Alex Casey talks to Tash Keddy and Harry Dickinson of Shortland Street about how the soap consistently progresses LGBTQIA representation like nothing else on local television.
Even if you haven’t watched Shortland Street in years, there’s no denying that Ferndale hit a home run last week. All it took was The Cloud, an iPad and Harry Warner’s penis to make viral gold, bringing the internet’s attention back to New Zealand’s longest-running soap after far too long. Celebrating 25 years on screen this year, Shortland Street boasts an astoundingly progressive history in envisioning a diverse, multi-faceted society that mirrors our own better than anything else we’ve ever produced for the small screen. To quote The Spinoff’s Editor Duncan Greive in his defence of Ferndale:
“Here’s a necessarily incomplete list of situations which Shortland St put on our screens – often for the first time – over the years: interracial couples; same-sex couples; lesbian kisses; gay kisses; inter-generational relationships; female CEOs; minority CEOs; Māori and Pasifika doctors, nurses and surgeons; adoption; abortion; religious torment; underage sex; police corruption; drug and gambling addiction; alcoholism; rape; domestic violence; emotional abuse; the malfeasance of Big Pharma; the challenges and opportunities of public-private partnerships; struggling small businesses…”
Among many steps forward, one of the great leaps came last year when Shortland Street introduced its first trans character Blue, played by trans actor Tash Keddy. I spoke to Tash along with storyliner (formerly also Gerald, the asexual receptionist on Shortland Street from 2007-2010) Harry Dickinson about LGBTQIA in Ferndale, ahead of their panel in the PRIDE festival.
Days of Our Lives only introduced their first gay storyline fairly recently, and to my knowledge Neighbours is nowhere near the level of representation we’ve seen in Ferndale. Why is it that Shortland Street is always so ahead of the curve in the soap world?
Harry Dickinson: I think soaps are quite diversified within the genre. They exist to fill very different niches. Neighbours is very family friendly and very PG and that applies to everything. Someone who was writing for Neighbours once told me that they got a year’s worth of story out of an affair where the people had never kissed. Whereas in a South African soap, there would be one person dying every week.
Soaps respond to their audience, so when Shortland Street is working well it can be an accurate representation of how New Zealand wants to see itself.
Tash Keddy: I think there also seems to be this mirroring of the creative community, even at the level of production. From a behind-the-scenes perspective, New Zealand seems like a hard place to be a creative because we have this culture that’s all about dairy farming or whatever.
My experience coming from fine arts is that creativity invites people who are open-minded and want to create the kind of content they want to see in the world. It’s cool that Shortland Street does that and has done that in the past when it’s been harder and harder. I really appreciate that.
What’s it like as a writer on Shortland Street, tackling these sorts of important issues?
HD: When you are in the right groove and the network’s off your back and the show’s going well – you can get away with a fuck tonne. You can do some really exciting, interesting, challenging things. For example, I just wrote a cliffhanger involving Chops the dog getting resuscitated in ED after being run over. I was just sitting there like, ‘how have I not been fired?’
That’s the comedy side of it, but on the more serious side you can play with characters and introduce themes and deal with stuff that might make people have a conniption over. As long as you don’t be too earnest about it, people in middle New Zealand seem to be okay with it.
TK: The format is really forgiving as well, you can have a character who is completely earnest like that and then have another character who completely offsets them.
HD: Exactly. The discrimination is definitely still out there and it’s huge. We just did a story a couple of weeks ago involving a male gay couple and we still got heaps of negative comments. You’d think people would have moved on from however many years ago that Gerald was on.
Are you saying that you read the feedback from middle New Zealand?
TK: I get told not to, but you’d have to be really clever about it to avoid getting any sort of feedback.
HD: I never did when I was on the show, I don’t think actors should. As a writer it’s sort of different because you’ve got more of bird’s eye view, and you want to get a feel for the reception. But even then, I get most of it when someone passes it on. You want a sense of the pulse, and what people are leaning forward for and what turns them off, but you still can’t read all the comments.
I suppose it’s a double-edged sword, right? You have this audience with so much love for those characters who will grieve for Sarah Potts but, by the same token, feel like they own them.
HD: Absolutely. There’s a huge responsibility that comes with that as well. We have the ability to make them fall in love with people they ordinarily wouldn’t in real life. People who they would maybe judge less harshly on screen than if they saw them on the street.
How frequent are those discussions about bringing in diverse characters and more challenging representations around the writer’s table?
HD: When we were first talking about Blue we knew wanted to do it properly and responsibly. This is a community that doesn’t feel like it gets enough representation, or not in the right ways at least, and this would be a cool way to do that. As a writer, there’s the stress around not knowing enough about what you are writing about. I’m sure there were times when Tash got the script and was like ‘what the fuck are they on about?’
I would just hope we have a good enough relationship that the actors or the community can tell us what we are doing wrong. We’re working on a protest story at the moment and are talking to our advisor Cole [Meyers] who also helped us on the Blue story. His main feedback on that was that we were focusing too much on the genitalia and not enough on identity. So we responded and rewrote immediately because, obviously, we’re not the experts.
