Amid a lot of other havoc, the current crisis of the coronavirus has done something that doesn’t so much shatter our spirit, as crumbles it very slowly. While we as individuals struggle to evade and survive its physical threats, it has already caused a far wider, collective deprivation – of the things that make our lives worth living.
Token Straight started as an argument with a cis comedy producer, about how there weren’t enough queer comedians in Ireland to have a monthly comedy night
Of shared moments with our found families, nurturing our budding aspirations, missed chances to revel in the laughter we share with our friends. We can’t help feel somewhat robbed of the cultural high points of what was meant to be the ‘roaring twenties’, the gigs and the gags we were meant to fondly reminisce on years later – because we can’t recall the last time we really felt embarrassingly, uproariously alive. One Dublin Fringe show that’s taken more creative turns to adapt in a week than Ireland’s lockdown venue regulations, to alleviate some of our stagnant isolation, is TOKEN CIS.
The brainchild of collective Token Straight (or Hysteria Ireland, as they’re also known), TOKEN CIS (Allie O’Rourke, Felix O’Connor, MJ Stokes, Ian Lynam, Brian Cheatle, Neil Farrell) was created as “a statement of intent, at Ireland’s biggest and best arts festival that’s famous for giving space to outsiders, to showcase the best of the Irish queer community and comedy to the wider world, and specifically to our wider arts scene.
“Token Straight started as an argument with a cis comedy producer, about how there weren’t enough queer comedians in Ireland to have a monthly comedy night; and then we just started listing the names of people we knew, and it’s astounding just how many there were!” says Felix, MJ adding, “there’s a perception that Irish comedy is far more pale, male and stale than it actually is,” a key component of the inclusive statement they now hope to emphasise at the Fringe’s only live comedic offerings – with their sincere sadness at the cancelling of a number of Fringe outdoor shows.
All the same, TOKEN CIS is specifically not about equating a single identity with what inspires different members of the group, nor what inspires the audiences on each of their two sold-out nights. “From content to style to personnel, there is a lot of diversity in creating this show”, Allie remarks, emblematic of the wider point Brian makes, that ”TOKEN CIS isn’t trying to take a stance as the ‘queer comedy scene’ at Fringe but trying to showcase queer comedy, as part of a larger, varied creative Irish arts scene.”
Modern comedians who idolise that alternative subculture, sometimes they still want that fire, that aesthetic and feeling of resistance, but without the spirit of standing for something political, which is where we can see the more modern transphobia emerging again
As they take budding comedians new, straight or cis, and the interests of a diversifying Irish scene under their wing with this statement, it’s important to note that this is a seasoned group of performers, trailblazing on stages from Vodafone Ireland and Knockanstockan to the Edinburgh Fringe in recent years. So, their drive to create that inclusive scene, is more than lip service, deeply considered from their own experiences.
Ian recalls, “coming from my background in the UK comedy scene, there was a generation of comedians that a lot of people would habitually idolise – which directly led to an ‘alternative’ comedy subculture, leftist and political, that was reacting against a tired homophobic misogynist humour, using trans people as a whipping post. Modern comedians who idolise that alternative subculture, sometimes they still want that fire, that aesthetic and feeling of resistance, but without the spirit of standing for something political, which is where we can see the more modern transphobia emerging again, through that legend of comics as brutal honesty truth-tellers.”
the strange thing is, a lot of the truly subversive stuff you hear in comedy, that will be said in queer rooms.
If paradoxical at first sight, the method to their madness lies in carefully designing a space that is genuinely “cosy” to audiences. Cosy enough, and it facilitates material that’s darker, sillier, and more in the spirit of “taking a sledgehammer to the comedy stage” than most other platforms going in the country, “not by aiming for a cheap laugh, but by being better than we are, because the audience is more thoughtful,” says Brian.
Allie and Neil note, “the strange thing is, a lot of the truly subversive stuff you hear in comedy, that will be said in queer rooms. TOKEN CIS is definitely audience-first – we live off the interaction we get in-person or online at Hysteria Ireland – if you message us or react to us, we will interact with you, even if that’s making a point of laughing at the trolling! But, it’s mainly about making sure our audience are comfortable first, which we manage with access amenities, such as consent stickers for performer interactions; after those considerations, then it’s the comedians, then how we produce, and then all the other concerns. When the audiences are more allowed to be thoughtful and themselves, then the performers can be themselves. It’s very much this idea of a ‘warm room’, somewhere where we as performers can feel received and held, as we are.”
We don’t own the night, we aren’t the producers…we’re kind of the custodians. We’re creating this open, good platform, that we can grow to pass it on, and we will always have a spot to platform young or even brand-new comedians
And the reality is, that what their creative identities are and will come to mean to them through the course of this lockdown and their Fringe Run, will be much the same as identities mean to any of us right now – in a state of near-certainty coupled with constant flux. Speaking about planning material for TOKEN CIS, they give me an idea that a good part of it was just “having been completely insufferable with each other”, “constantly developing new skills that can help improve [our] comedy, but writing and testing new material was impossible”, and at some point just having to say that after being isolated around the country and still contributing to regular shows on their social media live platform Hysteria Ireland, part of the secret to success is “having to believe [they’re] funny, for a start, then use friends as willing victims, and get up and perform it all again!”, a challenging iterative process.
At the end of the day, the creative process and ethos of TOKEN CIS, in the small snippets of sincerity I glean through our lively and colourful conversation, seems incredibly clear in their minds.
“We don’t own the night, we aren’t the producers…we’re kind of the custodians. We’re creating this open, good platform, that we can grow to pass it on, and we will always have a spot to platform young or even brand-new comedians,” notes Allie, drawing me full-circle to address the start of our chat, where Ian mused that in its initial stages, Token Straight would very much have known that “there was a self-selection bias in who comes to speak to you to perform – minority queer, people of colour, disabled comics may not even have be looking to find a stage like this specifically.”
It’s to address this, where Allie’s and Felix’s visions for the show and the group look to the future, outlasting this amazing weekend they have planned for lucky Fringe visitors:
“In many ways, this show will be the opposite of what some know of the Irish comedy scene. As a queer group, we’re experienced in the difference between punching down and punching up in comedy, and we choose to go with punching up. . That also means you know that every now and then when we go for the jugular, we understand the social dynamics of that a bit better! We’re looking to create a space of solidarity, collaboration and not competition. Once this show is over, we go back, sit down and take stock, and find other ways to keep flourishing and thriving in these hard times, and supporting the voices that people really want to be hearing – in a safe and responsible way.”
Once this show is over, we go back, sit down and take stock, and find other ways to keep flourishing and thriving in these hard times, and supporting the voices that people really want to be hearing – in a safe and responsible way.
Right now, the group are just thriving on excitement, to be able to perform live what’s looking to be a deeply heartwarming nostalgic, witty and insightful show; and as MJ says, “There’s no punchline to that; That’s just something I’d really like people to know!”
TOKEN CIS performs their sold-out run at the Project Arts Centre, as part of the Dublin Fringe, from 05 – 06 September. You can find them online at Hysteria Ireland (@hysteriaireland) across social media platforms, and at Token Straight Comedy (@token_straight_comedy on Instagram, and @TokenStr8Comedy on Twitter.)
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