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International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival: how the celebration of global gay drama is marking its 15th year

Productions appearing at this year’s festival (from left): Theatre Outre’s Tab and Landon, Verity-Alicia Mavenawitz's The Drowning Room and Franny McCabe-Bennett's Smashes
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The teenage Dublin festival is even more committed to welcoming worldwide theatre artists seeking a bigger stage for gay-themed works. Its artistic director Brian Merriman tells Nick Awde why he’s looking for ‘new blood’

This year, the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival celebrates both its 15th edition and the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.

In 2004, it was another anniversary that gave Irish showman Brian Merriman the unexpected spark to found the world’s leading gay theatre gathering.

“It was 150 years after the birth of Oscar Wilde, and I went to see an exhibition,” says Merriman, who recalls a deep sense of disquiet from those around him.

“Everybody there was still wearing masks, even though we were 10 years decriminalised. And if you have your moment when something all comes together, for me that was it. I said, ‘We really have to assert our artistic citizenship if we’re going to have change and progress.’

“Everyone thinks the theatre is full of queens, everyone enjoys the theatre – and yet they don’t link that together. So I said: ‘Roll us out into the mainstream, warts and all. Our livelihoods, our lifestyles will not be scrubbed up to make us more acceptable. Let us tell the full story.’ And that’s where the genesis of the whole thing came from.”

He encountered resistance in the strangest of places, he says. “I would have to say some of the opposition came from the gay community and the artistic community. People who have survived, or felt that they had survived, in the arts without their sexual orientation being what they would describe as an ‘issue’. And they felt that it was drawing attention to their issue by seeking an artistic credit for the things we all do very well. Others said: ‘Oh, I wish I’d thought of that.’

“I found well-meaning straight people smiling at me saying: ‘Well done.’ Then saying: ‘But there’s nothing in that for me.’ And the straight people were not coming – and the whole point of the event was to get them to come. But we now have about a 50/50 audience split, maybe even a little more straight to gay these days.”

International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival

Brian Merriman

Founding artistic director: Brian Merriman (pictured right)
Founded: Dublin, 2004; annual
Dates: May 7-20, 2018 (15th edition)
Volunteer employees: full year – 4, seasonal – 40;
Spaces/venues (2018): 5
Participating companies (2018): 22
Shows (2018): 25
Audience/delegates figures (2017): 3,600
Countries represented (2018): 6
Total budget (2018): €68,000 (£59,600)
Funders/sponsors (2018): Arts Council, Failte Ireland, Dublin City Council, RTE: Supporting the Arts
Key contact: Conor Molloy, public relations director, pr@gaytheatre.ie

From day one, not only has the festival staged works in Dublin’s mainstream venues but it has also brought in international work.

“When I got the idea to do the festival, I called a friend in London, agent and director Mark Pollard, and said: ‘Mark, bring a play from London so I can call it international.’ We had one the first year, two the second year and by the third year 66% of the programme was international. In fact in one year alone I received 80 applications from America.”

Shows now come from as far away as Zimbabwe, Taiwan, Ukraine, Iran, Venezuela and South Africa. Merriman is proud to point out that many come from “more obscure or hostile environments safely to Ireland”.

The festival does what it says on the tin, and this year’s programme is particularly packed with plays ranging from Wilde and Tennessee Williams right up to the modern day. But you’ll look hard for cabaret, revues and musicals.

“It’s so full of good theatre, probably nobody will want to come,” Merriman admits with a grin. “We do pay a price for that, but we’ve always premiered new writing – 95% of our programme every year is new writing – but then how do you engage the people on the gay scene and indeed the straight scene, because without them we’re not going to survive?”

Certainly it helps to have a good eye over the years for plays such as Peter Darney’s 5 Guys Chillin’ (2016) and Rob Ward’s Gypsy Queen (2017).

A side effect in recent years that Merriman says he has observed is mainstream theatres promoting more gay-friendly or themed theatre around the festival fortnight.

Assassins is on at the Gate, while Smock Alley has Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. “I can’t believe it’s coincidence anymore because they’re always popping up in April and May now. But look, the purpose of the festival is to bring our art form into the mainstream. And it spills over into Pride in June now as well.”

The Dorwning Room. Photo: Mick Langham
The Dorwning Room. Photo: Mick Langham

This year, the programme is noticeably male-heavy in terms of writing and themes, but this simply represents what has come up in the annual mix for 2018. The festival has in fact pioneered feminist writing from the outset, while a key piece this year is The Drowning Room, by Irish writer Verity-Alicia Mavenawitz and directed by Maria Blaney.

