erasing clouds

Celebrating Queer Culture: Interview with Glasgay! Producer Steven Thomson

by anna battista

Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian nominee for the post of EU Commissioner of Justice who described homosexuality as a sin only a few weeks ago, wouldn’t be that happy to hear about it. In fact, he might be simply outraged to know that every year in Glasgow, during the first two weeks of November, a very successful gay festival takes place. Glasgay! - this the name of the festival - has been going for 11 years and is well known in Great Britain for offering two weeks of shows that combine entertainment and serious works. This year, as usual, there will be plays, films, visual art, music, comedy and dance on the bill. But what is the secret of this gay festival that attracts a considerable number of people, also straight ones? Ask Steven Thomson, this year’s producer, “Glasgay! is full of diversity, it’s a mixture, that is why people love it,“ he explains me, “Gay culture has moved on, it is fashionable again in the mainstream while in the public consciousness gay issues and gay identity are very popular again. Nowadays we have gay TV programmes such as the American ‘Queer as Folk’, which is quite cheesy since it’s basically a gay makeover for straight people, but it’s at the same time interesting for being the first programme that presents gay figures different from the usual stereotype, such as a gay lawyer, a gay doctor or a gay nurse.” Indeed, gay and queer culture seem to be rather trendy at the moment: ‘Queer as Folk’ is not the only TV programme featuring gay characters, we might also mention ‘The L World’, that deals exclusively with the Lesbian experience, while TV documentaries or articles about the issue of being gay or about related topics such as gay marriages, have been at the centre of the media attention in the past few weeks because of Buttiglione’s words and because Bush’s endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. “Now you get more well-spoken and better educated gay people who have interesting careers, such as Scottish actor Alan Cumming, who is now a Hollywood star and is always doing interesting and challenging roles,” Thomson says, “People such as him are pushing the boundaries and their sexuality is not the issue. They show that being gay is not about being a camp figure or a stereotype, it’s about doing good and interesting work, it’s about being positive role models in society.”

Thomson has been putting together the festival and working on its new image since February. This year’s bill features many Scottish artists, but also quite a few international artists, among them the Americans Tim Miller, Annie Sprinkle, and Penny Arcade. “Originally, Glasgay! was started by professional artists and during the first couple of years it was more about Glasgow and the gay community in Glasgow, and it featured local or Scottish artists with just a few national and international artists drawn in. In the last five years, the producers have been shaping up the programme, so that the festival started featuring also very famous artists,” Thomson explains, “One of the things I did for Glasgay! this year was changing our image: we always had the ‘G!’ as our logo, but now we have added the word ‘gay’ in it, because we are proud of it. We also dropped our old strap line ‘The UK largest multi-art form festival for multi-sexual people’ and changed it with the new ‘Scotland’s Annual Celebration of Queer Culture’. The inspiration for the latter actually came from an Italian gay film festival which used the queer word in its name in a very interesting way. My mission has been broadening out the representation of the programme with national and international, male and female artists and different points of view, but also broadening out the generations represented. This year we have for example Joey Hateley from the TransAction Theatre Company who will present her piece called ‘A:Gender’, a young artist’s exploration of gender and queer politics. It’s an interesting piece and quite well informed and, besides, it is very powerfully performed. Joey plays in ‘A:Gender’ a young lesbian constantly coming out of a public toilet in a club or a bar and constantly taking on the personality of the people she bumps into in the toilet. On the contrary, in Adrian Howells’ ‘Adrienne: the Great Depression’, Howells will play a character in drag, a singer with no career, no money and no boyfriend who invites the audience to witness decline, to witness his great fall in his hotel room. What is interesting here is the theme of male depression in your early forties told from the point of view of a gay artist. The whole issue of depression, particularly in this current generation, the post ‘80s-‘90s clubbers’ generation, has surely been thought about, but not in this way and I think this shows how contemporary Glasgay! can be and how it can present also very risky works. "

Another very important artist we have this years is Betty Bourne with the show ‘Deep Rimming in Poplar’. Betty has been going since the late ‘60s as a sort of transgressive and cross-dressing artist. He very much started vaudeville and burlesque, then he moved into more serious acting, while also doing the Betty character. He starred last year in ‘Resident Alien’ as Quentin Crisp and is currently playing the role of the nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Globe Theatre in London. Betty has a particular take on cross-dressing theatre and wants to uncover the history behind cross-dressing. Indeed, cross-dressing was popular in Greek and Roman times, while in Egyptian culture men and women often used to swap roles. The man dressed as a woman became a pantomime figure and a laughable stereotype later on, when Charles II allowed women to go on stage. It is very interesting to see how drag has changed or has become popular in some way. At Glasgay! Betty will star in the world premiere of a new work by Tim Fountain, in which Bourne will play an older gentleman who has been living for 25 years with his partner, but gets his first computer and befriends a young man on a gay website. Another interesting piece will be Robert Pacitti’s ‘Audiology’, which is a sort of iconic, pseudo-religious piece about love and loss, a quite catholic piece as well, in religious terms. There is a beautiful moment in this show and it’s when Robert drags a large text box across the stage, like a cross, then stands on a chair and leans the text box on his head and let’s the stream of consciousness flow out of the text box. Robert is an example of a very contemporary voice and the role of Glasgay! is also to develop such contemporary voices.”

