WHEN Daniel Witthaus spent 266 days driving around Australia to rural and remote communities listening to the stories of LGBTI people, there was one sentiment that kept being brought to his attention.
“People across the country said that sharing and hearing LGBTI stories – not necessarily the ones we hear in the media – are what make the difference,” he told the Star Observer.
“Often the best way to challenge everyday homophobia is done with the people around us in everyday conversation. What people say can change hearts and minds.”
This is exactly what Witthaus did on his 38-week road trip.
He challenged and confronted homophobia in remote communities around Australia before compiling his stories into a book, Beyond Priscilla, which has now been adapted into a play and will premiere during Midsumma Festival.
The production will bring to life many of the diverse stories and experiences from the book that Witthaus encountered on his journey.
He said the play came about because the team at Gasworks were looking for more diverse LGBTI voices in Australian theatre.
“I was approached by the CEO who told me about some of the feedback she’d received – how there was a lack of rural LGBTI voices and stories in theatre,” he said.
“What you often find is every now and then you’ll have a coming out story or story about homophobia… but after reading my book she said it was important to use as it provides a modern day snapshot of everyday life for LGBTI people in rural Australia.”
Witthaus turned to writer and performer Gavin Roach to write the play, and said they’d both had initial reservations.
“We weren’t convinced it was something we wanted to move forward with until we did a reading at Midsumma last year,” he said.
“We had such a reaction that it convinced us that this is a project that had to be turned into a full live play.”
While every individual’s story in Beyond Priscilla is profound, when asked if one stood out, Witthaus answered promptly.
“There was a homophobic policeman in his 60s that I had a cuppa with who admitted that he was homophobic,” he said.
“I asked him why, as he was the central point for young LGBTI people to come to him in terms of supporting them and making sure they were safe.
“He said quite honestly that he was shit scared they were going to go into their rooms and kill themselves, and so he had to shift his behavior to ensure it was different from his attitude so that he could save lives.
“It’s an uncomfortable story, because he’s not perfectly a supporter or completely an opponent, he’s somewhere in between – and that’s the story of country Australia.”
Beyond Priscilla: The Play will be hosted by Gasworks for a number of dates over Midsumma, but Witthaus hopes it will then be able to travel more remotely.
“One of the things we want to do is take Beyond Priscilla to rural areas,” he said.
“We really want to take this to rural and regional communities to start conversations, as well as engaging schools and communities.”
Witthaus recently founded the National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education (NICHE) and has been working in rural communities and schools for 20 years.
“Not only did I drive around the country once but I go back to country communities regularly to work out how they can learn from other communities and to make LGBTI people much safer,” he said.
Beyond Priscilla: The Play will run from January 20–30 at the Gasworks Arts Park: Studio Theatre. Grab your tickets here.
The Star Observer is a proud media partner of Midsumma.