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BWW Features: The Art of Winning a Referendum

There is slight trepidation as I reach into a bag of feathers and pearls, claiming for myself a pink fur scarf and large purple pendant that I proceed to drape around my head.

Other pundits gathered at the foot of Grafton St - one of Dublin's high-end and busiest thoroughfares - are unafraid to don the colourful shawls and bows that will surely draw looks from the crowds. I decide to throw my hesitations to the wind for the day that's in it: May 22nd, the date of Ireland's public vote on same-sex marriage, and we're all dragged up with somewhere to go.

Bertolt Brecht, who slung working class woes into view of the upper classes' opera seats in Weimar Germany, said "Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it". In times of activism it lends itself in extraordinary ways.

Drag In Time of Revolution

We walk in jazzy garbs through shoppers and commuters on Grafton Street before finding the secret location of Stefan Fae's Cabaret Mattachine, a queer ukulele-tripping cabaret about love and community, performed in an underground cocktail bar with the feels of a speakeasy from Prohibition.

Fae, an otherworldly creature in a blue kimono with a face full of glitter, has a demeanour that is both gentle and risqué. Inspired by the alternative spiritualities of the Radical Faeries movement in the U.S, he touches on the referendum only in passing (references to 'yes' campaigners as "faery freedom fighters" and casting a spell that will win the result), preferring a child-like story about a young Stefan jeered for being different. The sad shame that fills lives from childhood is hopefully exorcised here, on a day that for many will hopefully mark the beginning of something new.

Activists have long been paving the way towards the introduction of same-sex marriage but the conversation received a jumpstart in January 2014 when drag artist Rory O'Neill appeared on RTÉ's Saturday Night Show and cited specific opponents of marriage equality as homophobic. The LGBT community's outrage when O'Neill faced legal charges of defamation was fierily felt at his weekly pub performances, which had taken on the atmosphere of a rally.

A coup de théâtre arrived in the form of a 'noble call' at the Abbey Theatre, which saw O'Neill dragged up as the intelligent Panti Bliss in a magenta dress and blonde wig, eloquently sending a powerful message of oppression across the world. A video of the performannce went viral, garnering international attention that eventually nudged the Irish press into paying attention. Both Panti and homophobia became topics of exchange in households across Ireland.

The LGBT community was quick to mobilise around Panti but the reverse hadn't always been true. In 2009, the drag queen wrote on her blog a furious indictment when a protest against the Civil Partnership Bill (containing over 160 statutory differences from civil marriage) was poorly attended: "Why the fuck are you watching your Sex in The City box-set when you should be rioting in the streets?".

"What is the spark that will finally light a fire under you?" she asked. In 2014, when the conversation about marriage equality showed no sign of fading after the noble call, the government seemed confident to announce a referendum to take place in 2015. The 'spark' had been released, the drag queen having struck the match with her own reaching, manicured hands.

Stepping away from the blast site, Panti spent the months leading up to the referendum sharing her personal stories through an opportune-contracted autobiography Woman in the Making and her performance High Heels in Low Places, produced by queer theatre outfit THISISPOPBABY, touring nationally and internationally (most recently New York's Irish Arts Centre). High Heels was a response to pressure felt by the performer to become an LGBT representative or figurehead, consolidating her position instead as a professional jester, easing the truth through satire and sly cultural critique.

Other drag performers entered the public light. Veda Beaux Reves, a cabaret-crooning avant garde queen with self-styled Dadaist dresses, made a memorable TV appearance on Vincent Browne's The People's Debate when the confused host asked about a toy dinosaur sitting on her head, responding that it represents the Iona Institute: a Catholic lobbyist group and primary opponents of same-sex marriage.

The most regular commentary came from Shirley Temple Bar, an Irish-dancing physical comedienne straight out of vaudeville, who among other things ridiculed the 'balance' regulation in the media that guaranteed equal time to both sides of the debate despite the merit of each argument. When a player at her weekly Bingo night in The George club in Dublin yelled "BINGO" on one occasion, she replied with her usual cutesy croak: "Come up to me chicken! But for the sake of 'balance', I have to tell you to go the opposite direction too!".

Drag art takes gender binaries us-seriously, and thus the greater world at large. What became magnified was the extent that it undermines a system that excludes specific people from power, and strives to push the culture politically forward.

"They Will Be Seen"

For queer artists, with a presumably pro-gay fanbase, a rush to action is unsurprising. Declaring a political position as a theatre organisation whose ticket sales seek out pundits across the board is trickier. For example, The Company, an ensemble who playfully question the structuring of society, received oppositional comments on their Facebook page when they pledged support for a Yes result.

The risk of alienating pundits is bigger for theatre houses that constantly have to fill seats. The Abbey Theatre mounted a new adaptation of Hedda Gabler the month before the referendum, which certainly spoke of society's conservatisms but ultimately had the feel of a historical piece.

