Black Queer Womxn in Theatre – In Conversation with Rachael Young

Rachael Young is a woman who needs no introduction. A powerhouse of theatre who manages to combine a slew of creative disciplines and social commentary so effortlessly to create the multifaceted work that only she can. 

“Freeing” is the recurring word in our conversation. I do not need to reiterate that this year has been exceptionally difficult; it has been hard to see the future let alone exist in the present. Perhaps that is why Rachael and I began to talk of the past, and what inspired her to become the artist she is now. “The roles that I saw myself in were not the roles I was necessarily getting… I wanted to create my own work, my own content.” Whilst working at a gallery, she realised that the audiences at the gallery were rather distinct from those at the theatre. With the two spaces garnering different attention, the question of how she could present her work to both audiences and beyond arose. By shifting the boundaries of what theatre can be and moving away from the reliance on narrative we see far too much, the beautiful multidisciplinary work she felt she should be telling was born.

“I, Myself & Me” a show about exploring her relationship with loss was a turning point in her extensive body of work. It highlighted her need to want her work to take a change. Up until that point, the work she was creating, she had been commissioned for; but, working with a producer gave her more freedom to make something that was distinctively hers. “Out” – a show about homophobia and transphobia in Carribean communities and how colonialism has impacted queer lives: Spoke to a community: something that represented her more, something that used her body as artwork itself. She does not want to feel limited by the space that the show would take place in. She concerns herself with the subject matter of what she wants to create and then asks “What form fits best with that?” As she speaks, I hear the interrogative tone in her voice, questioning herself ever so quietly, an introspective performer let loose… It is clear she is not just introspective; she is growing. She wants to bring all the facets of herself to the creative space and experiment more. 

Is there ever a pressure to create? I ask, noting the necessity for creatives to be in charge of our wellbeing. This leads to a conversation on taking up space, and carving out space which in some way – I find frustrating. The onus of bridging inequality in theatre almost falls on our  shoulders (as playwrights and performers) although, we are not the ones who created the structural inequality rampant throughout the industry.  And yet, there is so much we are expected to do about this. Rachael doesn’t share my concern; for her the work is freeing – She is the curator of her own story and that pressure does not concern her. She is not making work for the white gaze, she knows who her work speaks to and what purpose it has – Rachael says confidently. “You can come and see the work if you want but you are not being centred in it.” And don’t you ever forget it.

As a Queer performer, the question of ‘How does your queerness come into your work, pops up. It is not that it is a silly question, but how does a person ‘add’ queerness into what they do? Rachael describes her queerness not just as a sexual identity. “The way in which I view the world is non – normative.” She goes on to ask “Maybe I’m queering the idea of what theatre can be. Maybe I am queering what the idea of Black can be…” The work sits on the edges and boundaries of performance, it sits between live art, theatre, going to a nightclub, Rachael is bringing it all to the fore and having people see the world in the way she sees it.

The impact of COVID-19 on the Arts has been astronomical, theatres have closed their doors, shows postponed indefinitely, it’s been extremely difficult. I ask Rachael how she has been during lockdown. In a word, she says “bittersweet”. Before the year began, there was a sense of dread at just how much work was ahead of her, the events of this year gave her a chance to slow down from working constantly. That being said, there is also much to mourn for: Edinburgh two years ago, was where Rachael set herself the challenge of exploring more international work. This year was when those aspirations would be realised. A six week Residency in Sri Lanka and a show in Austin, Texas would have happened this year.

When lockdown first began, none of us knew how long it would last for. Soon it became apparent that things were changing in a way that would affect the Arts for years to come. Rachael is honest enough to tell me she spent so much time feeling dreadful, with opportunities that she worked so hard for being taken away. As if that wasn’t enough, “Black and Brown people were dying disproportionately” at a global level, be it from the pandemic, or from police and state brutality. The weight of this year has left a lot of Black people feeling fearful and as a Black woman she asks concerningly “Would I be taken seriously if I fell ill?”  With what she describes as Black Lives Matter “resurgence” there were constant harrowing images and videos of Black death haunting us with no space to rest at all. Rachael reveals to me she’s felt quite traumatised for a significant part of this year, and only now does she feel safe. She’s learning to curate her life more –  choosing who enters her space and breathing a sigh of relief that the National Rail will not see any of her coins as she is not having to spend money on meetings that really could have happened digitally. The underlying fear for family and loved ones remains as it does with us all, but Rachael is taking this opportunity to enact change, she can not only use her voice but her platform to speak to several audiences.

“How could I use my platform? she asks earnestly. We speak of the ableism entrenched in the industry, and how the bizarre nature of this year has forced an industry to show its hand and think how it engages with its performers and audiences. Rachael being a Neurodiverse freelancer alongside another Neurodiverse freelancer Vijay Patel, spent 13 weeks developing the freelance task force where they asked how theatres could connect better with neurodiverse freelancers by gathering their honest thoughts and feelings. There is a long way to go but the conversation is opening up and people are being forced to listen. Having the time to focus on a project like this with her schedule Pre – covid would have been nearly impossible. 

We draw a close to the interview, much like a therapy session by ending on a positive note. I ask “How have you bought yourself joy?” Her answers scream “carefree white woman”, and I am living for it. Walking in parks, taking in nature, making time to read again, cherishing loved ones and even taking part in a 30-day yoga challenge. Most importantly, she is now the mother to her kitten named Mouse, who I must say, is dangerously cute. Rachael ends our talk with positive affirmations, this year has brought a unique set of stresses and emotionally draining situations, she is keeping her glass full for her own reserves and taking away that she is enough.

Speaking to the creator behind the work has made me reflect on how beautiful the expressive nature of theatre is, this is a woman who is constantly evolving and pushing herself further. Not only is she kind-hearted and humble, but she also inspires a slew of theatre makers in her work, me for one, at the very least.

If you are interested in supporting Rachael’s work, she will be performing THIRSTTRAP, an immersive performance produced with Fuel Theatre, from January 2021

Her contribution to the Royal Court’s Living Newspaper coming out early next year alongside an untitled (but from what I hope to be a very queer) Zine at the same time. 

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