Article by Shane Coleman Macken (Laidlaw Scholar 2020, English Literature and History)
When conducting research within an academic setting, I have always found that research within the Arts and Humanities can often come across as conducted within a vacuum. In my disciplines of English Literature and History, my work is concerned with looking into the past to see what we can learn, with me rarely being gifted the opportunity to see this work in practise.
My Laidlaw project was titled ‘Playing Sexuality: The Role of Contemporary Drama in Diversifying Understandings of Queer Identities’, with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America taking centre stage in my summer research period in 2020. During this time, I studied the power of this play in breaking down stigmas and stereotypes borne out of the homogenisation of queer identity. Kushner’s play helped to shift perspectives and explode the concept of a queer identity into one of queer identities.
Whilst this work was primarily located in the 1990s, I yearned to see how this could work in a contemporary setting to witness the importance of queer drama to the community. It was this desire that allowed me to find myself working with the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival (IDGTF) in summer 2021 for my Leadership In Action. During the pandemic, queer people around the world suffered the loss of two consecutive Pride months. For many, Pride is a cornerstone of the queer identity and the reminder that while we have come a long way from the Stonewall Riot in 1969, there is much to be desired when it comes to equal rights for LGBTQIA+ citizens. Furthermore, Pride thrives on community, an element which is impossible to maintain in a world filled with Zoom calls and social distancing. Therefore, I knew that getting involved with IDGTF would be pivotal in bringing Irish-based queer stories to life on the digital stage created by 2021.
Throughout the course of my six weeks involvement in the festival, I gained more experience than I ever thought possible. IDGTF were incredibly accommodating in ensuring that I could implement my leadership skills and trusted my abilities to bring our joint vision to fruition. The first element of this was their publication. With sponsorship from the Arts Council, IDGTF were able to run a bursary competition for Irish based playwrights, which would be published in a book celebrating the festival’s eighteenth year. Considering the significance of this age in marking the transition into adulthood, the book told the story of the festival’s history and included new works from the bursary winners. I served as an editor on this work, 18 & Coming of Age, as well as writing a foreword on the importance of queer theatre as a medium of exploring the inherently performativity of queer identities. Writing this foreword was a wonderful means for me to practise the art of universal understanding within research. I could accurately summarise my findings in ways that everybody who picked up the book could come to terms with, while also highlighting the importance of community projects such as IDGTF.
My other major task within the six weeks was leading the front on the digital festival which was held in conjunction with Dublin Pride. This allowed me to learn new technological skills in designing the programme for the festival. Mainly, I was trusted to organise and arrange the recording and roll-out of plays which were filmed in a studio in Dublin during June. What I had come to grasps with in my first summer’s research was unfolding before my eyes as I watched varying wonderous identities being performed in ways which fought against the inherently heteronormative fibre of the society I grew up in. Not only did I witness my interpersonal and communication skills flourish in organisation and management of several groups of people, but I also could build on my timekeeping and cultural intelligence to ensure I could come out of this experience as an effective and successful leader. These skills allowed me to partake in teamwork which afforded queer artists the opportunity to work after so many months of closed theatres and provide the Irish queer community with a body of work which could allow them to celebrate who they are, to experience their pride without the traditional in-person community spirit. When I processed all of this, I emerged from my Leadership in Action experience knowing that I had accomplished something special for our community.