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  • Writer's pictureConnor O'Donoghue

I made a show

(First published on Medium on 25 September 2022)

I wrote the poem about my foreskin on the short train ride from work to Clapham Junction. I was so desperate to have people respond to my writing again that I felt the piece spilling out of me onto the notes app on my phone without me really needing to think about it. It took me about fifteen minutes to get the three and a half minute “poem” written.

I made my way to the Two Brewers, a Clapham gay bar I’d heard of but had never been in. The first thing I noticed was RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Tia Kofi sitting having a drink with his friends in the front bar. This pub felt very gay — very glittery and fabulous — and a little thrill ran down my spine. I may be 41, but I think I’ll always feel a small sinful tingle every time I enter a gay space.

I signed in at the back bar for the LGBTQ+ open mic poetry night, bought a pint of cider, and nervously made my way to a seat. The show got underway. There were short poems and long ones, poems about sexuality and identity, poems about bullying, poems about rape and sexual assault, poems about strength, poems about relationships, poems about nature, about racism, about death, about household chores, poems about everything. The night went on and on and my name wasn’t called. I bought a second pint and a third. During a break I went over to the organiser and asked when my turn was. She told me I hadn’t signed up, but she could add me to the list now. I hadn’t signed up? How could I fail so badly at being an amateur open mic LGBTQ+ poet? It didn’t matter. I’d get my turn.

The organiser called my name. The crowd were getting impatient as it was now late and we’d all been listening to poetry for three hours. She assured the crowd that I was the last one. I could feel the cider sloshing around in my brain and a rush of air as I stood up. I’d had four pints, but I think my terror prevented me from getting truly drunk. The host popped a plastic covid-safe cover over the microphone.

I stood in front of the microphone and took a deep breath. Considering that I’d just had 4 pints, my mouth was surprisingly dry. The light shone directly in my eyes and I couldn’t really see the crowd in front of me.

I started with my first line: “No one ever told me I had a foreskin”

I could feel a stir. I knew my poem was different. For one thing, it wasn’t really a poem. It was a story that happened to have a repeating line in it. I eventually decided it was a “spoken word piece” though I’m not really sure what that means. But it was also different because it was the first piece of the night that wasn’t depressing OR funny. It was depressing AND funny, which is very much my brand, and I could hear the crowd laughing, really belly laughing, but I could also hear the sharp intakes of breath as I discussed painful or sad events.

I finished and bowed and felt a rush. I felt like superman and I was also really relieved. I felt like I’d spent two years being silenced and I finally had a voice again.

Afterwards, lots of people came up to me. Some hugged me. Some asked for selfies with me. Some told me that they had come with friends but that my piece had been the best of the night, and not their friend’s poem. I was told that I was brave. I was told that I was funny. Electricity buzzed through my body.

I loitered in the bar, hoping that one of these new fans might invite me for a drink. I didn’t want the night to end. But it did. There were no more drinks. Everyone went home and so did I, knowing that I couldn’t leave it at that. That I’d have to do it again.

For nine years, my main mode of connection with the world was my blog. For most of my adult life I moved around from country to country and job to job and project to project and I didn’t have an awful lot of people in my “real life” for much of that time. I had friends in Dublin, where I spent years at a time, but I kept leaving and spending months and years in Longford and Vietnam and Slovenia and Kazakhstan and London and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have friends in those places and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have romance or relationships throughout my twenties and thirties, because I had the blog and hundreds of people read about my life and that was how I connected with others.

I closed the blog because I thought I was ready to connect with people in a more normal way. The blog had originally been about my weightloss efforts and when I shut the blog down in November 2019, I had halved my weight — from over 28 stone to 14 stone. It kind of felt like the blog’s project had been achieved. I also took it down because I had a new job in management and felt writing publicly about my body and my lovelife didn’t fit with that. My final reason for taking it down was that I had grown hungrier and hungrier for a boyfriend as my thirties went on and I couldn’t expect to get a second date with a man if I’d already publicly blogged about our first date.

So I shut the blog down and it was absolutely fine until we went into lockdown four months later.

