Up until 1993 being a gay man was a crime in Ireland. With that it was the last country in Western Europe to give gay men the right to live freely. Since then a lot has changed, but gay people are still dealing with a lot of legacy issues and inbuilt shame. The founder of the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival wants to fight against these issues – through giving all people of the LGBT community a platform to express themselves and share their stories with the public.
“I was born a criminal,” Irish director, theatre actor and festival founder Brian Merriman explains. The 55-year old is one of many people who had to grow up in a society in which they didn’t have freedom and for a long time could never live a really free life – only because they were gay.
“I was brought up in a country where I really couldn’t have a relationship, it was just impossible,” the Dubliner says. In his suit Brian looks very professional. He has been in the theatre business almost all his life, and he has been singing on stage since he was a little boy. After a short career in journalism, Brian started mainly working as a director. He also acts and recently started writing plays himself. With this work he has led quite a successful life.
The fine lines around his eyes often twitch when he talks and sometimes he starts laughing very pleasantly. Brian definitely is a very positive person that doesn’t take himself too seriously. His voice is very firm, but calming. However, when he talks about growing up as a gay man in a very restrictive society in Ireland, you can clearly sense how deeply he feels about this issue and how hard it must have been for him. “But what was amazing about it is that I never accepted it, instead I was angry,” Brian emphasises.
That is why the theatre director began working as the acting CEO of the Irish equality authority, where he takes a stand for equality and human rights on a political level. In 2004, he also founded the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival (IDGTF) on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Wilde, arguably Ireland’s most notable gay celebrity. This festival, which is now the biggest of its kind in the world, is what I have come to talk to Brian about.
It wasn’t until the director was in his early thirties in the year 1993 that being a gay man was decriminalised in Ireland – the last country in Western Europe to do so. Since then the country has changed a lot, becoming much more open and liberal towards the gay community and regarding LGBT rights. Moreover, the people of Ireland took a great stand in May 2015 when it was the first country to vote for same sex marriage through a referendum.
Founding the IDGTF
But even now, in this much more liberal society, Brian still feels there are some issues that have to be dealt with. “We are starting now and have made strides, but we’re still dealing with a lot of legacy issues, with inbuilt cultural shame and religious shame,” he explains. That is why he wants to keep on broadening people’s mind-sets and show the public “we have nothing to be ashamed of and there is no reason to keep our stories secret.”
For this reason he brought the IDGTF to life thirteen years ago. It is a festival in which everything related to the LGBT scene is expressed but you do not need to be gay or transsexual to participate. On the contrary, his main aim is to include everyone.
But what makes the festival a Gay Theatre Festival? It simply means that all the plays have a reference to life as a member of the LGBT community. “That could be a gay author, gay character or gay relevance, including masculinity, feminism and identity or gender identity,” the founder illustrates. Brian wants to provide a space for LGBT voices in the arts, raise relevant issues and create opportunities for visibility and affirmation of emerging LGBT artists and theatrical works. His aim is to give the attending companies a platform to express themselves and simply give artists the chance to tell their stories.
“The theatre shows are not about sex or sexuality,” Brian points out – a mistake that many people make about the Festival. “It’s about living your life – just living life. We have plays about people who go to work, about sports, about being gay in ethnic communities but we also have plays simply about ordinary people – ordinary people with extraordinary lives.”
The founder explains further: “The gay community as it exists, consists of all kinds of people, young and old, people who are commercially exploited and people who live very quiet hidden lives and we try and give a voice to all of those. And we haven’t attempted in any way to put sugar all over gay life.”
The festival starts every year on the first Monday in May. This year, 29 plays and shows are being staged in five venues over a period of two weeks. The program consists of two totally different programs that change over after the first week. It is important for him that the program is diverse and that everyone can find something in it that he will enjoy. “We do some queer and alternative stuff, we do music, we do comedy and a bit of drama, but it’s a very open and contemporary program.”
While it is important for Brian that the shows are of a high quality and show good theatre, he still tries to give all companies a chance and especially encourages young writers to take part. “I try not to just reject plays for the sake of it,” he explains, “I try to be very broad-minded in the work that I pick and I don’t necessarily choose work that suits me, much more I try and make sure I’m appealing to as many audiences as I possibly can.”
Each year he has to choose out of around a hundred applications from countries all over the world. For the companies that he accepts for the festival, he tries to keep the costs as low as possible, meaning that he offers them free venues, free props, promotes their shows and offers them other special deals for accommodation and restaurants in Dublin. He does all this on a voluntary basis and through festival fundraising.
The same goal applies to the audience – he tries to keep the ticket costs as low as possible. The longest shows cost 15 Euros, from which the participating companies get a 70% cut. This is only possible because the festival is run exclusively by volunteers who are in charge of the ticketing, promotion, marketing and technical support. “Nobody is making money out of this, so there is a great welcome and great support,” he says. Brian believes this is one of the aspects that make the festival so special: “People are doing this because they want to and they think this is important to celebrate.”
Open for everyone
And indeed the volunteers are very happy working there. “I just think this is a really nice thing and it is a very familial atmosphere,” says volunteer Simon Murphy. And Stephen Gardener, who attended the festival as a visitor before, adds “the festival is very special and I think it helps the gay community a lot, because it is so open.”
This openness to everyone is one of the things Brian emphasises again and again. You can see how important this aspect is to him from the way he articulates this. “The whole point of doing it in public – and not just for the gay community, we do this for Irish society – the point is to share our stories with the wider community,” he states. And he stresses that in the festival everyone – gay or straight, black or white, old or young – is treated the same way. “I think that’s just what I sought the festival to turn out to be – inclusive. There are so many reasons to exclude people from the arts and from society and we haven’t got one single reason in this festival, we include people. That’s what it’s about.”
This openness is also one of the reasons the writer and director Colette Cullen is attending the festival and staging her show YES this year. She also sees it as a great platform to connect with other artists and engage in her art.
“The festival gives me a platform to explore my ideas, to write and to direct. So, I think it’s fantastic and Brian is very supportive,” the former filmmaker states. “We are all having this opportunity to really express ourselves and that is how you evolve as a play writer or director.”
In addition to giving the participating companies a place to network and a platform to fully express themselves, Brian also believes the festival has a burden. “We try to unpack our history and tell the stories that couldn’t be told in an open way in the past. We can’t just tell the stories from today – if we’d do that, we’d be turning our back on the people who’s shoulders we are standing on. Our liberation was gained by their sacrifices and I think we owe it to them to tell those stories as well.”
Through this the director feels that the IDGTF has played a role in sending out a supportive message and opening gay life to the public. Biran is proud that Dublin and Ireland have made this big change in recent years and he hopes to spread this change even further across the world. “I’ve always believed theatre has the power to change hearts and minds. Because being more open and telling those stories all results in more people being happy – and that’s all it results in.”