A Message of Pride from Mark Ball
Mark Ball, Creative Director at MIF
On the eve of this Pride weekend I’ve been reflecting on the experiences that have shaped me and on the journey of our community over the past three decades.
28 years ago I dived headlong into the heart of queer theatre when I joined Gay Sweatshop, working with the brilliant artistic duo of Lois Weaver and the late James Neale-Kennerley. Borne out of the political fires of the Gay Liberation Front in 1975 – and the political theatre movement of the early 1970s which saw companies like Black Theatre Coop, Women’s Theatre Group and Monstrous Regiment radically disrupt Britain’s theatre scene – Gay Sweatshop was a pioneering LGBT theatre company and passionate campaigner for equality. They championed new writing and nurtured a generation of voices from Noel Greig and Jackie Kay as well as providing opportunities for young actors like Ian McKellen and Miriam Margoyles, who have gone on to be household names.
I joined in 1992 against the backdrop of a homophobic and hostile world. The age of consent for gay men was still 21; Section 28 which stated that a school or local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality or the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” was in full force, often stopping local authority funded venues from booking the company; and the HIV/AIDS crisis had created an environment of fear and stigma – in scenes that are all too familiar in these strange times, I vividly remember turning up with the company to a theatre in the Midlands to be greeted by front of house staff wearing masks and gloves, such were the levels of ignorance around the transmission of the virus.
[Gay Sweatshop] enabled queer people, many of whom were isolated from each other, to come together and see their lives represented on stage for the very first time. Mark Ball, Creative Director at MIF
But in spite of these challenges when the work was made and presented, particularly on tour outside of London, it achieved that remarkable thing that theatre can enable – it built a community in the room. It enabled queer people, many of whom were isolated from each other, to come together and see their lives represented on stage for the very first time.
Because of Lois’s place in New York’s queer, experimental performance scene we also introduced new voices into the UK from across the Atlantic – artists like Holly Hughes, Kate Bornstein and Tim Miller who were enmeshed in the culture wars of Reagan and Bush’s America and who fought for representation and justice during the height of the AIDS crisis. For me the politics of this time and this work, often transgressive both in form and content, often not recognisable as theatre, inspired my next adventure in the arts, when five years later I made the leap into becoming a festival director.
We used queerness and provocation as a tactic to disrupt conventional thinking in the arts and wider society... Mark Ball, Creative Director at MIF
In 1998 I founded QueerFest in Birmingham, which by 2000 had been re-named as the Fierce Festival. In the early days of QueerFest/Fierce we aimed to be defiantly queer, focussing on supporting live artists who often used their own bodies as the primary site for performance and as a battleground for action and representation – artists like Ron Athey, Franko B, Ursula Martinez and Robert Pacitti as well collectives including Duckie and Chicks on Speed. We used queerness and provocation as a tactic to disrupt conventional thinking in the arts and wider society, and nearly always in the face of outright hostility from the city’s politicians and media. Twenty one years later Fierce continues to provoke, though in these changed times it enrages less frequently.
Throughout this time at both Gay Sweatshop and Fierce, Manchester always felt like a beacon of queer culture and liberation. In 1993 its Arts Council office became the first in the country to develop a policy in support of LGBT artists and venues like The Green Room and Contact (I first met John McGrath when he booked a Fierce tour of Ron Athey), and the city’s brilliant Queer Up North Festival, championed a new generation of radical queer artists and performers like David Hoyle. And all these year’s later it continues to do so, with a community of LGBTQI+ artists creating a space for otherness and for comradeship, looking out too beyond their community and supporting others by addressing intersectionality. As we live through this pandemic I’m heartened that in this city we’re still able to create the space that Gay Sweatshop occasionally made: a space to build community and to create disruptive, inspiring, political and transgressive work that points to a different and more hopeful future.