The play remembers the killing of a gay man and references another anniversary: it’s 35 years since the most important and visible gay murder in Ireland. “Declan Flynn was murdered in Fairview Park [in Dublin] by six guys, and they got off,” says Merriman. “And they got no sentencing because ‘gay people shouldn’t be there’, and homosexual panic etcetera. That prompted an angry reaction in Ireland, which brought forward the first Pride parade.”

5 Key Queer Plays

In 2017, the UK’s National Theatre ran its Queer Theatre season to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The programme featured rehearsed readings of five key queer plays:

  1. Neaptide by Sarah Daniels (UK). A biting account of the public and private struggles of a lesbian mother in the 1980s, alongside the classical myth of Demeter and Persephone. It was the National’s first full-length play by a living female playwright, staged in 1986.
  2. Wig Out! by Tarell Alvin McCraney (US). McCraney won an Oscar for co-writing the 2016 film Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.
  3. Certain Young Men by Peter Gill (UK). As the new millennium approaches, four gay couples illuminate the differences within the gay community. Is gay life defined by living in coupled suburban bliss or chasing casual sex? Written in 1999 by the Welsh director/writer who founded the National Theatre Studio.
  4. Bent by Martin Sherman (US). After Nazi Germany’s Night of the Long Knives in 1934, two gay lovers are sent to Dachau concentration camp. The play helped raise awareness of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. It starred Ian McKellen in its 1979 West End premiere, and Richard Gere in its original 1980 Broadway production.
  5. The Drag by Mae West (US). When a respected, married socialite decides to host a drag ball in his drawing room, events soon spiral out of control. One of the first plays to shed light on gay counterculture, West’s rarely performed comedy was banned after 10 performances in 1927.

It may come as a surprise to learn that running such a successful festival of 25 shows over two weeks owes much to the fact that the organisation is voluntary from the top down.

“It really is. I don’t even get my phone bill paid,” Merriman admits wryly. “I am a professional director, producer and writer. But I knew that in order to do this, I was going to have to have the idea of ‘donate something’. And I’m very lucky that I’ve gotten other people from other walks of life to donate, but very few from theatre.

“There are no secret deals, there are no negotiations, and anything we get we pump back in. For example, to be able to provide the venues for free, when I see what other festivals need to charge in order to survive, is a huge bonus here. The support is unconditional. Every producer gets a printout from our online booking service per day, per components, per everything, with an entire financial reconciliation on their last night.”

Belinda Barrett’s Memories We Lost in the Fire
Belinda Barrett’s Memories We Lost in the Fire

That sort of attitude is clearly valued and Merriman says he is humbled that people from abroad “continually make huge sacrifices to make us their primary destination every year”, with cutting-edge companies fundraising for their artistic year’s aim to appear at Dublin.

“I want to say to people that the opportunity to be a part [of the festival] is wide open. We are not a clique within a clique, we are the exact opposite. We’re open and transparent and welcoming, just walk in the door. You don’t have to know anyone. And your audience is as helpful. It’s a great place for young people to learn the theatre craft.”

And the offer is open to learn festival craft, too. “We’ve had wonderful interns from Britain, like the two lads that run HandleBards [the troupe of actors touring Shakespeare shows on bicycle]. If somebody wants to be an intern, we’ll probably feed you and give you a bed – we’ll work you into the ground but you’ll have a great time.”

Be careful, though, you may stay longer than planned. “I have to say I’ve never been short of ideas, but I am short of people to help me see them through,” observes Merriman. “After 15 years, I have a line on my forehead for every year. My hope is that we will get an injection of new blood.

“But what I do resent is the fact that the artists, by virtue of their art, are turned into beggars. I don’t believe that’s a healthy place for art to be. And I have begged for 15 solid years.”

On so many levels, it seems that 2018 is an important year for the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival to reflect on what it’s putting on that mainstream stage. Merriman thinks the programme this year has definitely caught the spirit of what it means to be gay today.

“And not in a boring, lecturing or purely historical way. For example, The Off Switch is a play inspired by the work of [1980s British gay activist] Mark Ashton. I’m the writer and it really hit me, the generation that we lost then. And also, did they work so hard to have gay life and culture as it is today? I’m not convinced.

“We did these things for a reason. We were fighting against oppression. But within oppression and discrimination, there are wonderful stories, and I don’t think people should be sad about survival. Survival is the greatest triumph when it’s in the face of adversity, and I think this year some of our plays capture that.”

The International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival runs until May 20.

Phoebe Simmonds’ Ginger Beer

Further reading

  • 10 HISstories: Stage Voices Through Decriminalisation (Ireland 25th Anniversary) by Brian Merriman (International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, 2018)
  • Queer Performance and Contemporary Ireland: Dissent and Disorientation by Fintan Walsh (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
  • Frank McGuinness’ Dramaturgy of Difference and the Irish Theatre (Irish Studies) by David Cregan (Peter Lang, 2015)

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