By Rory McKeon
If you’re anything like me (a former gay theatre kid, and now a fully-grown gay theatre enthusiast), lockdown has been tough. With shows being postponed and cancelled, stages being subbed in for bedrooms, and packed audiences being replaced by next-door neighbours eavesdropping on shower-time belting, the theatrical withdrawal symptoms have been intense. And with the theatre industry itself under threat of closing down due to the (lack of) financial support from the government, it is without doubt a troubling time for anyone involved in, or even just a fan of, the arts.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes when the going gets tough, you have to take things into your own hands, and that’s exactly what the creative team behind Three Pound Coin have done. Three Pound Coin is a brand-new Edinburgh-based theatre company with a heavy emphasis on showcasing the ‘unapologetically queer’ in their work. I was lucky enough to virtually sit down and chat with Ben Fleming and Issi Ladd, one of the co-Artistic Directors and one of the co-Executive Producers respectively, to discuss exactly how it was that they managed to set up an entire theatre company from scratch while juggling university work and the existential crises of life during global pandemic. Considering the extent of my theatrical output over the past year has been learning TikTok dances alone in my room, you can imagine how impressed I am.
"Three Pound Coin was an idea conceived during lockdown when Emily (Oulton, co-Artistic Director) and I originally wanted to put on a production of The Boys in the Band (by Mart Crowley),” explains Ben, with face beat and a matching outfit to boot following the company’s recent photoshoot. But when the notorious virus scuppered these plans, following “discussions about queer theatre and the queerness of The Boys in the Band,” Three Pound Coin was born. For Issi, despite not being able to execute this plan the way they had in mind, it acted as the origin story for the group. “All four of us – so me, Ben, Emily and Doug (Stephenson, co-Executive Producer) – all independently have loved that play,” she says with a fond smile. “It is a bit of a dream project kind of thing that we would love to do one day.”
But now with the theatre company in its infancy, they have bigger fish to fry – Three Pound Coin is officially launching with a 24-hour radio fundraiser, ‘MOJO Flips the Coin’, on the 19th February in association with MOJO Edinburgh. This radio marathon will consist of interviews with queer artists and activists including Nick Hytner, the previous Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Gina Maya, an Edinburgh-based trans rights activist, and leaders of LGBT Youth Scotland and LGBT Health and Wellbeing, which the show will be raising money for alongside the company’s own Kickstarter. The event will also feature three plays written by queer writers, including So… What Happened Last Night?, a new play written by the co-Artistic Directors themselves, and interviews with bands such as The Wedding Present & Cinerama, the Dandy Warhols, and RIDE. While I may not have the stamina to be there for the whole 24 hours, I know I’ll definitely be tuning in.
So what is Three Pound Coin, and what makes it so ‘unapologetically queer’? For Ben, the central mission of the company is about putting queer stories into the mainstream. “That doesn’t mean making queerness palatable or softening it for a mainstream audience,” he quickly clarifies. “What it means is not having to feel like you have to apologise for putting a queer narrative or a queer character into a play, or downplaying it and putting it in as a side-note rather than it taking centre stage. When I say we’re making mainstream queer theatre, it doesn’t mean making it heteronormative, it means taking up more space.” A green flag, if you ask me.
For Three Pound Coin, the space they’re taking up goes beyond the content they produce. As Issi says: “We have in our mission statement: ‘Queer not just in content, but in form.’ It’s not just about the plays we’re putting on, it’s about our graphic identity, the makeup of our team, the people that we’re casting, the way that we discuss and converse with people, and I think that’s a really important part of our main aims.” During our interview, it is this emphasis on conversation which strikes me the most – queerness has always been about community, with ideas of queer spaces and chosen families existing just as long as queer people have, so to see this reflected in the ethos of a theatre company is refreshing. Indeed, it’s such an integral part of the company that its central tenets rest upon it. “We’ve tackled it from three main perspectives,” explains Ladd, “Vision, Hearing and Speaking. We have a vision for the art that we want to make and present, and the way we want to do that. We have a vision for the things that we want to hear and the conversations we want to have. And then we also have a vision for the people and the voices that we want to uplift. It’s not just us putting art out, it’s also us speaking to people, and us passing the mic to other people.”
‘Passing the mic’ can be a contentious topic when it comes to queer media and representation. Historically, gay liberation movements, and responses to them from the heteronormative community, have focused on the white gay male experience to the detriment of other demographics within the queer community. As a result, depictions of queerness in media have similarly focussed on an extremely narrow representation of the community, sidelining anyone who isn’t a sassy white twink to the position of supporting characters or neglecting to depict their experiences whatsoever. “Having female representation in queer theatre is really important,” states Issi, jokingly adding that “plays about lesbians that are set after the invention of electricity,” is a gap in queer theatre that the company is determined to fill. However, this need for representation is felt most keenly by queer minorities. “There are particularly undervalued voices within the queer community,” says Fleming, “particularly trans and non-binary people, particularly people of colour. We will be making an active effort to ensure that when we have those kinds of creatives approaching us that we’re platforming them. In the future, we hope to have a really permeable border where you have queer creatives of all different backgrounds submitting work, approaching us with projects, saying, ‘Look, this is the idea that I want to do, I really want to tell my story,’ and we provide that platform for them to do that.” Authenticity and responsible story-telling are the priorities for Issi: “The only requirement we have is that the people telling those stories are the people who should be telling those stories, and that they’re authentic and real and personal and done well. That’s the only priority, I think.”
