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Down a grimy alley just off Capel Street, tucked away from the shops and pubs and clubs, the Dublin Working Men’s Club is decorated in glitter and bunting.
The event tonight is sold out, the line-up an assortment of queer performers: drag queens, drag kings, comedians, spoken-word and performance artists, musicians and other strange and wonderful weirdos.
Artist and co-organiser Stephen Quinn says this queer cabaret night, SPICEBAG, is primarily aimed at LGBTQ people and performers who feel as though they don’t fit in within their own community.
Quinn launched SPICEBAG, along with performance artist Sarah Devereux (aka The Dirtbird), in March this year.
He says that, in particular, the event offers a space for performers who might not have the opportunity to take the stage at nights run in Dublin’s mainstream queer spaces, like The George, Pantibar or The Front Lounge.
“We’re a non-commercial night, and we’re about providing a space for queer performing artists who don’t necessarily fit in, or have access to a lot of the other queer spaces,” he tells me, sat wearing a pink sequinned dress in an upstairs room of the venue.
It’s unlikely you would catch many of this evening’s performers elsewhere: a foul-mouthed singing nun strumming a Fender Jaguar; a drag king doing a strip-tease; a lengthy comedy sketch in which Bosco tries to reinvent himself as a YouTube yoga instructor.
There’s a participatory atmosphere in the hall, the crowd almost as big a part of the show as the performers themselves. People sing, yell, scream, and later on, a few go as far as to jump on stage.
“The audience get really, really into it,” says Devereux, donning a grey wig and glasses as she stands in the venue’s smoking area following her own performance, which featured a rendition of Village People’s “YMCA” re-worded to describe her experiences of men pestering her in pubs and clubs in Dublin.
“It’s fun to stay a-way-from-me”, most of the packed room had shouted along.
“People were losing their minds, including myself,” she says. “Sometimes, with other nights, the audience can just kind of sit there and applaud and maybe not participate that much. That’s definitely not the case here. People really want to take part.”
Aesthetically, the night is in the tradition of other queer art – performance and otherwise: a mixture of kitsch, camp, irony, but also sincerity. It’s clear that films like Pink Flamingos have influenced the overall flavour of the evening.
SPICEBAG plays out like a mish-mash of misfits, outcasts, people who have no home to perform elsewhere. That’s deliberate.
“John Waters said that, ‘Gay isn’t enough anymore, my films are for people who don’t even fit into their own minority!’ I guess that’s kind of what we’re trying to provide,” Quinn says, paraphrasing the queer Baltimorean film-maker.
He says that a homogenisation of the kind of queer performers and performances available to the viewing public is beginning to occur as LGBTQ culture becomes more acceptable and mainstream.
“I think that often, queer performance is unabashedly specific to a particular community – it’s incredibly local – and that might be what’s missing at the moment in the more mainstream venues,” he says.
“And when you compare what we’re doing to the kind of homogenous, commercial style of drag that is currently sold to people … I guess we’re different in that we’re embracing all of our bizarre eccentricities.”
A Post-Marriage-Equality Malaise
Even with Leo Varadkar now in place as taoiseach, and banks and massive corporations taking part in Pride, Quinn says there are people who feel that some of the LGBTQ community – trans people, femme men, masculine women – are being alienated and cast aside in the new, pro-LGBTQ Ireland.
“I love The George, I love Pantibar, I love The Front Lounge as much as the next gay, or whatever, but there is a kind of homogeneity to the type of person that you will see in those spaces, and I guess a lot of people don’t fit that mould,” he says.
People who do not fit this mould seem eager for new queer spaces and performances. Since it began last year, SPICEBAG has been a hit, having to move from venue to venue due to popular demand. The Dublin Working Man’s club is the third space to host them.
“I think there’s a kind of post-marriage-equality malaise, where certain aspects of the community were sidelined a little bit during that campaign, because it was about putting the ‘best foot forward’ for Middle Ireland,” he says, of the demand for nights like SPICEBAG.
“But now that that’s over the line, I feel that it’s time to sweep back in and maybe queer things up a bit, you know?”
Queering Things Up
Similar attempts to “queer things up a bit” are manifesting across Dublin.
“I think some people in the queer community maybe just want something a bit different, in terms of performance,” says Beth Hayden, organiser of another queer cabaret night, Glitter HOLE.
“I think that some people don’t feel that comfortable, or maybe even that safe, in some of the more mainstream venues,” Hayden says.
Glitter HOLE was founded in November 2016, and has a similar feel and aesthetic to SPICEBAG. Many of the same crowd and performers attend both.
“Whatever performance you want to do, you’re welcome to,” she says. “We’ve had quite amazing spoken-word performances, but also quite experimental ones – we had a radical cheerleading performance, we’ve had people perform creative roller derby, we’ve had drag. It’s pretty much anything goes.”
Glitter HOLE, along with SPICEBAG, The Bon Bon Room, and UnderCURRENT, are part of a broader movement within the Irish LGBTQ community to create more inclusive spaces and facilitate performers who otherwise might not get exposure.
“Orion Twinkle is one performer, for instance, that we’ve had who I really loved,” Hayden says. “It’s really cool that there’s a night where someone like Orion can perform alongside, say, a comedian like Alison Spittle. And then we can also have a drag performance, too, and then have someone recreate the crucifixion of Jesus – and that all happens on the one night!”
Hayden says that the non-commercial nature of nights like SPICEBAG and Glitter HOLE is an integral part of what makes the kind of the performances they put on possible. The small amount of money they bring in covers renting the venue, and other operational costs.
“It’s also always been really important to us that it’s as affordable as possible,” says Hayden. That’s why Glitter HOLE is BYOB, too.
The popularity of both SPICEBAG and Glitter HOLE means it’s hard to cram everybody in, these days, Hayden says. “We couldn’t really get over the response. […] for our third show, suddenly the place was completely jammed, and we were completely unprepared,” she says.
While there have been requests for Glitter HOLE to move to a larger venue, Hayden notes it can be tough to find a space for these kinds of nights.
Right now it’s in Jigsaw off Mountjoy Square, and that space – which regularly hosts all kinds of non-profit gigs and fundraisers – seems a good fit.
“It’s really one the few autonomous places in Dublin where we have free rein to do whatever we want,” she says.
Some people feel that there isn’t enough alternative drag or alternative cabaret, says Lady K, co-producer of Queer Cabaret Troupe UnderCURRENT.
She and her co-producer Dilemma set up UnderCURRENT seven years ago to keep alive the spirit of now defunct Pantibar night The Hutch.
“With things like SPICEBAG, Glitter HOLE, The Bon Bon Rooms and UnderCURRENT, people are able to go and see something a bit weirder and more different, which there used to be a lot more of on the scene,” says Lady K.
“But, these things go in cycles. There are a lot of performers on the scene who have been around for a while, and this is like, a new guard.”
For Dilemma, it is important that the night be as inclusive as possible to everyone, including straight people. “We don’t really do politics on the night,” she says. “But I feel that the act of us as a queer troupe getting up and performing is a political act in and of itself.”
Lady K says that the queer cabaret currently going on in Dublin is, broadly speaking, carrying on the legacy of past events like Alternative Miss Ireland, which ran from 1987 on 2009, and is noticeably missing today.
These non-commercial queer nights should be understood in context, she says. Sure, queer culture is any many ways more accepted in many parts of the world, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
The political climate is scary at the moment. “[LGBTQ] people want to get angry” about the current climate, as well as some of the problems resulting from assimilation, “and this is a group of people who have the energy to do something a bit different”, she says.