The world premiere of The Beat of Our Hearts

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.

Background

logo of the beat of our hearts -- a pink heart with an eighties style font of block text in the middle of the heart, reading the beat of our hearts.
Our logo, designed by Frank Duffy

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.

The performance

The Beat of Our Hearts production poster - a bright, moody sky with dark blue shades and stars at the top, with pink underneath. At the bottom is a silhouetted cityscape include a pride flag, library, and murmuration of starlings.
Promotional poster, designed by Exeter Northcott Theatre

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.

Beat of Our Hearts characters facing each other in a circle on stage. Dark background and a piercing white light coming down from the ceiling.
Dove, Quill, Val, and Luca look into a reflective screen (Photo by Craig Fuller)

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.

Luca and Quill - Quill touches Luca's shoulder in an act of reassurance
Luca and Quill – played by Frewyn Thursfield and Elijah W. Harris  (Photo by Craig Fuller)

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.

What’s next?

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

Welcome to The Beat of Our Hearts!

Hello and welcome,

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our blog showcasing our AHRC-funded EDI engagement project, The Beat of Our Hearts: Staging New Histories of LGBTQIA+ Loneliness. The project, based at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter and led by researchers Dr Charlotte Jones (PI) and Dr Richard Vytniorgu (PDRA), is intended to foreground and reflect on histories and experiences of LGBTQIA+ loneliness in the south west of England.

The project situates lived experiences of loneliness and belonging at its heart, and uses creativity – especially theatre – to amplify the complexities and challenges that LGBTQIA+ people in the South West have faced and continue to face as they seek ways to confront experiences of marginalisation and foster community. Starting with a series of creative workshops, the project will culminate in the development of an original performance, written by Natalie McGrath, and staged at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre as part of LGBT+ history month in February 2022 (more information here).

Project leader, Dr Charlotte Jones, notes:

Through this project, we will explore what we’ve found out about histories as well as current experiences of LGBTQIA+ loneliness and marginalisation, and provide collective spaces for reflection, creativity, and sharing.

After working directly with LGBTQIA+ people aged 16 and above, Writer Natalie McGrath will create a new play that explores stories which are often hidden or marginalised:

 I was inspired to explore this from the outset after researching loneliness and isolation amongst young LGBTQIA+ people. I was really upset by stories of isolation and discrimination that young people are facing everyday, and so this motivated me to do something to navigate this as a writer and socially engaged artist. To see what could be done as a positive force for good for LGBTQIA+ people in the South West by tackling this issue creatively, and of course what I could learn in the process.

Over the summer and autumn of 2021, we will provide updates about the series of creative writing workshops we are holding in collaboration with the Intercom Trust, to elicit and explore histories and experiences of loneliness and belonging among a range of LGBTQIA+ people.

CEO of Intercom, Andy Hunt, explains that

I feel that this work will reach some of our more marginalised service users and supporters, giving them a voice for maybe the first time. This will in turn help with self-esteem, and confidence, as many of our clients have issues around internalised shame.

We are really excited about the coming months, so please keep tabs with what’s going on by following or bookmarking our blog.

For now, we are also delighted to draw your attention to our logo, designed by graphic designer and illustrator, Frank Duffy.

A pink heart overlaid with orange dots. In the centre, typewriter text reads 'the beat of our hearts'.

We love its 80s vibe and its vibrant pink, and we can’t wait to hear what others think of it too.

If you want to get in touch, then please click on the contact tab in the menu.

 

— Richard Vytniorgu