Over twenty years in the making, Chris Beckey and The Danger Ensemble are back this Midsumma Festival with their new work, SONGS OF THE FLESH. In this week's Backstage Blog, playwright Chris Beckey breaks down their inspiration for the texts, what the piece means for the queer community in 2023, their relationship with director, Steven Mitchell Wright, as well as some reflections on their career so far.
What inspired you to write the first version of this text in 2000?
There were a lot of threads that inspired this text. So many.
In the late 1990s, my deep love of pop music led me to read the Song of Solomon, one of the books of the Bible. It’s this stunningly beautiful, but quite visceral, poem. It’s generally interpreted as being addressed to God. However, when I was reading it, I was imagining it as addressed to a person, a lover. It’s hot.
While I was writing the first version of the text, my notebook was full of snatches of lyrics I pulled from my favourite songs of the time, the songs that touched on and fed the feeling of this piece. I’m a huge fan of pop music, by which I mean music that covers a range of popular genres. These lyrics kind of provided me with guides to how to express what I was feeling for this show.
Around the time in my life that I was writing the original version, I was also struck by the lack of queer solo performance on Brisbane stages. When I was in the process of coming out in the early 90s, I’d been a bit spoiled. In 1993, La Boite’s season featured a number of works that featured queer characters or tackled queer stories. Kiss of the Spider Woman. Furious by Michael Gow. And Vita – A Fantasy! which was based on Virginia Woolf’s love affair with Vita Sackville-West. This season really showed me how wonderful it was to see queer stories on stage. As a young queer person, I felt seen and heard and found these voices that gave me strength.
But it kind of went quiet in Brisbane after that. Works seemed very few and far between. There was some work imported from interstate. I remember seeing a couple of Joel Markham’s pieces in a show called Four On The Floor, which was imported from Sydney’s Performance Space. And I have to call out Zac Callaghan, who presented a solo work – still raw – at La Boite’s Shock of the New Festival in 1995. Here was a local artist who was presenting solo queer work on the Brisbane stage. Their courage and artistry was an inspiration for me at the time and continues to be. So I guess I wanted to add a queer voice to Brisbane’s stage.
Anger also inspired this text. Fuelled it. Sits at its heart.
When I was in the process of coming out, I was visiting someone with whom I’d been friends in high school. He’d been out for some years at that point. He’d just got home from work and he was brandishing a sticker. He’d ripped it off the wall of a public bathroom.
The sticker read: “Gay Rights? The Only Rights Gays Have Under God’s Law is
the Right to Die”. And in brackets, it referenced the chapter and verse of Leviticus that proclaims a death sentence for men who engage in sex with men.
It made the both of us so angry, and frustrated, and just… My friend was going to throw the sticker out. But I took it from him and I kept it. There was something about that feeling, I never wanted to take my safety for granted. That, in being
myself, I was putting my safety at risk. There were people out there who thought I should die for that. And that seems dramatic. But it’s not, it’s the fucking truth.
And then, of course, I was assaulted… maybe a year or two later. I experienced that. And I was lucky, so lucky. It wasn’t a major assault. I walked away from it. But it shook me. It shook my confidence. And that rippled through my life. Part of that was a reawakening of that anger.
Years later, I was at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, performing in a show. In this show, I had a solo moment and it was my first taste of solo performance. I wanted to push into, extend that experience. And that anger was still burning. I was in a city where I didn’t feel safe. One of the films playing in the cinemas at the time was the film that presented Brandon Teena’s experience and their murder, Boys Don’t Cry. Mathew Shepard had been murdered just a couple of years before that, but it was before the Laramie Project had debuted. Nobody was talking about this, about the violence inflicted upon, the murder of queer people, in the theatre. And that pissed me off. In my career, at that point, I felt like my queerness was used by others as a gimmick, but my voice as a queer artist was silenced. But I felt like I was in an extremely privileged position, that people were watching me and listening to me. So I decided to put my own experience on stage, to talk about this. You want me dead? Come at me.
What are some of the key themes explored in this latest production by The Danger Ensemble?
It’s funny. I hadn’t intended to be present within the rehearsal room all that much for this project. When I hand a text over to the creatives, I don’t expect a faithful reproduction of what I’ve written. How boring. I know what I’ve written, I want to see what they make of it and what it ignites for them. And with these texts, because I’ve performed one of them and have a very personal relationship to both, I was wary of colouring the experience of the creatives and potentially curbing their creativity. But the room has been such a joy for me to be in, I haven’t been able to stay away.
I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘themes’. But I’ll speak to some of the threads that have emerged in the rehearsal room thus far.
For this show, Steven has chosen to take the original text I wrote in 2000 and to weave it together with a redrafted and reimagined version I wrote in 2009. The two versions are similar in some respects. They essentially tell the same story, which is a semi-autobiographical account of my life up until that point. But there are also some key differences in the telling that gives each version its own emphases and flavour. In some ways, the character in each version is different from the other.
It’s been interesting hearing the two texts juxtaposed and weaving together. It really gives a sense of how, as queer people, we come from such diverse backgrounds, we have such individual ways of expressing ourselves, but there are some experiences we share in common, for better or for worse. I think that’s being explored.
