Saturday 1 November will also see the first rehearsed reading of Untitled 2009, a new project written by playwright Nelly Kelly and directed by David Wood.
The play takes as its inspiration the GoMA exhibition of the same name: in 2009, as part of the Glasgay Festival – which the premiere of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven was also part of – a Bible was put on display at GoMA with the notice: “If you feel you’ve been excluded from the Bible, please write your way back into it.” Accusations of blasphemy followed from churches across Scotland, and globally, but now, a decade on, the words that were scrawled into its margins performed, challenged and explored by a dynamic ensemble of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming performers. Untitled 2009 is supported by Outspoken Arts Scotland.
I am interested in the inspiration for the piece… what made you decide that this particular event could inspire a play?
It was actually the Queen Jesus Productions team that brought the idea to me. ‘Untitled 2009’ was part of the art exhibit Made in God’s Image at the GOMA around the time that Jo Clifford’s play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven was first staged, and both received similar amounts of controversy. As a former altar server, I have long been interested in the ways in which queer people can dismantle internalised homophobia/transphobia inflicted on us by major power structures by reclaiming power and space from those structures, this exhibition felt like it was actively doing that which is why I was very excited to come on board as the writer.
Do you think that this kind of direct work – inviting people to engage with an object and rewrite their place within history – would have the same impact now, and have we come far from the activities, attitudes and activism of a decade ago?
I’d argue that it’s not about rewriting history, the provocation for people to interact with the Bible was to write their way back in and reclaim their space within that.
I question whether part of the reason for such a backlash to the original exhibit was because it was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. In that respect I think it feels much more like a current form of activism. It seems like there is a stronger cultural awareness nowadays in terms of the writing of history being dominated by white, straight, cisgender men as well as an acknowledgement of the resulting loss of rich diversity. I do think that there is more activism in response to unravelling this idea of past and having those silenced throughout history identify their own voices and actions throughout that. Of course these actions were being taken in 2009 but they have been refined over the past decade and have been aided by the globalisation that advancements in technology have provided.
I believe this kind of direct work has as much impact as it did then, so long as its focus shifts with the times. For example, in 2009 the LGBTQIA+ people who interacted with this work predominantly wrote about gay and lesbian issues with very little mention of any other identities included in the LGBTQIA+ community. Ten years on gay and lesbian people in the UK have access to much greater rights and more opportunities to have their voices heard (that’s not to say the more doesn’t still need to be done, of course). Now a decade later, this sort of direct work would still have its place but would hold much more impact were it to focus on voices that are less marginalised than 10 years ago, so more likely to contribute, yet still regularly stifled in our society.
This is why I find it very exciting to have the opportunity to cast 6 Trans, Gender Non-Conforming performers for the play version. In many ways the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t face the same level of persecution, however in regards to those that came forward to write their way into ‘Untitled 2009’, a lot of their anger, frustration and sadness, mixed with their tenacity, comradery and self-embracing qualities mirror a lot of the feelings the trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming community are feeling now – especially this past year in light of the Gender Recognition Act consultation and the heightened prejudice people have faced as a backlash of this.
How far do you feel that the question of religious feelings about LGBTQIA+ identity remain live and current in 2019? Has religion not retreated from its previous position as a moral and cultural arbiter?
In some senses, yes, it has seen that retreat, though I believe that was also the case by 2009. However, 2009 was the year that Pope Benedict XVI said the use of condoms ‘aggravated’ the AIDS epidemic and only this year the Vatican released ‘Male and female he created them. For a path of dialogue on the issue of gender in education’ so regardless of this retreat, religion still proves to be an oppressive force in the lives of LGBTQIA+ people.
In a lot of ways this play is much more about LGBTQIA+ feelings towards religion.
What made me most interested in the relevance of ‘Untitled 2009’ now, came after a discussion with a friend about a rise in Europe of right-wing political parties presenting themselves as ‘pro-gay’ in an attempt to encourage anti-immigrant sentiment. The reason for this is to perpetuate the idea that migrants who follow Islam refuse to accept LGBTQIA+ people and that to be pro-immigration is to threaten the rights and safety of LBTQIA+ people.
When discussing ‘Made in God’s Image’ with one of its creators, Anthony Schrag, he told me that the thing that the exhibition left him with was the realisation that faith, like sexuality and gender, wasn’t a choice. Either you have it or you don’t – regardless of whether you want to have it or not and this felt really striking to me. As a person who has spent most of their adult life staunchly against institutionalised religion after exiting the catholic education system, I myself have been guilty in overlooking my own prejudices regarding faith.
So although religion has retreated, it has merely paved the way for institutional structures built on similar foundations merely selling us a different story. ‘Untitled 2009’ the play, aims to provide a provocation regarding the separation between choice and lack thereof, and the choices that are made that infringe on anyone’s right to respect for the aspects of their lives that aren’t chosen, be that gender, sexuality, faith etc.
The transition from a gallery event to a theatrical one intrigues me: has this presented any challenges or inspirations that have surprised you?
It is safe to say that this has, without doubt, presented me with my biggest challenge to date as a writer. This is in part due to the writing work I am used to creating as, until now, I have never worked with anything but my own imagination. There is huge complexity in taking the fragmented thoughts, feelings and ideas of people written into a Bible in an exhibit that I never visited (though in Glasgow at the time, I’d only have been 15/16 years old), and turning it into a piece of theatre.
The complexities are two-fold, the first being that it is difficult to take very fragmented statements and combine them in a way that has enough of a dramatic structure to provide an engaging piece of theatre. The other is upon finding a potential dramatic structure in which this could work, how do you weave through this narrative in a way that doesn’t give bias to your own charged thoughts on religion when these thoughts are so highly mirrored in such a large amount of the entries people made? Also, as this exhibit was open to the public to engage with, many of the comments in reality have nothing to do with the purpose of the artwork, thought they have become part of it, and it has been a very challenging experience deciding what to transfer into play form and how to do that. At times this has resulted in the process feeling very slow-moving. However, overcoming these challenges has felt like an exciting move in my career and shift in how I approach my writing.
The inspirations that have surprised me most by far are the people who have caused me to have my own revelations regarding faith versus religion. As part of my writing process I very actively tried to engage with LGBTQIA+ people of faith in conversations about religion. Admittedly, this was for practical reasons as I planned to create a more current feel to the work by also including contemporary comments from people on their thoughts on the Bible. Having these conversations left me inspired by those who still have unshakeable faith in their God, even after facing direct persecution by the power structures of their religious institutions.