“All I’m hoping for is that it starts big conversations,” Joni Nelson tells me about her first play, 8 Reasonable Demands. The young playwright has worked as a community organiser, formed a creative arts organisation for queer and trans communities, and is now showcasing her first play as part of Auckland Theatre Company's HERE & NOW festival. “I’m looking to start conversations, to form connections and to make space for myself and other creatives to grow.” Joni sees art as an extension of her community involvement. Both occupations are, to her, “inherently political.”
8 Reasonable Demands focuses on the story of six queer activists in the aftermath of Big Gay Out. “The play features six characters of different genders, classes and ethnicities,” Joni says. But “you’re not going to see any of them ‘come out’ or struggle with their identities in this play.” Joni is looking to shake up that tired trope.
“There is an assumption that plays which feature ‘diverse’ characters will focus on their journeys to find themselves,” she says. The play is intended to smash that expectation. Stories about queer and trans people living life, rather than discovering their identities, is what she wants to write about. The character’s identities are naturally central to their relationships to each other and the play, but they’re not a part of the plot. “They’re millennials, they have that shit figured out already!”
Joni knows what she’s talking about. For the last four years, she’s been making space for other queer and trans writers and actors to make their own creative work. Along with co-founder Tycho Vandenburg, she created Breaking Boundaries in 2013. The organisation supports queer and trans creative work and started signature Queer & Trans Open Mic Nights. It continues today as a “100% volunteer-run, creative arts organisation for queer and trans communities.”
8 Reasonable Demands deals with some hefty subject matter that hits close to home for Joni. It was “borne out of so many stories and experiences from my own life, but also those of my friends and our wider communities,” she says. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. The work is billed as a black comedy, and laughter is a key component of her work. “Humour opens people up, it keeps people engaged, and that makes the more gut-wrenching parts of the play more effective,” she says. The work began as a way for her to process the events happening around her. Joni believes that humour helped her write. It’s a “brilliant tool to tackle difficult subject matter”, she says.
Writing the play was a slow process, but the support from the Auckland Theatre Company's Young Writer’s Table programme inspired her to continue with the work. The play “is a celebration of the best and worst parts of our generation and our battle for a better, more equitable world.” The play deals with questions about whether “our political aspirations always match our interpersonal behaviour.”
The HERE & NOW festival is not made for the usual theatre-going crowd. The target audience is young people who know social media, are engaged with questions about gender identity, and want to see diverse voices represented on the stage. Along with 8 Reasonable Demands, there are two other works directed towards under-25s set to premiere. The Gangster’s Paradise, by Leki Jackson-Bourke, is a comedic high-school drama set in South Auckland. Watch Party, by Binge Culture, is a uniquely active piece that will encourage audiences to engage online during the performance. That broad range of subject matter at HERE & NOW has one common thread: diverse voices and youthful energy.
The HERE & NOW festival runs from 26 April – 30 April at the ASB Waterfront Theatre.Support Villainesse