Let’s Talk Sexual Identity And Gender Roles – Interview With BoxedIn Theatre Artistic Diretor Oli Savage
Have you ever felt like you don’t really fit into the labels society puts on us? Ever hesitated when filling out a questionnaire asking whether you consider yourself male or female? This is what queer theatre is about. How are gender and sexuality viewed by and fit in our society?
This year, Brighton Fringe will host several queer theatre projects, among them is ‘WOOD’, a BoxedIn Theatre production. We met artistic director Oli Savage who told us about the play, it’s revolutionary style, his personal motivation and political engagement.
“Camping is all fun and games until someone dies”
Six students, Nick, Matt, Page, Lizzie, Tom and Eli, go camping together and one morning they wake up and find out that one of them has died. That’s in a nutshell what the play is about. But there is more to it as Oli Savage explains to us. “There are two story lines. One of them follows the group and deals with questions like ‘what do we do?’ or ‘how do we get rid of the body?’. The other story line flashes back to Nick’s life and explores the relationships he had with members of the group in order to look on his sexuality, on how he perceived his sexuality and how that shaped his life basically.”
As the artistic director reveals, the play will explore the two main concerns, sexual identity and gender labels, in multiple ways. Two of the characters were originally written as characters from the other sex. Swapping their sexes while keeping character traits that are generally considered to characterise the opposite gender is only one of them. In fact, Oli Savage wanted to go further. Being performed several nights in a row, the show will alternate between queer and straight performances.
“When reading through the script one last time before getting the cast together, we asked ourselves whether the way we had written these characters would really challenge the sexual stereotypes. Are we really pushing far enough? As we will perform it several times, why don’t we really explore the way sexuality is performed by giving everyone two roles. We have six actors, three guys and three girls, and all of them have both male and a female role. It really shows what is fundamentally different in the way we communicate gender.”
Digging deeper into sexual identity and labels. Is there a personal engagement?
So much for gender identity, but what about sexual identity and labels? The characters all portray different sexualities and raise issues in the play that the director has experienced himself.
“Two of the main characters are involved in a sexual relationship. One of them is like me, he doesn’t like the labels and doesn’t conform to them. He thinks that he doesn’t see the point in them. The other one is really struggling to find a label for himself because that’s what he really needs. This feeling that he belongs somewhere. We use these characters to explore what are the benefits and what are the negatives of having sexual labels. Wouldn’t it be better to just say everyone is how they are? Or do these labels perform a very important role in our society and make people feel like they are part of something?”
Given the little remark “one of them is like me”, we want to know whether Oli is personally concerned with gender labels.
“For a personal level, and that is really what the show is about, I don’t like to conform to those labels, specifically sexual labels. Whenever I get asked by people or in a questionnaire, I always say ‘no’. We’re really quite engaged with this and personally I try to get involved politically as much as I can.”
So, are labels a good or a bad thing? Neither one nor the other!
After having put so much thought into this project, what message does he want to convey with the play? “My main message is that it would be good if we as a society could get to a point where we don’t need to put labels on each other. But as we finally found out that labels do have a certain service function in society, our final message is not ‘Sexuality or gender labels are bad or good’. It’s more ‘Let’s have a discussion about the way that they function’ because a lot of the time these labels are used in a really bad way even when they can have a really positive purpose. So let’s really think about how we can use this in order to make society better, to make the world a better place.”
BoxedIn Theatre. It’s queer, it’s politically motivated and it has got a mission!
WOOD is only the second BoxedIn Theatre production after a queer version of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Queer theatre has thus always been at the heart of the BoxedIn company. For the artistic director, it is even fundamental.
“The most amazing thing about it is that, fundamentally, we are looking not just at the way that we understand ourselves, but at the way that we interact with other people. And this is something so fundamental. It’s a shame that not a lot of people know about it and we want to get it out there.”
Getting queer theatre out to the crowds and raising people’s awareness on all sorts of topics related to sexuality and gender stereotypes. That is where Oli sees their mission.
“What we want to do is dismantle the heteronormativity in entertainment. In entertainment, you don’t get to see what is called alternated sexualities. You don’t really get to see an array of sexualities and you very rarely get to see an array of genders. It’s a shame and I don’t think that has to exist.”
Wanting to provoke a real change in the way entertainment is presented to us, BoxedIn Theatre is a hundred percent politically motivated. But the artistic director even takes that a step further.
“A lot of people will probably disagree with me, but I personally believe that you can’t write, you can’t direct a show unless you’re being political. When you put a group of living breathing human beings up on a stage in front of an audience, no matter how much you might try to avoid it, there is always something that’s being said, something that’s being communicated. So everything we do is definitely politically motivated and I think theatre is always politically motivated.”
With all these thoughts and this strong motivation behind it, is there a special meaning behind the name ‘BoxedIn Theatre’?
“There are a lot of meanings. On the basis, the standard performance form of contemporary theatre is a black box theatre and we wanted to break out of this format. So it’s kind of ironic because we want to bring new experimental types of theatre to places that aren’t traditionally a theatrical venue. Secondly, as we are looking at LGBT stuff, sexual labels and gender performances, we are asking a lot of questions about why these labels exist, how they are constructed and how they are applied by society. So again, it’s ironic and it’s saying ‘Don’t be boxed in!’. And then even one step further, we want to say ‘Think outside the box!’ and try to stop people from being boxed in.”
A World Premiere at Brighton Fringe for everyone
If their ideas might already appear revolutionary, the theatre style they are using surely is. When Oli talks about the play, he calls it a ‘world premiere’ and that is not only because the play will be performed at Brighton Fringe for the very first time. For their production WOOD, BoxedIn Theatre have developed an entirely new style called ‘Immersive-Lite’.
“Immersive theatre brings the audience into the world of a show, so rather than just sitting there and watching what happens, you are practically in it. Immersive Lite takes that one step further because instead of making the audience come into the world of our show, we want to bring the world of our show to them. Immersive theatre has never been taken on tour before. That’s what makes our show so interesting.
With Immersive Lite we wanted to break down these boundaries and find a way to bring this engaging, captivating, enchanting unique style to people who maybe wouldn’t get access to it when the set up is traditional. So we want to offer a show for people that are turned away from the traditional theatre.”
The play will be performed outdoors with a setting including nothing but four tents that will be put up in the New Steine Gardens. We asked Oli who can come and see the show.
“Fundamentally it’s a love story gone wrong. So as long as you’re not massively homophobic, I think you’ll enjoy it. So just come along. It’s gonna be fun and it’s free.”
‘WOOD’ will be performed at the New Steine Gardens from May 22nd till June 4th at 7 pm. Admission is free.
For more information on BoxedIn Theatre and their play ‘WOOD’ click here.