Over three nights, June 21-23, London’s Ovalhouse Theatre will be showing exciting work in development by queer writers and performers. Mauve New World explores the possibilities of queer futures, merging sci-fi and the speculative with theatre practices to create new stories and new ways of telling them.
Michael Langan spoke to the writers and performers involved: Emma Adams, Brian Mullin and Nick Field.
Emma, what’s your piece, ‘Freakoid,’ about?
Emma: Well, the story’s still evolving, but it’s about a ‘meat-bot’ – a computerized human – in the future, discovering what they are and then realising that they’re not welcome in the world. I’m currently thinking about who it is that decides someone is a person. Am I a person because I say I am, or because you say I am? It’s also about what’s happening with synthetic biology and DNA computers – there are a lot of amazing and mind-boggling developments in those areas, which we aren’t necessarily emotionally ready for. It made me start thinking about who the new queer people are in the future, and who might be the new scapegoats. It’s a big experiment for me. The director and I are still finding out what it’s going to be and how we’re going to tell this story.
Brian, the title of your work is ‘It Gets Better.’ Is that a reference to Dan Savage’s video campaign?
Brian: Yes. The premise is that, rather than beaming videos with positive messages to vulnerable young gay people, there’s been an amazing advance in technology where people can be beamed into a kind of virtual safe space where everybody’s gay. Once there, the mission is to help them all envision that there is a future. One of the things you hear a lot in the It Get’s Better videos is a ‘just wait’ message, a looking forward to a future where you can get out of the place or time that you’re in. So my piece is a kind of fast-forward, where young people can make a digital leap into what their world might be like. But, of course, like all utopias in science-fiction, nothing is ever as good as it’s designed to be. We hope it gets better, but that’s not always the case.
Is working in the sci-fi genre something you’d thought about doing before?
Brian: Not at all! It’s been a real stretch actually, but it’s enabled me to look at how young gay kids use technology now, which is so much a part of their experience in the way it wasn’t when I was young and in the closet. I think that the internet and chat-rooms and Grindr have totally transformed the way that gay people relate to each other. My work is about presence and connection, and how technology speeds up connection or extends distances across which people can be connected. But this brings with it different kinds of pressures, or those connections may not be as solid as people think they are.
Nick, your piece ‘Midsummer’ isn’t about technology at all but more of a speculation on an alternative future. Can you explain what happens?
Nick: It’s set in the near future – it could be just one day ahead – in a parallel world where Christianity never took off. Instead, we have a pagan society in which queer people are sacred. Only queer people can be religious but if they don’t enter into that service they are exiled or have to become prostitutes. It’s about sexual identity but also about shifting the powerbase and what happens if power is given in another direction. There’s a parallel between pre-Christian history and a queer history in that they were both wiped out, so it’s about bringing hidden histories to the fore.
And you’re performing the piece?
Nick: Yes, it’s me as a performance artist giving a show about family holidays within the context of this parallel world, but also my character, who is really me, has chosen to become an exile and is coming back to tell stories of what that’s like. The stories in it are autobiographical but sort of twisted so that they can be set in this world. I’m rooting it in personal history – it’s very much about family stories, which is something my work has been caught up with in the past, but looking at them in a different way. When I was growing up I was never able to mention to my parents about being gay at all, but in this alternate universe they’re actually trying to push me into being gay, because it’s a great honour for the family.
Emma, you seem to be focusing on the notion of identity.
Emma: I am, and I suppose I’m also thinking about ‘queer’ in a political context. I really want to try to tell a story – and I don’t know if this will work – which is, on one level very silly and on another very serious. It’s about someone who is on a personal journey, but that journey connects with a larger comment on capitalism and what capitalism does to our personal relationships – how it often creates the need to label ourselves. It’s like there have become little ghettos of gay acceptability. The Tories are now telling us that they think we can be productive if we’re married, but it’s almost like we’re being given the gift of being normal, and isn’t that nice. But who’s going to be the next ‘queer’? As we speak, other people are being lined up to take our place in the political landscape – that of ‘who can we kick’?
I sometimes wonder about the relationship between gay people and new technologies, which often enable people to connect and communicate, but can also be very restrictive and condemnatory.
Brian: There’s a paradox, or a conundrum, whereby the internet is seen as a free space, but young gay kids can both hide and be themselves at the same time. There’s a veil of anonymity, so they can ask someone questions they wouldn’t ask face to face. In some sense they’re more themselves there, but also it can be a realm of construction for self-identification. It may depend on what sites you’re on, or who you talk to, but you experience all these codes and you think, oh, do I have to be that way, or have sex with that person, or go to a certain place, to be gay? For teenagers especially I think the realm of privacy is very porous on the internet. You put stuff out there, or other people put stuff out there, and you have no control over that. You can explore your sexuality or be exposed for it.
And does this have wider political implications, do you think?
Brian: I was really relating to what Emma said about ways of being gay that are more acceptable. This virtual world becomes a mirror of the urban, cosmopolitan gay experience, which is really linked to capitalism. I think that the internet only heightens that because it’s all funded by companies, many of which cater to the gay market. They all encourage you to be gay in a particular way and sometimes I resist it, and sometimes I want to do it, even though I think it’s politically objectionable. That push-pull is very interesting. I feel like there’s a moment in queer politics now where the mainstream thrust is to be accepted, and some people are asking what are we giving up to be accepted? Are we giving up ‘freakishness’, or ‘outlaw status’?
