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On and Off Stage: The Complexities of Queer Existence by Frankie Thompson.

Being in the arts right now is a fraught tango with capitalism and consumerism. We talk about our shows as ‘products’, and within fringe theatre communities, it feels like the same £20 is being passed between artists and venues. And artists are forced to become self-producing and self-resourcing businesses. 

Following the pandemic, artists also have had to resist being pressured into commodifying their identities in the pursuit of funding or opportunity. The paradox of the commodification of identity is that venues and organisations that have suddenly invested in performers from marginalised backgrounds and experiences often need to adapt their own working environments or practices but fail to do so. 

One example is an all-queer performance – which centred itself on making a safe space for gender non-conforming communities – being programmed for a one-off show at a mainstream professional theatre. This was pitched to the performance organisers as a huge opportunity for them to increase their platform and ‘elevate’ their practice to this mainstream performance space. It should have been a chance for queer performers to take up space. Instead, it is alleged that not only did the theatre fail to financially support the organisers in the jump from playing spaces with a maximum capacity of 150 to a capacity of several times that, they also did not adapt the building to be accessible for gender non-conforming people. Most notably, they did not make the toilets gender-neutral—the most basic and essential action. Furthermore, the team running the venue are said to have frequently misgendered the performers and their team. 

This is an example of the commodification of identity within commercial performance. Many venues and organisations align themselves with artists from marginalised identities but fail to adapt their practices, thinking, or physical space. Consequently, they come across as queer laundering their reputation or simply trying to be ‘on trend’.

By not listening and learning, venues fail to understand, support and advocate for those identities they purport to platform. Despite this corruption in the commercial landscape, the lack of funding and opportunity leaves marginalised artists with little alternative if they want to survive in the industry.

The depletion of early and mid-career opportunities in performance industries fuelled the founding of The Wardrobe, a tiny, DIY, ‘West End theatre’ and anarchist closet built inside a real live wardrobe. Ran by Wardrobe & Sons, a collective of independent queer artists, all of whom are traditionally unwelcome in more conventional theatre settings and contexts, headed up by myself as Artistic Director and Founder of The Wardrobe, and Company Producer, Beth Sitek.

The Wardrobe exists as a parody of the almost religious decor of the West End and attempts to break down the hierarchy and elitism of performance spaces. We want The Wardrobe to be a space where artists can take risks, get seen, and get heard. It packs down completely to fit on public transport and can be rebuilt and modified to adapt to the access requirements of artists. We want The Wardrobe to be a space that adapts to artists rather than artists adapting spaces. 

A They in A Manger (and other stories) is the first commission for The Wardrobe. We commissioned four artists from different performance disciplines to make a ten-minute piece each around the theme ‘performance as survival and/or celebration as Christmas’.

Christmas in the UK is traditionally a time of performance. Whether that be nativities, pantomimes, Boxing Day matinees, parents dressing up as Santa Claus. For queer people, this performance manifests in itself differently – often, it is the performance of our lives. Christmas can present to some of us the overwhelming, dangerous, triggering and unsettling challenge of how to perform ‘us’. A They In A Manger celebrates the importance of chosen families, queer community and survival of self in all the ways we choose to express, exist and simply be. 

A They In A Manger at Camden People's Theatre in London.
The cast of A They In A Manger

On the domestic stage in family homes, we perform our best, most palatable and least confusing selves in order to be safe, fit in, cope, entertain, distract, indulge and code switch to protect ourselves from violence and abuse at Christmas time. Queer people face the never-ending vicious cycle of never really being ‘off stage’. Whatever the act may be, it’s undeniable that performance is something we all use to affirm and/or hide, to dance and/or disappear, to celebrate and/or survive. 

This show aims to deconstruct the elitism of performance and blur the lines between domestic stages and performance stages. We are interested in looking at how these are not separate entities but are often interchangeable coping mechanisms for queer performers to be able to engage, connect and survive in the world which stretches beyond queer stages, nightlife and culture; in places where we are made to feel unwelcome. 

If performance is a gift, it’s a gift given to all who face the complexities of merely existing in everyday life.

A They in A Manger (and other stories) is hopefully the start of an anthology of queer performers (on stage and off) expressing in their own words (or not words) about the stages they face in everyday life, the experience of being a performer in the industry right now, the exhaustion of capitalism’s grip on their lives, the ways in which performance allows us to celebrate who we are, the ways in which performance allows us to survive.

Tickets for A They In A Manger:

A They In A Manger runs from 5 – 16 December at Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Road, London NW1 2PY, United Kingdom.

A They In A Manger is a queer Christmas nativity at Camden People's Theatre.

Frank's Closet is a gay themed musical at Wilton's Music Hall in London.

What’s on this week

Eagle Fridays club night at Eagle London gay bar.
Club Tantrum at Dalston Superstore
Cheer Up gay club night at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern
Feel It gay club
Klub in Soho Friday night
Desi Pride at Circa LGBTQ+ club
Wrong Techno After Hours party