Uncovering queer histories: an afternoon with performer Tom Marshman


The Rife team interviews the LGBTQ+ theatre-maker on spirits, seances and aristocracy.

A Bristol native and an active member of the LGBTQ+ community, artist Tom Marshman’s work spans an exciting array of subjects, from ‘The Compliment Bicycle’ in which he compliments people he passes on his push bike, or the poignant ‘Her Bungalow Heart’, an introspective about the passage of time and its impact on the domestic environment.

A resident of the Pervasive Media Studio, an innovative space within the Watershed, Tom sparkles with creative effervescence. We chatted to him about his work, his influences and what advice he has for young members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Would you like to introduce yourself?

My name is Tom Marshman. I’m a theatre maker and performer and I work with LGBTQ+ stories, exploring narratives that people might not be familiar with.

Where you get your ideas from?

I’m never short of ideas, I’ve got loads written down in my notebooks. I don’t know how they come to me, but I generally rely on books, magazines and films. Additionally I get ideas from things that are intuitive; feelings, dreams and the kind of things that are outside of conscious life.

I didn’t live in a place that was very cosmopolitan or multi-cultural but I always wanted to be in that space.

How do you think where you grew up influenced your work?

I lived in Filton until I was ten, and then in Thornberry until 16 or 17. Coming into Bristol was exciting at that age. I didn’t live in a place that was very cosmopolitan or multi-cultural but I always wanted to be in that space. So it was a big deal and I wanted to make the most of it, and appreciate the city’s diversity and assets.

Do you have any particularly memorable performances?

I always feel like the next thing is going to be my favourite thing because I’m often unsatisfied with the things I do. You think, ‘it could have been so much better if that happened.’ The next piece is always the one that you think will be the ideal.

Having said that, with I spent longer than usual on the last piece I made, ‘A Haunted Existence.’ I allowed things to brew, until it was a strong, historical narrative backed with rigorous research that was carried out with the help of historian, Jeanne St Claire. I was also exploring avenues like conducting seances to make contact with the people who were involved with that history. Having those two major threads as well as the music and atmosphere of that time really allowed it to penetrate under my skin. I felt like I was there with those people.

C/o Tom Marshman

Do you have any queer icons you really admire and have helped influence your work?

I’ve worked with lots of different people I would consider icons as I used to run an event called ‘Beacons, Icons and Dykons’. One of them would be Peggy Shaw, who mentored me on a project and introduced me to different ways of working, like getting into this practise called free-writing, where you just write, and you let it out, and when you run out of things to write, you’re able to say what you really want to.

If you’re thinking of other people who are outside of my working life, someone like James Baldwin is really influential to me. His quote, ‘history is not in the past… we are our history,’ and the way he thinks, speaks and writes is so poetic and brilliant.

Tell us how the Pervasive Media Studio has played a part in your work, or how it has been beneficial to you?

Working alongside individuals with a diverse range of disciplines and backgrounds brings so many influences into play. The studio has a philosophy of everyone being generous and interruptible which is totally up my street as I love to chat. You never know where it leads.

Sometimes I think that the LGBTQ+ world can be somewhat fractured and divided.

We know you’ve got a new project – tell us a bit about that.

So, I was asked to look at the Oliver Messel archive at the University of Bristol. Oliver was a theatre designer, artist, interior designer and house builder. He started his work in the 1930s and was one of the ‘bright young things,’ but lots of people don’t know or remember him. I suppose that’s the way people have controlled his archive or memory and a part of [the project] is about addressing that.

I perform letters and telegrams to Oliver as little monologues. They all feel like they’re somehow ghosts, but also they’re present in the room at the same time. It’s a world that I don’t know anything about, it’s very much the British aristocracy, privileged, quite flamboyant, lots of cocktail parties and beautiful interiors and things like that.

It’s an archive that people considered significant enough to keep. Yet some stories that I have worked with [in the past] are much harder to find because the people I usually make shows about, their letters and artefacts aren’t deemed important enough.

C/o Tom Marshman

What would you like to say to young members of the LGBTQ+ community?

Sometimes I think that the LGBTQ+ world can be somewhat fractured and divided. If I paint myself as an older person within that, there is sometimes miscommunication that happens along the way. I think that young people can feel like older people aren’t listening to them and that they don’t understand the struggles of the younger people.

I feel like it would be nice to try to move to a place of understanding within that and for the younger people to know more history and for the older people to appreciate current struggles. I know it’s a different landscape in terms of experiences but it would be lovely to have some more generational dialogue.

There’s a really strong connection between ghostly presences and the way creative tech can feel magical.

Are there any themes that you’re looking to explore in the future?

I’m really fixated on working with spirituality and seances as part of my practise. I feel like it can create interesting images and I don’t think it matters whether people are believers or not. When you’re making art or performance, it’s all part of the canon that you can work with. I like the idea of working with spirituality and more creative technology as a way to tell those stories because there’s a really strong connection between ghostly presences and the way creative tech can feel magical. It’s an innovative way to tell a story.

Tom’s event ‘I went to a Marvelous Party’ is running over the 23rd and 24th of March, at the Arts Mansion. Click here for more information. You can find all about Tom’s work on his website. Find out more about the Pervasive Media Studio here

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