Emma Schofield chats to Luke Hereford, the director of QueerWay, a new musical theatre production which celebrates the lives of LGBTQ+ people, inspired by real-life stories from Rhondda Cynon Taff.
A musical production which celebrates LGBTQ+ stories from Rhondda Cynon Taff may not be the first thing you expect to see touring Wales during LGBT+ History Month, but that’s exactly what QueerWay is doing throughout February. This month sees Leeway productions taking the show, which is written and composed by Geraint Owen, on the road with its unique mix of music and feel-good stories. I started by asking the show’s director, Luke Hereford, about the background to the project and the process of collecting the stories which inspired QueerWay.
Emma Schofield: Can you tell us a little bit about the people you interviewed for QueerWay?
Luke Hereford: We’ve been interviewing people for this project since Spring 2021, and it’s been really wonderful to get to know so many different people and their journeys. Ranging from Queer people who grew up in the Rhondda and have never left because they’ve always felt a core part of that community, to Queer families who have moved to the Rhondda and been accepted with open arms. The sense of community is really what ties the Rhondda and Queerness together, and has been a driving force behind the project since day one. These interviews have led to some glorious personal relationships as well; Ceri Ann Harris – whose story is particularly pertinent and is interpreted beautifully in the show by Kate Elis – has become a dear friend, with whom I’ve worked on another artistic project. I find her, and so many of the people we spoke to, very inspiring, and am very grateful to them for sharing their stories. They’re the backbone of the project, and I hope as many of the interviewees as possible get to make it to the show.
Emma Schofield: How did you go about the process of translating those interviews into the songs which make up the production?
Luke Hereford: In July 2021, myself, composer Geraint Owen and two actors, Harrison Scott-Smith and Emmy Stonelake entered a rehearsal room together for two weeks, with nothing but a handful of interview transcripts, a piano, a dressing up box and a lot of sharpies and A3 paper! It was an opportunity to find what links these stories, how we personally connected to these stories, and that’s really where we formed the idea of celebrating Queerness within a community and an area with which it isn’t necessarily synonymous. Many of the interviews have become almost verbatim lyrics within the show, and others we have extrapolated themes, ideas and conversations from. A pivotal moment in this early development stage was all four of us driving up the Rhigos Mountain and hearing Emmy, who is from Aberdare, talk about her experience of being a Queer young person growing up in this vast breath-taking landscape. We immortalised this moment, and Emmy has now become a central character in the piece. It was a joy filled, incredibly inspiring fortnight, and was really the beginning of the QueerWay journey.
Emma Schofield: It feels like now is a particularly poignant moment to be giving these stories a voice. Why is it so important that we see these stories, and identities, as being anchored within a familiar Welsh community, like the Rhondda?
Luke Hereford: For me, it’s as simple as because the stories and identities do exist in the Rhondda. Historically, Queer stories in media and artforms are so synonymous with metropolitan environments and lifestyles, to the point where many of us feel like we cannot belong in any other kind of space. This idea that we cannot exist as Queer people without moving to a shiny city where you then obtain a kind of anonymity. ‘Smalltown Boy’ by Bronski Beat, you know? But these beautiful Queer lives are being lived in the heart of the South Wales Valleys; we’ve spoken to families, drag artists, young people, entrepreneurs, even TikTok celebrities who are all living their Queer best lives in RCT, and by shining a light on these stories I guess it feels important because we’re acknowledging that Queerness is everywhere. It’s not any specific way of living or being, and the love that exists within the Rhondda for many of the Queer people we’ve met with is unparalleled. They’re there, so why not shout about it by way of a big brash sequin-soaked musical?!
Emma Schofield: You’ve got Sami Dunn providing BSL interpretation at every venue for this. We don’t always see that level of accessibility in touring productions; all too often BSL interpretation is only available at certain venues, or performances…
Luke Hereford: It’s an integral part of Leeway’s mission statement as a company to ensure their productions are as accessible as they can be. Sami is an integral part of the company, and the finished product of the show. The way she interprets I hope won’t feel like the access element for the production is an afterthought, which can sometimes be the case. She’s included in many aspects of the show, and it’s really wonderful knowing this piece has the capacity to reach as many audiences as possible. We’ve had some wonderful feedback from BSL users already!
Emma Schofield: QueerWay is intended to be a celebration, but you’ve got some really quite emotionally complex strands to this, e.g. a mother adjusting to her child coming out as transgender. Was that a difficult balance to strike?
Luke Hereford: I hope we’ve struck a balance, because there is a lot of joy within our community, but I often feel the Queer community is united by our shared experience of pain. My work as an artist is becoming somewhat synonymous with Queer joy, but Queer joy can’t exist without pain. A lot of the stories in QueerWay are very bittersweet. In one of our stories – Ren Simons, a Trans man who is also in the cast – finds the joy of finally getting his top surgery, but wasn’t able to reach the joy part of his journey without going through the pain and struggle of raising astronomical funds for private healthcare or experiencing Transphobic microaggressions from Doctors. The balance of celebration and emotional complexity already exists in a lot of Queer stories, and the feedback we’ve received from the show so far has often been along the lines of “I laughed and cried in the same song!”
Emma Schofield: You’ve also got a community-led cast for the production, with some new faces, alongside more experienced members from Leeway…
Luke Hereford: Every member of the company and creative team for Queerway is either LGBTQ+ identifying, or originally from RCT. These are the two communities at the heart of our project, so it was always essential to me that these would be the people who would make the show. Collaboration is at the core of my work, and I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderfully giving team of collaborators on this one. The cast particularly have become extremely tight knit as an ensemble, and throughout rehearsals have given so much of their own experiences as Queer and Welsh individuals in order to further the project itself – we’ve struck gold in terms of talent, energy, and banter! Rehearsals have felt like a safe space to be ourselves, enjoy each other’s company, and hopefully make something that resonates with others, but also feels personal to them. I feel very lucky to have worked with them.
QueerWay is on tour in Wales until 14th February. Information on performances and tickets is available from Leeway Productions.