Shortly after a young gay man was beaten violently on the streets of Northern Ireland in June 2008, Member of Parliament and born-again Christian Iris Robinson went on BBC radio to condemn the attack. Yet, as the discussion continued, Robinson revealed her deep prejudice against homosexuality, stating that homosexual acts were an “abomination” and made her feel “nauseous.”
Lloyd Newson, artistic director of DV8, a cutting-edge physical theater company based in London, was listening closely.
Newson had a particular reason to be interested in Robinson’s comments, and in the fallout from them: For more than a year, he’d been collecting interviews and statements from gay Londoners of all ages, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds, as well as comments from those who condemned their sexual orientation and practices. The results of those interviews formed the basis of DV8’s latest stage production, To Be Straight With You, a hard-hitting, controversial look at the intersection of homophobia and religion in Britain today.
Robinson’s comments hit the news when the company was on a summer break, and Newson decided the story should be integrated into the show. And so, that summer, he flew to Northern Ireland to interview Stephen Scott, the 27-year-old who had been beaten. Scott told Newson that following the attacks and the resultant media attention, he had received so much verbal abuse when in public that he had been forced to remove his arm cast and dye his hair to avoid being recognized.
“Even within the white, religious community here, many people are still hiding their sexuality, and fearful of what might happen if their communities find out,” Newson recently explained over the phone from DV8’s East London studios. “It seems extraordinary in a country where homosexuality is legal and has been for 40 years, but people are still fearful about coming out. And many people also are justified in fearing being ostracized, or becoming victims of violence, purely for being gay.”
If it sounds like gritty material for an evening of dance theater, that’s because it is. “I’m constantly questioning the value of art,” Newson explained. “I kept on thinking: ‘How can I really address the issues I see around me, in front of me every day on the street?'”
What he saw, when he looked around, was intolerance in many forms. He saw racism and religious persecution, but he also saw that the very same groups who suffered from these types of discrimination were the least tolerant of homosexuality.
In order to address the issue of homophobia in British culture, Newson and his research team began by conducting 85 interviews, a few with targeted subjects, and many with people they found on the streets, outside churches, or in nightclubs. Some were reticent to speak at all, and many declined to have their names or their specific circumstances included in the show. Out of those 85 interviews, Newson whittled it down to 25 he felt encompassed larger themes. Every word spoken in To Be Straight With You comes directly from these interviews.
Once they had their text, the complicated process of setting movement began. “Most dancers are trained to re-create pretty, nice movement,” Newson explained. “But if we were doing pointed feet and high legs while the story was about something very harrowing or disturbing, it would be insulting to the interviewee, and it would completely counter what we were saying.” Instead, Newson and his cast experimented with ordinary gestures and actions. In one case, they were working on an interview with a gay Muslim man who was 15 years old when he came out to his family. In the interview, the subject explained that his father and brother found the news so unacceptable that they stabbed him. After rejecting a number of different ideas about how to stage this story, Newson discovered that the performer he was working with had once been a champion at the jump rope. They had found their answer. The action of skipping rope captured the speaker’s youthful exuberance, but also functioned as a kind of heartbeat, speeding when the speaker recalled distressing scenes, and slowing when he was at ease.
Ballet it may not be, but that’s not to say that these are not talented dancers. Newson attracts some of the best performers in the U.K. and beyond, and he’s known for specifying everything that happens onstage down to the slightest glance. For the most part, this effort is receiving high marks from the international dance community. Despite the fact that Newson refused to offer the piece in any language other than English, a French promoter brought the show to Paris, where it won the Grand Prix de Danse Critics’ Award for 2009. “I think that reflects how pertinent this issue is throughout Europe,” Newson said. “It’s more than just about homosexuality and religion-it’s about tolerance and intolerance.”
Although many of the voices speaking against homosexuality in this piece are the voices of religious believers and leaders, Newson is adamant that To Be Straight With You is not anti-religious. “We are not condemning all religious people,” he said. “We know not all religious people are homophobes, but we do know that fundamentalists within any religion are massively intolerant. To people who don’t seem to get it, I say, ‘How many groups of gay people around the world do you know that seek out religious people in order to persecute or kill them?’ Unfortunately, it does happen to gay people around the world. I think when people see that, they realize it’s a bit of a one-way street.”
For the performers in To Be Straight With You, keeping the show fresh and sincere requires that they remain open, even when the material is uncomfortable. “The struggle to try and find an element of honesty in the work dominates everything we do,” Newson explained. “This is one of the most humble and committed companies I have ever worked with. I think the performers feel honored to have had such an insight into the lives of many people, and that includes the people whose position we might not support.”
What Newson has done in this piece is give voice to all sides of the debate, presenting the words of extremist preachers, people who have left their religion in order to live as homosexuals without fear for their lives, and people who have rejected their sexual orientation and sought help from Christian “conversion” groups that claim to help gays overcome their homosexuality. “There’s a huge cross section of stories in this piece,” Newson said. “We want to represent everyone’s view. We also have a responsibility to present the views of religious homophobes onstage, and to try to represent them as accurately as we can. We want to hear why they’re opposed to homosexuality, because unless we hear clearly, we can’t have a rational debate about it.”
Arts & Lectures brings DV8 to the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) for three performances of To Be Straight With You on November 18-20 at 8 p.m. There is no late seating for this event. For tickets or information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.