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Reflecting queer lives on our stages: Green Carnation

Green Carnation was forged as a result of a love of theatre, nights out, social media, having the same name – and the fear of turning 30...

Dan Ellis and Dan Jarvis

Both of us Dans (Dan Jarvis and Dan Ellis) were in the same friendship group and had an awareness that we both kind of loved theatre and would inevitably discuss things all things stagey at a house party or night out (there’s a vague memory of being dressed as Kate Bush and a character from the movie Heathers), but we never really considered doing anything about it.

Then Dan Jarvis began approaching 30 and the fear of not having achieved enough kicked in so he decided he needed to stage a full professional production. He started devouring scripts to decide what to produce and was reading a newly bought copy of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride in the National Theatre bookshop and café and fell in love with the time shifting, otherworldly masterpiece. He did what any self-respecting millennial would do: posted it on Instagram.

Dan E messaged in response, gushing about the play and how he was once turned down to produce it by a local theatre that felt it was too risky. So we made a pact to take the plunge and produce The Pride – our first full production together – and the rest is history.

Producing The Pride at Hope Mill Theatre was a dream throughout, and through working together we discovered we shared a set of values and an idea of the stories we wanted to tell.

Queer stories

We wanted to produce scripted plays where queer people saw themselves on stage and felt that theatre was really speaking to them, and not about them. The pleasure overhearing audiences who openly admitted they weren’t theatre people gasping and excitedly discussing how much they related to characters on stage was an unimaginable thrill. We settled on our mission: to tell queer stories through quality theatre.

Three years and a global pandemic later, and we've commissioned 5 monologues, produced 4 short films and accompanying interviews, taken My Night with Reg on a regional tour and are embarking on our first long-term development of a full-length piece of new writing.

We deliberately use the word queer over LGBTQIA+. We understand the history behind the word, and the negative connotations and personal experiences people have had, or continue to experience.

For us, it’s about reclaiming the word to be as inclusive as possible to anyone who falls under the queer umbrella – and disarming those that use the word to abuse us. More and more, “queer” is being used as a positive, non-heteronormative identification, and in our eyes that is something to encourage and support. Green Carnation are proud to be queer, and to tell queer stories.

Roles that resonate

When casting The Pride and My Night with Reg, and when commissioning queer writers to create monologues exploring under-represented queer lives, we were overwhelmed by the responses to the casting and script call outs. People auditioned or applied not just because it was an “acting job” or script submission, but because the roles or the commissions were openly queer.

A scene from The Pride

To perform and create work that was so queer-led really resonated with people. There is both a want and a need from audiences, performers and creatives to see this type of theatre staged.

To see our lives and identities reflected on stage and online without being reduced or tokenised. To see queer characters living out extraordinary lives on stage.

We have tried to avoid stories around “coming out” as, whilst these stories are important, we felt they were often told. We wanted to tell stories where the sexuality is unapologetic and simultaneously an integral part of who they are, without it being all that they are.

We originally considered avoiding HIV+ narratives, but felt that the warmth, friendship and unabashed and defiant sheer homosexuality of the characters in Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg prevented this magnificently witty play fall into tropes of the “doomed homosexual”.

However, we’re very aware that our two full-length plays have been written by, and predominantly about cis gendered white gay males. They are brilliant stories, but we cannot keep telling only these stories. There is a whole world to explore of exciting narratives, characters, stories and worlds that reflect the full vibrancy and diversity of what it means to be queer. Beyond our moral duty, we would be foolish to ignore the wealth of opportunity for brilliant and original story-telling that lies within diverse queer lives.

As two cis white gay men, this isn’t a journey we wish to go on alone. We’re excited to be looking to work with new queer writers, and to construct a creative team that allows us to explore theatre projects through different perspectives. We truly believe diversity makes us better.

