“It’s a space about play and imagination,” Adam Carver is pondering on what their show could offer youngsters. “I say all the time that drag is the art of illusion, because it gives people permission to say: ‘We can play like this and we can live like this, and we can try on different roles and scenarios.’” A truly inclusive touring production, set to visit Brighton & Hove next month, Palaver Party creates a magical space where kids discover the permission to be who they want to be.
This co-production with Brighton’s own Marlborough Productions suggests you don’t have to follow any rules about the kind of life you want to live, how you dress or express yourself. “If you want to dress like a cat, do it. These are the things which you should celebrate about yourself.” Carver suggests it’s as much a lesson for the performers as it is the audience and parents. It offers an experience where everyone can start connecting with their own ‘inner child’. “It is a space where you see a transformation happening, which is very exciting.” A Midlands-based producer, theatre-maker and cultural activist, who performs as Fatt Butcher and was crowned Drag Idol UK 2022 last month, their work celebrates the low-culture and camp – provoking wider conversations through power ballads, game shows, politics and plenty of glitter.
The show forms part of a long series of queer-positive work for children and family audiences. A composite of all the work they and their company have created through the ground-breaking PALAVER! project. “It’s a space to make the kind of shows that we didn’t get to see when we were kids, which provide positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community.” Through the liberal use of age-appropriate drag, theatre, disco and fancy dress, kids are told everyone has the power to create a new version of themselves.
Produced in 2021, PALAVER! was a development programme supporting LGBTQ+ performers and venues with the ambition to support younger audiences. This can be emotionally complicated work for artists to make, so there needs to be some very specific circumstances in place to support it. “There can be difficulties along the way, particularly because a lot of artists feel they have a mission to make for children. The prompt we give is ‘what is the show you needed to see when you were young? Let’s make that’ Obviously that puts people into a space where they have to evaluate and deal with the emotional parts of what they didn’t get.” Carver and many of their colleagues grew up during the days of Section 28, a piece of British legislation prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of LGBTQ+ issues by local authorities. PALAVER!, in part, was born from the isolation they felt while growing up. So, performers need to reconcile that in themselves.
From same-sex parents looking for performances which reflect their family to those looking for something magical and inventive, there’s already been a high response to the Palaver Party up and down the country. A BSL-interpreted, relaxed performance for ages 3-8 and their grown-ups, it becomes a place which can dispel the expectations placed upon us from an early age. Somewhere kids can disregard the conventions on how they should act, dress and feel. “Those don’t really exist. They’re all just made up. We just open a doorway, to say there is another way of existing in the world.” This attitude is what Palaver Party and its performers seem to exemplify. There are alternate ways of navigating life which are about joy – and celebrating yourself with that difference. “I know that resonates with people, and I think it’s just an opportunity for us to be clowns…”
While they tour using an established group of performers who’ve been supported during the original project, there is a strong ethos to bring in local creatives for each show. “If we just worked with the same five people, there’s a risk of turning up and feeling like very glamorous aliens who’ve arrived and then disappeared.” Including artists from the local community in each line-up shows audiences that there are people like them nearby. Carver grew up in a very small village and was convinced the only way they could be happy was through moving to London. Which obviously is a complete paradox. Because moving to London is rarely the answer for any issue. “We’re able to say: ‘look at this fabulous creature who lives on your road.’ It allows it to become very localised, and stops it being a mythical thing. I never like to think about what we do as being otherworldly. It’s about creating magic in the reality we live in.”
Working with Marlborough Productions for the last five years in various ways, the Sussex art producers were one of the co-commissioners of the PALAVER! project last year. It’s part of a slowly strengthening network of similar organisations across the country. “What Marlborough does is support queer artists who do new things and create new possibilities. We’d been working with them in thinking there was a whole new area of work that artists could be making. For a lot of LGBTQ+ people, they feel like they don’t have the right to make work for younger audiences.” Many may not have considered it before, because subconscious barriers have been put up. Part of it is being given an invitation, or permission, to create work of this nature. And to understand there is a need for it. “It’s nice to bring part of the work we’ve done together with the Marly – which has been happening all over the country – down to Brighton at last.”