Thomson speaks with fondness of every single act on the Glasgay! bill, there is, though, a particular guest on this year’s bill whom he simply loves, Penny Arcade, ex-teenage superstar at Andy Warhol factory and at present one of the most famous icons of queer performance all over the world. She will present in Glasgow her new all-girl show ‘Bad Reputations’. “Penny’s mission is to stem the tide of cultural amnesia,“ Thomson says, smiling, “She is still a strongly political feminist and her new show is very much an autobiographical story where she talks about running away from home, being rejected from her family and becoming a bad girl, a puttana, as she says in Italian, since she is of Jewish-Italian descent. Penny will analyse in the show the bad girl aesthetic, which she claims she has created. This show is less graphic than her previous show ‘Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore’, where she worked with prostitutes and erotic dancers. Now she is working with professional dancers dressed up, so her new show might seem as more mainstream, yet it is still an intriguing piece. What fascinates me about Penny is that there is a slight element of tragedy about her work and that element is hidden in the real reason of her anger which is explained in a small simple line that she says during her piece, ‘I never had a baby’. As soon as she says it, you realise what is it that drives her to be such a strong outspoken woman. Penny will also do a late night review for us, so she will give us a full run down of the Bush government.”

After talking about a few of the artists who will present their works during Glasgay!, I ask Thomson which is the most difficult aspect of putting together such a festival, “Lots!” he jokes, then becomes serious again and reveals, “The hardest thing is funds. Funding for gay works is indeed very difficult, we are the Cinderella of festivals, even though we are supported by the Glasgow City Council and by the Scottish Arts Council. Yet, the funding we receive for Glasgay! is quite modest compared to the budgets of other festivals. Glasgay! features something like 60 performers in two weeks, we have a potential attendance of over 7,000 people, with the 20% of our audience travelling nationally and a 1-2% travelling internationally, from America, Canada or Europe, but our budget is inferior to the budget of other festivals which only attract around 2,000 people. It is a great challenge for the funders to move on from funding things on a historic basis, on an institutional basis, to funding us. Ballet or opera get massive amounts of money and they get good attendance to a certain extent, but I think there are other examples of other festivals or other companies which are failing to attract an audience. Glasgay! is very lucky, because it can be popular and it can be slightly quirky, but it can also be mainstream, cutting edge or experimental at the same time. It is not very difficult to find an audience for Glasgay! because in our programme there are things for everybody. Among the other events on this year’s bill, for example, we included an Indian movie called ‘Touch of Pink’, since at present there is an explosion of gay work in India, such as the lesbian movie ‘Girlfriend’, which I hope I’ll manage to get for next year. Within India there is a real transgender voice that doesn’t get heard even though Indian drag queens live in villages under tolerance and have their little community. The political mission of Glasgay! is to show a broad diverse quirky culture that is connected at many different levels and to show it in a way that doesn’t push people away from it.”

Thomson has already been working on projects for next year, “I’ve been looking at works from Beirut, Cairo and Mexico and I’m trying to bring three ancient cultures together in a sort of celebration of lost and ancient cultures and queer dead cultures, I think there is a huge connection among ancient cultures. It is unchartered territory, but one of the things about being a producer is the responsibility to create a marriage between artists and to create interesting journeys.” There are also more specific plans about next year’s Glasgay!, “The festival has got a European flavour, because it features many international artists, but finding good gay writers or gay plays in other countries is quite hard,“ Thomson states, “One of the things the mainstream culture and the gay culture are quite bored with are deep dark plays about relationships and love stories, we are pretty exhausted by these kind of things. What we need in theatre is a shift away from that. There are really interesting, iconic gay roles out there, the big mission is to find more of them and to find also more European works for the festival. For example, I’m very keen on finding Italian gay companies, gay artists, gay works and also contemporary dance companies. This is a big challenge, but I’m sure there are valid artists and works out there.”

For a while I chat with Thomson about the state of contemporary theatre and the coverage it gets on the media, then we return to Glasgay! “I think it is very important to keep talking about gay issues and queer culture and to keep bringing the gay voice out,” Thomson says, concluding “My personal recommendation to people would be to see everything on the bill!”.

Perhaps Thomson might never manage to get Italian MP Buttiglione to join the Glasgay! audience, but, that’s not a big deal for him. He is in fact quite happy to just see thousands of ordinary people, be they part of the LGBT community or of the straight community, be they Scottish, British or belonging to any other nationality, celebrating queer culture in Glasgow.

If you have any time or if you find yourself around Glasgow, you might as well go to one of the Glasgay! events. Chances are you won’t repent.

{You can visit the Glasgay! site for further information about the festival.}

Issue 28, November 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds