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The Faggots and Their Friends... ‘provocation goes hand in hand with reclamation’

Philip Venables and Ted Huffman stand together outside, leaning against a brick wall which has been painted red and has the remnants of graffiti on it. Philip is a white bald man wearing a leather jacket, Ted has short brown hair and wears a denim shirt
Philip Venables and Tedd Huffman, by Dominic Mercier

In 1977 Larry Mitchell published the fantasy novel The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, drawing from his experience of queer communal living in 1970s San Francisco.

Within the novel Mitchell sought to reclaim the word ‘faggot’ in a loving, supporting and positive way, continuing a process of reclamation, by parts of the LGBTQIA+ community, of terms that had only previously been seen as negative. Though it soon fell out of print, Mitchell’s book maintained a cult following with editions and unofficial copies continuing to be shared, particularly through LGBTQIA+ communities and networks.

A decade ago, one of these copies found its way into the hands of Philip Venables, the composer behind award-winning operas Denis & Katya (2019) and 4.48 Psychosis (2016). Venables duly showed the copy to his friend and collaborator Ted Huffman, sowing the seeds for a music theatre piece by the pair, inspired by the work, which debuted at the Manchester International Festival in 2023, and arrives at the Southbank Centre in January 2024.

Ahead of the show’s four date run in our Queen Elizabeth Hall, we caught up with both Venables and Huffman to find out more about the process of bringing Mitchell’s now republished text to life on the stage.

 

Let’s start with the title. The word ‘faggot’ is a provocative one. Can you talk about the intention behind that?

Ted Huffman: It is provocative, but, as in Larry Mitchell’s book, the provocation goes hand in hand with reclamation. The word ‘faggot’ is used repeatedly, lovingly, playfully, and reverentially throughout the entire show. What better way to steal it from those who would use it as a weapon against us?

 

Where did you first encounter Lary Mitchell’s The Faggot & Their Friends Between Revolutions?

Philip Venables: I was given a PDF of the book by Radical Faerie* friends in 2013, back when it was out of print. It blew my mind as soon as I read it — it had such an amazing resonance with me.  

‘The word faggot is provocative, but, as in Larry Mitchell’s book, the provocation goes hand in hand with reclamation’

Ted Huffman

What then inspired you to bring the book to the stage?

Philip Venables: I showed the book to Ted, who also loved it immediately. We half-joked that it should be on stage, never imagining that a producer would green-light the title. But the more we talked about it, the more it became something we were dying to make, a new adventure for us, totally different to the operas we’ve made. 

 

So, how would you describe the work in a nutshell?

Philip Venables: Indescribable!

Ted Huffman: I like how one reviewer described it, Joshua Barone from the New York Times, who said it was ‘an astonishing feat of controlled chaos’. It’s a piece that doesn’t try to put things (or people, or ideas) into neat categories. A bit like the book it’s based on.

Philip Venables: We’ve had so many goes at trying to give it a tagline... ‘Baroque Fantasia’, ‘Baroque Musical’, ‘Queer history in song and dance’. Ultimately, we aimed to meld music and storytelling, theatre and song, hopefully in ways that you haven’t seen or heard before.

Person wearing a robe made out of fabric patches shouting trough a megaphone
Tristram Kenton
A scene from the production on the opening night of its initial run at Home, Manchester as part of Manchester International Festival 2023

Where did you draw your musical influences for the show from?

Philip Venables: The piece is intentionally influenced by baroque and folk music. We thought a baroque model would suit the fantasy and the timelessness of the stories in the book — an epic tale told through song and dance and music and words. A kind of ancient, mythical form of storytelling.

 

Why might this piece appeal to those who aren’t familiar with music theatre?

Ted Huffman: For one, because of the astonishing original text by Mitchell, which is having a massive surge in popularity since being re-published. Plus our adaptation of it is approachable for any audience, with half of the text is delivered as spoken theatre. No prior knowledge of ‘classical’ music is necessary to enter into Philip’s beautiful and playful musical world. And we have a cast to die for.  

 

What do you hope the audience will take away from it?

Ted Huffman: Joy, love, kindness, solidarity, audacity — but also a sense that freedom and social justice will always be a struggle, and that the things we cherish in a society will die in the face of complacency.

‘We half-joked that Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions should be on stage, never imagining that a producer would green-light the title’

Philip Venables

This isn’t the first time you’ve collaborated on a project, how do you work together to bring something to life?

Philip Venables: We talk A LOT. Ideas for and within our pieces have come out of hundreds of conversations. We work very closely together, especially in the early stages, and we’re very good friends, which means the boundaries between roles are sometimes blurred. I think this close collaboration helps us come up with ideas and forms that have a really tight concept binding the music, text and drama.

 

You’re also no stranger to the Southbank Centre, Philip, having presented previous work here, like 2020’s Denis & Katya. Is there something about our venues or audiences that lends itself particularly to your works?

Philip Venables: Yes — I’ve done a lot at the Southbank Centre, as well as with London Sinfonietta, and without a doubt it is the adventurous, fun-loving audiences that I love to return to. The Faggots… is an evening that can’t be categorised as musical, theatre, opera or concert — and it can be challenging to find venues and producers out there who have really cultivated an audience for such work. But the Southbank Centre and the lead producer Manchester International Festival are organisations who have really cracked that nut. It’s exciting.

 

A dining table with six people sat around with one waving a purple flag and another playing the violin.
The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions

Join us for Venables and Huffman’s production in our Queen Elizabeth Hall, 25–28 January 2024.

(*The Radical Faeries are a loosely affiliated worldwide network that seeks to redefine queer consciousness through secular spirituality; a countercultural movement they also adopt elements from anarchism and environmentalism.)