Party Scene: dance theatre explores chemsex scene in Dublin and beyond

Philip Connaughton and Phillip McMahon on their latest ThisIsPopBaby project

It is exactly ten years since choreographer Philip Connaughton and writer-director Phillip McMahon began to work together. Connaughton, who was enjoying life as a professional dancer in Barcelona at the time, returned to Dublin to perform in Alice in Funderland, McMahon’s audacious musical update of Lewis Carroll’s children’s story with ThisIsPopBaby, the production company 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 he has worked with ThisIsPopBaby on nearly every one of their productions. He was movement director on the 2014 musical I’m Your Man, choreographer on Elevator in 2012, and on Sh*t, which debuted earlier this year. He performed in the politically provocative Riot between 2016 and 2019, and will star in the forthcoming Wake, a multidisciplinary birthday extravaganza due later this year. In the meantime, however, Connaughton is hard at work on a different ThisIsPopBaby project, a new dance theatre piece called Party Scene, a collaboration with McMahon that the choreographer describes as “our first coming together on an even keel”.

While ThisIsPopBaby brought Connaughton on board in various roles — including associate artist — over the years, McMahon has also “lent a bit of dramaturgical muscle” to various solo dance projects that 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 has seen our work, whether separately or together, would know that we are both informed by queer ideas and a queer aesthetic, that we are a natural fit.” However, running alongside their “shared sensibility has been a very fun and deep friendship. It got to a point a few years ago where we just said ‘let’s just make a show from scratch together’, one where the hierarchy of who’s doing what goes out the window.” As they began to imagine a new “true collaboration” they discovered “a shared artistic concern, and a concerned concern, about what was happening in the chemsex scene in Dublin and beyond. We both had friends who were touched by it. We both lost friends to it. We both knew others who were living quite happily there, and we both wanted to have some sort of conversation about that in our work.”

They were unsure at first whether they should make a show about the issue. “I suppose we weren’t sure what a piece of art could contribute,” McMahon admits. “There is a danger when you take a subject that is so niche, that nobody except the queer community knows about, that you will instil a sort of moral panic. There are people [in the scene] who are not doing okay, and the last thing they need is stigma. For a lot of queer people, gays, trans people, there has been so much shame forced on us around our bodies, and taking drugs can be the first time they can have sex without concern, where they don’t have to worry about wider societal stigma around how they negotiate desire and intimacy. Drugs and sex is a gay tale as old as time. People often take drugs because they feel fantastic when they do.”

Connaughton explains how a cultural shift began to happen in the 2010s, where it moved “from the party drugs of the 90s and early 2000s, where it was about dancing and celebrating the body” to “more niche drugs [like mephedrone, GHB and GBL] which are taken for and during sex to prolong the sexual act”. Their impulse as artists, he says, “was to just shine a light on that, without finger-pointing or [being] judgmental. Just to ask: how do we deal with 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 is to party and to come together and eschew the shame around your body, but also to ask the question: ‘who is not okay when the drugs get nastier and how does a community respond to that?’”

Their starting point during the long lockdowns of 2020 was research. The pair 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 made an open solicitation for anonymous contributions from the gay community. They received more than 100. The next step was to find a way to stage that picture. As Connaughton explains, “we were interested in how we could abstract the experience, and the body can do that much better than words can. Because movement is so less defined, you can say so many things at the same time and therefore [dance] really requires an active process on the part of the person who is watching. Something can look tender and beautiful to one person but wrong to another. How you look at something says a lot about who you are as a person and how you see the world, and that opens a fascinating space for conversation around the subject matter.”

Connaughton, however, has always integrated text into his work. “Because of our cultural [history], in Ireland we feel more comfortable with text. Words can help anchor an abstraction, bind a concept together.” McMahon’s textual experience came into play here, as the playwright explains. “I suppose dance theatre feels most representative of what we are doing. There are texts, and throughout the show we present a number of vignettes from a party/several parties. It’s for the audience to decide what that is. But we are following these four performers over the arc of the show, sending them on this exhilarating and entertaining journey, and I think [the audience] will naturally start to impose a narrative on them, but that will shift from day to day, depending on who’s watching. A narrative journey,” he concludes, “is a really nice way to experience dance, where you don’t feel locked out because you feel there is a language you don’t understand.”

ThisIsPopBaby had originally hoped to stage a work-in-progress of Party Scene last year as part of Dublin Dance Festival, but with Covid conditions they were forced online, and instead made a digital version, filmed at the Gate Theatre, which was screened at last year’s Cork Midsummer Festival. The feedback, they say, was astonishing. “With a traditional staged work-in-progress,” McMahon says, “you might have 40 or so people come and see the show, and they will all tell you it was great. We had more than 2,500 people watch [the film] and we had a digital post-show discussion where we got a lot of feedback from the audience, hearing from all these people — straights 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. That put a lot of gas in our tank.”

Since then, Party Scene has developed both in theme and form, as ThisIsPopBaby prepares to welcome a live audience to the show. It premieres at the Cork Midsummer Festival in a bespoke venue at Marina Market in June, before transferring to Project Arts Centre during Dublin Pride. Connaughton and McMahon are excited for the opportunity to invite audiences into the world they have created, which “replicates the energy and environment of a warehouse rave”. Despite the heavy themes, McMahon insists in parting, Party Scene “is not a social documentary”. Like all ThisIsPopBaby’s shows over the last 15 years, the goal is “for a high-octane, fun and thought-provoking night out.”

Party Scene runs from June 15th — 17th at The Warehouse, Marina Market as part of Cork Midsummer Festival and at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from June 22nd — July 2nd

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer