Luke Skilbeck, Artistic Director, writes about queering ‘Modest’, Kiln Theatre to 15 July.

Modest follows the story of Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson, as she navigates the patriarchal art world and the Royal Academy specifically. The show is absolutely queer and trans centred – how did we get here?

Paul Smith (Artistic Director of the fantastic Middle Child) got in touch and asked if I’d like to come on board. I read the play (written by Ellen Brammar) and I loved it. When I first read a play for a potential project I’m looking for opportunities for queering form, story and character – does it lend itself to be queered, how is it queer already?

Elizabeth’s story is queer – she was transgressing gender norms and social constraints as she pushed against sexism and patriarchy. Ellie’s play already had four drag kings, sending up the men Elizabeth encountered, heightening her alienation and struggle, so that was a great start. Next it was about pushing that, how could we merge cabaret, theatre and drag in an authentic and integrated way? Something high camp, high satire and farce, but with a grounded protagonist in the middle.

Modest on tour at Kiln Theatre in London
Modest on tour (credit Tom Arran, image supplied)

We switched characters from cis to trans, and considered how this speaks to and enhances the themes of the play. How is privilege, power and success operating between sisters who are trans and cis? The sisters have this fierce and complex love. How does Elizabeth use (or not use) her power and privilege as a white cis women to leverage change? Ultimately all our characters are navigating cisnormativity and heteropatriarchy – indeed as are the men in the show – no one is served by it, so what are we going to do about that?!

Part of queering and creation is holding a space and facilitating a room where performers are also collaborators. They know their stuff and their craft, they know audiences – what lands, what won’t. So it’s about listening, respecting and trusting the cast both as actors and also as fellow queer and trans people, and at the same time keeping a firm hold on the bigger picture and serving the story and the show as a whole. It’s a fine balance!

Queer performance is different in that way to other work, it’s exceptionally personal, and the line between character and artist is thinner, more delicate, and more immediate. Yes, we are watching characters, but under them we are also watching drag performers, and under them we are watching queer /trans people. Not all audiences certainly, but many will be with them on multiple levels.

Queering is also about celebrating sexuality, and I love our fledging relationship between two queer characters in the show, Alice and Mary. More queer storylines please!

“I’m so tired of things taking so long to change” – Besse.

Our show is fun, sexy, it wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s also angry. Bessie, a Black, trans, working class aspiring artist says “I’m so tired of things taking so long to change”. And I hear you Bessie. Me too. Resistance comes in the form of humour, of resilience, and of queer solidarity, all of which ‘Modest’ has in abundance.

– Luke Skilbeck
 –
Artistic Director, Milk Presents

Tickets for Modest: https://kilntheatre.com/whats-on/modest/

Modest runs to 15 July 2023 at Kiln Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR, United Kingdom. 

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