Acting Out: Celebrating LGBTQ Theatre of the 1970s and 80s

In 1975 Inter-Action hosted Homosexual Acts the first Gay Theatre season in Britain. It took place at the Almost Free Theatre in Rupert St, W1 and featured 5 plays all by men. Fuelled by the energy of the Gay Liberation Front it was a huge success. Further plays were added including Martin Sherman’s Passing By, which featured a young Simon Callow who later wrote in My Life in Pieces: ‘[It] was my first experience of political theatre. Though in essence a very sweet account of a passing love affair between two young men, it was utterly radical in offering no apology or explanation for the affair, like any other. The effect on the predominantly gay audience was sensational – they wept, not because it was sad, but because it was the first time they’d seen their own lives represented on the stage without inverted commas, with neither remorse nor disgust.’

Out of the success of the season came Gay Sweatshop the first out gay theatre company in Britain. The following year a group of lesbians joined them to tour Britain in Jill Posener’s Any Woman CanJulie Parker who was part of that tour remembers: ‘ we’d go to places in England and again the local right-wing would come out and picket and threaten, and there’d be all the letters in the papers, and people heckling in the audience, and then, there’d be all of the women … who would come up to you and talk to you afterwards and who were in tears at the show and said, ‘That’s me, that’s my story, that’s my life,’ and ‘I’ve never met people like you before.’ People would come out and you would understand why you were doing it.

From these beginnings grew the LGBTQ theatre of today that has changed and challenged  perceptions, telling untold stories, introducing new theatre vocabularies, confronting prejudice, celebrating difference. Unfinished Histories is a Hackney-based project that gathers the oral history and the archives of the alternative theatre movement of the 1970s and 80s, including political, community, street, feminist, LGBTQ, Black, Asian theatres, Disability Arts, experimental work, a radical activist movement which set out to challenge who theatre was made by and for, what it looked like and where it was seen, finding and creating new venues and taking shows to new audiences in marginalised spaces and places. As well as gathering the archive and the memories of those who were there, Unfinished Histories works to share that history with a new generation through readings, exhibitions, workshops discussions, and has created an extensive web site where users can view extracts from interviews and find out more about numerous companies and LGBTQ+ interviewees like directors Julie Parker, Kate Crutchley, playwrights Bryony Lavery, Noel Greig, Philip Osment, performers like Ian Townson of Brixton Faeries and Lavinia Co-op of Bloolips, designer Mary Moore, the women of lesbian feminist theatre company and band Siren, and many others.

For LGBTQIA+ History Month 2023 in conjunction with Hackney Archives UH is hosting an exhibition reproducing iconic posters from the ground-breaking early days of the lesbian and gay theatre in the 1970s and 80s from Gay Sweatshop and Bloolips to Character Ladies and Siren. Also on display will be a range of books and a book and resource list from Homosexual Acts that accompanied that first Gay Theatre season in Britain in 1975 to shows like Iman Qureshi’s The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs in 2022.

There will be an opening event on 8th February from 6 to 8pm

On 18th February from 11 till 5, participants are invited to a shared group workshop, reading, discussing and exploring extracts from some of the featured plays including Chiaroscuro by Jackie Kay, originally produced by Dalston-based Theatre of Black Women in 1986, co-founded by writer Bernardine Evaristo, Pulp by Tasha Fairbanks (1985, with Siren Theatre company), Dear Girl or Double Vision devised by Libby Mason with Women’s  Theatre Group, along with plays by other LGBTQ+ writers.
From 6 till 9, we will share extracts from the day’s work and, along with invited speakers including members of Siren and Adele Salem (confirmed so far), share reminiscences of those days or reflections on how the plays speak to today with a wider audience.
Both events are FREE but you do need to book.

Click here to book for the day Workshop 

Click here to book for the evening Reading and Reminiscence session.

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