I was living alone, as I had for most of the previous twenty years. My world began to feel tortuously small. I had what I think of as a “bad lockdown”. As a new boss, I found myself announcing enforced furlough for large parts of my team, as well as major changes in job roles, then a company-wide paycut and then a redundancy process. I had to say no to hundreds of refund requests from clients. I had to deal with fearful staff who thought that being put on furlough meant that their jobs were in danger and also with jealous staff that thought that not being put on furlough meant that they were missing out on the free holiday everyone else was getting. I had to participate in numerous fear-filled conference calls as more and more sections of the company were mothballed and sold and closed down and more and more re-structures happened. The management teams of our other branches were furloughed and I found myself managing premises I’d never been in and teams of people I’d never met. My main memory of the early months of the pandemic is of me sitting in a bath at 11:00 at night, crying, with a bottle of cider and my laptop desperately trying to get the work of fourteen other people done before I could go to sleep and get up at 8:30 the next morning to start it all again.

I hated it. I didn’t discover new TV shows. I didn’t read any books. I didn’t bake any banana bread.

I got used to it and had some fun zoom parties etc, and eventually started to exercise and get out more, but I hated my life in 2020 and I couldn’t see my friends and almost everyone I knew in London seemed to be moving on. They were all getting new boyfriends and having babies and changing jobs and moving to new cities and countries and being made redundant by me and I was sitting in my apartment feeling my world getting chokingly small and I didn’t have my blog any more. I was suffering the same disconnection that everyone else was and I was also suffering the additional disconnection of having lost my blog, my main mode of connection with the world since I’d started it in 2010.

Obviously, things got better, but by October 2021, when I saw an Instagram ad for an LGBTQ+ open mic poetry night in Clapham, I was still quite bruised. My world still felt very small. My eating and spending problems had meant I had to move out of my nice South London flat and I was living in a depressing bedsit in Earl’s Court with a grubby toilet I shared with people I’d never met. I dreaded the end of the working day and the end of the working week, not wanting to have to go home there and spend a whole evening or weekend there. So it’s no surprise that the opportunity to write and share my writing was like rainfall to my Sahara. I couldn’t wait to stand up and read my silly foreskin story to a room full of tipsy lesbian poetry fans.

I knew that I’d have to do it again. I started googling. And so I found the Brighton Fringe, the biggest arts festival in England (not in the UK — that would be Edinburgh). I decided I’d do a full-length show. From reading the website, it became clear that the only real hurdle to getting to put on a show in the festival would be convincing a venue to host you.

I read through the list of about 100 venues. The first few were all churches. I wasn’t going to talk about my sex life in a church. I wrote an email to the first venue that said “LGBT” in their profile. It was a small pub. In my email, I said I’d been trialling my show at open mic nights. I didn’t mention that I only had three and a half minutes of material and I had actually only done one open mic night. I said that the name of my show was “Tales of my fat gay body”.

The bar owner wrote back to me a few days later, saying she thought my show sounded interesting and asking if she could see a sample of my material. I made a video of me doing the foreskin piece, because that was all I’d written, and I sent it to her. She got back to me to say yes, she’d let me do the show in her pub. Yes! Also, fuck. I needed to write a show.

We had a phone call. She asked how long my show was, suggesting an hour, so I said that my show was indeed an hour long. She suggested I have a short break in the middle for people to buy drinks. I agreed to this. She said that I’d have a better chance of a crowd if I didn’t charge for tickets. Again I agreed not to charge for entry. I was just amazed that she’d agreed to let me stand up and tell my smutty stories in an actual real live theatre festival.

I wrote my official festival entry form and in the process came up with a new name “Homobesity”, which I was quite proud of. I paid my registration fees and was ready to go.

I had months to get ready. I had plans to try stuff out at open mic nights. I did not. In fact, I froze and couldn’t write anything for the show at first. But eventually, I got over my nerves and I started writing. The first half of the show poured out of me fairly fast. The stories in the first half were ones that I had written about before, for the blog audience, and the wording came to me easily. The second half was a lot more difficult, but I got it written in the end, about two weeks before show day.

These were the sections of the show:

  • Prologue: No one ever told me I had a foreskin

  • Act 1. The night I think I lost my virginity

  • Act 2. The time three teenage straight boys shaved my back on their kitchen table

  • Act 3. Fuck you thin people

  • Act 4. I was a morbidly obese porn star

  • Act 5. The time a man fought for my honour

  • Act 6. 8 questions about my weightloss surgery

  • Act 7. The time I accidentally got engaged in a gay sauna

I had planned on having the show learnt off by heart for performance day, but I only managed to finish writing it about two weeks before opening night and I really had no idea how to go about learning an hour’s worth of material. I did record myself doing the show as a voice memo on my phone and started listening to it on repeat. It didn’t take long for the shape of the show to start to feel as if it was natural to me. I didn’t know it off by heart, but I did know it. I knew how I wanted my voice to sound for each word. Listening to it on repeat became something of a crutch to me as my panic levels started to rise as show day came near.

I arrived in Brighton the day before my show was due to premiere. I was feeling a lot of feelings. I was staying in a house in the city centre, belonging to Margaret and Nigel, a posh English couple who liked to put up show folk for the month of the Fringe. They were adorable. I had a whole floor of the house to myself, with my bedroom, living room and kitchen, so much nicer than my place in London and it only cost £100 for the week. I went to pick up my festival participants’ pack at the Fringe centre and got very jealous of the people there who had theatre companies and who were performing in groups. I felt very alone. I was scared. I was going to sit in the corner of a gay bar and open my life up to complete strangers and I hadn’t even run my show past anyone else first, other than the first three and a half minutes. Had I lost my mind?

On show day I arrived at the bar an hour early. There were about fifteen people drinking there, mainly older people. What I soon realised was that this was a bar that was in the process of transitioning from being a traditional boozer where older couples would sit silently and get drunk seven nights a week to a noisy trendy gay bar and it had a very unusual mix of customers — older straight couples and younger gays, all of whom seemed to get along fine though they didn’t always acknowledge each other. I decided to go for a walk instead of hanging round. There was literally nothing I could achieve by being there so early.

My show was at 7:00 pm. At 6:50, I got back to the bar. I asked the bar owner if she knew who was there to see me and who wasn’t. She shrugged and said they were mainly locals and that she didn’t think anyone was there to see me. I asked if she thought they’d be OK with my show. She wasn’t sure. I asked if it would be ok if I went round to all of them and warned them about what was about to happen. She said that would be a good idea.

I went from table to table. “Hi. I’m Connor. I’m about to do some readings as part of the Fringe Festival. It’s called ‘Homobesity and it’s stories about being fat and gay. It’s going to be very personal, but I hope you enjoy it. I’m sorry for interrupting your drinks.” Two tables said that they were there especially to see me, and another two tables arrived as I was getting ready to start. The rest of the people wished me luck; one older couple didn’t acknowledge me at all.

I sat on a bar stool in a corner of the pub. The owner tried to arrange the people who’d come to see me near me, but it didn’t quite work — some of the locals were very attached to staying at their regular tables. I took off my hoodie. I’d bought a different “gay” top for each night of the run. On this night, I was wearing a muscle vest with a flower cut out of the front. I also had a sexy black leather crown and I popped that on my head. I sat on my stool. I thanked everyone for coming and I started. “No one ever told me I had a foreskin.” The second I said ‘foreskin’, the atmosphere completely changed and a nervous giggle went round the bar.

I kept on going. There was a table of drunk middle-aged men who reacted to everything very verbally, calling out “Oh my God!”, “No!”, “Awww!” at happy/sad/exciting moments of the show. I think they were trying to be encouraging, but it was quite off-putting. Much better was a young woman sitting near them, who looked very “Brighton”, with tightly-shaved brightly-coloured hair and facial piercings — she was sitting opposite me and every time I said something funny, she laughed, and every time I said something sad, she looked upset and she just reacted very visibly in exactly the right way at every stage.

Somehow, I got through the first half. I had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t drink before the show, but as soon as we got to the interval, I ordered a cider, which the bar owner gave me for free. I tried and failed to make conversation with some of the audience. They were all perfectly nice, but I was too amped up to have interval chats. I couldn’t go anywhere during the interval — it really was a small bar and there was nothing I could treat as a dressing room.

The second half went well — the drunk gays continued to treat it as an interactive show, the short-haired woman continued to react silently and perfectly, one of the older couples left, but everyone else stayed.

