Rebel playwright Charlie Josephine on fighting for queer youth: ‘I want them to feel seen’

Charlie Joesphine (L) and Joan in I, Joan (R). (Yellow Belly/Helen Murray)

In a PinkNews exclusive, I, Joan playwright Charlie Josephine talks transphobic backlash, queering stage stories and inspiring the next generation of LGBTQ+ youth. 

Last year, acclaimed playwright Charlie Josephine made headlines for all the wrong reasons after The Globe announced they were putting on I, Joan, a reworking of the Joan of Arc story – with the lead character being non-binary.

Before long, the playwright found themself in the eye of a media storm, amid ongoing attacks on the trans and non-binary community.

Six months on, Josephine’s spirit hasn’t been dented. “The triumphs outweighed the trauma on that project,” they say, reflecting on the saga. “Some of it was painful and difficult, but, ultimately, we put a non-binary character centre stage, and I basically made the art I needed to see growing up”.

Despite the negative press in the lead-up to opening night, the play was an undeniable success. From five-star reviews to standing ovations, Josephine’s powerful work questioning the gender binary through the lens of the patron saint, and military hero, of France, had a huge impact, particularly with the younger generation of LGBTQ+ viewers.

“It turns out love really is louder.”

“We got messages [from trans youth and the wider LGBTQ+ community], saying they felt so lifted and empowered by seeing that representation on stage,” Josephine recalls. “I am honoured to have had the opportunity to do that. 

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“It’s obviously nice when a newspaper you’re expecting to hate it gives you five stars, but the reviews I get in my DMs is where it’s really at for me. It turns out love really is louder”.

The connection with trans and queer youth, Josephine explains, sits at the heart of all the work they do. And it’s something that’s abundantly clear in their upcoming projects, Birds and Bees, and Flies

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Isobel Thom (C) as Joan of Arc in I, Joan. (Helen Murray)

Birds and Bees focuses on four teenagers exploring identity, consent, sex positivity, online safety and intersectionality in the context of sex education in schools – topics that Josephine hopes will make viewers think about how we can have “intimate and vulnerable conversations”.

“[Sex education] is s**t in this country,” they say bluntly. “Straight people could learn a lot from queer people, because we have to learn how to have conversations around consent, our bodies and physical touch. We all deserve to feel good, and pleasure is political.”  

The cast is made up of mainly queer and non-binary actors from racially and economically diverse backgrounds, which is especially striking given recent petitions to try to suppress the diversity of the school curriculum. 

“There’s one character who is just not interested in sex and doesn’t want to talk about it,” says Josephine. “There’s a non-binary teen and a cheeky straight lad. Someone for everyone to see the world through.

“We all deserve to feel good, and pleasure is political.”

“It’s hitting private schools, state schools, Muslim girls’ schools and other faith schools. The play throws all this stuff in the air and will hopefully lead to great conversations in the classroom afterwards.”

It’s just another brick in the wall for the award-winning performer and playwright, whose decade-long career has seen them act, write and direct theatre shows that have consistently subverted expectations. Whether applying their own take of Mercutio in RSC’s Romeo & Juliet or exploring the animal within every human in their original, and somewhat-anarchic, play Moon Licks, Josephine has a rare talent for looking at the past with a forward-thinking lens.

Throughout it all, Josephine, who identifies as genderqueer, has been unfailingly honest about their own experiences with gender identity – something they dissect in their podcast, The Blurry Bits, alongside co-host Rob Watt.

The company for Birds and Bees. (Chris Saunders)
The company for Birds and Bees. (Chris Saunders)

Then there’s Josephine’s latest play, Flies. An adaptation of the classroom classic Lord of the Flies, it tackles the male gaze, female fetishisation and the vulnerability of girlhood in the digital era, with the help of an all-female female and non-binary cast. 

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As part of the project, Josephine interviewed teenagers about their experiences “growing up with the internet in your pocket”, and came away with heart-breaking and shocking findings.

“They are able to have nuanced conversations on intersectional feminism, but they’re 14, so blush when you say the word ‘bum’,” the playwright observes.

Josephine also witnessed teenagers having the crushing realisation that “everything is made for straight white men'” when discussing topics from street harassment to every-day sexism.

“I don’t f**k like that so why am I writing like that?”

The plot is not the only thing Josephine wants to queer in Flies. Pushing back against the traditional “beginning, middle and end” format that dominates theatre, the structure of the play challenges the ideas that stories must be linear.

“The way we have been taught to tell stories matches this heteronormative male orgasm shape, that everything is building towards one climax,” says Josephine.

“I don’t f**k like that, so why am I writing like that. Sometimes things are jagged and fragmented and messy and punk and squidgy and weird and wonderful.”

Josephine’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia have, ironically, helped them to bend the rules. While the conditions previously left them with “a lot of shame”, they’ve now found a way to access the power that comes from seeing life differently.

Flies at Boundless Theatre. (Chelsey Cliff/ Cat Fuller)
Flies at Boundless Theatre. (Chelsey Cliff/ Cat Fuller)

While the theatre industry still has major work to do when it comes to inclusivity, Josephine says they’re “stubbornly optimistic” about the progress already made. Class, however, is an issue that continues to frustrate them, especially given a 2019 report that found only 10 per cent of directors come from working-class backgrounds, despite making up 44 per cent of the general population.

“There were huge conversations that happened around race and gender but we are yet to have one about class in this country and, specifically, [in] this industry,” they explain.

“I’m always trying to talk to some young queer kid on the bus”

In any case, Josephine is determined to press forward with projects that break the mould. As well as working on a biopic about the retired lesbian boxer Nicola Adams, they’re already planning a return to the stage by the end of the year with a disruptive production focusing on another trans and non-binary character. Most importantly, though, they want to continue making art that connects with LGBTQ+ youth.

“I’m always trying to talk to some young queer kid on the bus who is scrolling through their phone and comes across this interview because there’s so much s**t in the press about trans and non-binary people right now,” they say thoughtfully.

“I’ve known real darkness in my life, so I want to send that young queer kid on the bus some love and say, ‘It’s OK, keep going’. I want them to feel good. I want them to feel seen. I want them to feel lifted and empowered. I want them to feel full of fire. 

You can be trans and joyful, healthy and happy. You can be useful and spiritually well. If that’s possible for me, then it’s 100 per cent possible for anyone reading this.”

Birds and Bees is now touring across North England. Flies is running in Shoreditch Town Hall until 11 March.

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