strictly ‘dance theatre’ as Connaughton explains: “We just go in with a subject matter and we really want to make it as good as it can possibly be. We try to strip ourselves of these categorisations or limitations.
“Somebody just breathing on the ground or even a particular arm movement might depict something very particular. The audience do a lot of the work themselves.”
McMahon added, “Dance allows you to view the subject matter in a kind of visceral way that perhaps a play wouldn’t. Dance theatre can be read in so many ways. I think that dance itself can acknowledge the world of chemsex more than a play could, in terms of how that lives in the body.
“When you go for any night out, whether it’s to a club or a party or by extension a chemsex party, time is fragmented and elastic. It’s both quick and long. When you wake up the next day after a hazy night, there are snatches of memory. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. Our aim is for the show to be fragmented and abstracted in that way, so that by the end, it delivers you to a feeling rather than an understanding of the subject matter. The point of a piece of dance theatre is that it’s delivered through a feeling.”
What is also important is the diversity of the cast, to make sure it is representative of Ireland’s queer scene today. “This show is so dependent on having an excellent team of performers who can really bring the work to the next level,” Connaughton stressed.
McMahon followed, “The cast is both intergenerational and international. That feels representative of the shift in the gay scene in Ireland. There is a Brazilian performer, an American performer, an Australian performer and an Irish performer. They range from 20’s through to 50’s so there’s a really nice mix there.”
Party Scene will play at The Warehouse @ Marina Market in Cork from June 15 to 17 for three performances and Dublin’s Project Arts Centre from June 22 to July 2 for ten performances. More information can be found at Thisispopbaby.com.