Queer Amusements: David Hoyle is the queer saint of my dreams

Queer Amusements writer-in-residence Jane Claire Bradley returns with her latest column

A collection of obsessive thoughts about Travis Alabanza and David Hoyle, who’ve both been recent tonics to my soul…

Legendary Blackpool-born performance artist David Hoyle has had a special place in my heart since my teenage years, when I saw 1998 cult classic Velvet Goldmine for the first time. David’s character Freddi was one of many in the film’s assemblage of ridiculous, flawed, flamboyantly-attired and over-the-top personalities that over the course of countless repeat viewings burrowed deep into my imagination and brain.

I didn’t know it at the time, but in the years before and since my first on-screen encounter with David Hoyle, the artist himself has had a long, chaotic and anarchic career. He’s blurred the boundaries between visual art, performance art, avant-garde cabaret, singing, acting, and other assorted wild, inventive and unpredictable forms of creativity. It’s taken him from renowned cabaret stages like London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern to prestigious galleries like Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and almost everywhere in-between. David’s iconic status has even led to him being canonised as a ‘queer saint’ in a joyful 2022 celebration by the Manchester chapter of the street protest and performance movement, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

At a David Hoyle show, you’ll get something different every time, but it will always be transgressive, imaginative, defiant and fearless, and a true joy to behold

I’ve been lucky enough to see David live in action on several occasions, and the only predictable elements are the ones that make him such a vital force: David’s distinctive voice, unique style, radical politics, and fierce, unequivocal commitment to who he is and what he does are consistently unparalleled. As for the rest: at a David Hoyle show, you’ll get something different every time, but from experience I can guarantee it will always be transgressive, imaginative, defiant and fearless, and a true joy to behold.

All of which held true for David’s recent retrospective and residency, Please Feel Free to Ignore My Work, a three-week takeover of Factory International in Manchester. Developed in collaboration with creative producer Greg Thorpe – director of GAZE LGBTQIA Film Festival and an activist, advocate, curator and author – the visual exhibition and accompanying programme of live events was ambitious, immersive and imaginative in both scale and format. The finale show was billed as ‘end of the pier meets end of the world’ and – from the decals of his face plastered on the glass front doors to recordings of his voice being played on repeat in the toilets – David’s inimitable presence was felt in every corner of Aviva Studios.

Please Feel Free to Ignore My Work by David Hoyle. Photo: Lee Baxter

What always delights and dazzles me about Hoyle’s work is his bold and brazenly uncompromising approach to exploring themes like identity, austerity, gender, mental health, politics, queerness and class, while still retaining a much-needed irreverence and hopefulness. His deftness at balancing heartbreakingly honest and blunt social commentary with his joyfully vibrant and sometimes surreal perspective continually blows my mind.

Every encounter I have with him and his work leaves me in awe at how generous he is in sharing himself – in all his radical, resilient, charming and rebellious glory – so authentically and unapologetically with his audiences. His legacy is indisputable, and I owe him a massive debt of gratitude for what he so consistently models in his vision, self-trust, courage and tenacity.

But it’s not just me giving Hoyle his much-deserved due: he’s been cited as an influence and inspiration by an endless list of boundary-bending and breaking creatives, including award-winning performance artist author and theatre-maker Travis Alabanza, who’s partnered with Hoyle on various collaborations.

How I can use my own story to make something else happen?

Speaking online last night as part of the Queer Amusements programme in a talk on ‘creating from the self’ and making art from autobiographical experience, Alabanza was the perfect combo of thoughtful, wise, compassionate and charismatic as they shared some of the creative process of developing their shows and books.

During the talk, Alabanza reflected on the process of moving beyond the raw description of lived experience, pushing this further into something with more intention and clarity of purpose. Giving the example of their teenage self sneaking into an open mic night while underage and getting onstage to read unedited diary entries about their sex life, Alabanza spoke about how this rite of passage may have initially served a cathartic, formative function in their journey of finding and sharing their voice, and contrasted this with their creative process now, questioning “how I can use my own story to make something else happen?”

Their award-winning show, Burgerz, for instance, was developed with the purpose of empowering audiences to intervene when they witness harassment rather than remaining passive bystanders. Identifying this intention drove much of Alabanza’s subsequent experimenting and inventiveness with form to create a specific experience and response in the audience. Playing with tension and emotion heightened audiences’ engagement, creating parallels between the real-life lived experience that was Alabanza’s original inspiration for creating Burgerz, and what audience members eventually experienced while watching it live.

Alabanza also explored the process of making autobiographical work as a way to answer or deepen an understanding of a core question. They explained how starting to develop their non-fiction book None of the Above about their non-binary identity initially felt too vague, until they identified an important question they wanted to explore: do I want to medically transition?

It’s for us, baby, not for them.

Finding this clarity seemed to play an important part in accessing creative momentum and excitement, distilling the direction of their writing from the general to the specific, and generating ideas for the book’s eventual form and structure. Its seven chapters are each built around a specific phrase Alabanza encountered or experienced being directed at them about their gender identity, from the apparently innocuous to the loaded and violent and the book’s self-affirming, celebratory finale: it’s for us, baby, not for them.

I’ll be upfront in admitting I haven’t got a tidy way to tie these threads together, other than sharing my utmost gratitude to have access to queer artists like these making such provocative, imaginative and urgent work, and to acknowledge how they heighten my determination to be bolder and more authentic in my own writing and performance. So, to quote the legendary David Hoyle himself: I’ll leave that with you.

(But I’ll be back with more about that process soon.)

Want more from me between now and my next writer-in-residence update? You can get 14 days of free writing prompts when you sign up via my website. The next Queer Amusements event will be gorgeous evening celebrating the launch of Kuchenga Shenjé‘s debut novel, The Library Thief, at Aunty Social on 16th May. Kuchenga will be joined by best-selling author Alexis Caught. Book here.
Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Jane Claire Bradley is an award-winning author, performer, therapist and educator. She is Blackpool Social Club's writer in residence for Queer Amusements 2024.

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