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Conversations #2: Inviting in

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The ACT OUT initiative was launched last February in the German-speaking world, with one hundred eighty-five actors from the LGBTQIA+ community vying for visibility and more rights in television, theatre and cinema. We decided to chat and share experiences with two of its members, Oska Melina Borcherding (actor, performer, filmmaker) and Niels Bormann (actor) from Berlin, as well as with three people from the local community, namely Wichi (actress, theatre directing student), Dimitra Paraskelidou (actress) and Thanos Papadogiannis (theatre directing student, writer, drag queen).

Prodromos Tsinikoris: I would like to thank you very much for being with us tonight! The ACT OUT initiative started in the German-speaking world on the 4th of February, while here in Greece we had the first big wave of the #metoo movement, so probably this is why it did not receive the publicity it deserves. It would be interesting to start with ACT OUT1http://act-out.org/en/ and let us know how it was set up.

Oska Melina Borcherding: Niels, you were there from the beginning, so maybe you…?

Niels Bormann: Okay I can start. So, the whole thing started with Karin Hanczewski and Godehard Giese. Karin at that time got a prize at a Film Festival. She was asked by her agent to not go with her girlfriend on the red carpet. And this was the initial kick which made them say: ‘Okay, we have to do something here, there is something in the shadow and we have to address it’. One of the biggest German television and cinema casting agents, Daniela Tolkien, said in an interview that she would not suggest any actor come out as gay. Afterwards, she took it back, however, this revealed how the German television industry works. She gets questioned by directors: ‘Is she a lesbian? Is he gay?’ In the beginning, it was just friends, we were like four or five people thinking: ‘What can we do?’ Should we do, for example, absurd satire spots to underline the supposed fact that the German audience can not imagine a gay man playing a family father or Romeo, because television producers think of the audience not being able to detach it? We thought of creating slogans, of giving interviews, of questioning little things. Then, slowly, more and more people were joining in. At one point we were like 20 people and Caroline Emcke, a well-established queer publisher and writer in Germany, made the connection to SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG. We wanted to take all the queer facepics and identities and put them side by side on the magazine, adding an interview of six people. By the end of last year, it kind of exploded, because everybody started to bring people, colleagues and friends who wanted to participate. The newspaper thought: ‘Okay, it’s gonna be sixty people’! Then they did it for eighty and then they said: ‘Now we have to add a third page’. We thought we were just extending to a double page and finally we were 185 people. Nobody thought it would have gone that far. Forty-nine more people just joined us. People can still sign up and join – and maybe Oska can take it from there.

Oska: What was interesting after the publication was that, although we were quite aware that it’s gonna be a big thing, nobody expected the impact and the number of reactions it created. We were 19 people to organise the press. One week before the publication we started creating a safe space. When it all came out, we stayed in touch and kept that safe space, realizing that it’s not enough to just have one public interview – and then be gone. Now we are kind of an organization. We’re talking for example to the program directors of tv channels in Germany, we’re talking to the German Stages Association and to politicians. We’re trying to change structures, to raise demands.

Niels: I think you could say there is a life before ACT OUT and one after, because when it came out it was amazing and beautiful – and there was an immense demand for communication with us – which is why we have an Insta and all those inspiring Signal2application groups that deal with Acting schools, political discussions, coordination of panels, political talks etc. It was necessary, we had to react to the strong public discussions and confusing political discourses. 

Oska: We’re being instrumentalized by some politicians definitely.

Niels: Yes, definitely. At one point we had a Signal group called ‘identity politics’, where we all posted articles on that topic, discussing how are we dealing with it, what can be a structure, how can we react to the ongoing debate. There was a task force situation and this we had also with the directors of big television companies who got really nervous because actors have a voice and everybody knows them. We had celebrities, who had their first coming out with ACT OUT. We also had a rule that one person alone should not go to an interview, we should always be at least two or three people and we also tried to always include one person of colour. We want to be intersectional, our problems are similar to those of other minorities and we don’t want people to say: ‘Ah, these queer people, they just want to have their share of screen time’. We are dealing with a structural problem. For example, the state television directors and leaders invited us and the talk was led by a black queer actor. I think they didn’t expect that we are so diverse also. They thought in gay, queer and bisexual, and that’s it, you know.

An alternative to coming out is also inviting in. Coming out can feel a little forceful to queer people, it can be uncomfortable. The idea of inviting in is: ‘who are the people I’m inviting into this part of my identity’.

Oska: No, just gay and bisexual. We were asking them: ‘What are you doing to make your structures more diverse?’ and the answer was: ‘Yeah, last year we had a film with a gay couple trying to have a kid’. What really touched me through the movement was to see the impact on other people. For example, a movement formed another hashtag, the #teachout. It was teachers who formed a collective. I found it so, so touching because I didn’t know any queer teacher back when I was in school. 

