Oxford Voices: Katy Owen on 'Come In, Oxford' and Local Queer Histories

Oxford Voices: Guest Blog

We invited local director, writer and dramaturg Katy Owen to tell us more about the experience of creating Come in, Oxford - a play about Oxford's queer history and spaces.

In March of this year (2022) I worked with a fantastic team of queer creatives to stage Come in, Oxford - a new play about Oxford's queer past, inspired by oral histories collected by the Tales of Our City project and written during a Residency with the Museum of Oxford in 2021.

The testimonies I incorporated into the play were first presented to me when I volunteered with the Tales team, typing up interviews in preparation for the launch of their Queering Spires exhibition. Attending the exhibition was a life-changing experience, as I learnt about a whole host of historical queer spaces and venues: a trans support group that met in Summertown in the late 70s; the Stage Club on George Street that was required by law to serve bangers and mash so it could run as a club night; the Northgate Hall, an LGBTQIA+ community centre on St Michael’s Street where Bills Restaurant now stands; and many, many more. I thought I knew a lot about Oxford, having grown up here, but I had never heard this version of its history.

The North Gate Hall - image Ross Brooks The North Gate Hall - image: Ross Brooks

Museum curation has traditionally only been the purview of a privileged few and, because of this, many museum collections are hugely influenced by social hierarchies of gender, sexuality, race and class. Queering Spires expanded my understanding of Oxford’s history, but it also challenged the very notion of how we record and preserve history. Walking through the exhibition, we were encouraged to write what queer space meant to us and stick it up on the wall; our words were granted equal importance as the exhibits on display and, instead of the usual and immutable ‘us’ and ‘them’ of curators and attendees, I was empowered to become part of my city’s history. Why shouldn’t my story, and other stories of queer people like me, be told and celebrated in a space like this?

This question was the main inspiration when it came to creating Come in, Oxford. I wanted the project to be an empowering experience for the queer people involved - not just the actors or creative team, but the audience too. Rehearsals were collaborative, as the actors contributed music choices, directorial decisions, and even personal testimonies to the script. Our performances themselves were a kind of collaboration too, with audience members playing their own part in the history being presented onstage; they held props, read lines, and were asked what queer space meant to them. Their answers were read onstage, made part of queer history just like mine had been at the Queering Spires exhibition. We presented them with a version of Oxford’s queer history, but they were just as much a part of that as we were.

After the play ended, the audience were invited into the performance space with the cast and crew. We discussed the various queer venues that had been recreated within the show and, even better, audience members started to tell us their own histories. There’s a line in the play where the main character, Jo, says, “It’s not always easy, but I definitely think queer people have this power to open up spaces and make them queer.” As tales of different queer spaces emerged, ones that hadn’t been included in the play, I knew we had tapped into that power. Through the project, we built on what the Tales of Our City team began, carrying on what I hope will be a never-ending process of growing queer spaces and queer history together.

Come In, Oxford_Tick Rowley; Charlie Hansen; Harriet Gill; Connor Johnston; Rowan Read; Jacob Freda; Emilie Trodd The Come In, Oxford team

For more info - read our review of Come In, Oxford, see the Museum of Oxford's digital archive on Queering Spires and read the Queer Oxford blog for lots more local history info.

Learn more about Katy's work at www.katyowencreative.com

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