At 7:30pm on the 24th of July, I am looking down upon what ought to be my finest moment as an artist.
We lugged several bags of props and a deconstructed clothes rack from campus to a Circular Quay ferry, catching eyes when a metal rod occasionally falls to the concrete with a clang. We arrive at a pleasant little bookstore in Manly, that hosts an open mic night once a month and proudly proclaim to serve “very illegal drinks” for $5 each, into a cosy bedroom strewn with clothes. We have, together, assembled a show about trans experience we’re incredibly proud of.
The problem is, there’s almost no one here.
Harry’s backstage, silently freaking out. Finn’s getting to know a couple of people outside. Julia’s sitting at the ticket desk, distressingly unoccupied by ticketholders. I’m stood in the middle of the room, failing to make small talk. Approximately five people who bought tickets have not shown up, and approximately 85% of the friends who promised to come are absent.
In my head, I have already quit theatre and moved country.
“Let’s just get started,” Finn says at 7:45. “This is a good sized audience.”
When asked to write a piece on queer identity in Sydney theatre, I was overwhelmed by how much, and how very little, there is to say that is cogent. Identity-based theatre is somewhat of a blank slate, not only in the fact that there is so little of it that receives the attention it deserves, but there is no roadmap for what it should look like.
Belvoir Street Theatre’s Mardi Gras slot this year saw a restaging of Nick Coyle’s vapid and offensive Blue Wizard, a one-man mess of stereotypes about gay men which featured choice quotes such as: “I need to eat three things to live: cocaine, diamonds, and jizz.” Despite its misrepresentation of a community, the show’s ambition was clear: to be a celebration, not a fight.
On slightly smaller stages, the upcoming Verge Festival season includes a piece being developed by Maddy Ward and Kate Melville, Death, Be Not Proud, which aims to demonstrate the impact of oppressive microaggressions on individuals by escalating those moments to acts of extreme violence. Their writer callout provides the example of a woman being “boiled in tar because she wore blackface to a party.” Far from forgiving or teaching, this is a declaration of war. Meanwhile, the SUDS major production for 2015, a reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the four lovers are queer, gently, gingerly, perhaps naively, presents a world where love will trump hate with little struggle, the homophobe-turned-good will be forgiven, and internalised homophobia can be wiped from your brow by the touch of a beautiful boy.
With so many different ways to engage politically in theatre, all of which are sworn to be “the right way”, it’s no wonder I felt intimidated putting this play on stage.
Kaleidoscope, the aforementioned show in the bookstore, is a show about everyday experiences of gender dysphoria, constructed as a conversation between Gabriel, the protagonist, and his reflection. I started writing it in October last year when director Finn Davis asked (demanded) that I write him a one-man show. When I tentatively slid “something about gender, I guess?” across the table to him, I never expected the ensuing project to go this far, or to receive as much attention as it thus far has.
The play is a hodge-podge, a shambling patchwork haphazardly stitched together, falling somewhere between “angry trans-gay manifesto”, “sad romantic comedy”, and “vanity project”. It is, although undoubtedly political, an intensely personal undertaking. After a brief wrestle with trying to write The Ultimate Transgender Play, my goal became one of honesty. I wanted to show people the nuances of one specific trans life, without pulling punches or bending to naff or harmful pop cultural stereotypes about those whose “outsides don’t match their insides”. Sick of the plethora of trans characters who never looked like me, I wanted to create one who did.
The struggle came from an inability to reconcile individual experience with political impact. I would chastise myself for a particular line, because “people expect all trans people to be like that”, all the while thinking “but, I’m like that”. I considered cutting or softening moments to avoid people seeing the show as a “tragedy”, I fretted over whether I was fetishising gender binaries or perpetuating a “lone wolf” trans stereotype. There was no way I could make everyone happy. There was no way I could tell the Perfect Transgender History.
My favourite anecdote to describe the treatment of oppressed identity in the Sydney art scene is from a Caravan Slam—Sydney’s biggest poetry night and self-congratulatory circle jerk. I perform a poem about changing my name and being misgendered. Having followed an endless procession of ‘cis white male rants about racism’, I score all 9s and 10s, and numerous proclamations of “actual tears, oh my god”. The third judge, when giving her feedback, says “I just think she was so brave to get up and perform that poem”.
This cognitive dissonance is characteristic of responses to queer art and performance. Everyone’s always keen to jump on the progressive bandwagon, but very rarely does this in turn foster an improvement in the everyday treatment of real life queer people. Caring about queer art carries social currency; it’s what’s in.
The fact that Kaleidoscope is written by a trans person and performed by a trans person should not be special, but it is. I’m never sure if that fascination is the reason people compliment my writing or not. I have come to doubt people who say they like my writing—I’m never sure if it’s my work, or that I did it whilst being trans.
Speaking to the owner of the bookstore after the show, a middle-aged vaguely dandy-ish British man, he tells me that, despite being very unqueer, the show was very relatable. “I mean we’ve all been there,” he says, “we’ve all stood in front of the mirror and spoken to ourselves, and found something lacking.”
There is a compulsion with theatre that explores a specific lived experience to talk about how it can “appeal to all audiences”, to advertise the fact that “anyone can relate” to the story you’re telling. It’s hedging one’s bets; it’s an apology before you’ve even begun. It’s saying “I’m weird, I’m different, I know, but I can be just like you.”
In truth, there is no reason that everyone else should need to relate to depictions of marginalised experience. There’s no reason artists should have to reshape or water down or simplify their experiences to make them palatable.
I spent a long time worrying that Kaleidoscope would turn into a teaching tool. I have on too many occasions seen beautiful works from queer artists be dubbed blanket representations of an entire community, or be used to assuage cishet guilt. But sometimes it is not an option to refuse to be a teacher. There are countless conversations I have had with people where, had I not swallowed my fury and explained to them how not to be a transphobic shit, they would have simply made the same mistakes with other trans people. And, whilst I never really want it to be me, it’s better than it being someone else.
I am far from suggesting that one may catch more bees with honey. Sometimes it is simply more conducive to turn rage about oppression into something new or beautiful, something productive, something which can be learned from. Too often in an attempt to combat marginalisation we light an angry flame which only ever burns itself out.
I more than welcome critique for this ethos. I recognise that no one is ever obliged to put aside their rage to educate those who should know better, and I would never suggest that everyone should. It’s just that, for me, the moments where I have changed someone’s mind make it almost worth the effort.
When I apologise that the first show his bookstore put on was so dark, the owner says, surpassing any expectations I had for the reactions to this show: “I didn’t find it dark at all. It was just a normal experience—not my normal, but someone’s normal.”
There are things about identity that cannot be articulated in the usual ways. Identifying as trans has taught me a new language to talk about my body. When there are no words to adequately describe your experience, you can make up new ones, or you can use the old ones in new ways, build up new stories.
It’s impossible to create queer theatre which can come remotely close to typifying “the Trans Experience”—and it should be, as there’s as much that makes every trans individual different as does the same. The best thing we can do is to use our art to say, “here I am, I am real, I’m not going away”. We can use what platform we have to build ourselves up, we can create great things which allow someone—even one person—to see themselves presented back to them, maybe for the first time. It astounds me. It astounds me that that achievement is ever seen as “not enough”.
There’s a reason Kaleidoscope is structured around a mirror. It’s about self-recognition, about seeing yourself and accepting that who you are is okay to be.
Someone I have never met comes up to me after the show and thanks me. They say, “I was joking before that I came to this play looking for affirmation, but I didn’t expect to actually get it”. There could have been 2 people or 200 people there, but that was the only response I ever needed to hear.