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Interview: Scottee talks to Ben Walters about Putting Words in Your Mouth

For the past decade, Scottee has been at the forefront of London’s queer performance scene, provocatively mixing spangly showbiz and campy drag motifs with provocative, progressive politics and a penchant for messmaking. His track record includes influential perf-art party Anti-Social, alt variety nights Eat Your Heart Out and Camp, and outsized pageant Burger Queen (later Hamburger Queen). Among his solo shows are Mess, which attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police, and The Worst of Scottee, which won a theatre award.

These days he’s often to be found on Radio 4’s Loose Ends or working with Duckie or the Roundhouse, where he’s an associate artist. Putting Words in Your Mouth, which comes to the Roundhouse’s Sackler Space this month, is Scottee’s directorial debut.

RR: The publicity material about Putting Words in Your Mouth is quite low detail. Is that because the work is still developing or is something else going on?

Scottee: Yes, it’s intentionally quite vague. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you what it’s about or that I don’t know what it’s about. I need to make sure that people who are the offenders aren’t put off. I don’t like to lay it on too thick or you just get the choir coming and I don’t just want 25 retweets to send me on my way home. We haven’t got much time and we need to start addressing some identity politics much quicker so we can get on to the fact that in 50 years the planet will be too hot to live on. But I’m not here to solve the world’s issues. I’m here to say ‘this is a conversation we need to have’.

RR: So it’s engaging with questions of identity politics and people who are ‘offenders’ in that context. What form does it take?

Scottee: It’s a theatre show which is lip-synch for an hour, really looking at queer identity and the legacy of Thatcherism on queer people. Over the last year, I’ve done 11 residencies, site-specific projects in Hull and Peterborough, also touring. I’ve interviewed over 400 people in England, Wales and Scotland who all identify as part of our acronym community [ie LGBTQI]. A lot of familiar stuff has come up and I feel like I’ve got a view of what it’s like to be part of our community. I wanted to do something that made us have a conversation as a queer community about what happens when people don’t feel like they belong. I approached 127 people – I can’t tell you why those 127 as that would give the game away but they self-selected via social media. I got contact back from less than 20 and then eight agreed to be interviewed and three of those voices are in the show. They’re called by the city they’re from – Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester – and those are the only three we hear in the show. Their story, their experience, is broadly representative. I was looking for people from a similar background to me: working class, non-university-educated, penchant for doing drag, feel like mainstream politics do not reflect where they’re at.

RR: You don’t appear in the show yourself but you’re working with performers Lasana Shabazz and Travis Alabanza.

Scottee: I’m not in it. I’m purely the heavy hand that’s making it. I wanted to work with artists who were up for devising and knew this kind of work. Lasana and Travis make lots of brilliant work about identity so it helps add another layer. There’s a really big conversation that the arts thinks it’s having at the moment about diversity but it’s not putting it into action and I wanted to make sure I had as gender-diverse and ethnically diverse a cast as possible. I made the audio with [radio producer] Debbie Kilbride, then we spent a couple of days in a room splitting up the parts, playing with the text, working out who’s going to do what and where the wigs and make-up come in. Lots about handbags. Then we spent three weeks rolling around the floor with each other working it out.

RR: It almost sounds like you think the LGBTQI community needs to roll around the floor with each other and work some things out…

Scottee: I think as human beings we’ve decided somehow that far-right politics are of interest, either because it fills up our social media and gives us things to be angry about or because perhaps we truly believe this will be the answer of getting out of this situation. This dominance of 'right' power is having an effect. We’ve seen it in the 147% rise of LGBT hate crime post-Brexit – now people with those opinions come to the fore and get more strength. If we as a community are going to really challenge the world – make the world listen and understand and change – there needs to be some community cohesion. We need to do a little housekeeping first.

RR: What else is on your mind as a performer?

Scottee: I’m protesting against drag at the moment. I’m not performing en femme. A couple of weeks ago I realised the reason I perform in drag is I just like ladies’ clothes, so I just wear them during the day. I feel like for our non-binary relatives drag was something you do to be angry and be seen and now it’s something you do for Instagram and to get on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I don’t want to be associated with a programme that isn’t gender neutral or a movement that is inherently misogynistic – the Drag Race cultural hegemony. Because it’s the dominant voice of our community, it has an obligation to that community and the leader of that cult saying women don’t belong in this world and using language like 'fishy', it’s allowing certain gay men to live out their misogyny. It feels like a step back in alienating women, femmes and dykes again. And the transphobia as well. Come on! For some trans people, the T-bomb is triggering. To identify as a tranny for one night cos you think it’s funny – that conversation is no longer funny, interesting or valid. We need to move on. We should be able to understand and listen and improve and not say, “No! If I want to be a tranny I can!” It’s just naff, I’m not interested in it. And I’m not interested in it artistically. Everyone wants to look like each other. I just think it’s beige. It’s where I was at with burlesque a decade ago. I know there are brilliant key figures in queer performance pushing agendas in lips and a hoof – Panti [Bliss], Dickie [Beau], Nando [Messias] – but these people are innovative. Drag is a tool and a weapon but it feels like, for me, I don’t need to do that to say the things I need to say.

Putting Words in Your Mouth is at the Roundhouse from 22nd November until 3 December, tickets available now.

Find out more here, read the Run Riot listing here.

Tweet Scottee here, visit his website here.