A sense of anger at the hypocrisy of the values against which queer people are often judged. That’s not really a theme though, is it? But I guess what is being explored is our right to feel angry.
But even so, we have a right to love. And love in different ways. There’s a line in a Fleetwood Mac song, “That’s Alright”, written by Stevie Nicks, where Stevie sings, “I hope you find a love / your own designs of love / that’s alright”. It was one of the lyrics I had scribbled in the notebook in which I wrote the first version of these texts. Even though the love pursued by the protagonists in these texts is filtered through my own thoughts on love, my feelings, my experiences and desires, that idea that we each search for our own version of love, even if we don’t think of it as or call it love, and what that can be was important to me in writing them. And I think that idea is coming up in the room.
And, of course, the dangers we face. To inhabit our identities is still a risk, being ourselves is still dangerous. Sometimes, when we assert our sense of self as queer, we are met with violence. In some ways things have changed since these texts were written. In others, they haven’t changed. However unsafe we felt on the streets, in society, in the past, it seemed we were at least able to carve out safe spaces for ourselves. Now, even those spaces are losing their safety. That lack of safety has both physical and psychological consequences for us. And that’s something that has come up in the room.
What do you most enjoy about your collaboration with director Steven Mitchell Wright?
I was actually reflecting on this last year. It was when Steven was directing Medea: Out of the Mouths of Babes for Theatre Works. I’d done a bit of writing and provided some dramaturgical support for the show, so I dropped in during bump in to watch some of the dress runs. Ben Hughes was in town to light the show. Ben is the other Associate Artistic Director of The Danger Ensemble and someone with whom Steven particularly and I have worked across many years. There was a moment when the three of us were in the theatre together and there was just this sense of energy, a gravity, in the room that I think is quite unusual and unique in a business that for the most part is built on brief project-to-project connections.
So what isn’t there to enjoy? Steven and I first worked together professionally in 2003 and we’d trained together before that. Together we’ve worked on so many shows and developments, some have worked flawlessly, some have proved more challenging. As friends, we’ve seen each other through times that have been both good and bad. There’s something about a friendship and working relationship that spans that amount of time, you build up a history, a geography of your
interactions as people. There’s a depth, layers that build up through time. I have such a deep respect and love for him. But he still manages to surprise me. It’s been such an honour to watch him develop as an artist and as a person. And those surprises keep our work fresh. But when we walk into a room to begin a new project, whatever it is, whatever surprises it brings, there is always that history there. I think it brings such a richness to the way we work.
What interests you the most about telling queer stories in theatre?
While I can certainly see the point of this question, I have to wonder: do we ask this question of straight cisgender artists? Do we ask them what interests them about telling straight cisgender stories?
The work I create, both on my own and in collaboration with others, isn’t always explicitly about queer people. Nor is it always presented through a form that could be called story. But the work I create is always inherently queer. That’s how I see the world, how I exist in the world, and how I show the world through my work.
What interests me in telling queer stories in theatre? When we chose to present this work, Steven raised a concern that this text was on the verge of becoming redundant. It was written at the turn of the century and a lot has changed since then. There is so much more representation of queer peoples in the media and in entertainment.
But as we’ve worked on it, some pretty significant events have happened in the world. They’ve reminded me how strong the conservative voice is across the world, voices that are explicitly opposed to the rights LGBTQIA+ people have fought to have recognised. I’m very aware that I am in an extremely lucky position to be able to identify as a queer artist, to tell my own story, other queer stories, to create work that is queer. Others don’t have that privilege.
While that’s the case, queer people will still struggle to find representation, will still struggle to find their identities. And that's what sits at the core of this work and many queer stories. Finding our sense of self, finding our voice, overcoming the obstacles to our freedom of expression. We need our stories on the stage, on the screen, in print. We need queer voices from various backgrounds and experiences, we need to hear the diverse perspectives that queer people have to offer. We need them to be heard, we need their stories told. I don’t think it’s a matter of interest in telling queer stories, it’s an imperative that those stories are told, those voices are heard.
What creative advice would you give to 2000 Chris Beckey?
Hmm. Interesting question.
By all means, flirt with the mainstream industry. But they don’t need you. And you certainly don’t need them. The work that makes you happiest, that makes your heart full, will be done far from them.
I know you’re not afraid to be identified as a queer artist. But as much as you don’t want to admit it, that comes at a cost. You’ll have to fight to be taken seriously by the industry. Fight. But don’t hurt yourself proving a point to people who ultimately don’t make work that matters to you.
You’ve spent a lot of time supporting and chasing other people’s dreams. Stop now. Cling to those who support you and have dreams like your own.
Coming out seems like an end point. It’s not. You’ll continue to evolve, as a person and as an artist. Don’t fear that.
Don’t lose your voice. Fight for it. Let it evolve with you.
Portraying straight cisgender roles may seem like a way to prove yourself. You don’t need to prove yourself. And some of those roles are toxic for you.
Take care of yourself, take care of your heart. Make work that makes you passionate, that makes your blood run and your heart sing. Fuck the industry.