Last week saw the start of LGBT+ History Month 2022 and, as part of our collaborative project, Natalie McGrath’s The Beat of Our Hearts also had its world premiere at the Exeter Northcott Theatre. Over four performances, Valentine, Dove, Quill, and Luca – the play’s four characters – burst into the lives of audiences who came to see the play. During the performance week, audiences were also invited to engage with materials and local groups via our market stalls and project exhibition, and attend the post-show panel and informal discussion for Intercom’s Young and Yourself! (YAY!) LGBTQ+ youth group.
The Beat of Our Hearts has been in process for some time, originating in research carried out at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter, but also grounded in the long-term interests of the Writer and research team, around histories and experiences of loneliness and isolation experienced by marginalised and stigmatised groups.
Since its beginning, the project has sought to engage creative approaches to these themes, and our partnership with Writer Natalie McGrath stretches back to 2019, when Natalie worked with us at the Wellcome Centre alongside two other artists, as part of a pilot scheme to explore creative engagement with loneliness. We selected Natalie’s work to take forward into this project. She brought with her many new conceptual and creative ideas around the project’s themes, helping us to explore and express our ideas about loneliness in a new way. Her first sketches of what might later be a script or performance felt urgent and exciting. Here she focused on LGBTQIA+ loneliness, describing the significant loss of physical community and meeting spaces, the importance of shared knowledges, histories and heritages, and the relationship between loneliness and survival. Her work was politically energised and it resonated with us personally, as well as with our research.
The project took a turn in its journey when Charlotte (Academic Lead) was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Fellowship for the collaboration. This funding secured our ability to stage the play, and to bring in a broader creative and production team. It also allowed Natalie to continue working closely with us at the Wellcome Centre and the Exeter Northcott, and with the project’s partner charity, Intercom Trust, who provide a range of support for local LGBT+ people. Further funding for script development was later awarded to Natalie from an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant.
A key part of our work with Intercom Trust involved Natalie and Richard facilitating a series of creative writing and discussion workshops with LGBTQIA+ people based in the South West, particularly Cornwall. These workshops – which are explored elsewhere in this blog – inspired Natalie in the shaping of her play, and helped to ensure that the play reflected a diversity of lived experiences which feel timely, urgent, and accessible to those we hoped the play might reach.
So it was with real excitement that we finally arrived at the performance itself, directed by Scott Hurran. An incredible number of people have been involved in staging The Beat of Our Hearts — a full list of which is available through the links at the top of this blog. It was amazing to see everything finally come together at the Northcott: set design, costume, sound design and music, lighting, movement, and of course the acting itself – all of which was also made further accessible for our audiences by a fantastic BSL interpreter and Audio Describer.
Rehearsals at the Northcott took place earlier last week, and the final dress rehearsal on Thursday afternoon was the first time we saw the play in full.
Each time we saw it we were moved in different ways, and we enjoyed experiencing the production evolve with every performance. Natalie’s poetic script was brought to life, its potency conserved by a sparing and effective set design involving a few key portable installations. It was beautifully performed, and it was clear how much the actors had bonded and how much the themes of the play – about community, chosen family, and love – mattered to them. From an initial review of our feedback, audiences also perceived the immediacy and relevance of the characters’ stories and the long histories of injustice and pride explored in Natalie’s work.
We were delighted to welcome our workshop participants to the performance, and on Saturday afternoon the young people visiting with the Intercom Trust had some time to chat with the actors and Natalie about their experiences of the play. Some of the group had joined us for online discussions earlier in the project, so it was exciting to be able to finally share the production with them, and to hear how the play and its characters resonated.
It was also a pleasure to welcome so many local and University organisations to be present at The Beat of Our Hearts through our stall area. For some it was the first time they had seen each other since the start of the pandemic, and there was a real sense of hope and positivity in looking to the future. These organisations included Exeter Pride, It’s All About You Wellbeing, the Exeter University LGBTQ+ Staff Network and Trans and Non-binary Cafe, Exeter Guild and student LGBTQ+ Society, the local independent bookshop, Bookbag, Intercom Trust, and Out And About, plus materials from OutStories and Hidayah — a support organisation for LGBTQI+ Muslims.
It was brilliant to have such a range of organisations, and the stalls were popular with our audiences who were able to pick up some Pride merch, browse leaflets, buy books, and catch up with old friends and make new contacts.
For those who didn’t manage to see the performance, we will have some exciting news soon about other ways you can view it in the future. Watch this space! We will also be taking some time to look at the audience feedback, in which we asked people attending what loneliness and belonging meant to them, and what the play made them think about.
If anyone would like to find out more about the project, then please get in touch with us via the contact button at the top of this blog.
We would like to take this opportunity again to thank all those involved in funding, staging, and inspiring The Beat of Our Hearts; to Natalie for writing this beautiful play; and to the audiences who came to watch it. It was fantastic. Well done!
– Richard and Charlotte