Glasgay! - Steven Thomson interview
- Kirstin Innes
- 24 September 2009
2009 will be both one of Glasgay!’s best and most troubled years. The programme is stronger than ever, but as Glasgay! has grown in its cultural importance it has attracted new levels of criticism and controversy that now threaten to undermine its purpose. Kirstin Innes meets Steven Thomson, the director of Glasgay!, to talk about censorship, activism and Glasgay!’s role in mainstream culture
Glasgay!’s director Steven Thomson has always conceived his role as a balancing act: creating a programme that includes experimental work by LGBT artists, while pulling in as broad an audience as possible to take the festival out of a niche and into the mainstream.
‘It’s important to me to look at how our culture intersects or interrelates with mainstream culture,’ he says. ‘We don’t do quirky live art for forty people: we’ve got an audience of over 30,000 with half a million pounds of economic impact on the community.’
No doubt about it: Glasgay! is an increasingly huge force on Scotland’s cultural scene, and their 2007 SAC award of ongoing flexible funding has increased Thomson’s ability to work with playwrights and directors on the kind of work he wants well in advance, to set themes in motion over a period of years.
‘Families have been at the core of our programme for a while now. I began to notice it during Tennessee Williams season last year, and of course families are so central to his work. This year, I’ve begun to think, right, we’re in the 21st century now, at the end of the first decade; it’s time to bring this notion of the queer family bang up to date and look at dysfunctional family in a contemporary context. And this year, you can see the first results of our funding award.
‘I’ve been able to take a writer like Martin O’Connor, who we refer to as our “queer-identified straight artist” (his work looks at gender and masculinity from the underdog position and that resonates with an LGBT audience), and get him to look at certain themes that have cropped up in the Tennessee Williams season, and produce a new work that picks up from there. We also had the freedom to work closely with someone like Louise Welsh, to commission her to do something new, to bring in a director, Sam Rowe, who has done drama therapy with sex offenders, understands the character she’s created [in her new work Memory Cells] and who has filtered ideas into her head during the writing process.
‘That’s been a big mission of mine, to look at where we fit queer stories into these more mainstream dramas. How we knit together – or not, sometimes.’
While the choice of ‘family’ as a theme was established last year, there’s a particular, immediate poignancy about it now for Thomson. The day we meet, he’s just come back from installing Dani Marti’s exhibition Insideout in a new venue on Parnie Street, after Culture and Sport Glasgow chose not to install some of his film works in the balcony space at GoMA. The decision followed on from a period of high-profile outcry from right-wing pressure groups and certain corners of the media. According to Thomson, one of the main objections was that the work, which features HIV positive men talking frankly about living with the disease, ‘wasn’t suitable for a family venue.’
‘A family venue!’ he says. ‘Well, I’m sorry, but all LGBT people come from and are part of families too. You can’t segregate us, look at us as though we’re sexualised independent beings with no contact with the outside world. I’ve been quietly biting the political wire over six years at Glasgay!, and for the first time I’m going to go out there and say, we’re not taking this! They seem to be bowing down to a right-wing minority in the press, who question the council’s right to spend tax money on LGBT arts at all. You can’t stigmatise us like this any more.’
The ongoing funding has allowed the Glasgay! team to turn next year’s festival into a vehicle for responding to these issues.
‘We’ve had to become activists around our own work again. And that’s no bad thing; it galvanises us as a community. I’ve never had so many strong lesbian women standing in support of me. Next year, we want to take on institutions; particularly those institutions that want to attack us. Celebrate our positive identity but subvert it in ways that allows us to make social comment. Glasgay!’s still rolling. We’re not going away.’
Kirstin Innes talks to six of the playwrights who’ve created new pieces around the ideas of ‘family’ and ‘the feminine’ for Glasgay! 2009
Novelist Louise Welsh worked closely with Glasgay! while writing Memory Cells
‘Memory Cells might just be my most full-on piece. I’ve always liked the underground, rumbly quality of the Arches, and it helped inspire the setting of the play, an old nuclear shelter where Cora lives alone, except from visits from Barry. Barry and Cora’s relationship is initially ambiguous. Is he her lover, father, jailer or carer? The couple’s verbal tarantella uncovers what they are to each other, and why the young woman is compelled to live beneath the earth. I wrote Memory Cells with two top Scottish actors in mind, Tam Dean Burn and Kirstin Mclean. They’re both strong, adaptable, brave artists, which was essential. Memory Cells is not for the faint-hearted. I had nightmares when I was writing it and I’m hoping it’ll inspire a sleepless night or two in the audience. After all, no one likes to suffer alone.’
The Arches, Tue 20–Sat 24 Oct
Martin O’Connor’s Playing Houses looks at a family falling apart on a Big Brother eviction night.
‘My last couple of shows [Reality, performed as part of last year’s Glasgay!, and Inner Circle, performed on the Glasgow Subway] have made me realise the importance of reflecting modern life back onto an audience without pretension or patronisation. It’s important for me to try to create authentic characters that are based on the way we live now, in this city, coping with all the things that modern Scottish life throws at us. The show is deliberately lo-fi: I’m focusing on storytelling and creating something that’s intimate and conversational. I want each audience member to feel like they are being spoken to one to one, over a pint or at the kitchen table with their mate. It’s about inviting people in and showing them a familiar, localised situation and then going with them on a journey to somewhere else that can help to educate and inspire.’
The Arches, Tue 13–Sat 17 Oct
Jo Clifford, writer and performer of Jesus, Queen of Heaven, portrays the Second Coming as a transsexual woman.
‘I’m amazed there’s been such a fuss about this play. Everybody knows that Jesus empathised really strongly with people that the respectable society of his time rejected – prostitutes, tax collectors, members of despised ethnic groups. I am sure if we had been around, he would also have made friends with us transsexuals. He said and did so many things that offended conventional and narrow-minded people then. As the idea of a transsexual portraying Jesus seems to offend them today. I feel very sad when I see Jesus’ name and sayings being used to justify repressive and intolerant sexual values. I think this betrays everything he stood for. So much of what he said is so full of wisdom, joy and compassion and I hope I can convey some of that in the play. As well as my pride in being the person I am.’
Tron Theatre, Tue 3–Sat 7 Nov
Grant Smeaton’s Bette/Cavett re-imagines one of the most candid US television meetings in history.
‘Dick Cavett was a bit of a phenomenon on American TV in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. He got huge TV audiences and big stars were throwing themselves at his feet to get on his show. I’ve always been a bit of a Bette Davis fan and I knew she had done a big interview with Cavett in 1971: I discovered it online and I was blown away! I just had to put it on stage. The 63-year-old Bette doesn’t have a movie or a book to sell – she’s just there to talk. And she talks! I’ve worked the interview into a one-hour performance with cuts to 1971 commercials and “during the break” scenarios. I play Bette and Mark Prendergast plays Dick. It’s been fantastic to work with verbatim text, and if there’s anywhere this can work, it’s Glasgay 2009!’
Tron Theatre, Tue 6–Sat 10 Oct
Matthew McVarish was commissioned after the success of last year’s To Kill a Kelpie.
‘A Child Made of Love is a very different piece from anything I have ever written. Firstly, I didn’t write it myself. This play has been created and developed over a year with the actors who will be performing it. As associate artist with Poorboy theatre company, I have become very excited by the possibilities of collaboration and also, having worked as an actor as part of their ensemble for two years, I am convinced that a group of actors creating together on their feet in a room can produce work worthy of publishing. The story has grown with the actors. All I proposed was that we tell a story about hopeful gay dads who are about to give up trying when a child suddenly appears from nowhere. It has been a fascinating experience so far and I am confident the production will reflect that.’
Tron Theatre, Tue 20–Sat 24
Jackie Kay’s piece The Maw Broon Monologues grew out of poems she’d published from the point of view of Scotland’s most famous matriarch.
‘Everyone in Scotland understands the Broons. They’re the quintessential Scottish family, so they’re an interesting mirror to hold up to ourselves in the 21st century, by using them to explore what’s happening politically, what’s happening in our society. Maw Broon is really fun to play with. You can say quite dark, serious things through her, and also very, very funny things. My Maw Broon does things that the Maw Broon of the comics would never do: like going for colonic irrigation, or having an orgasm. She also has a doppelganger, who was always going to be black, and both Maw Broons are joined onstage by [daughter] Daphne, played by Tom Urie in drag. She’s unhappy in her family life. Everyone’s had points in their family life where they’ve felt a bit lost, and my Maw Broon, at the beginning of this play, just wants there to be more to life than a stovie and an Irn Bru.’
Tron Theatre, Tue 3–Sun 8 Nov