One of the missions of this blog is to spark a discussion about sexuality in theatre, pulling apart stereotypes and detonating prescribed behaviour as we go. With that in mind it was somewhat self-consciously that I met Simon Jay, theatre-maker and card-carrying homosexual, in a coffee bar in Soho of all places. Be reassured the reason for this location was not a crass attempt to be ironic; merely a logistical decision that meant I was in the right place to score bargain West End tickets later in the day, the coffee was cheap and tasty (a bit like me) and anyway it was he who suggested it, not me.
Simon Jay is a London-based writer, director and theatre producer who often takes to the stage himself, performing one-man shows which explore among other themes; gender identity, feminism and the rights and experiences of the individual. His latest piece, Is He A Bit Simon Jay?, will be performed as part of the Freedom To Be Festival in Colliers Wood this weekend.
Hello Simon. Thank you for meeting me here at this potentially offensive/ironic location to discuss LGBT matters and your work as a theatre practitioner. Are you looking forward to taking part in the Freedom To Be Festival?
Absolutely. I believe in taking theatre to places where it’s under-represented, and one of the main aims of this festival is to do that. Colliers Wood has an absolute dearth of theatre and art, let alone an LGBTQIA scene to speak of. Debbie (Johnson; Freedom To Be’s Head Organiser) wanted to create a festival to bring LGBTQIA (the ‘A’ is for ‘Allies’) work to the area, and make a space in south London for multiple types of art and expression. It’ll be a showcase for all the things I’m interested in as a theatre-maker and I’m very happy to be a part of it.
Do you think sexuality always plays a part in creative expression? Does your sexuality inform your writing for example?
It’s not a conscious thing. It will automatically inform what I do, because it’s part of who I am, but I don’t set out to make a point about it. I’m interested in exploring identity, and sexuality and gender are a part of that; that they’re not automatic things dictated by what sort of body you have. I’m interested in pulling that apart and looking at what happens when you do that theatrically, but I don’t have a particular agenda or political point to make with my work.
You must find that some audiences impose that, though?
Well they can do, yes. Most of us are brought up with very specific ideas of what men and women do, and that can translate into how we understand theatre as adults. I grew up wanting to play the great female roles like Beverley in Abigail’s Party, and as a child I didn’t see any reason that shouldn’t be possible. I quickly realised as an adult though that nobody’s going to cast me in those roles, so I’ll have to create opportunities for myself. That’s why as a performer and director I’m gender-blind when it comes to casting. It’s absurd to think ‘that’s male’ or ‘that’s female’, especially in theatre which is artificial by its very nature. When I performed my new show at Oxford Old Fire Station earlier this year, audience members told me they couldn’t tell if I was portraying a woman or a very camp man. I asked them what’s the difference?
So your desire to play female roles is artistic rather than personal?
Oh yes. Lots of people confuse the desire to perform as a female with the desire to become a female, and they’re very separate things. Although there’s nothing more or less valid about either of those desires. One of my strongest inspirations as a writer and performer is something that Barry Humphries says about his Dame Edna character; that Edna is not a man impersonating a woman, but a female character in her own right, and that’s how he approaches playing her. I love the notion that a man playing a woman can be just that: a person playing a person, free from any politics of it being a male body doing the performing. The character is no less female for being communicated by a male body. The fact I’m a gay man wanting to play women doesn’t mean I want to become one; just that I want to portray a particular character who happens to be a woman. Theatre allows us to do that and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
Are there any other major influences on your work?
