Challenging Homophobia in Manchester: Theatre and Education

Royal Exchange Theatre - image from purplemattfish via flickr

Many of you will know the stunning Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester City Centre. A grade II listed building it was originally used as a cotton and textile exchange and like much of Manchester’s industrial heritage has been reappropriated for cultural purposes. The main theatre has a unique architectural design; a seven-sided construction free-standing in the centre of the Great Hall. Designed by Richard Negri it is the largest in-the-round theatre in the UK. The theatre hosts a full schedule of high profile touring performances (drama, music and dance) as well as working with local and emerging writers and directors. However the Royal Exchange’s role in the city is not limited to staging productions.

While in some ways it is less visible, the work of their Education team is central to what the theatre does. Through this they engage with adults, children, schools, colleges and community groups from all kinds of backgrounds. Part of this work is simply making it easier and cheaper for people to attend performances who might not otherwise do so.  They also run a host of events and activities aimed at opening the Exchange to a wider range of people and enhance their theatre experience. Amanda Dalton and her Education team collaborate with all kinds of individuals and organisations to deliver workshops and classes as well as projects attached to specific plays.

One recent example of a play-attached project is ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’ which ran alongside a staging of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in November 2011. The play deals with the emerging sexuality of two teenage boys who develop a relationship in a working class area of London in the 1980’s. Supported by Manchester Pride, other partners on the project were the Albert Kennedy Trust (who help vulnerable LGBT young people find supportive places to live) and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation.

For this project workshop facilitator Mandy Precious (currently Director of Burnley Youth Theatre) devised and led a series of workshops at LGF and in communities around Greater Manchester, in response to a brief from the Exchange. The workshops were attended by LGBT teenagers who were interested in trying their hand at playwriting. Mandy has lots of experience co-ordinating workshops and as a director and writer and has worked with the Royal Exchange Education team on numerous projects over the years.

Working with Mandy the young people responded to extracts from the play Beautiful Thing and explored their perceptions and experiences of being LGBT teenagers today. Professional actors were engaged by the theatre and directed by director Sam Pritchard to create a presentation of the work of the young people alongside commissioned pieces from prominent lesbian and gay professional writers including Jackie Kay, Antony Cotton, Tom Wells and Stella Duffy.

It was this project which inspired Jackie Stacey, organiser of the Sexuality Summer School at the University of Manchester, to get in touch with the Royal Exchange about working together.  Now in its 5th year, the Summer School brings together postgraduates and researchers working in the broadly defined area of sexuality studies. The Summer School is comprised of an intensive programme of masterclasses and discussions, lectures, film screenings and performances and always has some public elements (details below). Over the years the Summer School has worked with Cornerhouse, the Library Theatre and (the now sadly defunct) Queer Up North festival.

Sexuality School Poster

The theme for this year’s Summer School is ‘Homophobia and Other Aversions’ and Jackie was keen to find creative ways for the students to think this through.  Working with the Royal Exchange and Mandy Precious, and funded by cities@manchester, the Summer School will run a writing workshop for students called ‘Challenging Homophobia in Manchester: Empowering LGBT young people through creative writing and theatre’.

Participatory work like this and the ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’ project are a central and vital part of the life of the Royal Exchange.  Amanda Dalton explains, “we genuinely believe that taking part in theatre, as audience, writers, makers or performers, can transform people’s lives. We hope that projects such as these really do empower participants and enhance their confidence and self esteem, as well as celebrating their creativity, voice and the power of the written word – especially powerful when it is shared in a live space.”

The collaboration is also a great example of how the University can work together with cultural organisations in the city around common interests.  The Summer School students will get a chance to think about homophobia from a new perspective and with a different set of critical and creative tools.  These partnerships are very important to the Summer School.  Jackie Stacey explains, “since the demise (due to Arts Council funding cuts) of the international Arts Festival, Queer Up North, with whom the Sexuality Summer School used to collaborate, it has become crucial for us to find new partners in Manchester with whom we can work to sustain the more creative aspects of this postgraduate event. This year’s collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre (via the Albert Kennedy Trust) is very exciting and promises to be a highlight of the summer school.”

About the Sexuality Summer School:

The Sexuality Summer School has been held annually by the CSSC since 2008. The Sexuality Summer School is coordinated by the Centre for the Study of Sexuality and Culture (CSSC) and the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures (RICC). This year’s collaboration with the Royal Exchange is sponsored by cities@manchester.

Events Details:

The Sexuality Summer School: Homophobia and Other Aversions is fully booked for this year.  However there are three free public lectures this year which are open to all:

Tuesday 22nd May: 5pm, John Casken LT, Martin Harris Centre, University of Manchester, Oxford Road

Ann Cvetkovich (Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Texas): “To Be Able to Stand Not Knowing”: Depression, Creativity and Self-Aversion

Drawing from her forthcoming book, Depression: A Public Feeling, Cvetkovich will address the summer school theme by considering the prevalence of self-hatred within everyday life and creative practices that address it, as well as ongoing debates within queer theory about the politics of positive and negative affects.

Wednesday 23rd May: 5.15pm Kanaris Room, 2nd Floor Manchester Museum, Oxford Rd.

Lois Weaver (Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, Queen Mary, University of London): A Long Table on Senses of Aversion

A Long Table is a performance installation that uses the form of a dinner party as a structure for public debate to encourage informal conversation on serious subjects and to experiment with formats that inspire public engagement.

Thursday 24th May: 5pm, John Casken LT, Martin Harris Centre, University of Manchester, Oxford Road

Mary Cappello (Professor of English, University of Rhode Island): Vice Viscera: The (Dis)gustatory Implications of Aversion

Mary Cappello recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her literary non-fiction, which explores forms of disruptive beauty, figuring memory in a postmodern age, bringing incompatible knowledges into the same space, and working at the borders of literary genres.

For more information go to the Sexuality Summer School webpage.

Caitriona Devery.

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