With representational politics comes the intersection of queerness and politics more generally, and the inevitability, as Ben and Issi agree, of the politicisation of queer people. Arguably, this can be seen most prominently in media and the arts, through the specific inclusion of queer characters and the centring of queer narratives, which is by no means a groundbreaking concept. “There is a long existing history of queerness in theatre,” cites Ben, “whether you take it from Noel Coward having to imbed queer narratives within heterosexual relationships, to companies like the Gay Sweatshop in the 70s and 80s that were aligned with the Gay Liberation Front and were very politicised.” However, Three Pound Coin hopes to portray queer people as more than just political statements: “What we want to do is create nuanced pictures of queer lives, not just saying ‘Our existence is valid,’ – that should be implied. The fact that our existence is valid is the constant undercurrent to the stuff we’re doing, rather than the central message.” Validation and acceptance from heteronormative society has been a long-term goal for many queer people, but perhaps that shouldn’t be the aim anymore; perhaps it should be about creating queer art for queer art’s sake. Perhaps if it is such a struggle for queer people to have a seat at the table, we should start sitting at a table of our own. As Issi summarises: “When you come with the lived experience and a team of people who just want to make art as their central focus, then the political aspect works its way in naturally.”
Lived experience is another hot topic when it comes to queer representation at the moment, and one that I am personally quite invested in, particularly with regards to whether queer roles should be played by queer actors and vice versa. During our discussion of this, Issi noted the glaring problems with this bottom-up way of thinking, stating that really this inclusion of queer people in the production of the arts should work from the top down, with the encouragement of queer writers, directors, production companies and theatre companies. “If you implement that queerness is key to queer art at the top,” she explains, “that will work its way down and that will show in the people that audition and the people that you cast and the people that are being represented onscreen.” Whether your preference is top or bottom, the most important point is inclusion, elevation and visibility. “There’s a reason that we wanted to do this,” elaborates Ben. “It’s because we wanted to show stories that reflected our own experiences, we wanted to identify ourselves in the stories we were telling and the characters we were playing. So I guess we’re very personally invested in it.”
Both Fleming and Ladd suggest that their desire to showcase the ‘unapologetically queer’ onstage has stemmed from an underrepresentation of queer stories within their personal experiences of theatre production. And not only are queer lives underrepresented, but as Issi phrases it, these depictions are often caricatured as “trauma porn”. “It’s more than just two men who are in love and one dies. That’s not the focus, that’s not what you should be taking away from it, that someone dies at the end.” Issi references a time Emily Oulton described this at one of their early meetings: “She just said, ‘Queer theatre is much more than just Angels in America.’ And I think that really captures exactly how we felt.” This again relates to Three Pound Coin’s aim to present nuanced depictions of queerness, not just suffering or pride - the extremes of the queer emotional spectrum. “People feel joy and they feel trauma and they feel happy and they feel sad on a day-to-day basis. You cannot represent a queer life or a queer experience by having a monochromatic piece of theatre,” explains Ben. “Our work is creating complex, layered, nuanced stories that show all the breadth of queer experience, warts and all.” Who doesn’t love warts these days?
Regarding the future of the company, following what I am sure will be the success of their radio fundraiser launch, Three Pound Coin will be opening calls for monologue submissions from young writers, with the prompt for this being the word ‘queer’ and anything adjacent to it that inspires people to write. Dependent on whether society has rebuilt itself in time for summer, they also hope to bring an original production to Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2021, which Ben describes as an attempt to “historicise queerness in terms of navigating a dialogue between historical queer experiences and contemporary queer experiences, that conversation between past and present.” Nice and specific. Fingers crossed for the green light on the Fringe for this year, but only time will tell.
While the epicentre of a global pandemic may not be the best time to establish a new queer theatre company, Three Pound Coin seem to be giving it a damn good go. That doesn’t mean to say that it’s been a cake walk – on the contrary, Issi explains it’s made it all the more intimidating. “I don’t think it’s dramatic to say that there is a risk that theatre might not survive, not like culturally but economically. A lot of theatres are closing, West End shows have closed, Broadway shows have closed, and I think when you see such big shows closing it’s really scary, especially in the midst of starting a new theatre company.” But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth putting up a fight. “Finding the balance of putting that online has been a really big but enjoyable challenge. Even just seeing people rehearse or people audition is just so reassuring to see that actors are so willing to rise to the challenge and are so adaptable. So, just to say support the arts, support people making stuff online, and to kind of really realise that the live aspect of theatre is what makes it so special, and the more that you support online theatre and radio theatre, the more likely it is that there will be live theatre when things go back to normal.”
Like I said, it’s not all doom and gloom. As long as people are still trying to create art and there are still people supporting it, the industry will live on. And when it comes to queer representation in theatre, it seems like Three Pound Coin have the right idea. Ben’s final quotation from The Boys in the Band at the end of our interview seems especially resonant: “Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty.”
Make sure to tune in to Three Pound Coin’s 24-hour radio fundraiser ‘MOJO Flips the Coin’, beginning at 5pm on 19th February 2021, and to follow their social media: @threepoundcoin on Instagram and Twitter, and Three Pound Coin Theatre on Facebook.