Yes, Ed Wood! I love his enthusiasm and love; his willingness to risk embarrassment because that’s what the work needed him to do. I’ve always believed that as theatre-makers we should take our art seriously; not ourselves, and I never ask actors to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. For example, I’ve just completed a project where I made seven short films, each of which was completed in a day, taking place over a week of shooting. There simply wasn’t enough time for ego. One scene required an instance of simulated anal sex (Jay affectionately terms this the ‘Bumming’ scene but in the interest of objectivity I’ve edited this – Steph) and none of the actors was prepared to do it. So I did. That’s why I like actors and directors who are prepared to look foolish if it makes the work better. Ed Wood may not have produced the slickest or most profound pieces of work but he led a group of creatives willing to join in. It’s that kind of open collaborative spirit I try to encourage with my actors. I love giving them silly things to do.
And do you find on the whole they’re prepared to do them?
Not always, and I’ve definitely gotten pickier about the kind of actors I work with for that reason. It’s not about humiliating them of course, but I want them to bring something to the work themselves. When I directed The Vagina Monologues (at Bournemouth University, where Jay studied) it was the first time I’d relinquished my grip on the material and let the actors make discoveries for themselves. I felt a bit fraudulent at first but then I realised part of being a director is about being a facilitator, and allowing actors to take the lead in the process sometimes. If an actor is too pre-occupied with their own persona or looking sexy or noble to do that, it makes it almost impossible to create something exciting together.
You courted a bit of controversy with that show’s publicity material as well, didn’t you?
Oh yes, that was ridiculous! What happened was, Chloe Cook (President of BU’s Feminist Society at the time) asked me to direct The Vagina Monologues and stage it as part of V-Day (a global activist movement campaigning to end violence against women and girls). The poster we used to publicise the show around the university was a variation on V-Day’s official poster featuring a pair of feminine lips turned on their side to resemble a vulva. Not long after we put up the posters Chloe got an email from the Student Union president saying they’d received a complaint the image was explicit and in violation of the university’s code of conduct regarding obscene material.
And how did you respond?
With derision. V-Day holds events all over the world and this was an image that had been displayed in Tehran for goodness’ sake! If it can be shown in a country living under Sharia law without much fuss it seemed ludicrous we couldn’t display it in a British university. We started a petition and got over a hundred signatures; in the end we displayed a modified version of the poster with a ‘Censored’ sign plastered diagonally across it but so you could still see what the image was. I think that showed how stupid the whole furore was.
Do sexuality or gender concerns play a part in your new show, Is He A Bit Simon Jay?
Well in a way they don’t, really! The title is a play on cockney rhyming slang for gay that Scott (Payne, Simon’s collaborator and co-writer) came up with, but apart from that the text doesn’t explicitly deal with homosexuality as a main theme. It’s a comedy telling the story of one man’s journey from death to birth and all the people he interacts with along the way. Scott and I wanted to make a show that didn’t focus on someone’s deeds as defining them, but who they interact with. We’re the sum of our meetings with others I think, and we wanted to explore that by creating lots of different characters for one man to encounter. I wanted to play them all of course, one because I can’t afford a cast of 30, but mainly so I could show how independent from the body gender and sexuality can be. That gender is something we take on; not something that’s innate and inescapable. So it’s not a play about gender and sexuality specifically, but a play where one body takes on lots of different identities, and in doing that exposes gender as a behaviour rather than an innate impulse. That’s what drew Debbie to the piece and why she wanted it as part of Freedom To Be, so it must be something very apparent to the audience.
And will the play have a life after the festival?
Very much so. After Freedom To Be we’ll be touring the show all over the UK into next year, culminating in a run at Edinburgh in 2014.
Do you think you’ll get tired of the show?
No, there’s far too many characters for that to happen!
Simon Jay will be performing Is He A Bit Simon Jay? as part of the Freedom To Be Festival in Colliers Wood, on Saturday 8th June. Events will be taking place at St Joseph’s Hall and Johmard Centre from 7.30pm onwards, and you can find out more by contacting Debbie at email@example.com or tweeting @lgbtqiasw19 #freedom_to_be.
You can find out more about Simon and his work here: www.ideastap.com/People/simonjay or follow him @simonjaystwit. Don’t forget to follow us too while you’re there, @TheatreLGBT!