From Stage to Street - an interview with Hysteria

by Will Creed

Over the course of the lockdown most artistic activity has slowed to a halt in Aberdeen, and indeed much of Europe. However, one arts group in the city managed to make headlines in recent weeks by uniquely channelling the international tidal wave of anger over the death of George Floyd. Hysteria is a well-known name on Aberdeen’s literary circuit. In normal times their eclectic, monthly, performance nights grace Spin’s famous stage with bombastic musical and literary performances from a range of female and non-binary voices. On the 2nd of June, Hysteria created an event on Facebook for a poster protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the world, to be held just a few days later on the 7th.

This would come as no surprise, as the Hysteria performance nights are built around a championing of the underrepresented. A manifesto circulated by the group earlier this year called for more women, BAME, queer and working-class voices to take to their stage. I asked Hanna Louise and Mae Diansangu about the social mission of their performance nights and how it relates to activism.

There’s plenty of activism that we do as individuals,” says Mae, “we’ve always been doing these things. It’s only sometimes that we do these things with the Hysteria hat on. We will be doing more of these things in the future, but there isn’t a difference [between political organisation and the performance nights].”

We started for the International Women’s Day in March 2018,” Hanna tells me, “we wanted to have a performance night featuring only women and non-binary voices. We were sick of mediocre men dominating all the stages. The intention was that it would just be a one-off… it was packed.” This first event was partly a performance night and partly a donation drive for sanitary products that could then be redistributed. At this point Mae started to laugh, “we ended up with all these boxes full of Fanny Pads. We overestimated how many people would come and how much people would give. It was toiletries for all! Eventually, we ended up giving the bulk of them to Rape Crisis, who made sure that they got to those who needed them.” It is clear from the tone of Mae and Hanna’s voices that this first event is remembered with a certain fondness. The absurdity of the situation that they found themselves in should be indicative of the type of popularity curve they are used to. It speaks to their boldness that an International Women’s Day event brought forward a community of people in Aberdeen, who had been crying out for such a network. From there Hanna describes how Hysteria slowly emerged, a couple of months later, as a regular performance night, built around the idea of providing a safe space for performers from marginalised groups. By building upon this explosive beginning, and by making explicit gestures of inclusivity, Hysteria has grown broader than a performance night for women and non-binary people: “there’s a massive queer following and many queer allies. I guess it’s become quite a queer night” explained Hanna. Certainly, the monthly performance night has become an inseparable part of the queer arts scene in Aberdeen.

All this history has fed towards an image of Hysteria as a throbbing confluence of glistening art from marginalised voices in the city, forever brimming over with ideas that bristle against white, patriarchal values.

When Mae, along with other black Aberdonians, sought to organise a protest to raise awareness of the relevance of the Black Lives Matter movement in Scotland, using Hysteria to promote the event seemed a natural fit. Thousands of people would respond within 24 hours and the event exploded across social media and would attract coverage from the Evening Express and local radio stations. By Sunday, the event garnered more interest than the Hysteria average by over 1000%.

It was totally unexpected,” explained Hanna, “Mae posted the event [on Facebook] in the morning and within four hours about 1,500 people were either interested or going.” The pair would be overwhelmed when Social media attention, both positive and negative, began to pour in. A poorly worded article in the Evening Express went on to inspire, in Mae’s words, “a bin-fire of comments” from racists and those concerned about Covid. In order to accommodate the tide of interested people, Hanna and Mae decided to set up multiple locations on top of their original plan and set out meticulous rules for how it would be organised to subdue Covid concerns.

Although held in solidarity with the wider resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protest was organised to help bring attention to global matters of racial injustice as well as highlight how racism arises locally. Mae told me about how Aberdeen FC midfielder Funso Ojo had attended the protest to draw attention to issues in the world of football. “He had a poster which said, ‘If I wasn’t a footballer, would you treat me differently?’ The racism in football is just one example of someone’s experience… a lot of people had taken the time to write the names [of Black people] who had died from police brutality in Scotland. Sheku Bayoh was a name that came up time and time again. He was killed in 2015 in a very similar manner to George Floyd. This was the opportunity to talk about him.” Although many of the posters that were put up during the event were taken down within two weeks, either by the rain or the council, many more have been salvaged by Hysteria for use in the future. And while a fully-fledged march down Union Street the following week would prove slightly controversial, partly due to Covid concerns, the weather, the police and ‘people who just wanted to protect statues’, Hanna and Mae seem to be committed to keeping the lights on for victims of racial injustice around the world. Immediately after the poster protest, Hysteria would organise a Zoom quiz and performance night to raise money for local LGBT+ support charity Four Pillars and a workshop for alternative forms of protest on Saturday 27th of June.

We believe in stuff,” interjects Hanna, “and we could get more reach in creating an event under the Hysteria name than, say, if Mae had just posted an event, but it’s never about the brand Hysteria as such. Hysteria is more like having people round, having a party.” From this something clicked in me that I hadn’t thought of before. It was as if this protest had not been organised by Hysteria, but rather that it had come from Hysteria. They was not a performance night, ‘activist group’ or a brand but a network of art and agitation.

For the time being, then, the attention that Hysteria have attracted can only encourage their growth in all directions. More than anything, the poster protest has proved how inseparable the concepts of art, community, and activism are for Hanna and Mae. Time will tell how effective this current wave of Black Lives Matter protests will be, but it appears that Hysteria is becoming more and more of an asset to Aberdeen.


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article has appeared on our website. This version took liberties with the source interview including use of unnecessarily gendered language. Upon consideration, and through careful collaboration between our editorial team and our friends at Hysteria, this version has been created.