Niels: And #churchout also.

Oska: And #churchout too, yeah.

Prodromos: One of the reasons why I asked Thanos, Dimitra and Wichi to participate, is because I have a feeling that this younger generation in Greece is much more in touch with their gender and their sexuality and that they can speak more openly. Could you imagine that something like this would happen in Greece as well, or do you think that structures like church, politics and education are too strong and that it wouldn’t get the support that the people in the German-speaking area had?

Wichi: Well, I believe our society is very conservative and now, with the #metoo movement, I found out that it’s even more conservative than I thought it was a few years ago. So I believe that if something like that happened here, a lot of people would be against it. Some people have this set of mind: ‘I don’t mind what other people do if it’s not affecting me’. I’m wondering. What if it’s affecting you? What does it mean ‘affecting you’, when you see two people kissing on the street? On the television? On the theatre stage? So I’m worried about this percentage of the population. But I also believe that there is a strong movement right now, a lot of people are coming together, leaving behind the differences and the aesthetics, to support people in need. So, I also believe that if a few people start talking, a lot of people will come along, change their mind, and say: ‘Okay, let’s stop a minute and think about this’. The truth is, we want to be a developed country, but we’re not. We also need to understand this. 

Dimitra Paraskelidou: For me, there are two societies. One that is conservative, usually ultra-Orthodox Greeks, and one that is progressive and struggling to be heard and seen. And I see a huge gap between these two. Personally, I was out since I was seventeen, and I was out during my drama school years, I was never in the closet, I was very open about it. And of course, it was very difficult because it costs to be out, you get excluded from many things, but at the same time, I think that I am out in an environment of people that support and understand me. I don’t think we are ready and I agree with Wichi. I am deeply disappointed because I listened to things about the #metoo movement that I could never imagine I would. For instance, a former friend spoke in a very insulting way about Sofia Bekatorou3https://www.google.com/url?q=https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/16/sport/sofia-bekatorou-alleged-sexual-assault-sailing-greece-spt-intl/index.html&sa=D&source=editors&ust=1620112887250000&usg=AOvVaw0uENYiW5pls_KQ2DQ_3xZz. And I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because this person is a young woman herself. That’s just one example out of many. But it is very important that we start these conversations because the first step is to have these conversations, to annoy the people that need to be annoyed. This way, we might someday have a chance for change. 

In the far future maybe nations and all these silhouettes will disappear and we will be only human animals.

Prodromos: Dimitra, you said before that being out of the closet from very early on, also in the drama school, got you excluded from things.

Dimitra: The way we get selected to get into drama schools is deeply problematic. There is a major ailment that starts from drama schools. And then we face it, and so do professional actors and actresses. But it starts in there. I could see it because it’s not just that I am lesbian and I am out – I am also plus-size. When I was giving exams to get into drama schools I could feel it, even though they wouldn’t express it, coming mostly from older alpha-males, usually directors – I could see how they looked at me and with their eyes they were telling me: ‘you’re fat, you’re not enough of a woman, you’ll never be an actress’. I could see it in the way they allocated parts, in the way they would cast classic plays like Anna Karenina or plays by Strindberg or Chekhov etc. In all these plays most of the time we, the women, took roles in which we would speak for three lines and men had these big monologues. And we, the women, always have to talk about feelings or we have to calm a man or talk about a man or see how a man is, is he well, is he not well. But the man I would play a scene with would talk about philosophical issues, he would have deeper issues to talk about, that I would never be able to. One of the teachers we were working with – male as well, older – I don’t wanna name him, decided to talk with each one of us, to tutor us, to have a personal conversation at the end of the year. We found out that he told all the girls the exact same thing: that we, as young actresses, have to find the woman within us and bring it out. He knew that I was a lesbian, so he told me: ‘you can find whatever kind of woman you might have inside you’. And I don’t know, I laughed at what he told me because it was funny. But no it wasn’t, it was tragic. 

Thanos Papadogiannis: First of all, in Greece, it’s so fucking homophobic, transphobic and biphobic, that coming out is something very hard to do on a smaller or bigger scale – so, I truly understand any person that doesn’t wanna come out in Greece. Because I can clearly see why. Coming out doesn’t necessarily mean more liberation, in a way it may mean even more oppression. However, I think a public coming out like the one you did in Germany would be beneficial for LGBTQIA+ people of younger generations in general, or people in the countryside which is much different than Athens. So, yes, it would be totally good, and hopefully, it would include trans and non-binary identities. When I was a teenager, I used to identify as gay and after the first time I came out I didn’t need to do this again! People were seeing a feminine person and were like ‘okay, you know that’s a gay guy’. So I never needed to come out after a while and I could just speak about my boyfriends. But when you are trans, or non-binary it isn’t something that people can imagine, it isn’t something ‘visible’. Since I identified as non-binary, I had to come out every day of my life. That’s a very important topic that has to open in this discourse. The fact that I’m coming out now really means that you have to pay attention to it because I don’t have to come out every day. So you, the reader who reads that, please pay attention to it, and if you have any unknown words search them on Google. Don’t ask me and put me in a position of having to come out again, because you think I’m gonna be the one who will educate you no matter what. This is why I hope a coming out action will take place in Greece. It can be a chance to think: ‘what is coming out?’. It could be a chance to discuss like you have done in Germany, what does coming out mean for us, is it something so difficult, or is it something so easy, and does it always have to be positive? Coming out stories have often so much trauma behind them. Yeah, I’m happy you did that and I was inspired when I read it.