I finished. The drunk gays whooped and cheered. I felt a lot calmer. I started circulating. One of the older locals clasped my hand and told me that she was really grateful and had cried. A very fat gay young man told me it was really good — he kind of had to — he was very much my target demographic. The drunk gays gave me hilarious, but barbed, compliments. One man who had been told off by the bar owner for watching my show but not buying any drinks ran away as soon as possible, but shook my hand quickly first.

I sat down with the woman who had reacted so well to everything in the show. She was there with her husband. He introduced himself to me by saying that he too had a really tight foreskin and he got a lot more out of my show than he expected to. They told me that they were both really grabbed by my coming out story. They had grown up in a fundamentalist Christian community too and we spoke about how hard it was to explain to people who didn’t come from that background about how difficult it is to leave a community like that when it has always been the default in your life and in the lives of the people closest to you. We had a wonderful time. They bought me a drink and we talked for over an hour, getting to know each other so well. Here it was, the connection from writing that I had been craving.

I went to the bar to buy a round for them. The bar owner asked me how I thought the show had gone and I said that I thought it had gone well, even though I’d been very nervous. She said that it was a great story and she understood why it was important to tell it. Then she told me that I needed to change it. She told me that she wasn’t a gay man, so her experience of the world was different from mine, and I had to tell my story, but at the same time, she was a businessperson and she had to look after her clientele and she needed me to tone down the language a bit. She said there were far too many mentions of dicks and wanking and cumming for her liking and I could get my story across without that.

I returned to the table and to my new friends completely deflated. I told them what the bar owner had said. They said it was nonsense — my story needed to be honest and raw and I should just ignore her. I wasn’t so sure. She was the boss. We had one more drink and hugged and went home.

The next day was a real low point. I spent hours going through my script. I removed three or four of the more gratuitous asides that I liked, but that weren’t important for the story as a whole. In one piece, there was a repeating angry refrain “Fuck you, thin people!” — I changed it to “I hate thin people”. I changed some “wanked hims” to “touched him down theres”, I downgraded mentions of “cocks” to “dicks”, and mentions of “dicks” to “penises”. I changed “piss and wank” to “urinate and masturbate”. I hated every minute of this process, as I butchered my baby for an imagined audience of prudes.

That night I arrived to an empty pub. The owner and her girlfriend were there and asked me what I wanted to do if no one came. I said I’d give it 5 minutes. At 7:05, there still wasn’t anyone there. I said I was going to leave. Then two men arrived. They asked about the show. When they realised they were the only ones there, they looked terrified. They asked if there was audience interaction. I said that there wasn’t, but they still looked even more scared than me. They decided it was a no, and so the show was off.

The bar owner told me she’d be gone for the rest of the week, but her bar manager would be working and he’d let her know if I put any customers off, so I should remember what she’d said the previous night. I left as fast as I could, feeling like a naughty smut peddler, and not just that, an unsuccessful naughty smut peddler. The next twenty-four hours were truly terrible. I didn’t know if I’d do my show again. I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined the positive reactions on the first night. I was regretting everything. I wanted to go back to London and my job and my depressing bedsit, where everything was safe and predictable.

It took more courage to turn up at the bar on Tuesday night than it had on the first night. My confidence was rock bottom. I was wearing a mesh top, which was half black and half white and once again, my sexy black leather crown. The bar manager greeted me happily. He was the only person in the pub. He told me he’d been promoting the show on Facebook and there were two couples booked in and he’d reserved tables for them. It was 6:55 and the bar was still empty. Maybe I wouldn’t have to do it. Maybe no one would come ever again. Maybe this stupid experiment was all over.

Then I heard a familiar voice. A former colleague of mine who I knew lived in Brighton, but who I’d forgotten about, had come to see my show. She’d brought a friend. Literally two minutes later, a former student of mine who again, I knew lived in Brighton but had forgotten about, turned up to say she’d come to see me as well. She’d also brought a friend. Then the two couples who’d booked tables showed up. Then three more couples arrived. There was no one in the bar who wasn’t there to see me. It was a very small bar, so those fourteen people were enough to make the place feel full.

