by Alyson Campbell

in National Conference

Post image for Border-Crossings

(Photo by Ponch Hawkes. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

From 2008 Queen’s University Belfast has worked in partnership with the Outburst Queer Arts Festival to cross boundaries that seem determined to keep academia separate from wider areas of public life, not least queer life. Arriving in Belfast in 2007 to take up a lectureship in Drama at Queen’s, I brought with me, from my 8 years in Melbourne, an established creative partnership with Sydney playwright Lachlan Philpott and our very loose, queer performance assemblage wreckedAllprods. I was born and grew up in Northern Ireland and returning after a long period gave me the clarity that distance brings: it seemed clear that the years of the Troubles focused public attention (and money) on religious-sectarian binaries at the expense of attention to sexuality or gender issues. Northern Ireland remains very conservative, with a political system inseparable from religion (abortion is still illegal, for instance). When I was growing up there I felt deeply frustrated by my own sense of impotence in a society mired in violence and bigotry, and to which I did not know how to contribute. I left as soon as I could. Returning to work at Queen’s I became aware that my teaching, research, theatre practice and activism could all merge in a liberating way that could have an impact beyond my immediate students and faculty: unlike my teenage self, I could ‘do’ something. This impulse was realized in the establishment of Queer at Queen’s: an annual research and performance event hosted by Queen’s as part of Outburst. This program saw the first queer performance conference in Ireland: ‘Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson: Performing Queer Subjectivities,’ a riposte to the homophobic public statements made by Iris Robinson, at the time a Unionist Member of Parliament and also wife of the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In subsequent years it saw a focus on health and ideas of crip queer theories, with presentations by Professors Robert McRuer and Margrit Shildrick and performances such as Pete Edwards’ FAT: an extra-large fantasy.

Queer at Queen’s also allowed me to build on my work with Philpott, despite the physical distance between us. Recognising the need not just for material dealing with the lived, including sexual, experience of gay subjectivity but also for a queer dramaturgy, we staged a new version of Philpott’s first play Bison. This production, staged in Belfast in 2009 (and subsequently in London at the Oval House Theatre in 2010), and the recent premiering of Philpott’s new play The Trouble with Harry at Outburst 2013, mark a number of important and now well-established border crossings: there is now a strong relationship between queer performance in Belfast and Australia; between Outburst and wreckedAllprods; between wreckedAllprods and TheatreofplucK, the first publicly funded queer company in Ireland, who have produced Philpott’s work in N.I.; and between Queen’s and the Victorian College of the Arts, the University of Melbourne, where I work now.

To return to the need for a queer dramaturgy: like the stasis that occurred in N.I. from the late 1960s in terms of the development of gender and sexual equality, Northern Ireland has been equally slow to emerge from the history and dominance of the ‘literary’ theatre, aligned to realist principles and privileging the written text by a single author. So while there needed – and still needs – to be theatrical representations of contemporary gay life on N. Irish stages, just as necessary is a shift from the sort of realist dramaturgy that would demand a certain cohesion of character, a ‘plot’ that assumes progress and what Hans-Thies Lehmann calls a ‘closed cosmos’ in his seminal Postdramatic Theatre (2006).  A queer dramaturgy, then, arising from the same poststructuralist principles as the main strands of queer theory, resists all of these and seeks to find formal answers to how to represent subjectivities without identity politics or submitting to returning to ideas of identity as fixed. This is as hard as it sounds, as it demands both literary and performance dramaturgies that play with a whole range of devices that disrupt the smooth elision of actor and character distinction that mainstream/realist theatres perennially seem to aspire to, and instead create boundaries between performer and ‘character’ (if indeed there is something resembling this), between story or plot and the playing of it; it relies on fluid and shifting scenographies and performance styles. In Philpott’s writing this varies with each work, but is driven by the use of chorus, fragmentation, interruption, repetition and a requirement that performers switch between roles that are sometimes recognizably ‘characters’ (indeed, he develops brilliantly realized characters and writes cracking dialogue) and sometimes narrators giving information about scenes that they, and/or others, are part of. Their queerness is in this switching and their subsequent lack of stability. As a director, my job has always been to find ways to support and extend this dramaturgy through performance strategies that largely involve finding a scenography, a movement score and a performance style that is as fluid as the writing. Working with designer Niall Rea, the artistic director of TheatreofplucK in Belfast, has been a hugely productive collaboration, with Rea integrating lights and set to allow moments, spaces and places to appear and disappear as quickly as the sentence or clause in the writing that conjured them.

Queer at Queen’s has been a vibrant addition to Outburst Festival, then, allowing audiences who have largely felt they had no reason (or right) to enter the elite space of academia to cross over that boundary  – one that is literal as well as conceptual. In doing so they discover that to talk about queer things, to show queer things and to celebrate queer things is recognized within the university as vital to its relevance and remit.

Philpott and I are now both living in the same country and hemisphere and this feels like the start of a new phase for us and wreckedAllprods. The Trouble with Harry has Australia Council funding for its Australian premiere in Melbourne this year and, while it seems to be taking us into a more mainstream version of ‘success,’ we are currently working on a pilot project for the International AIDS conference 2014 that will be made in a fast and dirty way with minimal finance and time. For this piece, GL RY, we will take the literal and metaphorical glory hole into public space, looking at the hole as a place of transmission, or border-crossing. Working with Living Positive Victoria and a range of postgraduate students from the VCA, this is the first time in years that Lachlan and I can begin from scratch together, in the same place and just see what emerges.

Alyson Campbell’s work as a director spans a broad range of companies and venues in the US, Australia and the UK, from the four-stage Los Angeles Theatre Center, through Fringe, independent, student and community theatre. Her early work as assistant director to auteur Reza Abdoh has had an indelible influence on her practice, research and teaching. In Melbourne (2000-2007), she developed new writing through her partnership with Sydney playwright Lachlan Philpott and their independent performance collective wreckedAllproductions. Work for wreckedAll includes the premieres of Philpott’s plays Bison (2000) and Catapult (2003), Genet’s The Maids (2001) and Kushner’s Terminating (2002). For Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne, she has directed Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (2007) and the Australian premieres of Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies (2006) and Don DeLillo’s The Day Room (2004). She directed a new version of Bison in Belfast (2009) and London (2010). In 2013 she directed the premiere of Philpott’s play The Trouble with Harry at the Mac, Belfast, as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival. She will direct its Australian premiere in Melbourne in 2014.

Alyson is currently Head of Graduate Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on directing and dramaturgy, particularly on questions of queer dramaturgies, HIV and AIDS in performance, and understanding the affective and experiential nature of performance.