As part of RAZZ’s SHAG (Sexual Health and Guidance) Week, Online Editor, Miriam Higgs, had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing comedian Siân Docksey about her work on the University of Exeter’s Sex and Nature Salon. During last night’s event ‘What’s the Deal with Gay Frogs?’ comedians, academics, and even gay frogs themselves unpacked “the cultural significance of these green queens who hopped from queer icons to an alt-right meme” and explored what the queerness in nature can tell us about human connection, emotion and behaviour.
I interviewed Siân Docksey prior to the salon to ask her how she found out about this unique, yet fascinating opportunity, to which she replied, “way back in March when the world set on fire and everything just disintegrated in front of us, I lost all of my gigs. I was on a writer’s weekly mail out and there was an advert for joining a Creative Fellowship at the University”. After questioning whether being a ‘Fellow’ involved “[walking] around in a cravat [tipping your] hat at people”, she soon discovered that the University of Exeter’s Arts and Culture team recruits three Creative Fellows a year, who work with academics to enhance their area of research. So, “it’s a bit like speed dating,” Siân noted, laughing. As if by fate, Siân was partnered with Dr Ina Linge, an expert in “The Politics of Sexual Nature”.
When discussing the genesis of The Sex and Nature Salon, Siân stated that she made the very unrestrictive Fellowship brief, “to hold space for purposeful encounters and explaining practices” her own by injecting academia into “a comedy gig”. So, “Ina’s hustle is education, my hustle is comedy, and we merged the two into a kind of ‘edutainment’ format, or what Sophie Hagen calls, ‘learnedy’”. Siân summarised that “the salon is our way of presenting academic research with comedians in the most fun way possible”.
I was eager to know: why gay penguins and gay frogs? Siân confessed, “the truth is that the salon has been quite experimental. We went for gay penguins because we are kind of Zeitgeist sluts… Ina, academically, has lots of theories about why people love gay penguins so much. The thing is, it’s probably quite basic: they stand on two feet, so they kind of look like people, and they are cute – we can relate to them as humans… With our first salon, ‘Why are we Obsessed with Gay Penguins?’, we wanted to open up the conversation about queerness in nature and penguins seemed like a good place to start” and “there’s a lot going on in the gay penguin world”. Then, Siân confirmed this by revealing that the gay penguin couple from New York Zoo that went viral had their relationship disrupted because one of them was bisexual and went off with a lady. The scandal!
Gay frogs, on the other hand, were chosen because of their political significance, as recently they “accidentally became an alt-right meme”. Siân confessed, “unfortunately really right-wing politics are in circulation at the moment” reaching their climax recently with the extremist storming of Capitol Hill, “so it is uncomfortably close to home. We thought it would be interesting to have an academic talk about how this got so out of control. Like, these are innocent gay frogs, why do Neo-Nazis love them? Then, we would have the frogs in the room, who kind of have a right to reply”. I wondered whether the presence of animals disrupted comical performance, but for Siân the animals are both the “surreal element of the gig” and “the most fun part” because of their personalities. The gay penguins “were just like cool indie kinds… I can’t guess too far in advance, but the thing about gay frogs is that they are kind of divas, like they are really musical theatre”. These delightful animals “bring in an element of spontaneity and chaos”.
We then went on to discuss the collision of comedy and academia, to which Siân replied, “it’s interesting because I think that comedians and academics have two different sets of priorities: comedians want to make people laugh, whereas academics have an educational remit”. However, Siân concluded that she is “probably more on the nerdy side of comedians, who enjoy being quite intellectually ambitious” after admitting, “I spent a whole Edinburgh Fringe telling people that I was a lemon to unpack more dense themes like gender, sexuality, and national identity”. The Sex and Nature Salon “is very honest in that it is both challenging and entertaining the audience”, and that is why Siân’s comedy compliments it so well. Siân went on to assert that “academia and comedy can definitely co-exist, but it is important to retain an awareness that they are trying to do different things. But I do think that both sets of disciplines can really align with and learn from each other”.
Siân recently organised an online fundraiser comedy show for sex workers’ charities, so I asked her about how she became a passionate advocate for sex workers’ rights. She candidly explained, “when I was 25, I started working in strip clubs, which was very unplanned”. For Siân, “being involved in sex worker communities and being a stripper” really shifted her politics and had a big effect on how she perceives the world. However, she admitted “I have since failed to make any decent comedy about it. I tried and then it blew up in my face, but, in a way, that’s okay”. We then got onto talking about sex and sexual health, to which Siân stated “I think that, ideally, what we want is a culture where sex and relationships are enthusiastically consent driven, that people are informed and have the resources available to just be happy. Sex and sexual health are such a big part of our lives, but it is still really stigmatised… To not talk about sex and sexual health makes it more dangerous and gives it more power. Ultimately, people are going to bone, so give them the information to do it happily.”
Moving onto what comedy means to Siân, she explained, “I’m old fashioned, but I think that comedy should be a fun night out with your friends. Comedy is also live action philosophy; it is people observing the world around you and highlighting the ridiculousness of being a person”. Siân worried that she’d butcher someone else’s quote, but I believe that she summed up comedy beautifully: “it creates the conditions for empathy”. Siân gave the example of Desiree Burch’s show, Unf*ckable, which is all “about being a black womxn trying to make it in the Arts… and her work as both a pro-domimatrix and a virgin”. She explained, “none of those experiences are my experiences, but if it wasn’t for her comedy show I wouldn’t have been able to go on that journey”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has really shaken up the Arts sector and the comedy industry has had to adapt to these changing conditions. Siân admitted that “at the beginning, it was really disruptive, because this past year has been really traumatic… People’s lives went on hold and we are having a hard time”. Before the lockdown, Siân was working on a new show about what stripping taught her about men’s mental health, a book proposal, a script, and she had lots of festivals lined up. However, “that all disappeared, which did really shake me up… My stuff is normally quite observational about real life, but… I feel that the material I was creating before doesn’t really apply to the world as it is anymore”. However, she has taken some positives away from these unprecedented times, as lockdown gave her time “to take a step back and reflect” and focus on one of her many other interests, script writing. Also, she expressed that going virtual has “really opened up the industry creatively”, as over Christmas she could “book a comedian from New York” and “people are being so innovative about digital in general.”
To finish off the interview, Siân provided me with three top tips for aspiring comedians: “Tip one: it’s the bad gigs that matter. That is a piece of advice from Sara Pascoe. It is honestly the gigs where you die on your ass… Those are the gigs that you learn from, otherwise you get complacent. The bad gigs are your education in comedy. Tip two: bring a phone with a voice recorder and record yourself whenever possible… It’s something that I didn’t do for the longest time when I started because I was just too mortified to listen to myself back, and I just regret it terribly. Tip three: roll with what you genuinely find hilarious. In life, it’s very easy to get caught up in what you should be doing and what proper comedy looks like. Everyone has got their own thing and the sooner that you’re honest about what your thing is, the sooner you’ll have a lot more fun performing. Ultimately, comedy is a really fun and awesome thing to do, so do stuff you enjoy.”
You can watch all three installments of ‘The Sex and Nature Salon’ via the University of Exeter’s Arts and Culture YouTube channel.
– Miriam Higgs
Featured Image Source: Steve Cross