There seems to be a particular relationship between the genre of sci-fi and queer identity, or being gay. Do you think that sci-fi and speculative fiction specifically plays with, and is attractive to, queers?
Nick: I think it provides a safe space for people to explore certain things. I used to be obsessed with Doctor Who and Buffy, which was about a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality and the difficulties of dealing with an adult world – but through vampires. Really good sci-fi and speculative fiction are very human, they’re about the human experience, and I think it gives you the opportunity to explore a sense of growing up with an ‘otherness.’
Emma: Not working in naturalism allows you to spend time looking at things that you’re not otherwise allowed to look at within those conventions, or are difficult to look at. Science fiction is actually about the here and now, but it pulls and shifts the focus to enable us to look at the right now, and at difficult things, for longer.
Brian: It’s a world that has its own rules, slightly askew from the rules of the world we know. You find those points of connection between our world and something that feels strange, so that you have the experience of recognizing something that’s happening but in a slightly different way and with a different logic. Obviously, every time you’re writing a piece you’re creating a world, but in sci-fi you’re so free you can create the whole history of a world and it’s mind-blowing, all the things you have to think about.
There must be specific difficulties with sci-fi in theatre – and you can tell me whether this is true or not – because you can’t do stuff like CGI on stage.
Is it a constraint, or something to work with?
Nick: My work is very much about the relationship between me and the audience, and I don’t have anything on stage with me, so it’s about constructing the world through words. There’s an agreement between me and the audience.
Yes, you tell people it’s the future and instantly they believe it’s the future. It doesn’t matter.
Emma: Someone said to me recently that theatre should leave sci-fi to television and cinema, because it simply cannot compete, and I totally disagree! We don’t have CGI but we do have these beautiful, intimate, never-to-be-repeated moments, and we can we find ways to tell these stories, absolutely no question.
What are the pros and cons of presenting work in progress?
Nick: Well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and like to show things that are polished and complete, so it is scary, but I’m trying to embrace it! It’s quite a vulnerable thing but it’s interesting to share it with an audience at this stage. I’m usually very choosy about who I get feedback from – I think you have to be – and part of the deal is that people are going to respond to the work, but you have to be careful about how you, as an artist, are going to receive that commentary.
Emma: There are going to be facilitated conversations with the audience and I think it can be useful when it’s done in a supportive way. When people want to tell you how they would write the piece if it was theirs, it’s not particularly helpful, but when it’s about illuminating what you could do better, that’s a lovely, generous thing.
Nick: You can also get a sense of what the emotional response is, which is useful to know. So if people talk about what it triggers for them, that’s helpful.
Brian: For me any anxieties about this process are compounded by the fact that I’m not sure I would be writing this particular piece had Ovalhouse not given me the commission. It’s a double experiment. I might have written about some of these issues but perhaps not in this way.
Where do you place your sexuality in relation to your writing? Do you see yourselves as queer writers?
Nick: That’s an interesting one. I think there are problems with being defined as a queer artist because it can be limiting, but I think there are also great opportunities to come from it. It’s a double-edged sword in a professional sense. As I’m working autobiographically it’s impossible for it not to be an aspect of my work, but I don’t necessarily think it’s my focus. I’m certainly interested in the question of how being gay informs you as an artist, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Sometimes when I’m devising stuff there’s a dialogue within me about censoring my approach. When I first started out as a writer I didn’t link it to being gay. Now, I’m just interested in personal experiences and what that can bring to the debates around sexuality and queer art. Can’t it just be a part of that artist’s experience?
Brian: You do have the worry that you’re being pigeonholed from a career perspective. I’m an unabashedly political writer and always drawn towards whatever I think is the most provocative question. I try to interrogate my own points of view and to write characters that challenge. The struggle for visibility or acceptance has meant the issues have changed. In my last few pieces I’ve become more interested in questioning various groups within the gay community, rather than a gays-against-the-world narrative, which while still valid, has become uninteresting to me.
Emma: I’m interested in queer as it’s evolving into something new. I would say I know people who I would call queer, but they’re heterosexual. And I know plenty of gays and lesbians who are very straight. So there are different times when I feel queer in different ways. In terms of my work I view myself as being political and sometimes issues of sexuality come up, but I don’t often get asked this question. I’m interested in questioning what’s the ‘other.’ I think you could also say otherness is old age, or under-represented groups of kids.
What do you think you’ve learned from each other?
Nick: Well we haven’t spent much time together so far, but we will as the process goes on and I’m sure the fear we all experience on opening night will be very bonding! I’m looking forward to seeing the others’ work.
Brian: I think the three pieces together will make a very interesting trio and that’s one of the virtues of how they’re being presented. They’ll bounce off each other, and inform each other as well.
Mauve New World: 21st – 23rd June, Ovalhouse Theatre, Kennington Oval, London, SE11 5SW. 020 7582 7680