It’s been exactly ten years since choreographer Philip Connaughton and writer-director Phillip McMahon began working together. Connaughton, then enjoying life as a professional dancer in Barcelona, returned to Dublin to star in Alice in Funderland, McMahon’s bold musical update of Lewis Carroll’s children’s story with ThisIsPopBaby, the production company that he founded with producer Jennifer Jennings in 2007. Connaughton was cast as dance captain and soloist, and he enjoyed the energy of working with ThisIsPopBaby so much that he decided to move back to Dublin.
Since then Connaughton has established himself as one of Ireland’s most adventurous choreographers and has worked with ThisIsPopBaby on almost every one of their productions. He was movement director on the musical I’m Your Man in 2014, choreographer on Elevator in 2012 and on Sh*t, which debuted earlier this year. He starred in the politically provocative Riot between 2016 and 2019, and will star in the upcoming Wake, a multi-disciplinary anniversary extravaganza slated for later this year. In the meantime, however, Connaughton is hard at work on another ThisIsPopBaby project, a new dance theater piece called Party Scene, a collaboration with McMahon that the choreographer describes as “our first encounter on equal footing”.
While ThisIsPopBaby has brought Connaughton on board in various roles – including associate artist – over the years, McMahon has also “lent a bit of drama muscle” to various solo dance projects Connaughton has produced over the years, and the playwright elaborates on the context for the new collaboration. “Working together has always been great,” McMahon says, “and I think anyone who’s seen our work, whether separately or together, would know that we’re both informed by queer ideas and queer aesthetics, that we’re one natural complement.” However, racing alongside their “shared sensibility has been a very fun and deep friendship. A few years ago, we got to a point where we just said, “Let’s just make a show from scratch together,” a time when the hierarchy of who does what goes out the window. As they began to imagine a new “genuine collaboration”, they discovered “a shared artistic concern, and a worried concern, about what was going on in the chemsex scene in Dublin and beyond. We all had the two of the friends who were affected by it. We both lost friends there. We both knew other people who lived very well there, and we both wanted to have some kind of conversation about it in our work.
At first, they weren’t sure if they should do a show on the issue. “I guess we weren’t sure what an artwork could do,” admits McMahon. “There’s a danger when you take on a topic that’s so niche, that no one except the queer community knows about, that you instill a kind of moral panic. There are people [in the scene] who are not doing well, and the last thing they need is stigma. For many queer, gay, trans people, there has been so much shame on us around our bodies, and taking drugs may be the first time they can have carefree sex, where they don’t have to worry about broader societal stigma around how they negotiate desire and intimacy. Drugs and Sex is an age-old gay tale. People often take drugs because they feel good when they do.
Connaughton explains how a cultural shift began to occur in the 2010s, where he moved “from the party drugs of the 90s and early 2000s, where it was all about dancing and celebrating the body” to ” no more niche drugs”. [like mephedrone, GHB and GBL] which are taken during and during sexual intercourse to prolong the sexual act”. Their impulse as artists, he says, “was just to bring that to light, without pointing fingers or [being] judgement. Just to ask: how do we handle things when they go wrong? How are we as a community? McMahon chimes in, “We wanted to create a non-judgmental celebration of what it’s like to party and come together and avoid shame around your body, but also ask the question, ‘Who’s wrong? good when the drugs get nastier and how does a community react to that?”
Their starting point during the long confinements of 2020 was research. The couple have worked with various community organisations, including Rialto Community Drug Team, HIV Ireland and the Club Drugs Clinic, to compile an overview of the chemsex scene in Ireland and they have launched an open solicitation for anonymous contributions from the gay community. They received over 100. The next step was to find a way to stage this image. As Connaughton explains, “We were interested in how we could abstract experience, and the body can do that much better than words. Because movement is so less defined, you can say so many things at once and so [dance] really requires an active process on the part of the viewer. Something may seem tender and beautiful to one person but wrong to another. The way you look at something says a lot about who you are as a person and how you view the world, and it opens up a fascinating space for conversation around the topic.
Connaughton, however, has always incorporated text into his work. “Because of our culture [history], in Ireland, we feel more comfortable with the text. Words can help anchor an abstraction, bind a concept. McMahon’s textual experience came into play here, as the playwright explains. “I guess dance theater is the most representative of what we do. There are texts, and throughout the show several vignettes of a party/several parties are presented. It’s up to the public to decide what it is. But we follow these four performers throughout the show, sending them on this exhilarating and entertaining journey, and I think [the audience] will naturally begin to impose a narrative on them, but that will change from day to day, depending on who is watching. A narrative journey,” he concludes, “is a really nice way to experience dance, where you don’t feel locked in because you feel there’s a language you don’t understand.
ThisIsPopBaby had originally hoped to stage a work in progress from Party Scene last year as part of the Dublin Dance Festival, but with Covid conditions they were forced online and did a digital version instead, filmed at The Gate Theatre, which was screened at last year’s Cork Midsummer Festival. The reactions, they say, have been amazing. “With a traditional work in progress staging,” McMahon says, “you might have about 40 people coming to see the show, and they’ll all tell you it was awesome. Over 2,500 people watched [the film] and we had a digital post-show discussion where we got a lot of feedback from the audience, heard from all these people – straight people and allies who wanted to know more, who wanted to learn; queers who wanted to talk about [the issue] in the wider community and in their own lives. It put a lot of gas in our tank.
Since then, Party Scene has grown in both theme and form, as ThisIsPopBaby prepares to welcome a live audience to the show. It premiered at the Cork Midsummer Festival in a bespoke venue at Marina Market in June, before moving to the Project Arts Center during Dublin Pride. Connaughton and McMahon are thrilled to have the opportunity to invite the public into the world they have created, which “reproduces the energy and environment of a warehouse rave”. Despite the heavy themes, McMahon insists on parting ways, Party Scene “is not a social documentary”. Like all ThisIsPopBaby shows over the past 15 years, the goal is “for a high-octane, fun, and challenging night out.”
Party Scene runs from June 15-17 at The Warehouse, Marina Market as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival and at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin from June 22-July 2