Having lived the trans experience Tash, did you have any of those ‘wtf’ moments with the script?
TK: There is a redemptive quality of playing a character, and a lot of the time some of the things that Blue says I don’t feel personally connected to. That’s the nice thing about representation is that everyone is different, not every trans person feels the same as Blue. But there were moments, with wording and things that the script had to be a bit more careful with. It always worked out in the end.
What’s the consultation process like when you are tackling lesser-represented groups for the first time on Shortland Street?
HD: We have advisors for any sort of specialty. Just like we have medical advisors on hand for the nurse’s stuff, we’ve got a Māori advisor and obviously the moment we had a trans character we needed a trans advisor. We knew there was a big chance that, for some people watching out there, this could be their only exposure to a trans person. So we absolutely had do it properly.
We made the decision early on that we weren’t going to bring the character in talking about gender from the very start. We wanted Blue to flourish independently from these other story challenges. It would have been very easy to bring in a character and immediately say ‘ooh, am I a boy or a girl?’ but that’s reductive.
If we had done that right from the beginning, the audience would have thought that was the only facet of this character. But if you make that no part of the story at all, and instead raise questions like ‘how do I get a job’ or ‘do I like my Mum’, those are normal kid angst problems. The people aren’t thinking about them as a trans character, they are thinking about a character who happens to be trans.
TK: That’s much more like life as well – I barely ever talk about being trans. I mostly just talk about work. I read this article way back about a trans boy in New York who decided he couldn’t talk about it anymore – because every time he would just talk himself into oblivion. I really feel that. There’s only so much attention you can direct towards you own identity until it starts to like, eat itself.
What would you hope that middle New Zealand would take away from a character like Blue?
TK: I think Blue is good to highlight the breadth of the trans experience. Whenever we do discuss trans storylines he’s always positioned to be accepting of other people’s experiences as well. I hope that teaches people acceptance and understanding.
HD: I would hope that people would think that your identity is made up of a whole bunch of different attributes, and every little thing is an attribute. You’re not trans first and everything else second, or gay and everything else second – you have many things that make up your identity.
One of the things I loved about the character most was that you get the sense that there were other things much more important than whether they were a he or a she. How incredible that you could be 16 and not have gender on the forefront of the mind.
TK: It really doesn’t matter, it’s neither here nor there. It takes people a while to process that, but I’ve definitely noticed a reprogramming that happens. It takes a while – and a lot of patience on my behalf – but people get there in the end and they are always better for it.
H: I also think that’s one of the most powerful ways to combat feelings of isolation and depression around identity and sexuality in this country. Because we’ve obviously got a fuckin’ massive problem with that – much wider than just the trans debate or the gay debate. We’re not minimising the experience at all, but just saying it’s okay to have a full life that isn’t dominated or suffocated by one issue.
This might be crazy, but when Gerald first came to Ferndale I was a teenager, and it was the first time I had heard of asexuality.
Woah. What was it like playing such an iconic character?
HD: I actually first auditioned for the serial killer character [Joey]. They were like, “great audition but we actually cast him – we’ve got this other role coming up though.” I just remember one part of Gerald’s character description that said “every Christian’s gay stereotype.” I wasn’t really interested in playing it like that, so they took it away and came back with Gerald as we know now.
He was amazing, I took it away and started googling all this stuff. What an amazing role to play, particularly because sex drives everything in a soap, so how incredible to play a character that isn’t even remotely motivated by sexual desire. What do you do? What stories do you tell? That was really exciting.
Is it about time to bring Gerald back for the 25th anniversary?
HD: No, I did my time. Maybe I’ll do a Craig Parker and come back in 10 years time.
Can you tell us who is coming back?
HD: I can’t, but I can say there will be some familiar faces.
How far do you think Shortland Street can push the envelope and challenge people in the 7pm timeslot? Is there anything you won’t do?
HD: The only stories that I think are off limits are the stories that do more harm than good in terms of the viewers. I would never be okay with a story that would make people angrier or more militant against vulnerable people, but if it doesn’t do that then bring it on. I’ve always wanted to do a cannibalism story, and no-one will let me do a thruple.
TK: No thruple?! Polygamy, come on!
HD: I have pitched it often. I think you can get a lot of stuff happening if you do it in the spirit of fun. Fun and truth. What is really happening out there? What is resonating with people? What’s really going on in this country? Zeitgeist stuff – when you can get it, it’s amazing.
So can you tell us anything else coming this year apart from Chops’ brush with death?
HD: The 25th anniversary is going to be big, and bold. I have no idea how they are going to shoot it, but that’s not my problem. Hopefully we’ll take more risks, do some stuff that feels challenging and keep telling stories you never thought you’d see in a soap before.
The Shortland Street panel is from 1-2pm in the ‘Samesame but Different’ LGBTQI Writer’s Festival, Saturday 18 Feb on AUT Campus, click here for more information
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