Oska: I’m just so inspired by a lot of things that I just heard. I also remember the moment when I came out as trans non-binary. I did it on social media. I remember the disconnection from my Greek family which is because of distance-disconnection. It can be a privilege, but also not, because I felt very imprisoned. It was discouraging to see people reacting to our article saying things like ‘I don’t care with whom you have sex, I’m such an open-minded person’. Because I never said anything about who I’m having sex with; I said that I’m trans non-binary. What they said proves that coming out was needed. An alternative to coming out is also inviting in. Coming out can feel a little forceful to queer people, it can be uncomfortable. The idea of inviting in is: ‘who are the people I’m inviting into this part of my identity’. And that is beautiful because you don’t have to come out. Gender is everywhere and if you are trans and/or non-binary you feel it constantly. 

Maybe a solution is education. Educating children, students, teachers, parents to create this space. Educate them on seeing people as human beings, and not as their sexual orientation or preference or gender expression and smash all these gender stereotypes.

Niels: When you were speaking, Thanos, I remembered looking at these 185 faces in the newspaper. You knew this is LGBTQIA+ people but no more information, so you had to ask yourself: ‘Is this person a woman, is he gay, is she bisexual, are they a lesbian?’. At one point I thought it’s crazy to make all these categories. In the far future maybe nations and all these silhouettes will disappear and we will be only human animals. I remember also this inviting in, because there were cis hetero males who said: ‘I am not monogamous in a heterosexual relationship, I am poly, can I be part of you?’. And we had to make the decision: ‘No, actually not – cos queer means always being in a situation of potential discrimination, which doesn’t apply to a cis heterosexual white male’. But part of me was thinking why not, why don’t we invite everybody in, because then the majority of society would have been part of this project. And when you were speaking, Dimitra, I was laughing out loud with this ‘seeking your inner female’, because it seems to be an international problem. One of our targets in ACT OUT is schools: how to deal with schools, universities, drama schools. We just had a ZOOM with students from drama schools. They were talking, giving a silver lining on the horizon about building groups, talking with each other, uniting and changing the system or the structures. To confront teachers with what you want, who you are and what you want to change. I think the big problem is to be alone and not have allies. They don’t have to be necessarily queer or POC people. Everybody is suffering, also a lot of heterosexual cis people, from the way things are organized.

Thanos: I just wanted to add on what Dimitra said about drama schools – and I am wondering whether this is also the same in Germany. The first time I auditioned for acting schools was two years ago, and I was still pretty much the same person when it came to being feminine and stuff. I was not accepted at the National Theatre, and I secretly knew my femininity was one of the reasons. Because they have some kind of mentality that if you are a person with a strong character then you cannot be shaped. I realised that back then, along with other reasons, I was thinking ‘fuck theatre’, I am never going to go back, I am just gonna do my thing and I’m gonna do it my way. However, this year I decided to try again for both the acting and the directing school. When I got into the directing school, pretty much doing the same thing I did two years ago, I even did the same monologue, I said the same things, it was like a copy-paste of my audition two years ago. And I just got into the directing school, while in the acting school, of course, they didn’t accept me again. Because maybe I was too loud, I had a lot of things to say, I was very much of a character, I was not afraid to show my femininity and speak about gender and sexuality. This is so fucking bullshit. But the funny thing is that even though I auditioned in the closet as non-binary, when I got in the class, I met Wichi, and it was so awesome, because now we, as non-binary, represent 20% of our class! I wonder whether I would get in if they knew about my non-binary identity. In Germany is it the same in drama schools when it comes to auditions? Are they looking also for not shaped or outspoken characters or things like that?

You, reader, if you have any unknown words search them on Google. Don’t ask me and put me in a position of having to come out again.

