Mixed memories of gay days in Cork

ACTOR and playwright Karen Cogan

By Ellie O’Byrne

ACTOR and playwright Karen Cogan is revisiting her roots in Drip Feed, her self-scripted one-woman show set in Cork’s gay scene in 1998.

Drip Feed, Cogan’s second play, tells the story of Brenda, a lesbian woman in her thirties living a life at once hedonistic and lost, looking for love and finding rejection in Ireland’s second city, in an era where homophobia was still rife.

“I had the idea that I wanted to revisit the feeling of 1990s Cork,” Cogan says.

“Post-divorce referendum, pre-marriage-equality referendum was a really interesting cultural moment for the queer community in Ireland.”

Now in her 30s and having lived in London for the past 11 years, Cogan was in her teens when she came out and began frequenting Cork’s handful of LGBT haunts in the late 1990s. Although informed by her experiences, Brenda’s story is not her own; she says her memories of the time are coloured by youthful excitement.

My awareness was quite teenage and unclear,” she says. “They were letting people into Sir Henry’s nightclub underage and I remember it all as super exciting, but in hindsight of course it was extremely small and limiting.”

A smattering of bars and clubs catered to Cork’s LGBT community in the ’90s: Loafers bar on Douglas Street, since closed, was a hub and the only visibly gay bar in the city for many years, while clubs like Sir Henry’s were a mixed crowd, but gay-friendly. The Other Place on South Main St and, years later, LINC (Lesbians in Cork), offered community supports, health advice and social opportunities.

But the flip-side of this burgeoning sense of community was the ever-present homophobia. “So many of my friends experienced horrendous homophobia in the streets,” Cogan says. “There’s a moment in the play where Brenda recounts being spat at by a man in the street while she’s holding hands with her girlfriend. That’s something that really happened to a friend of mine, who was 18 at the time.”

Cogan left Cork in 2002 and lived in Dublin for five years before going to London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). It had been her ambition to act since childhood, and her second attempt at getting one of RADA’s notoriously competed-for places: she previously auditioned at 17, and didn’t get in.

Yet now, eight years after her graduation, she’s making waves as much as an emerging playwright as an actor. Her first play, The Half Of It, picked up a Stewart Parker Trust Award last year following a sold out Dublin run.

Dripfeed itself has been commissioned by a production company for television development and just enjoyed a run in Edinburgh. She has several other ambitious writing projects on the go.

“I find myself not wanting to take up loads of my writing time with acting. This could be transient, I don’t know. I might go back to acting on other people’s projects in the future. I don’t want to be negative, but there were just a lot of disappointing scripts: a lot of it is still very male-centric.”

Ever since the Waking The Feminists campaign shone a spotlight on imbalanced gender representation in Irish theatre in 2016, there’s been an increased awareness that theatre hadn’t exactly offered a diversity of voices, and Cogan says the same is true in the UK.

“They’ve just published a study to see how many female playwrights are being put on big stages, and it’s still shocking,” she says. “Change is in the ether, but it’s still slow. Not to get too political but the structures we’re working with are inherently patriarchal. It’s going to take time and it can’t just be women and queer people pushing for change: it has to come from the top.”

It was, then, partly her quest for female roles real enough in their flaws that set her on her current writer’s trajectory. “You hear a lot from male writers on the grotesqueness of bodily functions and this kind of inner monologue of the male mind. It’s still not so normal to hear that from the female perspective. I really wanted to go deep into Brenda’s heart and mind, and the awfulness of her in many ways.”

Drip Feed by Karen Cogan runs during Dublin Fringe Festival from Sept 19-22 in the Project Arts Centre. www.fringefest.com

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