The children’s theatre show that is making some conservatives furious opens in Wellington this week. Emily Writes spoke to co-creator George Fowler about the controversy, and the empowering message behind the play.
When we talk over the weekend, George Fowler is on top of the world despite the challenging week he’s had. On Wednesday, his debut play The Glitter Garden opens in Wellington to a sold-out audience. For the last 48 hours, he’s also been the subject of relentless online abuse, kicked off by a post from The Taxpayer Union criticising government funding for the play.
“It’s been a rough few days to be on the internet,” he says. “At first it was super funny because they gave us heaps of free advertising. And then it got pretty sad and depressing. It sucks to be reminded that people who believe such nonsense about queer people exist. I do take comfort that the criticism is not even close to valid. Literally when I read horrible slurs and stuff I just wish they could come to the show and be softened by it.”
The Glitter Garden is a show Fowler wishes he’d been able to see when he was a child. His goal – to help young people know they’re free to be who they are and deserve to be accepted and loved – is what has carried him through these last few days.You might think a play about self-acceptance wouldn’t cause much controversy, but after The Taxpayers Union posted about the play Fowler and the rest of the Glitter Garden cast received a torrent of abuse, much of it homophobic.
Despite the hatred, Fowler is taking a philosophical approach. “We’re doing OK,” he says. “It really does prove that there’s a need for a show like this. It is hard though. It makes me so sad to see that there are grown ups in the world so shit scared of kids being happy and themselves.”
The show will go on and Fowler says the cast and crew are safe. “There’s a big difference between a ‘die fags’ comment online and that becoming a real life threat. We have a really smart production team – both them and Circa Theatre are doing a great job looking out for us.”
Fowler says seeing the play as a child would have changed his life. “Glitter Garden is for all kids, but especially for little weirdos. It’s a big silly rallying cry for the importance of self love and self expression. I play Gardener Hugo who is too scared to get things growing in his patch. He makes a magic wish on a dandelion and his garden come to life as magical drag creatures. He learns all sort of lessons about being kind, being himself and being brave.”
The angst from conservatives seems to be coming from people who have never seen a drag show and think drag is something it isn’t. “I mean anyone who has actually seen drag knows it’s not inherently a sexual or sexy thing – it can be, sure, but really it’s just dress ups for grown ups,” Fowler says.
He would know. As Hugo Grrrl, Fowler is the winner of the TV competition House of Drag and a performer of five years. He’s also a Wellington institution: his face is on billboards advertising mask-wearing on buses and his “wee” cabaret company puts on hundreds of shows every year. He’s joined in The Glitter Garden by other drag celebrities Eva Goodnight, The Everchanging Boy and Robin YaBlind. The show is co-created and directed by Wellington-based playwright Lori Leigh.
The idea that drag is only sexual is a strange one. Anyone who’s attended one of the Wellington Drag Brunches knows they’re a family affair with Disney numbers and singing princesses and princes.
“Drag is inherently interactive and visual and bright and glittery. It’s an art form that specialises in telling simple stories in a short amount of time. It’s perfect for kids,” Fowler says.
Circa Theatre’s Linda Wilson agrees. “We programmed The Glitter Garden because a drag musical extravaganza for children – the first of its kind in the world – provided much needed representation to the youth of Aotearoa. We wanted them to know that you can express yourself however you see fit in and that can be as big, bold, beautiful and shimmery as you want.
“When the LGBTQIA+ community faces such persecution and hatred worldwide, we’re so proud to stage this world premiere, so that The Glitter Garden can be a beacon of light to young kids everywhere, to let them know that they belong.”
Telling the story that you are loved without conditions is crucial to young people. Research by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at The University of Auckland found 57% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people experienced symptoms of depression. Mental health issues and suicide rates also remain disproportionately high in the rainbow community.
“Had I known that who I was and how I was feeling was OK when I was younger, my life would have been very very different,” Fowler says.
With a message of equality and joy, it’s little wonder the show is so popular outside of the realm of musty old bigots.
“Everyone deserves to feel fab, you know?”
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