ThisIsPopBaby are the party animal of the Irish arts scene. The Dublin-based theatre company are renowned for their gloriously inventive and celebratory productions, includingand . Their latest show, however, explores what happens when the party isn't so much fun anymore.
, which premieres at the Cork Midsummer Festival, is a deeply personal collaboration between director Phillip McMahon and choreographer Philip Connaughton. The dance-theatre piece explores the impact of the chemsex scene, which involves the use of dangerous drugs such as GHB (‘G’) or crystal meth, to enhance sexual performance, often in casual encounters or at parties, and mainly among the gay male community.
Drug use is nothing new in sections of the gay community, says McMahon, but there are particular dangers which have emerged in the chemsex scene that need to be aired.
“Let’s be honest, drugs and sex in the queer community is a tale as old as time. What you were seeing a lot in the 90s and the early 2000s was this massive love bomb of MDMA [ecstasy] and in some ways, communities being forged from moments on the dance floor. Then the scene changed and what we were seeing was GHB and crystal meth coming in. There was an escalation of addiction that was compounding a lot of issues for queer people — gay men is what we are talking about mostly in this piece,” says McMahon.
He is aware that some people can dip in and out of the chemsex scene and function perfectly well but says there is an increasing number ending up in trouble. “From our research, some people are saying, 'look we’re fine, this is something we do for pleasure’, but we’re also seeing a darker side. People are losing a lot in their lives — their homes, their jobs and in extreme cases, people are dying.”
According to Connaughton, the show is about starting a conversation involving everyone on a subject which is very much in the shadows.
“A lot of people we spoke to had no idea what chemsex was or that it existed. That’s okay when it’s good but when everything is not good, that is problematic because there are no resources, understanding or language to deal with it.”
McMahon says the chemsex scene is a tempting proposition for gay men in a society where their self-expression has been constrained. “When you walk through the world and straight sexuality is the value system, it is a minefield of how you negotiate your own desires and intimacy. For a lot of people, and those who are already isolated, when there is this magic wand of drugs unlocking your self-esteem, that is very alluring. So I’m under no illusions as to how people might become addicted or go down that chems tunnel.”
While some people won’t welcome attention being drawn to the chemsex scene, it is time for the community to speak out, he says. McMahon is aware that the scene seems to offer people a shortcut to pleasure. “Drugs can be transcendental, it can change your worldview. If your body is unlocked in a certain way… then for some people it tips over into something else. I believe the community will understand that we are just representing a moment. In the gay rights or queer movement, we have always shown up for each other, what we have here is a massive health crisis. We have had friends or acquaintances who have died or gone down difficult paths — this is our way of showing up for our brothers.”
focuses on the gay community but McMahon says that the piece will resonate with all of those affected by Irish society’s historically repressive attitude to sex and the body.
“We also talk about the high of the session and how Irish people in general, not just queer people, need to celebrate the pleasure of our bodies, we so rarely got to do that.”
The goal ofis not to impart any lessons, stresses McMahon. “This is not like a public service announcement, there is no parable here, there is no moral judgment. What the audience will see is hopefully an abstracted but real representation of a world, spoken from the inside.”
Dance is a central element of the production and enables a more fluid and flexible approach to the subject matter, says Connaughton.
“The whole theme of addiction and particularly substance abuse is something that sits in the body in a very particular way. It has to be something where movement can fill the gap, where words don’t always quite reach. There is something about the body in an intoxicated state which is very interesting.
"Also, with these particular drugs, the whole sexual aspect of it as well, it very much lives in a physical world. It is quite a challenge to take that on.”
A short work-in-progress film ofwas shown online as part of last year’s Midsummer Festival, and McMahon says they were blown away by the response.
“I thought if a hundred people see this and offer some feedback, we’ll be laughing — 2,500 people watched the film. Sometimes you catch a wave of a moment where you go ‘oh, this is not about moral outrage, this is about people who want more information'. The work in progress ended up putting a lot of petrol in our tank, we thought this is going to be something that people want to see.”
The show will be staged at the Marina Market, a cavernous warehouse that's one of the new venues for the Cork festival. “It is the perfect venue. Anyone who has followed the ThisIsPopBaby journey will know everything is wrapped up in party, high octane performance. This is a visceral dance piece. We are transforming this warehouse space into an extreme club vibe. It is going to be a wild, high-octane dance theatre experience. We are also acutely aware that it is a festival — people have paid a babysitter, we want them to have a big night out. That is what we always aim for.”
Being able to stage a live production after lockdown is reason enough to celebrate, says McMahon.
“I think everybody went through a personal crisis but in theatre, we thought ‘will we ever get to do this again and if we do, will people want to come back and what will they want to see?’ So yeah, it feels momentous. We are celebrating 15 years of ThisIsPopBaby, this year. Just to have full houses and have people back in the room and talking about the shows again feels magic. We are clinging on to every experience for dear life now.”
- www.corkmidsummer.com. , Jun 15-17, The Warehouse @ Marina Market.