Lucinda MacPherson interviews Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, the Gender Consultant on Scandaltown at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Image above: Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston with publicity for Scandaltown at the Lyric, Hammersmith; photograph Lucinda MacPherson

Lucinda MacPherson interviews the show’s Gender Consultant, Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston

Scandaltown, a Restoration comedy for the twenty-first century, romps onto the Lyric Hammersmith stage for its world premiere this week.

A glittering cast of twelve, including Rachael Stirling (Tipping the Velvet, Detectorists) and Richard Goulding (The Windsors), play characters with delicious names like Lady Susan Climber, Miss Phoebe Virtue and Hannah Tweetwell, as they raucously vie for influence amid the fraught social scene of post-pandemic London.

Mike Bartlett, the mind behind Cock, King Charles III, and BBC One’s Doctor Foster, has written this boisterous social satire specifically for the Lyric stage, and director Rachel O’Riordan’s maximalist production feels absolutely at home in Frank Matcham’s flamboyantly gilded fin-de-siècle auditorium.

Among the crew is Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, a non-binary academic and theatre practitioner specialising in Gender and Sexuality Studies, who has been discussing this new, rather naughty production and their role as Gender Consultant with Lucinda MacPherson.

Image above: Henry Everett and Annette McLaughlin in Scandaltown; photograph Marc Brenner

Firstly, please tell me a bit about the play. What can audiences expect?

The unexpected! Scandaltown is a big, sexy romp of a thing, and Mike, Rachel, and the team have done a beautiful job of creating a show that plays upon our expectations – theatrical, social, and political – only to subvert them in hilarious and revealing ways.

Like the Restoration comedies it playfully emulates, Scandaltown tackles the major debates of its day (the commodification of social media outrage; the hypocrisy of unaccountable politicians; generational divides over the nature of personal freedom and collective responsibility) with a mix of incisive wit and bawdy bravado, finding common ground (and a great deal to laugh at) amid an increasingly polarized political landscape.

Image above: Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston with publicity for Scandaltown at the Lyric, Hammersmith; photograph Lucinda MacPherson

What is a Gender Consultant?

I see gender consultancy as an extension of the amazing work done by trans consultants, who help facilitate better representation and working conditions for trans and gender-diverse people across the media, and intimacy professionals, who help to ensure that scenes involving sex and intimacy are rehearsed and performed under safe and consensual conditions.

Basically, my job is to ensure that gender, in all its messy splendour, and with all its personal, political, and social ramifications, is something that people at every level of the production can engage with safely and creatively. This might take the form of offering feedback on scripts, participating in the casting and rehearsal process, providing inclusivity training for production, administrative, or front-of-house staff, drafting marketing materials, or providing support to actors throughout a run or shoot.

The reason I favour the term ‘gender consultancy’ is because I believe that having a gender consultant involved is not only useful in productions explicitly dealing with gender diversity and trans experience, but in any creative context where gender is a significant theme or conceptual element.

There’s a common assumption that gender is only an ‘issue’ for gender-non-conforming people: that only those like myself, whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, need concern themselves with how they inhabit or relate to their gender. But, of course, as anyone who’s ever been told their haircut was too ‘butch’ or that ‘men don’t cry’ will tell you, gender is something with which we all grapple, in complex and evolving ways, at every stage of our lives.

The feminist philosopher Judith Butler famously framed gender not as an inherent quality a person possesses, but as a social activity in which they engage. In Butler’s view, through the (usually unconscious) repetition of particular behaviours and forms of self-presentation – dressing, speaking, gait, sexual activity, etc – a person’s gender ‘congeals’, becoming a seemingly immutable part of their identity.

In the light of this insight, it seems to me that any rehearsal process that doesn’t take these aspects of gender and processes of ‘gendering’ into account is going to deny itself a huge amount of its creative potential.

At the same time, by helping creative teams rethink what conventionally gendered traits like ‘aggression’ or ‘power’ (which tend to be coded as inherently ‘masculine’) and ‘compassion’ or ‘vulnerability’ (which have traditionally been framed as ‘feminine’) can look like in performance, and how they might be embodied in ways that don’t reinforce gendered norms, a gender consultant can greatly expand the expressive range of even the most familiar material.

Image above: Ami Okumura Jones and Chukwuma Omambala in Scandaltown; photograph Marc Brenner

Why were the Lyric team keen to involve a gender consultant? Are there other examples of productions that have used gender consultants or are you a rare breed?

At its heart, Scandaltown is about the tension between freedom and responsibility, and, in many ways, the process of developing the show has been about balancing those considerations. To be free to explore questions of desire, pleasure, and power as boldly (and amusingly) as the play does, Rachel felt a responsibility to ensure that there were figures in the room who could help the production engage with those issues sensitively and inventively.

I was chuffed to be asked, as, while trans consultancy is increasingly common in film and television (shows like HBO’s Euphoria, for example, have a dedicated trans consultant), gender consultancy is still fairly novel in theatre.

In gender consultancy terms, Scandaltown is an interesting case in that, despite not featuring any trans or gender-diverse characters, it does involve a lot of what might be called ‘gender play’.

Most obviously, Phoebe Virtue – the fresh-faced embodiment of all that is woke, ethically-sourced, and socially-responsible, who elects to go to London incognito to ensure her twin brother Jack, hasn’t strayed from the path of (self-)righteousness – spends much of the play’s first half in comically exaggerated boy drag.

While this is undoubtedly disguise, rather than a more lasting or meaningful form of transition, it was important for us that the experience of inhabiting this caricature of the sorts of ‘toxic masculinity’ she would otherwise decry should complicate Phoebe’s understanding of herself. The exploratory work Rachel and I did with the actress who plays Phoebe was really exciting, and I felt lucky to be able to provide a frame-work for that creative process.

Image above: Aysha Kala and Rachael Stirling in Scandaltown; photograph Marc Brenner

Why should audiences hot foot it to Hammersmith?

Well, aside from the fact it looks and sounds breath-taking, with glittering costumes, choregraphed dance numbers, and an original soundtrack that channels everything from Succession to David Bowie, I think the real joy of the show is that is has something just a little bit eye-watering to say to everyone who comes to see it.

After the first preview, I saw someone on Twitter describe it as a show that ‘pokes the woke and lambasts the libertarian in equal measure,’ and I think that’s right. Hearing parts of the auditorium erupt in laughter as others wince, only for that dynamic to be reversed a few moments later, never fails to make me smile. I think people will find it bracing, in the best possible way.

Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston is a non-binary academic, writer, and activist based at the University of Alberta, where they are SSHRC-CIHR Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in English, and Goldsmiths College, University of London, where they are Associate Lecturer in Theatre and Performance.

Their research explores the cultural politics of sexual health, queer history and culture, and the history of censorship and obscenity. In tandem with their academic work, they also serve as a gender diversity consultant and creative facilitator, working with theatres, production companies, and arts organizations to help them produce sensitive and engaging work in an inclusive environment.

Their writing has been featured in the Times Literary Supplement, the Irish Times, and on RTÉ, and their first monograph, Irish Modernism and the Politics of Sexual Health, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

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