5 Out of 5 Vanity Fair Covers: Kaleidoscope, by Charlie O’Grady

Andy Zephyr made a friend

Becoming a gender is process complicated enough to inspire countless works of deeply moving art, and Kaleidoscope by Charlie O’Grady should be noted as cream of the crop during the “Transgender Tipping Point”. Having gathered 20 or so interested souls inside the cosy Desire Books in Manly, we watched an hour and a half of preview of Kaleidoscope-in-development. Whilst O’Grady defended it’s raw state, no doubt it will be refined and built on for the official launch of the show this week, running nightly from the 19th to the 23rd of August. Go see it immediately. Book tickets now. I kid you not that it will be the most memorable night of 2015 so far, much more so than the day Facebook turned rainbow, because this is the sort of play that sits at the cornerstone of transgender people’s liberation.

Harry Winsome spent his time on stage with us as the lone actor of the show, a handsome and heartfelt face to connect with over the performance. Acting as if he was in his own bedroom, the dimly lit bookshop became very intimate. I was surprised at how well he kept pace as a single unit on stage, as keeping an audience engaged for an hour and a half is no small feat for a single person. Easily aachieved through the writing, the constant shifting from grand-narrative rants, to light conversational monologues, to slam-poetry-esque pontification, Kaleidoscope allows the audience breathing room between passionate throws, and space to self-reflect before Gabe -the central character- dives in again.

For those unaware, Kaleidoscope is one man trying to cope with the growing pains of being a new, young adult, and transgender, and gay. Trans folk from all walks of gender perspectives will find that the play unapologetically takes on the question of gender, with its complicated engagements, and how it plays out in current, Western Society. I recognized the staging, the inflections and theatrical choices from memories of my own constant gender monologue, and immediately was invested in making sure Gabe knew he was just as beautiful inside and out, each time he changed his gender presentation. I felt more at ease knowing how long it had taken me to choose the outfit I wore that night, and felt more at ease approaching it the next day. For the trans masculine folks, it features all of your community’s too-real jokes on height, MANstration and questions on how tiny or large your hands should be.

For the rest of society that aren’t transgender, your level of knowledge on our community won’t vastly impact your viewing experience, as many of the experiences of Gabe are universal and are instead being viewed through a lens you’ve never used. You might miss a few laughs, but luckily this theatre is as educational as it is entertaining. Love, family, work and the self would be the large four ideas that clash together with Gabe’s attempts to be understood as a man, even against his body’s wishes to remind him, time and time again, what society thinks of him and the stereotype of what a man is. The play is designed to make you uncomfortable at points and to push your out of your comfort zone, and connect you to thoughts and feelings often reserved for the private, intimate moments of trans people’s lives.

Between seeing the show, and halfway through this review I sat down with Charlie and Harry to ask a few questions (and to fill them with my praise for the preview). They both spoke about wanting to scrape away at patronising ideas of the inspiring or the tragic trans experience, and instead fill the production with honesty. They both agreed they had fears of it becoming an exhibition, and we kept coming back to how cisgender audiences affect the writing and acting, whereas an all-trans audience wouldn’t inspire these same anxieties. What the production is aiming for is to make Gabe into a person instead of ‘a transgender’ or ‘a gay’, and I’d encourage an audience to remember that.

What we see in Gabe’s ideas of masculinity is not a wish to conform to the expectation of an Aussie dude, but a wish for masculinity to morph and recenter away from the rigid ideas of manhood, and instead include those of varying bodies that are struggling to fit expectations. In this way, it was a therapeutic presence for those who feel unable to tackle masculinity, and make it work for them. This debate of masculinity moved quickly to romance and sexuality and greater gender worries that related to being trans, but it is worth noting that it stands on its own for all different types or men; transgender or not. It’s an idea that needs to be fostered in society, if we wish to support men like Gabe who hope to survive the world outside their bedroom.

Happy enough that Gabe has been overwhelmingly created by trans masculine artists, I wanted to know who Gabe represented more; the writer or the actor. Having stumbled upon a conversation they’d obviously had before, they both admit Gabe ends up being about smack bang in the middle of both of them; a perfect split. Whilst both of them feel so strongly about the character, they both find he’s become a third personality who supports each of them as a friend, who’s developed nuances that neither of them embody but understand, and aim to foster his existence by making him as real as they can on the stage.

Whilst Charlie feels less overwhelmed in passing as a man to the greater society, he finds all of the complicated relationship dramas with the gay community striking very close to home when he watches Gabe on stage. Harry finds the clean cut experience of Gabe a little different from his own disorderly demeanour of the good and the bad sludge (coffee and cigarette tar, in this case), but talks of how cathartic it is to play a character with such an incredible freedom of expression. It is through these ways they both come to express a love for Gabe and each other, through these shared experiences.

The play moved me the most by excavating the internal monologue all transgender people are having with themselves, everyday. I saw myself on stage, as Gabe, as Harry, as Charlie and then once again as myself; scared and lonely (Gabe asks himself ‘Why are you always scared?’). By digging out this monologue we can start to empathise with the relationships transgender people have with themselves, other trans people, friends, lovers, parents and colleges.

I now see Gabe in my life regularly. Gabe has changed my experience of being transgender, alone in my room, unable to face a day and questioning if I’ll have the energy for the large amount of bullshit thrown at me on a day-to-day basis. I will no longer be alone in my room, or sobbing in bed by myself, or trying on half my wardrobe alone, and I won’t be paralysed when I look in the mirror and ask it why I look a certain way that’s not always reflective of how I feel. Whilst having a very different gender, body and mind to Charlie, Harry and Gabe, I find myself very grateful to all three of them. Now, instead of seeing an awkward six-foot tall woman, I see myself standing next to a stressed-out Gabe who’s remarking at what he looks like and I remind him, and myself, that we are just as beautiful inside and out each time we changed our gender presentation.

I implore you to see Kaleidoscope.

Kaleidoscope played from the 19th to the 23rd of August at the M2 Theatre in Surry Hills. It included a trans-tastic art exhibition, with the show following after. Stay up to date on Kaleidoscope’s movements by liking Theatre21 on Facebook.