“What I wanted to do was build a space that was about cultivating a sustainable, weird place for people to try out mad things. It grew out of a bit of a frustration that I had about the dearth of spaces for the kind of performances that I wanted to do. I think it was Panti who said [following the winding down of Alternative Miss Ireland], ‘the kids need to step up and do something new!’ – I took that as a provocation”. Stephen Quinn is a performer who runs queer-cabaret-slash-dance-party SPICEBAG.
Set up with “partner in filth”, Sarah Devereaux [the two bonded over a shared love of John Waters films and Shortbus], SPICEBAG takes its place amongst the likes of Glitter HOLE, UnderCURRENT and the collective Pussys, all of which are contributing to a new climate of queer in Dublin, each offering something unique to a scene where coexistence rather than competition comes first. But why the [relative] proliferation all of a sudden?
“I think it’s a post-marriage equality thing, maybe a backlash. I guess it is a backlash. There were a lot of points during the referendum campaign where I felt I had to bite my tongue or be careful around optics. There were certain narratives that were not the acceptable brand”. With this in mind, SPICEBAG is a celebration of queer difference in the face of assimilation to a straight norm.
Stephen continues: “There are definitely things that are specific to queer experience, that aren’t like everybody else. The whole thing about marriage equality was ‘we’re just like you’ but there are certain moments where I’m like, ‘I don't know if that’s entirely true and I also don’t think that’s an issue necessarily – I am a different person to my straight siblings because my experience of the world is different and has been shaped by different factors. And that’s okay”.
With a name like SPICEBAG, the night is fundamentally, uniquely, Irish. This is refreshing when much of this island's queer culture has been imported. Rather, “there are things very particular to this country that are amazing, or particular to the queer community that are very specific, very fantastic, and worth indulging in and celebrating [every SPICEBAG concludes with a rendition of Riverdance to which the room loses their shit, for example]. There’s something about really engaging in a hyper-local context that’s very specific to a small community and that feels super queer to me”. He also maintains that being an island of storytellers with a rich oral tradition [predictable and giddy laugh on cue] informs the nature and craft of SPICEBAG’s performances.
In a fabulous queering of a traditionally masculine and straight space, the most recent iteration of SPICEBAG was held in the City of Dublin Working Men’s Club. However, the choice of venue also speaks to an important question for Stephen: class, its intersection with sexuality and the privilege this produces – a question that remains inadequately addressed within our community. With a family from inner-city Dublin [“culturally, very salt of the earth”], Stephen is attuned to inequality along these lines and how it manifests itself socially: “The Celtic Tiger happened so myself and my sisters were sent to fancy schools to flatten the accent out. I never felt quite like I fit in in that environment which was probably down being a big old queer but also down to class difference”.
On this, Stephen references Gays Against The Free State!, Oisin McKenna’s polemic which targeted that interface of identity with brilliant and devastating effect [staged as a Prime Time debate, Stephen played Miriam O’Callaghan]. Inevitably, talk of class between queers turns to Leo Varadkar and the feelings of distrust and skepticism the gay Taoiseach’s economically rightwing essence produces. Inherently political, Stephen cites “the intense experience” of being invited to Warsaw for Europride and marching through neo-Nazis and religious fundamentalists who threw fireworks at floats as formative if not essential to his politicisation around queer identity and privilege – of all sorts.
While SPICEBAG is very much about queer critiques, expressions and explorations of identity and about feeling like you can fit in within your own community ["I always think of SPICEBAG not as ‘you can’t sit with us’ but as ‘yes, you can sit with us – and make the table!’"], we both accept that we’ve been couching it in terms too serious to accurately characterise the night. Stephen has the last word: “The whole idea is that it’s not taking itself too seriously, it’s a bit of craic. I think it was Tonie Walsh who talked about the transformative power of having fun and that’s what it’s very much all about. I mean, I was dancing around with a giant anus at the last one – babes”.