Dimitra: Yes! I want to talk about the ‘shaping’ Thanos mentioned. This is an argument that I haven’t only heard in drama schools but in art schools in general. It is very problematic, frightening because it’s like they tell you that you have to be hollow – so that they can fill you. You are supposed to be like an empty canvas so that they can shape you the way they want to, which is very fascistic in my opinion. I mean it’s like you go to the army, and they tell you what to say, how to think or act. In the same way, they often tell you how you’re going to create art. That was a major issue not only in our school but in every art school, in every school, not only in theatre. I remember a very loved teacher of mine, a great teacher, who was telling us: ‘You have to be yourselves, you have to act the way it expresses you the most, even if you don’t become professional actors. You might as well not become professionals, but for sure you will be artists’.

Niels: Just a very short note on the ‘shaping’. In German they say that they have to break you, to create you from scratch. These schools need to create artists, not machines who follow orders. Teachers often want to feel their authority, they want to feel their power, and like a genius, the idea of a genius who’s installing his vision. That idea doesn’t have the idea of a collective, it doesn’t have the idea of eye level, of co-creating. It just has the idea of hierarchy.

Prodromos: I wanted to ask, first of all, it’s the first time that I heard this inviting in, instead of coming out, I find it really beautiful and maybe it’s gonna be the title. Ah, now I see a lot of raised hands, a total panic. Wait, I will lower mine. Niels too, everyone is raising their hands… (Everyone laughs.) You all spoke beautifully about all these things that I was also really curious to learn. And I have to admit, I didn’t have all these problems. You know, it’s something that if you don’t know, you don’t think about it so much. And for sure in a way you have to look back, I as a cis, straight white person have to reflect ‘okay, what can I change?’. So this inviting in that you were talking about is a very welcoming way to change. I don’t know if I’m saying stupid things right now, please tell me I’m not saying stupid things…

Wichi: No, no…

Oska: No, all good.

Wichi: From all I have heard until now I want to say that this conversation is going about schools. So I understand that maybe a solution, or where we need to focus, is education. Educating children, students, teachers, parents to create this space. Educate them on seeing people as human beings, and not as their sexual orientation or preference or gender expression and smash all these gender stereotypes. I got in school making it obvious that I am a human being and not a woman or a man. I embraced this queer identity, mostly as a political position and ideology, because I don’t believe in dualities, binaries. I believe that for us, the young people, it is easier, more inspirational to bring this to the art space, and even create new ways of expression, write new plays based on that – not on the duality of gender – open to other art forms, and address people as human beings. And maybe even use the roles that are already written to express this. I understand now why I always preferred the male parts from a classic play. Like Hamlet. Hamlet is a topic, a question, not just a boy, and I believe the ideas that this human being brings are universal, so they can be brought on stage by everyone. I also try to do this all the time in my everyday life. I have a team, a clown activist group, DOAN, and we always approach every exercise, every protest, every project from this point of view, that ‘you come as you are, every one of you, like the person you are’. I see young people, 18-19 years old and even older people, there was not even one time that someone would say ‘but I’m a girl/but I’m a guy’. No matter how they feel, in this safe space, nobody criticized the other. You will say ‘okay it’s a clown, you have all this makeup and clothes’, but I see this happening and I believe that if I can do it with my little knowledge and experience, if these people can do it, then I believe… I don’t know I really think that it’s a small percentage but, as some of our teachers told us in the last few days, it’s the minorities that will change the world.

The first step is to have these conversations, to annoy the people that need to be annoyed. This way, we might someday have a chance for change.

Prodromos: Here in Greece theatres have been closed for thirteen months, but during that time a lot of things happened in the world of artists, like strong artists’ movements, like the Support Art Workers, stronger unions like the Actors and Actresses Union here in Greece, the #metoo movement. I wanted to ask you, Oska and Niels, do you have the impression that if COVID wasn’t there the same thing would’ve happened or would it have happened in a delayed way?

Oska: I think it would’ve happened, but the attention is different now. We can’t distract ourselves with work or cinema or a fitness studio, you know? This is the big difference, the attention and the fast reactions. Abuse of power at the Volksbuehne, a racist scandal at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and this big German director being discussed, were things well-known. But people react more intensely now. The director of the Greek National Theatre wasn’t a surprise, I’ve talked about it with a friend some time ago. The attention is different. Yeah, I definitely have time for this now.

Niels: Personally I think I became a much more political person in this time. I am focusing on diversity, injustice and discrimination. Suddenly they are all there now, and a lot of stuff is boiling. I’m really happy, it feels like a cleansing. Everybody knows sexism, misogyny, queerphobia and all this. We were just living with it and thinking it’s normal. And I just hope that it’s shaking the whole of society – through representation in television for example, which is key to representation in society. What you see on screen, what children see on screen, what my parents see on screen, this is what is really changing lives, not theatre, unfortunately.

Prodromos: I could talk for hours but someone has to transcript this… I really love your company, I have to say it’s like meeting friends, I enjoy how you exchange opinions and experiences and I’m very grateful for that. Everyone puts hearts now (on our screens)…

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