Representation is vital

There’s been a lot of public conversation in recent years regarding castings where appropriate actors have not been cast in specific roles; notably Kate O’Donnell withdrawing from Breakfast on Pluto following the casting of a non-trans actor in a trans role, and recently the cis-male casting of Bernadette in the musical Priscilla.

The defence of these casting choices is often to say there was simply no one from a specific community that was suitable for the role. For us that seems short-sighted. Why aren’t there more trans people, or people from other underrepresented communities, auditioning for roles they are clearly suitable for? If we are to believe that there were truly no suitable trans candidates applying for a paid role then we have to ask ourselves: what is preventing them from applying?

Representation is vital. If you do not see yourself or your identity truthfully reflected on stage, then why would you believe you belong on that stage? Which voices are we hearing in theatres? Who are making the big decisions? If these voices are dominated by a particular demographic then we will see this reflected in our audiences, our performers and in the young people who choose to engage in the performing arts.

The problem cuts through to all levels. These recent casting conversations, along with other recent social movements and reactions, have all shown there’s a need to create safe and inclusive spaces across the industry. There’s a need to increase representation at all levels: from drama education and training through to empowering diverse voices in decision-making and leadership roles, as well as on stage. There is a responsibility to make sure under-represented communities have their own voices, as well as seeing themselves authentically and sensitively represented on stage and online.

We need to be the change that means no casting director or producer can claim “no one suitable applied”.

Pandemic difficulties

Of course, how can anyone in theatre speak about their work without mentioning the impact of the pandemic on the arts industry?

Even now, theatres are struggling to survive with restricted capacities, delayed lifting of restrictions and increasing commercial demands. It also had a devastating impact on the queer community: safe spaces, Pride celebrations and queer communal spaces were closed down, leading to isolation, loneliness and mental health crises. The overlap between these two communities (the creative community and queer community) is huge and the temporary loss of our way of life has been huge.

For Green Carnation, the impact was felt very strongly. We had to close My Night with Reg early, putting the company into deep financial uncertainty. Fortunately, we were able to get Arts Council England support to help us to not only survive but also to support emerging queer writers through our Queer All About It programme.

Queer All About It commissioned four monologues as short films, exploring diverse topics including faith and sexuality, queer families, asylum seekers and changing attitudes towards HIV. One of them is Lynsey Cullen's PROVE IT.

These stories shared the light and shade of these narratives, showcasing above all the resilience of the queer community. However, despite the digital Queer All About It project, the pandemic has held us back.

Our passion is producing live, scripted theatre.

A movement for change

When we toured My Night with Reg it was fascinating to see how different audiences in different towns and cities responded. While cities such as Manchester and London might have large theatre-going queer audiences that sell out shows such as ours, smaller cities like Hull and Durham struggle to bring in large audiences to queer work.

Is this because there is less of a queer scene, because we marketed our play as explicitly gay, or because local queer people are not used to seeing their lives reflected on stage?

Those audiences may have been small, but overhearing comments and speaking to members in the bar after the show, it was clear how moving and important it was for them to see such work. We know there’s an audience out there, so how can we win their trust? Just look at the overwhelming response to television series such as It’s a Sin to prove that it’s not only queer people who want to watch queer performances and programmes.

We can’t wait to be back in front of a live audience once more, and we’re looking forward to the challenge of producing our first full-length new-writing play. Watch this space.

Oh and the company’s name? Well the wonderful thing about green carnations is, if you know, you know…

Green Carnation Company are a Manchester based theatre company dedicated to producing high-quality professional theatrical productions and digital work that address contemporary issues affecting the queer and LGBTQ+ community. We tell queer stories through quality theatre. Recent projects include the 2018 sell-out success of The Pride at Hope Mill Theatre; our participation in the new queer writing festival OutStageUs 2019 with FLUID by Nick Maynard; our first mid-scale theatre tour of Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg; and our Queer All About It series of monologue films exploring LGBTQ+ topics, culminating in a live screening event with Turn on Fest at Hope Mill Theatre.

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