If giving primacy to gay stories posed a risk to the box office, Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail made a more economic move in booking the main stage one afternoon to rally the company's artists for another noble call. Playwright Marina Carr read the words of Molly Bloom ("yes I said yes I will yes") and Sonya Kelly, who chronicled her relationship with her partner last year in the adored How to Keep an Alien, offered something of an epilogue to that performance:

"For I would like to see Equality in my life

I would like to someday see my girlfriend as my wife"

One of the greatest engagements, albeit indirectly, came from the Gate Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. Director Wayne Jordan brought to the fore a Verona of repressed sexualities, a patriarchal culture of loveless and arranged marriages. Rather than accepting the young lovers' tragedy as 'star-crossed', a societal complacency and conservatism was suspect and made accountable.

Several companies, including those that performed at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, saw the opportune time to highlight gay lives. Most affecting was the revival of Amy Conroy's I ♥ Alice ♥ I, a documentary-style drama about two bashful middle-aged lesbians. "We will be seen" assure the lovers, gentle and brave, before actors Conroy and Clare Barrett remove their wigs in a Brechtian break from the drama's illusion: "They will be seen".

Out From Under the Turret Stair

Some of the iconic images of the referendum will no doubt belong to visual art, especially street artist Joe Caslin, who in the early hours of April 12th (five weeks before voting day) installed a 40-foot paper mural on the side of a building overlooking Dublin's busy South George's Street.

Applied with a potato starch adhesive, The Claddagh Embrace depicts two men holding each other: one figure has his back facing the spectator, looking uncertain into the distance, while the second figure wraps his arm around the first's shoulder, a Claddagh ring on his finger pointing inwards, and leans his head against his with an expression that is ambiguously dearly and sad.

Simultaneously troubled and tender, viewers immediately recognised Caslin's play on Irish painter Frederic William Burton's The Meeting on the Turret Stair, a famous 1864 watercolour depicting the final meeting between a princess and her secret lover before he marches towards his execution.

Caslin's mural, despite being egged mere hours after its unveiling, refused to diminish in appearance or, clearly, its power to provoke. Its wider intervention was felt as phones rang off the hook at Joe Duffy's popular Liveline radio show (an average listenership of 400,000) with callers conveying their fondness and displeasure with the work. Supporters spoke of how beautiful an image it was, how it brought gay romance out of its near-invisibility. Others tried to link it to promotional material for the Yes Equality political campaign, and therefore that it shouldn't be erected without planning permission from Dublin County Council, or, furthermore, without 'balancing' it with a 'No mural'.

People across the country listened in as Caslin's objet d'art wielded a debate about spectatorship and the meanings of a work which obviously resonated, in timing and imagery, with the referendum without directly referencing it. Installed with permission from the building's owner, it displayed no logos, no wording of any kind that might qualify it to go through the same procedure as a billboard. Despite this, planning officials issued a warning letter calling for its removal. More that 150,000 people signed a petition in protest but ultimately it withdrew itself, in the late hours of April 28th, when the biodegradable materials began to flake in the wind and rain, as Caslin always knew it would.

In its wake, murals began popping around the city. Artist Jess Tobin installed a paint mural on South Richmond Street depicting two women, their hair electric blue and pink, one staring self-possessed at the spectator while the other plants a kiss on her cheek, while a banner saying "LOVE" floats at the bottom. Within 24 hours it was vandalized, with black paint sprayed over the face of the figure gazing confidently towards us, as well as over the lines where her cheek meet the other's lips. Tobin restored the mural almost immediately the next day.

Four days before the referendum, Caslin unveiled a second work called The Castle, one that spoke quite literally to The Meeting on the Turret Stair. On the side of the 15th century Caher castle near Craughwell in County Galway, a 50-foot paper mural appeared showing two women.

Again, one figure stares almost blankly into the distance while the other leans in affectionately. Curiously, the second figure's expression is almost prayerful, her hand loosely gripping the other's elbow, while the Celtic interlace on her top signifies the sense of Irish tradition that the Claddagh ring brought in its brother mural. While that image interrupted a busy city centre, this one seated itself confidently in a mostly untouched rural setting, taking the hidden love affair out from under the turret stair and giving it pride of place in a once-symbolical place of power and legal rule.

The art objects and performances discussed above all played a role in feeding into an environment of activism, to lend personal testimonies and interventions of public spaces, to contribute to inciting the debate around same-sex marriage in the lead-up to the referendum. That is not to say that all artists' attitudes towards the referendum were aligned. Three days before the vote, writer and performer Alan Flanagan uploaded a visceral and powerful spoken word performance in which he railed against the politeness that LGBT people had come to adopt to seek support from the heterosexual majority, as if forgetting about their history of oppression: "Your vote does not make me more or less of the man that I already was. I do that". It prompts the ethical question of if minority rights should be decided by a majority?

For now, Ireland's historic referendum, marking itself as the first nation to pass same-sex marriage by public vote, is still sinking in. Some will never forget the night after the result when Shirley Temple Bar descended the stairs in The George wearing a wedding dress, lip-syncing to Nina Simone, the most appropriate lyrics imaginable:

"It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me

And I'm feeling good".

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From This Author - Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a theatre critic based in Dublin. He blogs on and writes for A Younger Theatre, Irish Theatre Magazine and the Arts (read more...)