Caro Meets Festivals Interview Theatre Interview

Chloe Christian and Olivia Dowd: Grills

By | Published on Friday 31 May 2024

We’re always excited about festival stuff as you know, so here at TW Towers we’ve been awaiting the start of Camden People’s Theatre’s next one, The Camden Roar. And when I heard about the festival’s headlining show ‘Grills’, I definitely wanted to find out more. 

The show looks back at events of the 1980s and the history of a local organisation, the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group, how it was forced to close, and how its work faded from memory. It’s a look at how queer spaces continue to be lost, and the joys and frustrations of queer community. 

The show is presented by Mirrorball, led by Chloe Christian and Olivia Dowd. I spoke to them to find out more about the show and the creatives behind it.  

CM: Can you tell us a bit about what happens in ‘Grills’? What story does it tell? 
CC+OD: Vall is doing some research on the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group, a community centre that existed in the 1980s and 1990s in Camden. But first she has to go to Glasgow, where the archive is kept, 400 miles away.

There she meets fellow queer nerds Bee, Jaz and Mo. Together they delve into the archive and imagine the stories of the founding members of the CLC and BLG, taking us back to the 80s – to double denim, mobile sound systems and Sony Walkmans.

But as Clause 28 rears its ugly head and funding cuts encroach on the centre, the members of the centre find themselves competing for resources and respect, questioning who has the power to make decisions.

As we get to know the characters and artefacts of the archive, the line between fact and fiction blurs. Who’s leading us on this journey? What stories are real and what have been imagined? And was Princess Di really seen at the RVT with Freddie Mercury?

CM: Why is it called ‘Grills’?
CC+OD: There is a piece of creative writing we found which we perform pretty much verbatim. It reads like a parody and is very funny, like something Victoria Wood could have written.

There’s a line that says, “it didn’t stop us Grills having a good time. Grills is a new word I learned yesterday. It’s a substitute for girls and I much prefer it”. 

We chose it because it felt like it embodied the play, it felt a bit playful gender-wise yet we’d never heard of it.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
CC+OD: It is based on an archive at the Glasgow Women’s Library of the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group, a real community centre that existed in Somers Town between the late 80s and early 90s.

In the archive we found a whole host of flyers, posters and references to protests opposing clause 28, as well as how it was affecting everyone in the minutiae of the meeting minutes and call logs.

We struggled to build a concrete idea of the interactions between the members during the moments of tension we found in the archive, so the interpersonal relationships and drama are imagined. Although we initially spoke to a few of the original members, we were asking them to remember details from 30 years ago which is, understandably, a challenge. 

It felt important then that we didn’t make a show that tried to piece together their reality. Instead we focused on what we found in the archive and what we, as a collective of queers in the present day, were interested in exploring, looking closer at and collectively imagining.

For instance, some of the meeting minutes we found had been redacted which immediately piqued our interest. Why had they been? What did someone not want to be kept and what does that tell us? And so on…

So the play explores many things: there are themes of power and hierarchy in organising spaces, institutional racism, transphobia, protest and a healthy dose of queer joy. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about the centre that inspired the show?
CC+OD: The Camden Lesbian Centre began in 1982 when a group of white lesbians met via the Kentish Town Lesbian Group – a community which held regular socials at the Women’s Workshop.

Meanwhile, the Black Lesbian Group was established in 1984 to challenge the racism, sexism and homophobia black gay women faced.

In 1985, the grassroots groups merged on the agreement that the management committee would comprise of at least 50% black lesbians and that the BLG remain an autonomous group. 

Finding a permanent venue for the combined group proved difficult: with Margaret Thatcher abolishing the Greater London Council, core supporters were stripped of their power, ongoing funding issues plagued the group and they also contended with the government’s Section 28 legislation – the ‘criminalisation of the promotion of homosexuality’.

Finally, in 1986, the CLCBLG were granted the licence for an old retail space – despite mass resistance, extreme hostility and a public attack from members of the tenants’ association. Protests included a petition highlighting “the moral danger” to “young girls going to school in the near vicinity”.

Even in the face of such adversity, the CLCBLG centre ran for years, welcoming lesbians of any ethnicity, age or ability. Lesbians from all backgrounds formed a tight-knit community and came together to protest, party, learn about herstory, pick up craft skills, and go on cultural outings.

In the early 1990s, funding became unsustainable and the space that served as a safe haven for so many closed its doors.  

CM: What research did you do to help in putting the play together? What made you want to create a piece of work about it? 
CC+OD: We came across a video that GalDem did with Levi’s and Joy Yamusangie back in 2019 about the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group. Growing up in Camden and living there in our adulthood as queers we were amazed we’d never heard of it, so inevitably wanted to know more.

