Interview with Robert Holtom
I recently saw Dumbledore is so gay at the Southwark Playhouse and felt that so much of the main character's experiences resonate with teenagers growing in the society we live in today. It is a pleasure to have Robert Holtom, writer of the show, to provide shed some light of this story from their perspective.
Please can you give us an overview of Dumbledore is so gay and what it is all about?
Dumbledore Is So Gay is about growing up gay in a world that doesn’t always make that easy. The play begins in 2007 and follows the teenage years of Jack who is over the moon when he learns that Dumbledore is gay. On his quest for happiness, he faces bullies and ignorant parents whilst his love for his best mate blossoms. Things don’t go the way Jack wants, but, with a little magic, he might just have a chance to make things better. The play is about many things, but for me, it is a celebration of resistance, hope, friendship and love.
How was this play conceptualised?
I was inspired by Matthew Todd’s non-fiction book, Straightjacket, published in 2016. It focuses predominantly on the experiences of cis-gay men and it was the first book of its kind that I read. It is full of important information and I wondered how that might come to life in a story. A few years later, I was doing the Pottermore Sorting Hat test with my then housemates and when one of them got Hufflepuff, I’m ashamed to say I laughed at them. A character started to emerge – of a young, gay guy annoyed at being sorted into Hufflepuff who isn’t yet ready for how the world is going to treat him.
What goes into the development of a new play, and did you make any changes between the Vault Festival and the Southwark Playhouse run?
Teamwork is one of the biggest elements of any new play, and I was delighted when director Tom Wright joined me back in 2019. It was with him that the play went on to the VAULT Festival. Rehearsing the script with Tom and the cast was an eye-opening experience as I was asked to deeply analyse the story and my choice of words. The story was strengthened and many a line was cut. Producer Hannah Elsy saw the show at the Network Theatre and loved it: it wasn’t long before she joined the team. Then Covid came along, and it was a very tough time – for many reasons – but it’s testimony to Hannah and Tom’s perseverance that we got the show on at the Pleasance Islington in September 2021. It was amazing to be reunited with the team, and to meet new members, after such a hard time for the theatre industry. Since then, I have written new scenes for the play as well as changed the ending: third time around and I think this is the definitive ending! The Southwark Playhouse run has come with a two-week rehearsal period and a number of preview performances, the result of which has been more all-important cuts. So the script really has travelled far and throughout the process I’ve grown as a playwright, learning from some amazing people in our industry.
What are the considerations and challenges when taking inspiration or using information from a franchise as popular as Harry Potter?
As the play is about a Harry Potter super fan, it’s very much not set in the Harry Potter world and it doesn’t feature Harry Potter characters. Instead, the HP world is something that inspires and sometimes frustrates Jack. Furthermore, I wrote the script in 2019 and set it during the noughties, so, despite all that has happened over the past few years, I never felt this script could be the one to adequately deal with the rise of transphobia in the UK and beyond. I’m exploring that in another script. I’ve done my best to make it feel like an authentic period piece (I can’t believe the noughties are already history!) whilst also speaking to a contemporary audience. I know so many people who love the Harry Potter world as much as Jack does, and still believe there is magic to be found there, and I know so many folks who aren’t that interested, but still love a good story about resisting tyranny and finding hope in difficult times.
What advice would you give to new writers?
When I first started writing I wrote what I knew: murder mysteries in the style of Agatha Christie. I invented a contemporary fictional sleuth named Esther Jones, studying Psychology at uni, who loves nothing better than solving crimes, aided by her sassy, gay friend Stu who studies Philosophy. I put these shows on with university friends at the Burton Taylor Studio Theatre in Oxford, and we had a blast on a very limited budget.
Networking is a really important part of building one’s career and, after having moved to London, I put on Esther’s third case, The Cluedo Club Killings, with the Arcola’s Queer Collective. This was a game-changer for me. It was so liberating to be working with other queer artists and to be encouraged to embrace that part of me in my writing – thank you to Nic Connaughton for this latter encouragement. Esther became a lesbian and the shoestring budget acquired an extra lace. In 2019, the Queer Collective staged The Quest: part contemporary coming-of-age story, part Lord of the Rings style fantasy. The great Rikki Beadle-Blair came to see the show and he was the one who introduced me to Tom Wright, another game-changer. The Quest’s departure from the murder mystery genre paved the way for Dumbledore Is So Gay – which depends less heavily on the tropes of a genre to tell its story. It also has more emotional depth than my mysteries, because the story is about the central character, rather than the solving of a murder.
Dumbledore has been on a long journey and it was during this journey that I really started to see myself as a playwright. Prior to that, I had always seen myself as an aspiring novelist who wrote plays on the side but now I see myself as a playwright and an aspiring novelist! Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly tough economy for the arts and I have a separate job as a communications coach to keep me going. I do hope to be able to make a living off my writing one day but I know the path there is a long one and nor is it guaranteed. However, one thing that has remained constant for me is my love of writing and storytelling. I’m happy to spend hundreds of hours of my life sat at my laptop conjuring up characters, plots and worlds, because for me that’s magic.
Oh, and read novels! Yes, it’s important to watch plays, read scripts and study the craft, but we have so much to learn from novelists like Dame Agatha Christie, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, E. M. Forster, to name but a few.
Can you tell us what you are currently working on and what the audience has to look forward to?
Spoilers, I love Golden Age crime fiction, especially the works of Agatha Christie. So I’m working on a murder mystery novel set in 1929. The detective is a man who loves men which was illegal back then (and only partially decriminalised in 1967…and not fully decriminalised until 2003). So he’s a criminal, which makes tracking down murderers somewhat more challenging! Researching queer history is fascinating and, in a way similar to Straightjacket, has inspired me to tell stories set in these times. Theatre-wise, I’m working on a few scripts including one called Butt Play, which is a satire set in the theatre industry that explores the consequences of society’s widespread ridicule and hatred of anal sex and pleasure between men. I do like a catchy title!