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'Hir' Actor Griffyn Gilligan on Why We Need Queer Theatre Now

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Actor Griffyn Gilligan is currently playing the part of Max in Taylor Mac's new play Hir at the Bush Theatre. He writes for Run Riot on why we all need queer storytelling.

Pride in London launched a campaign this week that immediately sparked outrage throughout the city and across the country. #LoveHappensHere received criticism for many reasons, but among the strongest are that the campaign focuses on straight people and on the “love is love” message.

Pride is many different things to diverse communities across the world. It is protest, celebration, coming of age, remembering fallen community members. It is about struggling to make space for love in a world where gender, sexuality, and queer bodies still make us victims of daily violence. It’s about the fact that sometimes those parts of us have nothing to do with love and sometimes we want to feel all of those parts of ourselves at once, in a joyous, bittersweet cacophony. 

Hir is also full of many parts.

It is full of things that are in the news, but also in our lives: our homes, our bodies, our beds. Talking to a loved one about mental illness, coming out to a family member, trying to cope with domestic violence. For me, if the play is “about” anything, it’s about how our politics lives in our homes and in our bodies. When our differences make our relationships feel vulnerable and fragile, how do we pick and choose our battles?

As a performer and theatre artist, my job is to make spaces for people to come together and think about those questions. As a queer performer, I’m interested in approaching those questions through rebellion. From the Stonewall riots to the rise of House culture in the 80’s to AIDS protests and online movements in response to young trans suicides (like Leelah Alcorn’s death), LGBTQ history is a a story of rebellion. 

For queer people, rebellion is as personal as it is public. Each choice to wear a binder or makeup, to kiss a partner in a public place, to subject oneself to the whims and judgements of a doctor in search of much-needed hormones or PrEP or testing - those are all political choices. They are rebellions against being erased in the media or classified by a medical textbook or spurned by family. Or, we sometimes, we are trapped. We make the choice to rebel against ourselves.

Hir is an intricate cross section of people struggling against their own histories and towards loving each other. A young man reeling from PTSD both from domestic abuse and war. His mother, trying to throw away everything to do with her oppression. A violent father and bully now incapacitated and impotent, and made an effigy of White Cis Patriarchy. A teenager trying to find a family who will not just accept or resist what they are, but who they are.

The playwright, Taylor Mac, is a multi-form artist: drag artist, performance artist, theatre artist, and more. To Hyperallergic, Mac said of theatre and performance art/drag/cabaret, “I think it is all storytelling. When I go to an art gallery, I see storytelling. Others will defensively say, ‘No! There’s no story. It’s image on canvas. It’s about lines and architecture.’ But to me, all of that is story.” And I think Mac is right. The histories, the stories going on right now and the stories-to-come - no matter their form, they all share forms of rebellion.

But part of Mac’s brilliance is that we don’t have to tell these stories one at a time, or from beginning to end, or in a way that makes one person a central character. We don’t have to have only “queer” characters in a play, because everyone has to deal with gender and sexuality and misogyny. Good queer theatre and performance mimics lived queer experiences - complex, filled with many forces and characters, multitudinous, often contradictory, both painful and joyous.

Artists like Mac have always inspired me. They are part of a legacy of making pieces of many different forms, with sometimes radically different content and themes, and always trying to find news ways to be accessible to different audiences. And I think that is our beacon of hope.

Over the last couple years, we’ve been facing just how blatantly many leaders, corporations, and citizens have embraced racism, fascism, sexism, and bigotry to serve their own interests. It is scary. It is tiring, often overwhelming and exhausting. The Bush joins a number of other theatres and artists in looking for new stories and sidelined voices. Using various forms that allow those voices to mix, to argue, to seek love and healing and to understand one another is the most promising way to do that.

Mixed form comes in large part from a queer tradition, and even more from queer experience. Hir is a scripted play, and one with drag, puppetry, music, and simultaneously, a persistent tone of realism. It is artists like Taylor Mac who insist that no stories - queer or otherwise - be boxed in or isolated. It is together, recognising and embracing the liberation in difference that queer politics has painstakingly opened up for us, that we will figure out what to do next.

Hir is currently running at the Bush Theatre until 22nd July.