The fact the archive was in Glasgow, 400 miles away, riled us. It made us question what happens when we don’t have access to our history and the queer elder mentors we crave. It made us ask, whose histories are preserved and shared? 

So we went to the Glasgow Women’s Library and delved into the archive, what was saved. When we were there we tried to capture as much as possible. We then brought it all to an R&D and asked the cast to explore it themselves and choose the things that interested them.

Once we had these areas of interest – events, characters, context – we started to improv around them, imagining the things that we didn’t know as well as what we did, and then eventually started joining the dots and weaving a narrative.

Of course we couldn’t help but draw parallels to the current moment, so we started to thread in a contemporary narrative too, which includes these archivists commenting on what they’re finding just as we were. 

We were lucky that Camden People’s Theatre and Old Diorama Arts Centre had a small commission called Camden NowW, looking for Camden makers telling Camden stories, we pitched and won the commission. 

CM: Is your desire to make work on this subject stoked by the fact that queer spaces have decreased in recent times? 

CC+OD: Absolutely. We’re all feeling it. Around 60% of LGBTQ+ venues in the city have closed since 2002 and, in the past year, it feels like doors have been closing at an alarming rate. The situation is even more dire for lesbian venues, with only a tiny number of dedicated lesbian bars left in London.

Yet lesbian nights and culture are on the rise. Recently a tapas and lesbian-specific pop-up bar, La Camionera, went viral because of its queues round the block – supposedly word spread in queer WhatsApp groups.

In the same week, a private members lesbian bar named L Community launched and was rightly criticised for its trans exclusionary policy. And the RVT, one of the more accessible spaces, has disappointingly closed after not standing by its performers’ call for solidarity with Palestine. 

A lot of organisers are tired and burnt out and, with London’s rental costs getting more and more unattainable, it is likely that the community will be increasingly isolated and eventually forced out of the city… and the cycle of gentrification will continue. 

CM: Why are such spaces so important? 
CC+OD: Physical spaces to gather are fundamental to human existence. It’s brilliant that social media can make LGBTQIA+ folks feel a sense of belonging.

But if we don’t have space to come together, talk, listen, dance, protest, be seen and feel safe, then we will not only continue to be marginalised in our personal lives, within our families, places of work and public spaces, but also run the risk of polarising ourselves too. 

CM: Can you talk to us about Mirrorball? What are the company’s aims and ethos?
CC+OD: Mirrorball is an interdisciplinary company that we co-founded. We first worked together on a one person show that brought to life academic research from the University Of York on LGBT+ networks within the NHS.

It made us realise we were aligned politically and in our endeavour to make work which brings to life things that would otherwise be buried, in an exciting way with interpersonal relationships, politics and humour at its heart. 

CM: How did you come to be pursuing a career in the arts? 
CC+OD: Olivia did a Human Geography degree at UCL – the lesser known route into the arts – but has since trained with the National Youth Theatre REP company where they completely fell in love with ensemble and devised theatre-making.

Growing up in Birmingham, acting opportunities were sparse so it was only since moving to London that it all felt possible.

Chloe started off studying Medicine at Bradford University. Then they did a Psychology degree at Sheffield University, and then used their low contact hours to spend every waking minute in the student theatre company.

After graduating, they worked as the Stage Door keeper at Sheffield Theatres, where she was eventually given her first Assistant Director role. Some might call this a circuitous route but it all seemed to turn out OK.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life(lives) so far? 
CC+OD: As part of the REP company, Olivia played Macbeth at the Garrick Theatre, a version adapted by Moira Buffini and directed by Tash Nixon.

It felt like a real privilege to play one of Shakespeare’s leads on such a big stage and, of course, to explore questions of gender and power alongside such a brilliant ensemble.

The REP experience as a whole was a complete highlight – being stretched in an ensemble of sixteen, playing multiple roles and forming such a tight knit company.

In 2022, Chloe was the Associate Director on the West End premiere of ‘COCK’ directed by Marrianne Elliott.

Chloe got the job by chasing Marrianne through an awards ceremony and then proceeded to chase her via email over two years. It was a pleasure to work with a director that Chloe has admired for many years, on a text that was incredibly detailed and rich.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
CC+OD: After the production opens, we plan on hosting an interactive exhibition about the CLCBLG, which will be curated by Paula Akpan and Jade Bentil. We would also love to tour the production in the future, along with a version of the exhibition.

‘Grills’ is on as part of The Camden Roar festival at Camden People’s Theatre from 4-22 Jun. More information on the venue website here

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