The Power of Exporting Queer Fun
As my research into Duckie has continued, I’ve been thinking about the idea of queer fun – what it is, what it means to Duckie, and whether it can make the world a better place.
So what is queer fun? As I understand it – and this might sound a bit dry as a definition of fun but bear with me – it involves taking pleasure in defying normative expectations and it is typically generated through shared experiences of politicised performance and enjoyable socialising rooted in the celebration of outsider experiences. In Duckie’s case, that might involve something as simple as getting drunk and dancing to Kate Bush on a Saturday night in an environment where you know people are not just tolerated but cheered for rejecting gender norms and developing radical performance practices; or it might involve something as complex as using fake immigration documents to navigate a large-scale performance event constructed as a sophisticated parody of an international border-control system, as at bigger events like the recent Border Force.
But what about Duckie’s more recent, socially-engaged projects, such as DHSS, the Posh Club and the Slaughterhouse Club – projects that explicitly aim to create beneficial outcomes for participants including (respectively) young queer artists, older people and rough sleepers who use alcohol and other drugs? Can the Posh Club, for instance – an afternoon performance event that aims to engage local residents aged 60 or older, particularly those who are vulnerable to isolation or health problems – be thought of in terms of queer fun?
The origins of the Posh Club lie outside Duckie’s established practice. It arose in 2012, when Duckie producer Simon Casson’s 84-year-old mother “wanted somewhere to go,” in Casson’s words. She lived in Crawley, Sussex, and had few options for socialising so Casson’s sister used to organise tea parties for her and a couple of friends at which they would dress smartly and Casson’s sister would serve sandwiches and cake. “Why don’t we make that into something bigger?” Casson wondered. They secured the local church hall, started to book acts for the Club, and soon gathered an audience. As with Duckie’s flagship Saturday night event, which was born out of the Duckie creators’ frustration at available gay nightlife options, the private, domestic desire to supply a perceived lack in opportunities for socialising on one’s own terms generated a public event that found a wider constituency and has become an institution. As Casson has put it: “All of these things come out of the personal.”
For 10 weeks earlier this year, Duckie ran a pilot scheme of the Posh Club in the church hall of St Paul’s, West Hackney, a C of E church. I went to nine of those ten events, and I think they suggest how practices developed by a queer performance collective for queer audiences can be applied to an ostensibly non-queer context – in this case an afternoon tea-and-performance club for over-60s in a given local area – with strikingly successful results. There turned out to be a surprisingly large overlap between Duckie’s Saturday night event and the Posh Club: both offer a set format with a distinctive sensibility that balances a consistent schedule, including elements of ritual, with space for experimentation and the unknown, affording roughly equivalent weight to performance, dancing, refreshment and socialising. This seems to be an effective formula for attracting a dedicated constituency whose loyalty and affection for the event exist in vibrant tension with a sense of participation in and even ownership over it.
At St Paul’s, the Posh Club’s guests were greeted on arrival at around noon by scrupulously polite volunteers dressed in traditional waiters’ attire and shown to their seats. The room, otherwise an unremarkable church hall, was elegantly dressed. Daylight was blocked out by black curtains studded with star-like encrustations, radiators were obscured by faux-marble covers, the stage was adorned with scalloped footlights, and pot plants and ornamental lamps were arranged around the perimeter. As guests were shown to their seats, a pianist played upbeat songs and showtunes and volunteers ferried tea and coffee to the tables. Then food was served: plates of sandwiches and cake-stands bedecked with jam tarts, fairy cakes and chocolate biscuits, alongside scones with cream and jam. With Duckie producer Dicky Eton acting as compère, the afternoon would then alternate between periods of performing and periods of socialising before ending at 3pm.
The performance elements were consistently met with an attentive and enthusiastic reception. Overall the programming emphasised dance, music and comedy, and the general tone was conventional, perhaps even conservative by the standards of Duckie’s overall performance history. Typical acts included ‘flapper’ dancers the Bees’ Knees; young local singer Asabi Hawah; and old-school gags and crooning by Steve Barclay, including a music-hall singalong. There were three Elvis tribute acts over the course of the run, one white, one black, one Chinese. Yet there were potentially challenging performances too, including burlesque acts and a gently gay animated love story, which were warmly received too. And an experimental dance piece featuring a naked male dancer – Jordan Lennie, in a piece choreographed by Joseph Mercier – caused a bit of a sensation.
