A Gay In A Manger. A full on Christmas show hosted by Tranny and Roseannah. A shocking, messy, provocative, chaotic, anarchic, queer, in-your-face, sexual, rude, crude, hilarious re-writing of The Nativity… The Arches Christmas show Rosana is making with Laurie Brown, Adrian Howells and unexpectedly Eilidh MacAskill, and… me. One massive, crucial difference to the show compared to all the other things I’ve got to observe, I’m in it. Now, it’s not that I’m highlighting this for my ego or to seem self-obsessed, I will get to dissecting all the interesting things it brought up as best I can - promise. I start with this point, as I’d like to think, it is a culmination of all my thoughts on Rosana’s practice. It’s a break down of the placement-placement provider relationship. It’s a step towards me as a collaborator beyond this course. I am by no means to thank for its creative genius, but I wasn’t just 'the placement', I was a performer. It is a great way to end the placement, alongside the artist. Not only that, but my role as ‘tiny tim’ who has to make drinks, clean and generally get bossed about by everyone else, directly addresses and satirises the usual treatment of ‘the work experience’. Basically, it deconstructs the hierarchical nature of institutions, and the art world. Hurrah.
It’s pretty odd trying to be objective about a performance and trying to imagine what it must be like to walk in as an audience member. So I shall try to speak from my unique experience of being within it. A Gay In A Manger is a good hard kick against the Christmas Panto, and the general merriment that goes with the festive season. Christmas, Christianity, The Nativity, it’s all full of love and joy. As long as you’re part of a heteronormative, probably white, western, consumerist- family that is. You only need to look at Glasgow’s (and surrounding area) array of Christmas shows to see for yourself:
A Gay In A Manger is important for many reasons, but here are four key ones:
It kicks against the happy-clappy-everything’s-great-at-Christmas vibe
From its trashy, homeless setting, to its ventures in to glimpses of rape (involving an audience member in a donkey mask), nothing is sparkly or superficially joyous about GIAM. It brings up abuse, alcoholism, pedaphilia and poverty via comedy in the face of Christmas. There’s no ‘happy ending’ or good triumph over bad, just many moments which push the audience to ask themselves – have we really gone here? A slightly pervy Grandad, a gay couple turned away from a hotel for being homosexual, a poor junkie Inn-keeper, a dogs-body used to do everything for everyone, a scary birth of Jesus and ultimately death. Not the usual things you see in a Christmas show, or depicted in your Christmas adverts for that matter. Cue sigh of relief. That said, it also is an outrageous and rawkus party - you don't know where you'll be at the end of the night.
It is unashamedly queer and genderqueer
Just from its title, it attracts (in general) an audience who are at least willing to attempt to deal with the kind of dark humour and blasphemy GIAM contains. It is subversive simply for using homosexuality in the same breath as religion. The title on its own, as pointed out to the few who complained to The Arches, is only offensive if you deem ‘gay’ as an insult. The piece for sure makes fun of the religious story, but for good reason. For a long time I’ve been frustrated with the amount politics and politicans seem to be up for satirising, but religion is always viewed as far too sacred.
GIAM plays with religion by the queering of the nativity. Mary and Joseph become two men named Mary and Mary. Even though this is done playfully, it really does bring in to question the complete eradication of homosexual stories from the bible, and in fact most of history.
The Angel Gabriel is a camp aerobics teacher in a leotard
God is a wobbling thing with gold cloth on its head (who actually has sex with Mary)
The shepards and wise men are all women
Jesus is a screaming naked head-shaved lesbian (being pulled from under a bed)
In fact gender-bending is a general given, what with the hosts being Tranny and Roseannah, and a woman dressed as an old man playing Grandad, and androgynous me probably looking like a 14 year old boy in an oversized coat. And hey, why not? As Riki Wilchins puts it in her book that summarises queer theory:
‘Homosexuality itself is the most profound transgression of the primary rule of gender; girls sleep with boys and boys sleep with girls’
She says from a political stand point it’s difficult – if not impossible- for gay activists to pursue the right to their sexual orientation without addressing issues of gender. (Queer Theory, Gender Theory, Wilchins, p.15-16)
Futhermore, it is not afraid to be grotesque, disgusting or deal with the abusive in its depiction of queer sex. From Tranny licking out a chicken to ‘prepare it’, Mary going cruising, the afore-mentioned donkey moment (donkey in strap-on), God shoving an audience member into its crotch and simulating sex, and many innuendos with Grandad, GIAM does not shy away from tropes associated with queerness. Promiscuity, Kink, BDSM (and wrongly abuse and pedaphillia) are all things synonymous with queer. Although obviously this is not true for all queers, GIAM does not shy away from them. And nor should it. It's about time we saw more queer sex on stage.
It holds live-art principals at its heart
GIAM is essential in its anarchy. It’s heavily improvised, heavily reliant on audience participation. The audience doesn’t just get to sit back and watch the moments, it partakes in many. The entire cast of main roles is made up of audience members. Similar to My Big Sister... the audience is given a live experience. They don’t just watch the queer, they join in with the queer.
‘What the sex/art community will tell you is that in order to challenge ‘sex negative’ culture, it is not enough to talk about, represent or even witness sexual practice as performance, but that the opportunity to participate has to be on the table’ (Forget Provocation, Let’s Have Sex, Dance Theatre Journal)
There may not be any sex acts between humans that literally happen, but there is much flirtation and the occasional boob-grab that make it not so far off.
Similar to Walking:Holding, the audience is a collaborator that makes the show what it is. Particularly the first night, I felt accuately aware of the audience and us being in this one room all together. We were a whole, going through this potentially transformative experience as one. It pushes the audience out of its comfort zone, to the point where anything could happen, but no one will made to partake if they don’t want to. There were comments I heard being thrown about about audience consent and the ethics around that. I ask, what’s a more ethical way to treat your audience? Making them adhere to the theatre etiquette of politeness and having to sit in the dark knowing they're powerless to the events on stage, or releasing them of that – they can shout, laugh, walk out, come on stage, and we directly respond to them? The latter, surely?
It’s full of women
Three queer women, one guy. Not only does this make many moments less problematic (pedo Grandad being one), but it is direct action against a male-dominated art world. Rosana (tranny) being half naked through-out de-sexualises the female body, and her deliberately grotesque acts defy female nudity equating to beauty. All the female expressions of sexuality are queer, its androgynous, sometimes butch, it hits on audience members, it performs a ‘lesbian’ sex act on a chicken, on Mary. The women aren’t always dressed as typically feminine, or even identifiably female, they tell the story, they host, they are powerful, powerless, on stage, in the audience, lap-dancing, dragging-up, a woman playing a man playing a woman. They aren’t fairies, or queens, or mothers, or angels, or in sexy santa outfits, or written out of the story until they are invisible. Yes.
It's not for everyone. Glasgow was barely ready for it. But we all know where the queer's at this Christmas, that's for sure.