Interview | Gays Against the Free State

Gays against the Free State, written by spoken word poet, theatre maker and producer Oisín McKenna, and directed by Colm Summers, is a new show about revolution and reform. It spans the decades, from Countess Markievicz’s era to Marriage Equality. It questions how we arrived at this point and what is next for social movements in Ireland.

Just one year on from Marriage Equality, as our government rolls out its celebratory rhetoric around the events of 1916, Oisín and his co-performers will also look to the past. They will consider the various methods different communities in society use in order to enact change; taking traditional discourses and framing them within a queer context.

The stage at Smock Alley Theatre will become a live referendum campaign, a multi-media experience using familiar cultural imagery and ephemera; to challenge the ways we consider social movements how they happen, and what they mean for us as a society.

What do you think drives people to demand change?

I suppose people demand change for lots of complex reasons, these vary depending on contexts. What we’re particularly interested in is the methods people use to demand change. We want to talk about why one group might chose to canvass and lobby politicians, where another group will block cars and squat buildings. Why some people work to reform a system, where other’s work to bring about a new system. What method are more effective? Is one method fairer, or kinder, or more democratic? Do some people benefit more than others by choosing certain methods, and do some people lose out?

You will be using cultural references to help tell this story, have you done something like this before? 

Yeah, definitely. My work is always pretty loaded with references to popular culture and politics. I like using different images and reference points that seem to be in conflict with each other, I like the tension that can arise from that. I often take reference points from Irish cultural history that can seem conservative, traditional, or ‘naff’, and place them within a queer context; therefore subverting them. I think by presenting audiences with very familiar references, but re-contextualising them, it can open up new meanings, and present audiences with access routes into understanding the work.

A predominant theme within the play is Ireland’s legacy of erasure and revisionism, and how this continues in a contemporary context. Oisín explains that using Markievicz’s story was a useful way to highlight this practice, ‘Certain voices are not recorded in history… certain voices are not listened to in our movements today. Particularly, we look at how female, femme-presenting, or trans voices are or aren’t valued within history, and within contemporary movements. Markievicz, who unusually for a female activist in Ireland at that time, always has had the importance of her role recognised and recorded in history, provides an interesting way into the material’.

Do you think creative ways of tampering with the status quo challenges the power dynamic?

I think that creative practice does have the potential to deliver real political and social outcomes. It may not often cause policy makers to panic, but appealing to policy makers is not the only way to create social or political change. However, yes, I do worry about preaching to the converted. I am conscious that a lot of political art places a huge importance on ‘starting a conversation’, but I not sure how useful (or ethical) those conversations are unless specific actions are taken to include people, outside of our own communities, in meaningful ways. And those conversations can become redundant unless we develop strategies for turning conversation into action.

What is next? Are you cynical, or hopeful that change is happening?

I’m both cynical and hopeful at different times. There are lots of positive changes happening, particularly around understandings of gender and sexuality. The pro-choice movement here is thriving, and despite the embarrassing inadequacy of the government’s ‘citizen’s assembly”’, the grassroots movement is broader and more active than ever – that makes me feel hopeful. Obviously there are lots of unsettling changes happening too, and neo-liberal capitalism is stronger than ever. But I do think it’s important to believe that positive, radical change can happen. Otherwise, no-one would ever do anything.

How did you feel about centenary commemorations this year?

The state celebrations were definitely a bit gross and weird. I know it’s been said so many times now that it feels like a cliche, but the current government clearly do not pursue policies that are consistent with the ideals of the 1916 proclamation, and to see them try to position themselves as the heirs of those ideals feels a bit icky.

What did you learn while researching for this show?

So much! There were so many things about Irish and queer history that I didn’t know before. There was a fairly lengthy research process for this show, so it’s hard to pick out one specific thing. Come see the show to find out!

Oisín will be joined on stage by Leonard Buckley, actor, composer, visual artist and writer; recent theatre credits include Allsop in ‘Nobody Here But Us Chickens’ (Samuel Beckett Theatre) and Antonio in ‘The Tempest’ (ATRL), actor Eavan Gaffney; ‘At Swim’ and ‘Two Boys’ (Samuel Beckett Theatre), Stephen Quinn, a performance artist most recently seen in Zoe Ni Riordain’s, ‘Recovery’ (Project Arts Centre) and Sian Ni Mhuirí, writer and director of children’s theatre hit ‘Auntie Ben’.They will perform at Smock Alley Theatre, from September 21st-24th . The preview takes place on September 20th. Book tickets at / 1850 374 643 (from Aug 31st).

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