The sensation is as important as the show. Because although providing a platform for performance is undoubtedly a major component of the Posh Club, it is not its only – and perhaps not even its most important – function. Just as important, I would argue, is its capacity to generate positive feelings, or affect, around shared experiences of both performance and socialising.
A few challenging acts notwithstanding, the Posh Club seems to be a distinctly non-queer event, with little overt acknowledgement of non-straight experience – although some peripheral aspects of the event could be described as ‘quietly queer’, such as the unconventional gender identities of some of the volunteers. Still, there’s none of the overt revelling in deviance and troublemaking that characterises Duckie’s usual brand of ‘queer fun’.
All the same, the Posh Club deploys ‘world-making’ tactics honed in an explicitly queer context, and with the same basic intention: to create a sense of commonality within a group habitually subjected to marginalisation because of an inalienable aspect of their identity. The Club had an unmistakeable buzz about it, a frisson of occasion, enthusiasm and open-heartedness. It was a smiley place. The environment was calculated to make guests feel special, from the charming, solicitous affect of organisers and volunteers to the bespoke decor at both macro and micro levels, conveying a sense of luxury and ‘specialness’. The guests rose to this sense of specialness, most evidently in the way almost all of them accepted Duckie’s invitation to “dress posh”, with a range of chic and elegant outfits on show every week, from vintage dresses and gowns to flamboyantly sequined berets. Although men were in the minority, the event offered an opportunity for those with peacock tendencies to flaunt their plumage. (This is arguably another ‘quietly queer’ element of the event.)
The boundary between stage and auditorium was highly porous, and not only because of the cabaret mode of performance. There were frequent shout-outs for special occasions and running jokes between compere and audience. Sometimes a more direct aesthetic collaboration occurred: Tammy Whynot (aka Professor Lois Weaver) incorporated into her act guests’ comments about their experiences of old age, sex and relationships, and photographs of guests taken earlier that afternoon. And towards the end of the run, guests were programmed into the show as performers in their own right. All of this promoted a sense of familiarity, fellow-feeling and group identity.
There was also an awful lot of dancing at the Posh Club, on stage and off. In her book Impossible Dance, Fiona Buckland devotes sustained attention to dancing within the queer clubs of 1980s and 1990s New York. “Improvised social dancing offered empowerment and a pleasurable form of queer world-making,” she writes. “The collaboration between dancers and DJs and dancers and other dancers produced pleasure through valuing exchange; this reflected a utopic imagination”, by providing relief from the pressures of alienated, normative individualism on the one hand and by facilitating “the autonomous pleasure of moving” on the other. This is a good description of the dancing at the Posh Club too, emphasising how queer world-making tactics can be exported to other contexts of marginalisation. The ‘autonomous pleasure of moving’ might even have an added layer of significance for older people with health problems or restricted mobility. Dancing from a wheelchair is dancing all the same.
The Posh Club was hugely oversubscribed – the whole run was booked up within a fortnight, the capacity was doubled by week seven and, according to a questionnaire filled out by 100 guests, everybody had a good time. It was, as one of them put it, “a different world”.
Academics often consider performance events in terms of their aesthetics or their politics, less often thinking about the response or affect generated in the room. At the Posh Club, however, the affect is the point; the enjoyment is the work. In Impossible Dance, Buckland quotes Stephen, an African-American New Yorker, who describes queer nightclubs as “wonderful, fabulous spaces” – sites, Buckland notes, that “were fabulous in themselves – and simultaneously, through [Stephen’s] participation, enabled him to be fabulous”. ‘Wonderful’ and ‘fabulous’ are both words used by guests to describe the Posh Club. I think this overlap speaks to the potential for the tactics of queer fun to be exported to other contexts of marginalisation, and to enable other people to be fabulous too.