Barry Priest is Queer Contact's Producer, and works alongside Contact’s Artistic Director, and other members of the programming team (including their young producers RE:CON) – to select the programme for the festival and LGBT events for the programme throughout the year. Starting in 1999 as the name for the theatre's projects for LGBT people, the festival began in 2010 and has run annually ever since. With this year's programme possibly its strongest yet, Haus of Phag caught up with Barry to talk about what we should expect from this year's festival.
Barry: We’ve had a great reaction to the programme in the past – with audiences regularly travelling from elsewhere in the UK and from Europe, Australia and the United States, to attend events - and it’s been brilliant to see so many shows sell-out. We’ve had jaw-dropping transatlantic vogue battles from the House of Suarez (who come back to the city on 7th February), beautifully nuanced theatre, bold and brash cabaret, and it’s been amazing to attract the likes of The Tiger Lillies, Joey Arias, and this year’s headliner – New York cabaret legend Mx Justin Vivian Bond (who appears on 14th and 15th February) - to the city.
It's also fantastic to support young artists through the programme and watch their development; seeing their confidence grow as performers and people is something that really inspires me. For example, Young Enigma, a poetry collective, (who appear at Polari on 10th February) have worked with authors and spoken word performers including Jackie Kay, Patience Agbabi, and Dean Atta at Contact. Members of our home-grown female performance company, Eggs Collective (performing 5th - 7th February) started their careers as part of Contact Young Company, developed as performers through working with artists like Dickie Beau, Scottee, Amy Lame and Taylor Mac and by being part of events like Mother’s Ruin (returning on 13th February) and Duckie.
Barry: Initiatives like LGBT History Month help to raise awareness and visibility of communities that are regularly marginalised and discriminated against worldwide. I think it’s particularly easy for some – especially people living in larger cities - to think that with more LGBT people on television and more legislation protections in place that there aren’t any more battles to be fought. In reality there is still a very long road ahead. It’s illegal to be gay in over 70 countries worldwide - resulting in imprisonment and death - and closer to home, homophobia is still rife in UK schools with bullying affecting over half of those questioned by Stonewall, and suicide rates for LGBT young people are thought to be up to three times higher than for heterosexual young people. There have been some horrific examples of transphobia in the last year too – from the treatment of teacher Lucy Meadows in the UK press leading to her suicide, Russia’s recent ban on transgender drivers, and Lelah Alcorn’s suicide in the United States - all of which proving that transphobia is alive and well. So something celebratory, reflective, inclusive and unifying like LGBT History Month can only be a good thing.
Haus: How would you define something as ‘Queer’?
Barry: For me Queer crosses sexuality and gender boundaries. As it applies to Queer Contact, our artists don’t have to identify as LGBT – however, the work they present must be of relevance to the LGBT community to be included in our programme.
Barry: Personally, I think Queer Performance inspires and challenges – it can be radical, it can be playful but above all it will make you think. It makes you look at your own life differently, and helps you embrace difference much more. Around 75% of Queer Contact’s audience identify as LGBT, and by having as diverse a programme as possible, we speak to a very wide audience. With this in mind, the festival helps to raise awareness of the issues affecting LGBT communities as much as it entertains.
Last year’s programme featured a theatrical response to homophobia and human rights abuses in Russia to coincide with the opening weekend of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and our key theatre commission for Queer Contact 2015 – Big Girl’s Blouse - is a celebratory performance from transgender performer Kate O’Donnell about her journey to becoming a woman. The show premieres at Queer Contact and goes on tour later this year (with dates confirmed at Brighton Fringe, and Leeds so far) and will profile the issues affecting trans people, helping to educate and inspire.
Elsewhere in this year’s festival, Ashley Knowles and Tom Marshman will take a look at society’s obsession with age and the impact this is having on both young and older LGBT people in Shortcuts (11th and 12th February).
Haus: If the objective of Gay Rights is assimilation and normalisation, do you think that could be at odds with Queer Performance and its celebration of difference?
Barry: As long as there is inequality, injustice and discrimination in the world there will always be artists who will seek to challenge the status quo.