“It’s one of the things I miss about Montreal – there’s no flirt in the street! Dublin has no game. Nobody knows how to do the look back here. It’s happened to me like twice or three times. And I’ve met some of my best friends, I’ve met my ex, on the street. It’s a sport, it’s a great pastime and I miss it! I get rusty! It’s simple animal behaviour”. Kris Nelson moved to Dublin from Montreal three years ago to take the creative reigns of Tiger Dublin Fringe after applying for the job on a bit of a whim. Notwithstanding woes like the above, the move has been smooth enough.
“When I came here I was worried about it being conservative. I was coming for the job, a high profile position, and I didn’t know what that would mean here. I knew that Fringe was well respected and I knew that I was making a move from being someone in the background to being someone in the public eye, and that had all kinds of questions on how I was going to manage that. I was wondering, with my work life and my personal life, where the lines would be”. Unsurprisingly, any worries around saving face were unfounded. In terms familiar to many, “I’ve had enough nights at Mother where every artist I’ve just talked to this week is there”.
All of this isn’t to say there was no adjustment involved, “I was really impatient with Dublin when I first got here; with the queer scene. I didn’t get it. Montreal has an incredible scene but it’s very scenester – you’re wondering all the time ‘is this a cool place?’ and you don’t do that here”. What do we do? “You just have fun”. And? “Montrealers are well up for a good time but there’s more strutting; there are more peacocks in Montreal”. [I'm pretty certain Dublin could hold its own in this regard, all the same].
Now heading up his third Fringe, I ask Kris about the intersection of fringe theatre and queerness in general, and what this means in Ireland specifically, “the concept of fringe around the world has always had strong queer voices - fringe festivals have been the places where those voices have first been heard. In Dublin, certainly, that’s true. If you look back at the history of fringe, and all the queer artists that have been presenting in the festival since the beginning; that was a really daunting proposition – the stakes were a lot higher. But I don’t know where the audiences were then. If you think, the festival is 22 years old, and homosexuality became legal in 90s – we became in the 90s – you wonder what Fringe was like twenty years ago”.
In spite of the conservative social climate that Fringe has existed in, or maybe because of it, Kris notes that, “there’s been a lot of performance art in this country that’s been very body based and very sexual. And I wonder about very sex positive things here. There are artists who make very sex positive work. There are artists who make very body positive work. It would be one of the main differences between where I’ve come from and working here”. This jars with perceptions of how quick many Irish people are to clutch their pearls at the faintest sound of any sex positive and body positive discourses here. And maybe that's the point.
Even with a surprisingly receptive and open audience, whether or not Ireland is ready for a particular work is something that Kris internally debates when watching a piece himself. “I saw this show in Hamburg that I loved. It starts with five dancers [and] they’re doing this beautiful Martha Graham number turned contemporary. And there’s a woman in a dominatrix outfit with these enormous breasts, and she gets hoisted up into an aerial lift and takes a razor out of her pocket and pops her silicon implants and it rains baby oil down onto the stage. And by now the cast is completely naked and they’re rolling in this baby oil and it was really beautiful and I’m worrying about how we could do the clean up and if we can afford it. I always wonder what audiences here need to see, to be shocked by and disrupted by”.
It is inevitable that Kris’ own identity shapes the look of Fringe. This has brought criticism, albeit heard secondhand, that Fringe has been too queer [that anything could be too queer is baffling]. “I’m the first queer director of the festival. Of course [queerness] influences my programme. Some interviewer said the other day that straight white men would be in the minority at Fringe – well good, no harm in this town!”. On that criticism? “I don’t mind that. I think the festival has a job to work with amazing artists. It has a job to work with voices that aren’t necessarily being heard. There are certain artists and works that I want to bring because they’re my heroes, like Justin Vivian Bond. She’s a trans artists and so her work is queer but is also about a bunch of things. Fringe can legitimise a certain way of thinking [and] a certain kind of voice”.
On how his identity influences what he does and how he does it, Kris calls on his childhood “[it] was as full of My Little Pony as it was sports. And I grew up in a small prairie town so it did have to hide, but I also came out when I was 16. So there’s a duality in there of feeling like I’ve been able to belong but also feeling like an outsider”. That might go some way in explaining the apparent ease with which he’s transplanted himself – within Canada and abroad – for his career. And? “When I came out, my parents said they’ll still love me and I was like ‘well of course you’ll still love me – that’s not an option!’, so there’s a strong headedness there. And my queer identity is a sexual identity, it’s a sex positive identity. I look for egalitarianism, it influences my views around empowerment, on being the white guy in a room who shouldn’t talk first”. These might not be qualities inherent to a queer man but they are essential for anyone in Kris' position at Fringe, tasked with bringing voices into the fold.
Being conscious of his identity and its effects in this way also mean that Kris isn’t assimilationist in a way that many of the new queer crop are, “I’m not post-gay. I like gay things. I like queer things. I like queer nights. I like my queer community here. I’m 35 and it’s something I see in a younger generation, and I talk about it a lot with my boyfriend who’s in his 50s [and who lives in Montreal]”. He’s calls it a “cavalierness” amongst younger gays, who may not appreciate the generations who have come before, who don’t appreciate what has had to be fought for and who call things out for being ‘too gay’. “In Montreal, there is a lot of feeling amongst guys in their 20s and 30s that ‘I don’t need the village anymore, I don’t want to be in the ghetto, I don’t want to be around the rainbow flag’. It’s interesting because there are some gay things that are really tired. It’s such an interesting time. You don’t need the gay village to cruise anymore or to gather. If you want to be on Tinder instead of on Grindr because you want to be in a kind of space where you’re just around men whatever that’s about - that’s fascinating to me”.
This harking back to an increasingly bygone era of queer communities and ghettoes seems more than nostalgia and romance. It seems urgent for the unity of queer and gay people, at a moment when our commonalities are becoming fractionalised along all sorts of arbitrary lines, and as one kind of experience is being valued above so many others. I agree with Kris about how essential the survival of these communities is for pseudo-structural and organising reasons, whilst preserving all the cultural symbols and social codes – we might have moved beyond the need for the bandana code, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. To do so would be to disrespect previous generations of gays and queers. All of that said, as Kris walks away from our table, I glance over my shoulder. My look-back goes unreciprocated.