Exploring London's chill-out scene on stage

Our current ‘Red issue’ - out now and available to buy here - focuses on issues surrounding ‘chemsex’, the mix of sex and drugs so prevalent on the gay scene today. Here, Peter Darney, theatre director and playwright, writes about his recent chemsex verbatim theatre piece 5 Guys Chillin’, which has been playing at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, for the past two months: The 5 Guys Chillin' cast. Picture by Oscar Blustin 5 Guys Chillin’ came about because a friend of mine became heavily involved in the chill-out scene. Before long, he was hosting them every weekend - then Thursday to Monday, until his house eventually became a constant sex party. I started to notice that chill-parties were everywhere in London, 24/7. I made up my mind that I wanted to make a piece of work about them, having already decided that I would like to write a play again. I hadn’t written since I was at drama school over 10 years ago, and verbatim seemed like it might be a good way in. I was in a meeting about another play which I had taken to Edinburgh in 2014 that the artistic director of The Other Place in Brighton had asked me to take down for Brighton Fringe, offering the May Bank Holiday weekend. Towards the end of our meeting, she asked me if I had anything else, and I found myself saying: “A verbatim drama about gay men who attend chill-outs and chew-sex,” taking me almost as much by surprise as her. She said “Fabulous - you can have the other bank holiday weekend!” “Shit!” I thought, “now I have to write it!” So I set about trying to find people to interview. I took a job as a door-whore at a well-known sex-club night, where I met some people that were happy to interview with me. I also started to favourite guys on Grindr when I saw they were at chill-outs. A few days later I would message them and ask if they would be prepared to talk to me. I set myself a rule that I would not interview anyone whilst they were high; I didn’t want them to tell me anything they would regret when they were sober, or to in any way take advantage of people when they were vulnerable. I spent a lot of time waiting for guys in cafes and pubs who, more often than not, did not show or cancelled at the last minute. One guy, who lived on the other side of London, cancelled about 45 seconds after letting me into his flat! I spoke to a wide range of people and ended up with about 50 hours of material. I chose the five interviews I liked the most, and cut them back to the bare bones, then expanded by adding things that other people said where appropriate. I tried to create a piece that was honest, and shows good things, funny things, but also a darker side. It was important to me not to judge, and for the actors playing these characters not to judge the lives and choices of the people they play. Areas that kept coming up were intimacy, HIV, consent, GHB, and the play does talk a lot about those things. I felt that in a lot of the people I spoke to, there was a search for intimacy, for a connection with someone, and though the drugs helped for a night, they were actually often getting in the way of the ability to connect in a deeper or more long-term sense. I believe too often people judge a behaviour without thinking about the cause. I wanted to make a piece that showed real people, and what was making them tick right now, and force you to think about them as people, not just judge their actions; people that you might relate to, and care about. I also believe that it’s easy to fall into behaviours to go with a norm, without questioning what’s right for you. I wanted to show people their behaviours: to force them to question, rather than accept - to consider the risks of their behaviours, and maybe consider how they could be more safe. It’s important to say that some guys I met dip in and out of this scene as a part of a rounded social life. For others, the draw of the drug cocktail and the search for some form of connection with another seemed to have a negative effect on their lives. Whatever we do, we need to think about it, and we need to talk about it. I have been really rewarded by the way people have left my play talking and arguing about the issues it raises. I don’t have any answers. But the only way we can find them is through openness and discussion. Knowledge is power. We have to talk. 5 Guys Chillin’ plays Thursday-Saturday, 10pm, at the King’s Head Theatre until Nov 28th. Words by PETER DARNEY.