4% of the UK’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQI+. In the new play No Sweat at the Pleasance Theatre, writer and director Vicky Moran uncovers the story of how gay saunas and Grindr dates are a new frontier of the homelessness epidemic. We spoke to writer Vicky and producer Reece McMahon about this challenging production.
What is the story of No Sweat?
Vicky: No Sweat is a story about three young gay men who are experiencing homelessness – but not homelessness as we know it. Their individual journeys to where they all now are, are completely diverse. Charlie is seeking asylum in the UK from Pakistan where homosexuality is punishable by death, Tristan left Surrey because his parents had ‘traditional views’, and Alf came to London from Wales at 16 because his mum chose God over him. The characters meet in Flex, a gay sauna, a place where they have come to seek shelter. They find out that they all have something in common. They find a home in each other.
Reece: Ultimately it is a play about community and friendship. However, it is also a play that is based on real-life stories – life is tough for all of us and comes with many challenges and the show certainly doesn’t shy away from telling stories that perhaps many of the audience could never imagine happening to them. The piece is gritty, raw and political – a lot of the team couldn’t believe some of the stories that are placed within the script. So, expect the unexpected.
How did you discover that there was this group of homeless gay men using saunas and Grindr dates to get a roof over their head?
Vicky: I was working as Assistant Director at Cardboard Citizens (the UK’s leading theatre company for those who are homeless or ex-homeless) and I was hearing so many stories. Stories about homelessness that shocked and angered me. I was amazed to find out that 24% of the UK’s homeless youth identified as LGBTQI+ and that their experiences, of course, were completely different to many others who weren’t. I began researching. I met up with Denholm Spurr (the actor who now plays Tristan in No Sweat) after reading a Buzzfeed article about his experience of sleeping in saunas whilst he was homeless. It amazed me how strong he was having been through all that, and how at the time he didn’t even consider that he was homeless because he wasn’t ‘stereotypical’. Hearing Denholm’s story sparked that fire for me to create No Sweat. I started to meet up with sauna owners, LGBTQI+ charities and organisations, ex/homeless people with similar experiences, asylum seekers and refugees. I realised that using these alternative forms of accommodation for LGBT people are really, really common.
The play is set in a sauna – can you tell us about the staging and how it helps the story?
Vicky: The show is set in a sauna as I really wanted to immerse the audience into this world. Saunas are sort of mysterious spaces to non-users; no one is quite sure what happens in them unless you have been there. I am aware that some people have negative perceptions of saunas, and don’t get me wrong, I have spoken to a lot of people who do deem them as risky, however they are really important spaces for the LGBTQI+ community – spaces where they feel safe in their sexuality. And that’s hugely important. I’ve been working with Set Designer Alex Berry to create a unique sauna of our own. FLEX has many different rooms – a locker room, a TV room, a shower room, a toilet, a smoking area, a massage parlour. We’ve got it all! The set is moved around to transform the space into all of these spaces, making it a very exciting piece to watch visually.
What are the mental and physical health issues that this group face?
Reece: The show deals with some big topics – both in the homeless and LGBTQI+ community. Sexual health, sex work, drug use, PTSD and consent. Each character is definitely dealing with their own thing throughout the story, they’re each on their own path. What we witness is how they support each other and learn from each other.
Vicky: Mental health is definitely a huge thing when working with these types of groups. The trauma of being told your whole childhood that being gay is wrong, of course, plays into how you view yourself. Naturally when you don’t have the stability of a roof over your head or a support system in place, mental health can easily start to spiral.
Why is there such an LGBTQI+ homelessness crisis?
Vicky: There just isn’t enough housing. There are hardly any LGBTQI+ shelters in the UK and people don’t feel safe going into normal hostels (if they are lucky enough to be temporarily housed that is). There is transphobia and homophobia in our society and it just isn’t safe. And more than that, people don’t feel safe in their sexuality, and that can be very damaging.
Reece: There are just so many LGBTQI+ people experiencing homelessness that even when they do apply for housing, the likelihood is they won’t get housed. So they turn to alternative accommodation and put themselves in potentially risky situations – like using saunas or relying on Grindr. The people who do get housed into LGBTQI+ housing are those who are priority need and most at risk. Trans, POC that have fled violence from their countries, rough sleepers – and that is rightly what should happen. However, what about everyone else?
Vicky: I think as well, a lot of people don’t even know that they are homeless because they are sofa-surfing, survival sex-working or sleeping anywhere they can find. They don’t feel they are homeless ‘enough’ to seek help. It’s very sad. I guess It’s also education. Knowing where to go to seek help and knowing that you can.
You are having some discussions on homelessness during the play’s run, can you tell us about those?
Reece: We decided that it was important to partner with LGBTQI+ and homeless organisations to use their expertise and connect them with our audience. So we’ll be hosting a series of interactive conversations with the audience and an invited panel of ex/homeless members, including representatives from Cardboard Citizens, Crisis UK, The Outside Project, Albert Kennedy Trust and Union Chapel. This will be a moment to reflect, discuss and then unite everyone present in the room to tackle the LGBTQI+ homelessness crisis one step at a time. Also we are running a Pay it Forward crowdfunder, where people can donate to pay for a ticket to the show so someone who might otherwise not be able to see it can get the chance.
What do you hope the play will achieve?
Vicky: To start a conversation that is long overdue and make everyone a little more mindful of what is happening in our society. It’s hard to talk about some things, but this is worth talking about. We should encourage people to talk about those experiences that we felt could have nearly killed us. Ultimately we want to educate. To stop other young LGBTQI+ people going down the same route.