Dublin Gay Theatre Festival is for everyone, with plays in venues across the city, says Colette Sheridan
FROM drag queens to the coming-out of TV star Eilish O’Carroll (Mrs Brown’s Boys), the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival (May 7-20) has something for everyone. The festival, with 22 shows, is “not for the ghetto,” says artistic director, Brian Merriman. “It’s for the gay and straight community. About 50% of our audience and producers are straight. The festival is an intercultural dialogue. It’s us presenting ourselves as citizens of a pluralist democracy. We’re telling our stories in our own city as part of completing its cultural map. The gay community is our bedrock, but it’s fully understood that we are out in the mainstream.”
The festival, now in its ninth year, was established by Merriman to promote awareness. With a background in musical theatre, he had played Oscar Wilde in an Irish musical, A Chelsea Affair, in 2000. He then completed a master’s degree in equality studies at UCD.
“It was coming up to the 10th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I did some research and discovered there was no gay visibility at all. If you wanted a picture of a gay man, you got David Norris, the lovely David. I went to an exhibition of photos shown at Pride and everybody was wearing a mask. I felt I had to do something about it. I wondered where were the new voices and the new stories? Where do we honour our past?” he says.
Merriman launched the festival with 11 plays.
“It was received with curiosity. To be fair, Dublin is a good home for it. But it did irk some people because it hadn’t gone through the arts establishment or applied for grants. It certainly attracted new people to the theatre. I really challenged young gay people in the arts to actually write their own stories rather than look to discover their identity through other people’s stories.”
Merriman says it was challenging to attract international companies. “But we have sold it internationally. We have networked Irish theatre production companies with foreign companies. Because we were the last country in Western Europe to decriminalise homosexuality, our capacity to tell our own stories isn’t as strong as some other cultures.”
Eilish O’Carroll, a sister of Brendan O’Carroll, is premiering her new play, which tells her coming-out story. “Eilish has identified the festival as being the proper home for her play. She was married and, as far as I know, only discovered her sexual identity later in life,” he says.
The festival is dependent on volunteers. It has funding of €6,000 from Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland, and support from the private sector.
“We had a small bit of support from the Arts Council before, but not this year. After nine years, it’s about time we were put on a firmer footing,” he says.
Despite the festival’s large international programme, Merriman doesn’t have the funding to travel the world watching plays. “The Edinburgh Festival has given me some support. I go there every year and they facilitate me. I might go to 40 plays in four or five days. From there, we reach out and build our network. In Edinburgh, we are recognised as the biggest theatre festival of its kind in the world,” he says.
Merriman says the festival has fought for its space in Ireland. “While there have been a few people in the arts community that have been wonderful to us, over all we’d be sneered at and sniffed at. But I’ve always been a theatre practitioner. I don’t believe one should wait around. There’s some very good Irish plays knocking around that will not get off the page unless the writers get a grant. I actually think you create your own work and your own dynamic in theatre. From there, it grows,” he says.
The gay theatre scene in Dublin has progressed since the 1970s, when the authorities tried to close down the Project Arts Centre because it produced a play from the Gay Sweat Shop. “Now, the Lord Mayor comes to some of our launches. The council flies our flags on the quays and over the Liffey, the word ‘gay’ is used (on signs). We do that deliberately. Our purpose is to claim equal citizenship and dialoguing with mainstream society.”
Merriman knows what kind of play he doesn’t want. “A play that ends with someone coming out is not something that’s really of interest. I want to explore the opinion and contribution of gay people to the development of a gay society. I also want topicality. For example, there are great moves being made in the transgender community in Ireland. We have a terrific transgender play in the festival, called Rachel’s Cafe, which is based on a true story.
“We also have a historical play about what went on in a Catholic seminary. There’s a mental health play. That’s important because a lot of young people are subject to what I call the constructed shame of being gay. They either commit suicide or they’re bullied.”
Merriman says the festival is a way of “showing our truth.”
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