I didn’t know how to feel. I think I was more nervous than I had been on the first evening. I could feel myself shaking. The audience all reacted so well. Lots of laughs at the right moments, and hands to hearts at the sadder bits. When the interval came, about six different people offered to buy me drinks. Once again, I felt incredibly awkward during the interval and really wished there was somewhere I could hide.

After the show, I did my circulating. I spoke to everyone who’d seen the show. People were so nice. They wanted to tell me how their life was just like mine, even though they weren’t fat or men or gay (delete as appropriate). I wanted to just cry and cry. I hadn’t imagined the good reactions from opening night. They were real. This show was worthwhile. My writing meant something to people.

I ended up along the back wall of the pub, speaking to two lesbian couples, who all tried to convince me to sell my story to Hollywood, which I wasn’t convinced would work, but I was drunk on compliments, as well as on cider. The last couple I spoke to were a gay male couple in the corner. They were in their late twenties and were very charming. The slightly older one had a very Brighton, non-binary style of dressing and presenting himself that I found very appealing. It turned out that we had lots in common and we got on immediately. His boyfriend was a bit younger, with square shoulders and an enigmatic smile. He said less than his partner. We had a fourth pint and then a fifth one. The younger guy had a very charming way of nodding or shaking his head very emphatically when he agreed or disagreed with something. Before long, we were all best friends. They already knew so many of my secrets. It made it all so easy.

The bar manager was a friend of theirs. He sat with us and we kept on talking like we were the oldest friends ever. It made me feel like I was back in university again where you could just become best friends with a stranger over the course of a pint.

Eventually, the manager told us he had to lock up. My two new best friends and I went out on Brighton’s seafront and found a horrendous gay nightclub to get more drinks in. We made friends with a straight couple there. The five of us started trying on each other’s earrings and of course everyone in the club had to try my sexy leather crown on. I don’t actually remember any of this, but I have photos on my camera that remember it for me.

At one stage, I leaned over and kissed one of the couple. I think I kissed the younger one first, but it wasn’t long before all three of us were kissing back and forth. We went outside and continued kissing on the seafront. One thing I remember quite clearly was that the younger guy was kissing me with exactly the same level of desperation I was kissing him with. In my experience, when you kiss a man, either they’re more up for it than you, or you’re more up for it than they are, but very, very occasionally, you kiss someone who wants to kiss you exactly as much as you want to kiss them. This was a perfect example of that.

They invited me back to their flat. We walked there, all three of us linking arms, with me in the middle. We stopped to kiss a lot on the way there. We were all very drunk. If you’re drunk and are linking arms with two different people, it’s hard to keep your balance. I fell to the ground and scraped my knees badly. I didn’t feel any pain though, but as they helped me up, I felt so ashamed, an elderly person who wanted to pretend he could still do what the young people did. They weren’t really that much younger than me. I’m forty-one and they were twenty-seven and twenty-nine, but I felt like a desperate pensioner in that moment. My shame soon cleared after a lot more tonguing and we eventually reached their flat. We stripped off and fell on each other.

It wasn’t what I would call very climactic sex — we were all incredibly drunk — but it was very enjoyable. I woke up in the middle of the night between them, feeling confused. My knees were sore and bloody. I got up and peed. I looked at those beautiful boys and drunkenly decided to sneak out, because I just really really wanted to sleep in a bed with space for me to sprawl out in.

I got dressed. I couldn’t find my socks, but I wasn’t too worried about that. I gathered my things and quietly left. I got an uber and got home in the early hours of the morning. I slept badly and woke up to find my knees had bled all over Margaret and Nigel’s sheets, but were now scabbing over.

It’s not often that a hangover makes me happy, but I was happy that morning. If what I’d been craving was connection through my writing then I’d certainly achieved that.

I arrived at the pub that night feeling more relaxed than I had any other evening that week. Tonight’s outfit was a mesh hoodie. I didn’t have my sexy leather crown. I hadn’t retrieved it after my threesome the night before.

The show was a success in spite of the lack of the crown. There were three or four pairs of people there to see me. There was also another noisy group of middle-aged gay men like there had been the first night, but this time I could see they responded to what I was saying as I had intended it.

