Guest Blog: Director Hannah Hauer-King On GROTTY at The Bunker
On BroadwayWorld last year, Adam Spreadbury eloquently discussed his experience of directing Coming Clean, described as arguably the 'first gay kitchen sink drama' of the Eighties. He aptly pointed out that 1982 was a time when exposing audiences to a drama centred around gay men was "an exciting and relatively untapped prospect". And yet, it is both noteworthy and disappointing that 35 years later this statement still rings true for drama focused on gay women.
When looking for the theatrical references and productions that have informed my understanding and conceptualisation of the queer female community, unfortunately I find there's an incredible lack.
This is something I also experienced back in 2014, when I chose to do show coverage for predominantly LGBTQ work at the Edinburgh Fringe. I found that the work within that category was primarily, if not exclusively, focussed around gay men.
I was perhaps naively surprised, especially at one of the world's most eclectic arts festivals. I felt an immediate itch, a desire to somehow make an impact, large or small, on this apparent imbalance.
This is one of the many reasons I feel such excitement in presenting Grotty with Damsel Productions in May - a provocative, dark and yet wickedly funny piece by Izzy Tennyson. The play is an unabashed and honest portrayal of the East London lesbian community, seen through the eyes of a prematurely bitter, sexually explorative young woman named Rigby.
Coming to terms with her gay identity, Rigby is simultaneously desperate for and terrified of intimacy, often compelled by an unquenchable thirst for self-destruction and damaging promiscuity. And through this wild and intentionally problematic protagonist, we see a window into a world otherwise often forgotten or wilfully ignored on stage.
That's not to say there haven't been some representations of lesbian experience on stage, but beyond the sheer lack of quantity of these types of projects relative to those for gay men, it's also the way and the how of these depictions that feels crucially important. To quote Melbourne theatre-maker Adena Jacobs: "Audiences are used to seeing women constructed through a male gaze, whether straight or queer."
This is, for me, what makes Grotty's portrayal of female sexuality and identity so particularly compelling; its unsanitised and, yes, at times grotty portrayal of queer women. It subverts and reclaims expectations of female sexuality and behaviour, even if it's not as pretty or polished as we'd like. Not born out of a male gaze, idealising or otherwise.
The power of Grotty's authenticity and gaze springs in part from its semi-autobiographical component. It comes from a deep truth of lived experience, courageously brought to life by Izzy, and transformed into the theatrical realm through Rigby's substance abuse and troubled psyche.
Though based on absolute realities of the lesbian scene, core traits and characteristics are seen through Rigby's perceptions of her previous encounters, the ghosts of her past. This further heightens the grotesque and caricatured elements of the women we meet, lifting the play out of any prescriptive naturalism. Instead, we grapple with a reality filtered through a stylised and hypersensory lens.
We're soon starting rehearsals with the cast, and I'm buzzing with excitement to hear their perspectives, insights and questions.
On Day One Izzy and I will come armed with a range of hopefully illuminating references, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Alice in Wonderland, American Psycho - an eclectic mix of cinematic and literary material to facilitate propelling the actors into this rollercoaster of a play, whilst at the same time observing and naming the evident lack of queer female voices and theatricalised stories to aid us in our research and process.
But be assured that it won't be all doom, gloom and 'monsters under the bed'. It would certainly be foolish not to encourage audiences to come to see Grotty for pure comedic, fast-paced entertainment.
The characters' crassness, quick wit and shameless behaviour allow us to chuckle at the darkness, at the difficulties of living, or at least trying to be a functional human. In the words of Izzy, "if you don't laugh about it, you'll cry".