Featuring dance, drama, poetry, visual arts, cabaret, story and song, this year’s Glasgay! Festival is, as always, proof of the diverse talent and breadth of imagination available within Scotland’s LGBT community. This year’s theme is representation and amongst the theatrical highlights tackling this idea are Grant Smeaton’s chameleon-like take on the personal and sexual journeys of five characters from the androgynous and experimental seventies to the present day in Ch Ch Changes, James Ley’s Spain mixing middle-aged passion and hedonism under the sun with touching nostalgia, and Derek McLuckie’s individual and hallucinatory trip in his creative multimedia whirlwind Glue Boy Blues.
Almost certainly the most anticipated production in the festival is Scotland’s very own Makar Liz Lochhead’s show about her predecessor in: Edwin Morgan’s Dreams and Other Nightmares which looks at the poet’s creative power, his life and the pain of having to hide his sexuality, as well as the coded expression of his desires hidden in his poetry. Cabaret has always been central to queer culture and there’s plenty on offer here with London’s queen of the alternative drag scene Jonny Woo and fellow Londoners Bourgeois and Maurice at the Arches. The venue also plays host to award winning dance group Company Chordelia with their own take on the artform.
There’s even more room for cabaret and general fun with Glasgay’s brand new venue Rose & Grants who play host to the Non Stop Cabaret Buffet hosted by Amy Lamé who also brings her performance piece Unhappy Birthday, as does former PC Plum from Balamory Andrew Agnew with Dually Andrew. Stand up gets a look in with American superstar Margaret Cho in town alongside Scottish superstar Craig Hill and a trio of talents from around the British Isles – Jo Jo Sutherland, Viv Gee and Pauline Sutherland.
This year’s festival sees the first Group Show from artists at Glasgay with Barry M Wolfe, Garry Mclaughlin and Grant Alexander McDonald giving us there own take on REINVENTION through Brazilian transsexuals to comic book heroes. Glasgay’s Film Programme also looks at identity and representations with documentaries such as Jackie Forster: High Heels to Sensible Shoes and a look at the 30 years of The Mr Leather contest which now draws thousands to compete for the title in Kink Crusaders‘ erotic and entertaining fiction. (A lot like the stylish and seductive study of 1960s Parisian Lesbian underworld Gigola and John Walters’s classic Polyester).
This is a wonderful chance to take in the serious, the silly, the thought provoking, the disturbing and the artistic imaginations in Scotland and the UK’s LGBT community, and if you bring an open mind and your curiosity you’ll walk away with your horizons expanded and your preconceptions challenged. Festival producer Steven Thomson spoke to me about Glasgay’s past, present and future.
For those new to it, how would you explain Glasgay?
Glasgay was founded in 1993. It’s an annual festival that takes place in October and November each year. It’s primarily for the the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community but around a third of the audience are heterosexual. It’s a mixture of theatre, comedy, film, dance, visual arts, club nights, ceilidhs etc. with a blend of cutting edge work and more mainstream events.
So what can audiences expect from this year’s programme?
The main theme of this year’s festival is representation and right across the whole programme we’re looking at the representation at the gay, lesbian and trans-experience within our worlds and asking relevant questions. For instance in our visual arts programme we’re looking at the notion of man/superman, heroes and heroines in an exhibition called Re-Invention; it looks at transgender street workers in Brazil alongside supermodels and cartoon art workshops that examine the notion of superheroes as transgender warriors.
One of the theatrical highlights of the festival is Liz Lochhead’s commissioned Edwin Morgan: Dreams and Other Nightmares. Can you tell us a little about that?
The play, which is one of Glasgay’s main commissions this year, stems not only from Edwin Morgan’s death and his late coming out in his seventies but also from a desire to represent his real life and his back story more effectively. We often feel that with gay people who come out later in life, particularly those of an older generation, they’ve spent a huge part of their life living in the closet. Although Edwin put a lot of his private life in his work, very few people knew he was gay, so although some people were aware of the homo-erotic references in his work they didn’t know that these related to his real life experiences.
I had no idea until a friend of mine, who’s a poet and an Edwin Morgan fan, explained it to me. She particularly recommended the poem Strawberries.
