Playwright Leon Fleming on Bradford, politics, and turning pro

Critically acclaimed playwright Leon Fleming will have two of his plays performed at the closing of LGBT History Month in Bradford. See below for some exciting news about casting, just announced this week. We also chatted with Leon about his work, Bradford, and whether being LGBT can also make someone more politically active. How did... View Article

Critically acclaimed playwright Leon Fleming will have two of his plays performed at the closing of LGBT History Month in Bradford.

See below for some exciting news about casting, just announced this week.

We also chatted with Leon about his work, Bradford, and whether being LGBT can also make someone more politically active.

How did you get involved with Bradford’s LGBT History Month this year?

Since moving back to West Yorkshire a year ago, a friend of mine, Jason Courcoux who is very involved with Bradford’s Pride events and the LGBT community generally, has been trying to find ways of getting me to put work on up here.

So when Councillor Richard Dunbar decided he was going to create a festival around LGBT History Month this year, Jason put my name forward to him as someone who might be able to provide something relevant for the month’s special events.

I sent Richard about six LGBT-relevant short plays, and he chose the two he wanted to put on.

What can audiences expect when they come to see your plays during LGBT History Month?

The two plays are quite different. The first, What Should I Be? introduces us to three very different people talking about dating and relationships from LGBT and straight perspectives.

The second play, Our Lives Apart focuses on a peculiar love triangle and talks about love and manipulation. They’re both quite funny (I hope) and both have plenty to say for themselves.

Because they’re not being done in a traditional theatre space, I’m expecting them to feel quite immediate, which will hopefully amplify their relevance and really connect with an audience.

What do you want audiences to take away from seeing these two plays?

I hope they’ll have fun, and be entertained. I hope they’ll laugh and I hope they’ll be able to relate to my characters and their situations.

I’m also hoping they’ll be a little challenged by the plays. I find that entertainment for entertainment’s sake isn’t very entertaining, so I always want my work to ask questions of its audience and to leave them with something to think about; I’m hoping that just as with all my other work, these two short plays will do that.

As someone who’s very politically engaged yourself, do you think growing up LGBT makes political awareness a more common quality for someone to develop?

The answer should be yes. And when I was younger, the answer would definitely have been yes; but now I’m not so sure.

We’ve come so far as a community in a relatively short space of time, and that’s wonderful; but I think it does also mean that that certainly LGB if not T sometimes forget that there are still so many inequalities to fight against.

Because it’s not just the big obvious things like equal age of consent, Section28 and equal marriage; it’s the more complicated, quietly tucked away inequalities and stigma around LGBT that’s all still sitting there in the fabric of our society; LGBT youth homelessness, rights of asylum, specific mental health provision, misclassification of transgender prisoners etc.

I know that because it can sometimes seem that we’re all over the television and the media generally now, that everything must be rosy for us, but the reality is quite different. The government have just passed a bill to pardon those men who were jailed or experimented on due to gross indecency  convictions before homosexuality was decriminalised fifty years ago, and there were lots of tory MPs who voted against the pardon. That says something.

Equal Marriage may have been put forward by a Conservative Prime Minister (and I don’t think we should be too grateful and start kissing his feet or giving him awards for that, as all three major parties had said they would do it if they won the last general election), but more of his own tory MPs voted against it than voted for it.

The reality is that attitudes to LGBT+ people may not have changed quite as much as we like to believe they have. And it’s not just us, it’s other minority groups too; and now that we are strong and now that we have a voice, we should be fighting for them as well.

Until the very last person is free of oppression; we are all oppressed. I do think that as a community we have lost some of our political will. We have our pubs and clubs, our own media, our own shops even, we can do whatever we want; and I think that may have helped to create a kind of take-the-money-and-run, I’m-alright-Jack kind of mentality in our communal subconscious.

With the rise of fascism though across the Atlantic, as well as here at home; I have a feeling that some of that desire to fight, to have a political presence will come back to us quite soon.

What has been your career route from first having an interest in writing to reaching the position you’re in today?

It’s been long, and slow. The moment I decided I was a playwright was the moment I also decided that someone should put my work on the stage. But in reality (much to my disappointment) it doesn’t really work like that.

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve found opportunities where I’ve been able to prove myself as a writer, but for a lot of the time it’s been pretty arduous.

