In 2018 I was asked to direct a then-unnamed Taking Part project at the Young Vic Theatre in London. The brief was to take a group of local over-50s who belong to the LGBT+ spectrum and in three weeks create, rehearse and perform a musical about their coming-out stories.
I was paired with composer Joseph Atkins. Joseph was eloquent, intelligent and had made work I had previously paid money to see. I had never directed a musical before, never worked with a composer and was walking into a rehearsal process with participants with a combined age of more than 1,000 years.
I was 26. I should have been terrified. I wasn’t. As a working-class playwright and director, I have known the sharp pain of being underestimated and had learnt the value in my own perspective.
Stories from untold perspectives– with one hand in reality and one in imagination – are what interest me. As a writer, they unlock the immeasurable potential within a subject. As a director, they challenge you to avoid the deadly valleys of stereotype and assumption and implore you to take the tricky hillside treks through discomfort and authenticity.
We began by researching LGBT+ history and found that the the green carnation had become an overlooked symbol in queer culture, so we reclaimed it in our show. We wanted to distil the stories and experiences of our 14 participants and to recontextualise their role in queer history and society’s history.
The hour-long show aims to serve up a thought-provoking piece that jolts them into realising that LGBT+ rights and liberties are not yet fully realised. And those that have been realised may be under threat sooner than we think.
Sometimes, people of my generation can be too quick to think of recent history as belonging to the pages of dusty books. It isn’t, it’s alive. It’s around us. And those who made it need to be listened to.
We did. And what stories our group had. They lived through male homosexual criminalisation, its decriminalisation, the HIV crisis and Section 28. The women in the group were of a generation of powerful and pragmatic feminists, who rallied for noble and historic causes before they were mainstream.
To first inspire and then to embody this show required brave participants. The project did not audition its members and this meant the group were a mixture of ability – the show was presenting an authentic version of ageing and a hopeful one.
Our company are survivors. Strong, resilient, kind and generous
Our company are survivors. Strong, resilient, kind and generous. They’ve lived boldly, loved in the face of hate and have enriched the culture and the country I was born into. As the final song in our show states: “Perhaps you see now, There’s more to us than age.”
Theatre, society, each of us, must take every chance of connection with an older person as an opportunity to challenge, widen and grow each of our own perspectives. What’s the point of anything if we don’t?