One of the couples who was there were regulars who had seen my show on the first night. The wife insisted to her husband that they come back and see me again. After the show, she tearfully told me that she had been very fat as a young woman and she’d never known why her husband was attracted to her and my show touched a nerve for her like nothing she’d ever seen before. I didn’t know how to express my gratitude to her for saying this.

Two young men came up to me to tell me that they were straight and had only arrived in the UK from Utah a few days before and had never heard a story like mine before “Oh boy, you sure have lived a life!” one of them told me. The table of middle-aged gays nearby cackled at this. These young men didn’t know anything about life, they said. They bought me drinks and sat me down and because I’d been so honest with them, they were honest with me. These men were only ten years older than me, and yet the gay world they grew up in was infinitely more challenging than the one I’d grown up in. Two of them had had wives before coming out. Another told me that he thought in his twenties that gay men just went to clubs together and had sex together and then went back to their lives of secrecy among straight people, but when he first came to Brighton when he was thirty, he saw that gay men could be friends with other gay men and could have social circles that didn’t involve hiding anything. They were touched by my story, but wanted me to know where I fit in gay history.

If Tuesday night had felt special because of the connection I made with the audience and the threesome it led to, Wednesday was special because it showed me that the connection mattered. My stories were making people think and cry and converse and realise things about themselves and their own relationships and lives. After Tuesday’s drunken high, Wednesday felt humbling.

I finished up drinking earlier than the previous night. I called to the bar where I knew that the younger man from the couple I’d been with on the previous night worked. I was worried that he wouldn’t want to see me. On the contrary, he was overjoyed and he threw his arms around me. I apologised for sneaking out without saying goodbye. He said they both woke up and neither was sure whether they remembered me leaving. We really had been very drunk. He said I’d left my socks — I said I wasn’t worried about that, but I had lost my sexy leather crown.

I went home, feeling warm inside. I hadn’t ruined things with the lovely couple. They didn’t regret it. And I had slain the demons from the first few nights when the small crowds and censorship made me doubt whether this mattered. I was a writer again. My lost identity had been returned to me.

When I arrived at the pub the next night, my sexy leather crown was waiting for me. A part of me was sad that my threesome partners weren’t there to return it to me personally and had dropped it in hours before the show was due to start, but I was happy to have it back. That night’s outfit was a glittery silver top. This crowd was similar to the previous night — some older people who reacted very emotionally and some drunk gays who wanted to tell me their own stories, as well as a tough looking lesbian who told me I was kick-ass. I don’t know why, but I’ve always valued compliments from lesbians more than ones from non-lesbians.

The final night came. This was the night when fourteen friends were coming down from London to see me. I popped in to the bar about half an hour before show time. It was full of locals. I suddenly got terrified. Tuesday was the only night where the entire crowd had been there to see me, so for the rest of the week, I had learned to cope with some people ignoring me and going in and out of the toilets while I did my show, but the opening night had been the only night where it was majority locals and that was the night I looked back on least fondly.

When I met my friends outside the pub, I nearly broke down crying. The week had felt so momentous and I was so touched that people had travelled especially to see me. But I was also frustrated at the number of people who were there not to see me. The bar manager, an absolute sweetheart, moved everyone around, so that the London crew all got to sit near me.

I took off my jacket, revealing my final outfit, a rainbow coloured mesh top, and I put my sexy leather crown on.

I was sad as I started. This might be the last time I would do this. The reaction was great. The locals all shut up. They all listened to me. The bar was packed. As well as my friends from London, there were another few people there to see the show, but the vast majority were not there to see me. Nonetheless, I held their attention. My friends all said lovely things, as was their job, and we all got very drunk.

They all left to get their trains to London and I stayed with the locals who now all knew how I’d lost my virginity, among other very personal facts. They started buying me shots. Of course, I got way too drunk. I made an eejit of myself, but at least it was after everyone I knew had gone back to London and I was only shaming myself in front of the locals. After the pub closed, I went to the bar where my young man from Tuesday night worked, but he wasn’t there. I didn’t have his phone number or his Instagram handle. Lucky for him, or he would have got a very slurred booty call.

I went and had a kebab and had a little cry that my very big adventure was over and went back to spend my last night in Margaret and Nigel’s.

My week in show business meant an awful lot to me. It's changed my life and the show has evolved into something much more professional now.


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