My first produced play was in Birmingham about eleven years ago; the script was seen at a writers group I used to go to and a small production company decided they wanted to put it on. And then I moved to Jersey for nine years and while I was there I won some local competitions and started making proper industry contacts over here in the UK.

I got my first commission while I was there too; a children’s adaptation of The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (with songs) from a Birmingham-based youth arts company that toured it around schools. That was the first time I actually got paid to write a play; writing for children, with no sex, no swearing, no drugs and no violence was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever been asked to do, but I do love a challenge.

A few years before I left Jersey I co-created a platform for local playwrights called Plays Rough, and that was great because that gave me a reason to write; and in fact the two short plays that are being produced for LGBT History Month were both seen for the first time at Plays Rough.

While in Jersey I was also doing bits and bobs in the UK which is how my last play Sid came about. Sid was a bit of a hit really and ended up going to the west end; which has helped draw some attention to my work, and probably has quite a bit to do with why Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill have co-commissioned my new play, Kicked in the Shitter, which opens in London next month, and comes to Bradford on 6 May.

What would your advice be to budding playwrights or actors who may be inspired by some of the theatre they see in Bradford this month and want to turn pro?

I think it’s the same in all creative professions really; don’t expect it to happen overnight. In fact; and this sounds really depressing, but expect it to be years before anyone notices you.

In a way that’s a good thing, because in that time you’re honing your craft. It’s probably different for actors, but for writers I would say to go to as many workshops as possible, work at making contacts within the industry, talk to other writers, enter competitions, read other people’s plays.

Some people would disagree but I think you kind of have to teach yourself to write, or at least to be able to find your voice. Technique can be taught, but I think the voice and the ability to connect with an audience comes from somewhere inside of you.

One of the greatest things about where we are now, is the internet and how that makes researching the routes into things like writing and acting so much easier; so I would say to search online to find out what’s going on in the area; are there any local theatre groups, writing groups etc.

Often regional theatres like the West Yorkshire Playhouse have different schemes happening at different times. And lots of producing theatres will accept unsolicited scripts. I would definitely encourage spending some time looking for local routes into whatever you want to do, because they are there; you just have to find them and access them.

And allow yourself to be a little bit cheeky. Find industry people who might be able to help you and use social media to get into a conversation with them and get them onside. As long as you’re polite and friendly, people within theatre are generally pretty generous with their advice and will help to point you in the right direction if they can.

Bradford has come out on top as a great place to be an LGBT student, what do you think it is it about Bradford that makes it a good place to be LGBT today?

I don’t actually live in Bradford; I’ve been poached from Leeds, but I think that because Bradford is such a diverse city anyway, with so many different cultures all bringing the city to life that the people of Bradford are generally pretty open to diversity in whatever form it takes.

Bradford, and most of Yorkshire really, is such a friendly place that intolerance stands out here and jars with the natural way of things.

I haven’t spent much time in Bradford really since I moved back to the UK, but many years ago I had a boyfriend who ran a nightclub in Bradford so I spent quite a lot of time here then; it’s always been a city I’ve loved, so I can certainly see why it would be known for being a great place for LGBT students, and for anyone at all in fact.

What other events are you looking forward to during LGBT History Month this year?

I went to the screening of WONDERKID on 1st February; that was fantastic. Such an important film; I really hope more people get to see it.

I’m going to a couple of panel discussions as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing the Pride Arts play OUT at the Bradford Playhouse this week.

I’m really excited about attending the Bradford Pride Awards on the 22nd; that should be a great evening, especially as my friend Nicola Field, who’s a real fighter in the LGBT community and an original member of LGSM is the keynote speaker. I haven’t seen her since she came to see Sid when it was on in London so it will be lovely to catch up with her.

And of course, I’m almost wetting myself with excitement about my two plays being put on at the end of the month. It will be the first time any of my work has been seen in Yorkshire, so it feels a bit like I’ve brought it home; which is terrifying, but also massively exciting at the same time.

I’ll be going to a few events in Leeds as well; as much as I love Bradford, I think my Leeds friends might fall out with me if I let you keep me all to yourself.

See Leon’s plays, ‘What Should I Be?’ and ‘Our Lives Apart’, at the Westgate Social Club on 28th February.