We’re talking only two days after a white supremacist group stormed a story event for young kids at a San Francisco library. There’s a renewed trend of anti-LGBTQ+ activism in America right now. States are attempting to introduce laws banning drag acts being performed before children in any context, vociferously supported by a congressional representative famous for her claims that Californian wildfires were caused by a ‘Jewish space laser’. These regressive views are not confined to the US either. Carver has had their own problems with people wilfully misinterpreting what they’re trying to do.
Last year, they wrote in the Metro about online attacks seeking to shut down their projects, saying: “Homophobic and transphobic comments ranged from thinly-veiled concerns about safeguarding (ignoring the robust safeguarding procedures already in place) to accusations of child-grooming and paedophilia. It was brutal to see the ease with which total strangers would happily compare me to a serial rapist and child abuser simply for existing authentically.” They’ve worked extensively on LGBTQ+ inclusive education. Their company is based in Birmingham, which, in 2019, was the site of school-gate protests against educating children that some people have two mums or dads.
Carver is quick to acknowledge there are certain forms of drag, just like any art form, which are simply inappropriate for young audiences. “As a company, that’s not what we’re bringing to these audiences. As queer people, we’re often viewed in wider society purely through the lens of sex and sexuality. We’re not afforded the rich personal lives of our ‘straight’ counterparts.” Whether it’s faux-outrage from the media, people seeking to exacerbate an increasingly dim-witted culture war or extremists, too often lesbian, gay and trans people are only considered through the lens of genitals or sexualisation. There’s a wilful misunderstanding about what drag and queer identities are. “For one example, someone like Tom Hardy can play Venom, and murder people on screen, then read bedtime stories on CBBC, and no one bats an eyelid. Because they understand what you do for one audience might not be what you do for another.”
Obviously, there are many performers who place sex and sexuality as a central part of their shows. But it’s never been a fundamental aspect of drag shows. And it’s certainly not what Palaver Party is seeking to offer its young audiences. “Some of that is about a lack of understanding or exposure to different types of queer performances. ‘Straight’ people get to live full lives, and queer people get to have sex lives. That difference is a privilege we’re not afforded.” They say, in some respects, it’s a really dangerous time to be doing work like theirs. But the fact that there is such an ugly resistance to exploring LGBTQ+ experiences suggests their work is needed more than ever.
The response from those who’ve actually participated in their work has been overwhelmingly positive. Parents with children who are particularly shy, or don’t feel like they belong, have watched them flourish during time with Palaver Party. “I think we speak to people across generations, because our message is: the things which make you different are what make you special. It doesn’t matter if someone grows up to be LGBTQ+ or not, we all feel alone at times. We all feel different at times. It’s about spinning that and saying those are the things you should be celebrating about yourself.” Every show brings incredible moments when kids discover themselves, or parents change their minds about what they’ve said before. “We had an older woman come with her granddaughter, who said: ‘I wish this show had been around 50 years ago, because some of my friends would still be alive.’ The response we get is often very emotional, and joyful.” They’re creating spaces where people have permission to be themselves, which is still rare in modern life. We’re bombarded by expectations and images in our daily lives. Societal norms dominate the choices we make, and there’s a demand to fit in at any cost.
“I hope what we inspire in young people is the knowledge that anything they get in that room, like the permission we give ourselves to have fun and attend to our own happiness, is available to us wherever we are. We try to end on that message: you can go out there and be whatever you want to be. There might be times when other people don’t like it, but if it brings you happiness then celebrate and enjoy it. And anyone can create that kind of space.”
Adam Carver and Fatt Projects, in association with Marlborough Productions, present Palaver Party on Sun 7 Aug (1pm) at Brighton Dome Foyer.
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