At a time when you can binge watch HBO and watch a blockbuster on your phone, people who work within live performance might find ourselves facing the inevitable question, why does theatre matter? So much so that there is a national campaign in the UK called 'My Theatre Matters' which stands up against the closure of local theatres by local authorities in times of increasing cuts. Sadly it's often a hard question for us to answer robustly, audiences seem increasingly hard to find, the money is decreasing and diversity in the sector is still poor.
But I've spent my whole working life and most of my childhood connected to live performance so I can reel off a million reasons why it matters. Recently however, one justification in particular has been at the forefront of my mind. I have been producing a new show called BULLISH with my theatre company Milk Presents. BULLISH explores the sticky and joyous complexities of gender identity, and in particular the fluid negotiation of gender transition. We started making the show in the summer of 2016 and it premieres this week. Over the course of its development the landscape of gender politics has shifted, both within the company and in the world.
Writer/director Lucy J Skilbeck has furiously written, torn-up and re-written BULLISH many times in order to reflect the ever-changing dialogue we are having as a company about gender transition, based on the personal experience of the team and cast. Skilbeck and the cast are re-writing their own gender-identity almost as frequently as they are re-writing the play, meaning I am producing a show that is simultaneously ahead and behind the collective status quo. I guess you could say BULLISH is continuously moving from opposition to assimilation and then back to opposition, which in itself feels very queer and transient.
But outside of our theatre making bubble people all over the world are having the same conversations, with increasing visibility and that too has had an impact on what we present on stage this week. In January this year a special issue of National Geographic entitled 'Gender Revolution' featured transgender nine year old Avery Jackson on the cover, the US saw a dramatic spike in transgender political candidates and just last week John Lewis announced they would no longer gender their children's clothes range. On the flip-side Trump's administration scrapped a directive for protection for transgender students, banned openly transgender people from the military and June 17' statistics suggest that nearly half of young transgender people in the UK have attempted suicide. It's difficult making a show about something that seems to be simultaneously progressing and regressing.
But therein lies the joy of making live performance, it is ephemeral. It can therefore shift on a daily basis to reflect the world around it. Of course you can't re-write the show every night, but in live performance there is always time to react and reflect. It doesn't risk becoming an out-dated pastiche because it doesn't remain anywhere but in the memories of the audience who have seen it. It's not surprising therefore that there was a wave of shows at this year's Edinburgh Fringe exploring gender identity, why Milk Presents have chosen theatre as a medium to tell our story and why Camden People's Theatre have programmed an entire festival of gender-anarchists. The conversation around gender identity is changing so rapidly you need to express that in artistic medium that is able to keep pace and keep up! Live performance is as fluid as gender and that is precisely why theatre matters.