Chemsex, also referred to as the After Party scene, has inspired many a conversation amongst the queer community. Naturally, a scene involving drugs and sex will provoke certain perceptions to those who don’t partake, but there is more to it than an easy judgement would suggest. Brian Dillon spoke to the queer creatives looking at the scene head-on in a potent new show Party Scene.
Rather than presenting an explosive documentary-style exposé or factual synopsis of what the chemsex scene in Ireland is, Party Scene by choreographer Philip Connaughton and writer/director Phillip McMahon explores the emotional experience of this somewhat underground scene, ranging from ecstasy to loneliness.
This piece of dance theatre doesn’t claim to be anything other than what the audience makes of it, representing a multifaceted scene that is often subject to a limited number of defining characteristics.
Speaking about where the idea for the show came from, writer/director McMahon said that much of both his and his collaborator’s previous works are “concerned with queer themes”.
“We were talking about chemsex a lot and how drug culture and nightlife in Ireland has changed. We also wanted to challenge the idea that the gays are ‘fixed’ post-marriage equality. There’s so much trauma within the queer community that’s not fixed. How do you look out for your gay brothers but also celebrate sex-positivity and not inflict shame on people? We thought, ‘Let’s make a piece that pulls on our knowledge base’, creating this very queer piece that is coming from inside the community and just asking if everybody is okay.”
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Sexuality free of shame was clearly very important when creating this piece. Choreographer Connaughton explained, “Quite often when we talk about chemsex, people, especially from outside the queer community, don’t even know what it is. If something isn’t known or understood outside our circle, what resources really exist for it?
“We’re simply presenting something, hoping that a conversation begins to form around it and that it creates a bit more awareness.”
McMahon added, “The subject matter is niche. There is also a responsibility to not create any kind of moral panic around the subject matter. If somebody is involved in chemsex or is in recovery from drug addiction, they’re going to view the piece in a much different way from someone who simply just came to see a dance piece. The job is just to shine the light in a corner and allow people to take from it what they will.
“This is not a documentary in any way. This is a piece of art that is about planting moments and an idea in people’s heads and seeing what comes from that.
“Something that we’re really mindful of is that Irish people have been taught to feel a lot of shame around their bodies and sex. For queers of various generations, that’s exacerbated. Queer bodies have been made to feel like they’re disordered, that their desires for intimacy are disgusting. When you start to talk about sex in the queer world, you have to be really mindful about what issues there are around queer sex historically.
“For a lot of people, chemsex is a shortcut to pleasure. They’re trying to short circuit things that they’ve inherited and to get to a point where they can actually vocalise what they want to do in the bedroom and where they can enjoy sex for pleasure. You have to really celebrate the idea of pleasure for pleasure’s sake.”
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Party Scene was presented as a work-in-progress piece at the 2021 Cork Midsummer Festival and provoked intrigue from those who viewed it, with McMahon describing the post-show discussion as “electric”.
“It made us realise that it’s an important subject matter that is worth discussing. It’s something that is incredibly sensitive but worthwhile presenting on stage.”
Connaughton added, “I don’t like to think too much about the audience’s response. I don’t like to make work thinking about the hype around the work. There’s not one story in this scene. There are lots of stories. You could very easily delve into tragedy and it’s not always tragedy. We’re not trying to tell a sad story here. We’re not being moral about it.”
The creators were adamant to explain that Party Scene isn’t designed to be a shocker. While there are moments of celebration, there are also heavy themes such as loneliness, self-worth, identity and addiction explored in the piece, something which the pair revealed sometimes“takes its toll”.
“We have immersed ourselves in researching this for a couple of years now. We’ve watched every documentary, read every paper we can and spoke to relevant people. We’re also deeply embedded in the queer community,” McMahon said.
Party Scene: Chemsex, Community and Crisis runs from June 22 to July 2, 2022, at Project Arts Centre. To book tickets click here.
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