‘In our society the queer experience is too often intertwined with trauma and pain but that doesn’t need to be its defining feature.'
Katrina Bennett talks about centring queer joy while writing her play CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER, breaking away from traditional theatrical forms, and the importance of making work with people who share your values.
We watch too much queer pain. From the recent film Close (a promising queer coming-of-age turned tragic, guilt-ridden suicide story) to Jack’s brutal death in Brokeback Mountain, the media is determined to beat, bully, and bury our gays in gratuitous fashion. There’s no denying that in our society the queer experience is too often intertwined with trauma and pain but that doesn’t need to be its defining feature and I was determined for it not to be so in writing CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER.
When I attended a queer theatre making workshop last year, I felt the critical importance of representing more nuanced queer experiences. While people shared their struggles with making queer work in the industry, we concluded by each sharing something that brings us queer joy. We also spent a long time filling a whiteboard with words we associated with queer. While ‘hardship’ and ‘painful’ were there, the joyful associations far outnumbered the negative ones, with words like ‘fizzy’, ‘euphoria’, ‘collective’, and ‘kindness’ spiralling outwards. In writing CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER, I wanted to create something that acknowledges the realities of being queer while holding joy at its heart.
CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER is set across two explosive parties, following Amber, Dee, Freya, and Craig who live together and are in an open polycule that’s at breaking point. During the writing process, I was in the midst of a scriptwriting masters where I was fed a daily dose of dramatic action, structure, and change. While helpful writing tools, traditional dramatic structures can be limiting as they advocate action driven by conflict, pitching of good against evil, and an often moral catharsis. Queerness is multiplicitous, fluid, and indefinable, making it inherently complex to really capture a queer story within a straight form. In early drafts of CYF, I relied too heavily on traditional narrative structures, writing a script that was rampant with conflict. It meant that the characters’ relationship felt sapped of affection or fun. I doubt an audience watching that version would root for them to stay together or even understand how they’d ended up dating in the first place.
This is where the importance of working with great people comes in. During CYF’s development process, I surrounded myself with people similarly motivated to make fun, queer work. Led by the brilliant director and dramaturg Amy Crighton, we pulled together an R&D cast (Clare Stenning, Miguel Barrulas, Davy Roderick, and Boo Jackson) who created a warm and kind space where I could test my material, build my characters, and start weaving together a story. All of us were at different stages within our own queer journeys and we found joy both in the play’s material itself and in our own moments of commonality and connection. United by platform converse, jumpsuits, and Docs, veggie hot dogs, cheap cocktails, and Naked Attraction; it was all the easier to authentically represent a queer community when I had my very own in the room supporting me through the process. When I struggled with creating scenes that were both dramatically interesting and happy, we whacked on some gay anthems and improvised, finding the characters’ easy intimacy and comfort with each other. I returned to videos of these improvs throughout the redrafting process to capture their joy in my writing. In this way, I started to write something that had conflict and drama, but was also filled with love, yearning, and fun.
We also conceived of a narrative structure that allowed for a more in-depth exploration of the multi-faceted nature of queerness. Inspired by Amy’s love for the alignment between characters and players in video games (see her own blog post for more!) and with a lot of experimentation in R&D, I wrote CYF as a mix of group scenes, duologues, and monologues. Audience members are each assigned one of the four characters and explore their character’s perspective in detail. Everyone watches group scenes together, then the narrative splits into four simultaneous monologues with audiences tuning into their character’s perspective through silent disco headphones to gain exclusive insight into their side of the story. Writing the play in this form gave me the space to really dive into each of these characters, their backgrounds, their secrets, and their queerness.
A valuable part of the process was learning how to respond to feedback. We had three work-in-progress performances during our development period where we received audience comments. The majority of the feedback was constructive and positive, however some audience members had questions about the representation of polyamory, for instance suggesting that definitions of key terms be left on audience seats to help them understand the concept. This brought up the internal conflict for me of not wanting to have to educate my audience, but also not wanting to alienate them. While acknowledging that this isn’t a relationship dynamic frequently seen in the mainstream, ethical non-monogamy, to me, doesn’t feel vastly different from other relationships. I wanted to show that polyamory can exist alongside the relationship dramas we always see on our stage and screens; it’s all people falling in love, shagging, and making mistakes. From this feedback, I pushed my work to best disrupt how theatre tends to depict complex relationships.
In developing CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER, I realised that all I need to do is tell a good story. It doesn’t need to be didactic or educational, it can just be about four people living their lives. Yes, it’s not always easy and they each have their own demons, but that doesn’t mean that their queerness can’t be characterised by joy and love too.
By Katrina Bennett, Writer of CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER and Co-Artistic Director of Votive Theatre
Tue 9 - Sat 13 May at 7.15pm
Tickets £8 - £15