Strawberries is quite interesting, it’s a love poem written to his lover whilst they were sitting on the Cathkin Braes on a summer’s day. Although the poem is about the eating of strawberries, it’s actually a coded reference to having sex outdoors. It’s a poem full of highly erotic imagery; he talks about biting into this luscious strawberry and the juice running down his lips – I think in many of his poems Edwin was tipping the wink to the audience about his life, codifying his own experiences. For example, there’s another poem about an apple in a basket winking it’s one eye at him as he walks past, knowing that he wants to take a bite out of it. These references are certianly plain to see once you begin to look for them.
What we’re celebrating with this play isn’t so much Edwin’s passing, as his continuing relevance to the community where the whole issue of coming out, particularly if you’re elderly, is still very challenging; we wanted to reach out to an older generation who often don’t feel represented.
You spoke about the theme of representation for this year’s festival, can you tell us a little more about that?
Obviously our audience are quite astute and observant in terms of how we’re portrayed in popular culture. Because Glasgay has always been a slightly populist festival I do look particularly at things such as the portrayal of a gay couple in Eastenders or the outcry about too many lesbians and gays on Coronation Street; or the recent situation with Opera North where they used the word ‘queer’ and a council almost backed out. Issues like this have made us constantly look at the issue of whether our full identities are being represented in mainstream media: does the media fully understand the nuances of our lifestyle? Do they understand why some of our queens make the best bitches? Do they understand some of our tribal cultures? Some of our names and ways of referencing ourselves sound otherworldly, dangerous and different to the outside world, but actually when you examine those tribal behaviours they are not as demonic or odd as the heterosexual world makes them out.
From an older generation’s point of view there’s always been this battleground as to whether people think “queer” is good or bad and one of the things we’ve been trying to do over the years is to reclaim queer in a positive way in terms of a celebration of identity and address the way that society demonises us by drawing parallels. That’s been a movement within our community to try and broaden out the representation of ourselves, be it transgender artists or middle-aged gay men going through various lifestyle crises and changes. Also we’ve no desire to come across as a narrow youth-focused festival; for instance the film programme is looking at the representation of women and of beauty. So much of our culture, particularly gay culture, relies on a sexualised, stereotyped image of gay men or lesbians that needs to be broadened out, and so that’s where this drive comes from.
With the addition of the new venue Rose & Grants there’s even more opportunity for Cabaret in the festival. How important is it as an artform?
The cabaret scene is important for us as it represents some of the strengths and unities between the solo artists, duos and travelling companies that make up a particularly queer, politicised aspect of the community. Sadly it’s also a reflection of the state of public financing of the arts in that we can’t commission as much ensemble work or stage as many productions so we have to rely on ‘friends of the family’ to come in and give the festival a bit of flavour and colour. In some respects we’ve been extremely lucky this year and we’ve got the cream of the cabaret circuit. There’s both local and national artists, particularly London artists where the LGBT cabaret scene is much more regular and stronger. I think it’s good for Glasgay to reflect that every now and then, but obviously we’d love to commision more ensemble work for the theatre.
There are many who would say that LGBT issues and productions have now bled into mainstream theatre and that there’s less need for specific LGBT festivals like Glasgay. How would you answer that?
I think there are still some venues that are doing something for the LGBT audience, but if you take a straw poll of LGBT work across Scotland, then other than the odd film or the Edinburgh Festival, where work isn’t necessarily identified as LGBT, then year round there isn’t really a great deal of work represented. That’s true of all equalities, not just LGBT. I think there’s still a certain conservatism within venues and culture as a whole where they only want to be associated with the shiny happy parts, so they’ll have a ‘big gay wedding’ but they’re not necessarily willing to deal with body issues or representations of sexuality.
I think Scotland suffers from this mix of conservatism with a small C and calvanism with a big C. Now that the Equality Act has been rolled out, more organisations are looking to see what they can learn from the LGBT culture to pass on. But it’s whether they are able to fully represent us, give us a platform and the freedom of expression we need; I think that’s the battleground and will be for some time.
I can certainly see it changing in terms of how academic bodies work with us and their desire to both be forward facing to their student body and be representative to their needs rather than having a heirarchical top down approach, but in public life with government, funders and areas such as the health service we’re seen as a box to be ticked on a form rather than a true, close, effective partner.