Nelly Kelly: 'The provocation was for people to interact with the Bible, to write their way back in and reclaim their space within it'
- Gareth K Vile
- 12 October 2019
The playwright reflects on contemporary activism ahead of the first rehearsed reading of new project Untitled 2009, inspired by the GoMA exhibition of the same name
As part of the celebrations surrounding the tenth anniversary of Jo Clifford's The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, playwright Nelly Kelly revisits an event that happened as part of the 2009 Glasgay! festival that gave Clifford's play its premiere.
'Untitled 2009 was part of the exhibition Made in God's Image at the GOMA and received similar amounts of controversy to Jesus, Queen of Heaven,' Kelly says. 'I have long been interested in the ways in which queer people can dismantle the internalised homophobia and transphobia inflicted on us by major power structures through reclaiming power and space from those structures. This exhibition felt like it was actively doing that which is why I was very excited to come on board as the writer.'
The exhibition placed a Bible in GOMA and invited visitors to 'write their way back into it'. 'I'd argue that it's not about rewriting history,' Kelly continues. 'The provocation was for people to interact with the Bible, to write their way back in and reclaim their space within it.' Noting that the piece was 'ahead of its time', Kelly believes that its approach fits with contemporary activism. 'It seems like there is a stronger cultural awareness nowadays in terms of the writing of history being dominated by white, straight, cisgender men as well as an acknowledgement of the resulting loss of rich diversity. I do think that there is more activism in response to unravelling this idea of past and having those silenced throughout history identify their own voices and actions throughout that.'
Taking the texts that were written into the margins of the exhibited Bible as inspiration, Kelly admits that 'this has, without doubt, presented me with my biggest challenge to date as a writer. This is in part due to the writing work I am used to creating as, until now, I have never worked with anything but my own imagination. There is huge complexity in taking the fragmented thoughts, feelings and ideas of people written into a Bible in an exhibit that I never visited and turning it into a piece of theatre.'
'The complexities are two-fold, the first being that it is difficult to take very fragmented statements and combine them in a way that has enough of a dramatic structure to provide an engaging piece of theatre,' Kelly continues. 'The other is upon finding a potential dramatic structure in which this could work, how do you weave through this narrative in a way that doesn't give bias to your own charged thoughts on religion when these thoughts are so highly mirrored in such a large amount of the entries people made?' The process has challenged Kelly to consider how personal bias, either for or against religious faith, impacts on creativity.
'The inspirations that have surprised me most by far are the people who have caused me to have my own revelations regarding faith versus religion. As part of my writing process I very actively tried to engage with LGBTQIA+ people of faith in conversations about religion. Having these conversations left me inspired by those who still have unshakeable faith in their God, even after facing direct persecution by the power structures of their religious institutions.'
Untitled 2009 considers both the history of activism, and the ways that it has developed over the past decade – Kelly acknowledges that while some progress has been made, there are plenty of identities that still experience persecution – and provides a timely reminder of the necessity of continued action.
Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Sat 2 Nov, tron.co.uk.