Interview: Atticus Francis & Gayathiri Kamalakanthan Talk New Work as Part of “Behind Closed Doors”.

Lemon House Theatre’s “Behind Closed Doors”, an online showcase of new work exploring themes of sex, bodies and intimacy written by playwrights of underrepresented genders, opens tomorrow (Nov 16th). Here, two of those writers, Atticus Francis and Gayathiri Kamalakanthan discuss their work, their influences and their love of theatre…

Atticus Francis on “Do You Know Who You Are?”

What was the catalyst for you to start work on this piece?

I actually only started working on the piece when I saw a post about this event, and seeing as I only came out as non binary/genderfluid the past six months or so I had a lot of pent up thoughts that I wanted to discuss about my internal experience.

Through which lens(es) does your work explore sex, bodies and intimacy?

With “Do You Know Who You Are?” I aimed to discuss my experiences of dysphoria from a genderfluid perspective, and how my identity had many negative effects on my mental health due to the struggles to accept my body.

When it comes to conversations around sex and relationships, what do you consider to be particularly refreshing, lacking or problematic?

I believe there is still limited conversations about relationships that fall outside of the traditional binaries. Although in recent years I have loved seeing better representation for queer relationships (especially around bisexuality which has suffered from serious erasure for such a long time), I find we need further discussion of more minority sexualities (like asexuality) and polyamorous relationships, which have been at best ignored and at worst demonised.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing your play?

For cis viewers I hope that my play gives them a deeper understanding of dysphoria, especially from a slightly less traditional perspective of it. I also really hope that the piece is helpful for people who are struggling with their gender identity, as it shows them they are not alone and they are valid.

How would you describe your own theatrical or artistic influences?

This is always difficult question to me as I feel that I steal from every piece of art I consume and proceed to chuck them all in a blender and see what comes in my work. When it comes to theatre I have always loved the works of Edward Albee and Shakespeare (not that I’m in any comparing my work to either of those legends) as their grasp of character is just unparalleled in my opinion. Having come off a film degree, screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman, Russell T Davies and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have shaped the ways in which I love to tell stories and forms in which those stories can be told. For general creative influences artists like David Bowie and Kim Gordon have always blown me away both for their reinvention and the messaging they are able to get across in their work.

What comes to mind if I ask you for the best experience you’ve had at a theatre?

Another tough question, but if I’m pushed I would have to say the seeing the adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time” with my grandparents. I was (and still am) a massive fan of the book and seeing it with my grandmother, an English and Drama teacher, who used to take me theatre often as a child, was very exciting. The play is magnificent and it translated the book to the stage in an incredibly inventive manner that lost none of the magic of the original story, with excellent performances and stellar direction.

For you, why is theatre (live or online) such a powerful format for telling stories and exploring ideas?

I find with theatre the onus is always on performance and it acts such raw and honest platform to allow the actors to present the characters’ emotions to the audience without the level of detachment that many other mediums have been the pair. There is something unparalleled in the magic of live performance that leaves me feeling connected to story in a wholly unique way.

And finally, if you could create real, meaningful change or progress in relation to the subject matter you explore in your work, what would you hope to achieve?

No pressure there then. I would love my work to be held up as something that helps people through the difficulties of everyday existence, allowing them to find a better place on the other side of it. Dealing with my many struggles with mental health, identity and sexuality, I have always found work in which I have felt seen to be the most rewarding to me. I find a policy of acceptance of everyone is important to me as I find there is too much hatred in the world for me to feel comfortable adding to it. I think deep down that if my work could encourage people to be more honest with themselves and others then I would be more than happy.

Gayathiri Kamalakanthan on “Agender”

What was the catalyst for you to start work on this piece?

The idea for ‘Agender’ comes from my personal experiences of attending period parties as a genderqueer Tamil. The period party is a gendered, Tamil rite of passage, celebrating a ‘woman’s’ period and reproductive health. The event itself can be a display of love, fierce community organising and survival. But can also be queerphobic and traumatic; for people who are assigned female at birth, the period party often sets in motion a series of unfulfillable expectations.

Before attending such an event, a friend asked me, ‘what would it look like to queer a period party?’ And I imagined a character having the autonomy to re-imagine what a consensual, degendered party might look like. I want to share the formulation of such a party in all it’s fun, sad, bizarre and universal complexity. I want to share this story because it’s what I desperately want to see on stage and cheer, ‘Yes that’s me!’

Through which lens(es) does your work explore sex, bodies and intimacy?

The piece explores sex, bodies and intimacy through a decolonial, queer lens, specifically thinking about what it is to be in a body which is racialised and gendered, when you don’t relate to those constructs in a normative way. I’ve recently started to explore what ‘being seen as a Brown woman’ means for me in my different contexts – it really does shape the options you have, how you are treated, how much autonomy you have over your own future. Ultimately, the story is hopeful, unembarrased and usualises non-binary and agender identities.

When it comes to conversations around sex and relationships, what do you consider to be particularly refreshing, lacking or problematic?

In my day job, I’m a sex and relationships education facilitator with School of Sexuality Education. From SRE discussions with young people, I think it’s important to be uplifting the self-defined nature of sex, relationships and identity. There is no one correct way of being or doing, and how wonderful if we could validate difference and exploration without shame.

And then also it looks at how we communicate how dysphoric gendering/misgendering can be, when we don’t share a common language with our loved ones. Language and gender can both be barriers to sharing and living our truths…the piece doesn’t offer a complete solution but I hope it opens up conversation.

How would you describe your own theatrical or artistic influences?

In my writing journey so far, some creative spaces have felt unsafe for me. Experiencing the work of creatives including Alok Vaid-Menon, Travis Alabanza and Yalini Dream have been powerful, transformative anchors for me. I love reading and watching work that challenges the idea that there is a ‘universally correct way’ to write and produce theatre.

What comes to mind if I ask you for the best experience you’ve had at a theatre?

This year I saw Queens of Sheba by Jessica Hagan and Ryan Calais. The piece uses space, music, storytelling and the energy in the room to explore the experiences of four Black women. For me, it’s a masterpiece that invites us completely and unapologetically into its world.

For you, why is theatre (live or online) such a powerful format for telling stories and exploring ideas?

Theatre can be such an effective mirror, but also a world-building vision for the future. Centering formerly-erased truths and connecting with an audience is how I’d love to start re-imagining cultures. It’s powerful for my own existence to explore how I can write queer futures in the most irresistible, inviting way. It makes change feel tangible.

And finally, if you could create real, meaningful change or progress in relation to the subject matter you explore in your work, what would you hope to achieve?

I love carving out room for people to feel out and build the spaces they want to be in. I want my playwriting to reflect the possibilities of world-building and world-bending too. If someone left the show with more questions and curiosity for how we could live into a future of abundance as opposed to binaries, that would be a powerful seed for change.

So there you have it! You can see both Atticus Francis’ “Do You Know Who You Are?” and Gayathiri Kamalakanthan’s “Agender” as part of the Behind Closed Doors showcase from November 16th – December 7th 2021. You can find tickets here and you can also find an interview with Lemon House Co-Artistic Directors Jen Cerys and Samia Djilli about the showcase here.

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