"In every global city, there are mythologies and realities. We wanted to create a play that showed the mythologies and how they measure up to the current realities." We catch up with performers Tayla Abbott, Jess Lu and playwright Lachlan Philpott about their latest work promiscuous/ cities.
Q: Without giving away any spoilers, what can you tell us about promiscuous/cities?
T.A: Prom/Cities is a wonderfully bustling play that follows the lives of queers and gays during one night in San Francisco. It explores the beautiful and complex lives of marginalised groups and the vibrant LGBTQIA+ community there, as well as San Fran's darker histories.
J.L: The show is a constellation of lives in a single winter’s night. It’s a beautiful work, that explores the complexities of queer, hetero, and non-conforming relationships - and the way our differences can clash, or come together to make something big. It’s a huge cast of thirteen. The sound has been interwoven into the show by Meta Cohen, and the world is so transparent and mercurial. We’ve got the best creative team.
Q: What was the initial inspiration behind this work?
LACHLAN PHILPOTT (playwright): I was lucky to be selected as a Fulbright Scholar and went to work at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. This is both a theatre company and one of the leading actor training institutes in the USA. I was asked to pitch a project while I was there and decided I wanted to work with post-grad acting students on creating a large-scale theatre work. I was matched with the first-year actors who were wonderfully talented, diverse, and creative. We realized that what we had in common is that we had all come to San Francisco from somewhere else to pursue a dream so we decided to consider the idea of arriving in a new place in the piece. With a place as well known as San Francisco, it also has a long history of people arriving. It has the largest Chinese population of any American city and even before that the Spanish came and left a huge cultural mark on the city. San Francisco has a history of people coming to find themselves, and that is true for the LGBTIQ+ community too. The play gives a nod to works that have explored this idea already such as Tales of The City by Armistead Maupin. The mythology of the city is that it is a welcoming place where people can be free. But every new influx has an impact, sometimes enriching the city and at other times creating tensions within its 9-mile square radius. In recent times the city has become the home of tech giants and this has contributed to a huge amount of issues with homelessness and rising living expenses. But these tensions are in its veins. It is the place where the Summer of 69 is remembered but it was also one of the centers of the HIV/Aids epidemic. There are so many clashing dichotomies.
In every global city, there are mythologies and realities. We wanted to create a play that showed the mythologies and how they measure up to the current realities. I worked on the play with the students and off for three years, so their play reflects our collective experiences in the city. We did extensive community research and I spent a lot of time talking to people from different parts of the city. For example, I spent 48 hours at the Police/Fire/ Ambulance call center. There is nothing like listening in to the calls to give you a sense of what is really going on in a place.
Alyson Campbell from VCA came and worked with me in the final stages of the development and added her inspired insight to the moving reading we did then the play went into its premiere production in 2017 playing on Market Street right in the middle of the crack dens and homelessness which sit just a few yards from Uber headquarters. The play was an experiment for me because as an Australian playwright, you don't get a chance to create large-scale works with big casts unless you're adapting a book.
Q: What have you most enjoyed about the development and rehearsal process so far?
J.L: There is a huge collaborative element to our rehearsal room. Once we found the rhythm of how we all work together, the show felt like a breathing organism that everyone could feed with their own ideas! And when something isn’t working in the room, there’s a push from all sides to see what else can be done.
Q: How is queerness explored in the world of promiscuous/cities?
J.L: Well, San Francisco is known as ‘the gay capital of the world’, which means the world of prom/cities is steeped in the real life history of the city. In the 70s San Francisco’s gay, lesbian and bi nightclub scene was (and probably still is) notorious, and vast. It was known as America’s ‘first gay friendly city’, and it was where one of the first HIV cases was discovered. There was a hugely courageous response to the 80s AIDs crisis from all members of the queer community there.
In prom/cities there is a storyline that follows a gay man living with HIV, and how it affects his relationship. Running parallel to it are storylines following LGBTQIA+ couples, and there are many more queer storylines scattered throughout. Lastly, structurally it rejects all ideas of a fixed identity, and celebrates the unfinished, the unpolished, and downright outrageous aspects of queerness.
Q: What's it like working with a large ensemble cast?
T.A: Working with such a large ensemble cast is amazing. We have a space filled with so many creative ideas, voices and experiences. This can, sometimes, lead to long discussions and side-tracked play in what is a relatively short rehearsal window (stressful for those who love time management - me). But I wouldn't have it any other way. There is definitely a lot to learn in terms of creating Brave Spaces and devising with so many unique individuals in a room.
J.L: It’s clamorous and boisterous, and at times hard to concentrate! But it’s really wonderful having such a diverse pool of voices. Definitely takes a bit more thinking, and collaborating to create a space that feels inclusive to all needs, but our group has worked really hard to keep a room that’s safe and brave. And we will keep working!
Q: If you could invite anyone to promiscuous/cities, who would it be?
T.A: The pope - I’d love to see his face. My younger self and anyone who needs to see a little bit of themselves on stage.
J.L: Genuinely? High school students. I think it's a show that’s dynamic and exciting for a young audience to watch, and it’s a super thoughtful insight into some LGBTQIA+ history. Exposing young people to what queerness can be might help them feel seen, or be a catalyst to be an active ally. Although, we’d probably have to take out the promiscuity! promiscuous/cities by Lachlan Philpott 19-24 January Theatre Works