Travis Alabanza Is Trailblazing Trans Representation on Stage

Ahead of the opening night of their latest work, OVERFLOW, Travis Alabanza speaks to Ted Lavis Coward and Tajah Hamilton.

WORDS Ted Lavis Coward and Tajah Hamilton
COVER ILLUSTRATION Aude Nasr

The public bathroom – the heartlands of the ‘gender debate’. Can you tell us a bit about your view of social spaces in the time of social distance?

“After Burgerz I didn’t think I would do another trans show. When the first lockdown ended I was so excited to go into public space, but I was harassed the first day I left the house after the first lockdown. Public space had changed but the rules of harassment were still intact. Even so, 2020 was the first year I had experienced that wasn’t punctuated by harassment, because I hadn’t gone outside much. I was mourning some aspects of public space but also recovering from it.”

It was this incident of transphobia, in part, which inspired Travis Alabanza to write OVERFLOW. In a year governed by a global pandemic, for many trans people 2020 has been another year filled with attacks on trans rights and a continuous onslaught of abuse in the media. The intermittent lockdowns may have granted relief from street harassment for many, but it was clear to Travis that this “all in it together” mentality did not extend to trans people. 

The play takes place entirely in a public loo with our main character, Rosie, portrayed flawlessly by Reece Lyons, monologuing a series of bathroom-related memories while waiting for aggressive men to stop harassing her from the other side of the door. However, the transphobia is present with Rosie in the bathroom – in the form of her friend Charlotte who she rings for support. Through Charlotte, the “protector of the trans”, we get a detailed illustration of how damaging performative allyship can be. Rosie recounts how during her time in school she was blamed for a series of floods in the bathroom – floods that Charlotte eventually admitted to causing many years later. Charlotte seems intent on watching Rosie drown only to save her at the last minute. “Saving should come with silence”, Rosie laments. Charlotte does nothing to challenge transphobia in her circles yet revels in having – and rescuing – a trans friend.

Despite this, Charlotte’s motive for flooding the bathroom highlights the shared womanhood between herself and our main character – a truth that has been lost through years of transmisogyny. Charlotte used to flood the bathrooms to get out of swimming because she hated the sight of her own body, much like Rosie. During one particular highlight, in a play of strong speeches sequenced beautifully, Rosie acknowledges that this divide between cis women and trans women wasn’t always present. Where club bathrooms used to be a “well-oiled machine of solidarity” to escape and combat the obscenity of men, trans women now flee fists to feel “hugs with claws digging in”. Cis women feel like they’re making progress by attacking trans women, while they themselves become victims of transphobia for not conforming to gender expectations, as Rosie points out, while the men stand, still pressed to the door, waiting to throw their fists at all women indiscriminately.

In a time where trans people scarcely get to forge their own narratives, does the fear of backlash ever affect your creative output?

“Yes and no. If it did I wouldn’t have made this show in one of the most transphobic countries in Europe. After the incident in Topshop where I was prevented from using the dressing room, I got blasted in the press. I’m now not scared of backlash because I’ve had it on such a huge scale. I’m not trying to egg the transphobes on. Not every theatre artist has the privilege of having a platform or a wider audience. I see it as my role to speak directly to the discourse, to use the space I have – the transphobes have every column, including The Guardian, which was meant to be our space. Fuck off, I’m gonna use this space to say what’s what. I guess the fear of backlash eggs me on a bit. I’m not afraid of it – transphobes would turn up to Burgerz, pay with the same currency, all into my bank account, they’d shout at the end when no one could hear them and I was already off having a cig.”

“Not every theatre artist has the privilege of having a platform or a wider audience. I see it as my role to speak directly to the discourse, to use the space I have – the transphobes have every column, including The Guardian, which was meant to be our space. Fuck off, I’m gonna use this space to say what’s what. I guess the fear of backlash eggs me on a bit.”

— Travis Alabanza

The reality of trans lives being waged in the culture war is felt at every turn in OVERFLOW. Travis deftly weaves varying manifestations of transphobia throughout whilst not compromising the joy of being trans. In a time when our livelihoods are a political playground, Travis depicts the catharsis felt by standing your ground whilst not losing sight of the pleasure of the everyday. The play concludes with Rosie flooding the bathroom to Gossip’s ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ – demanding not only the audience’s attention, but their support, as she dances around the stage. No more trying to save her, you either get in the water with her or you can get lost. The play ends with Rosie knocking the statue of an Ancient Greek woman off of her plinth and standing in her place to the sound of rapturous applause from audience members, keen to ensure trans women are always included in notions of womanhood. Statues change over time to fit new forms of the ‘ideal woman’. Rosie casts her aside and becomes her own woman, free of expectation.

Especially since the resurgence of the BLM movement, there has been lots of talk about imagining utopias for ourselves by both black people and trans people. How do you feel your writing fits into imagining utopic futures?

“This is why I picked theatre – you can pick alternative endings. Grounded in reality, but I can change the beginning, the middle, the ending, whatever. It feels like such an imaginative task, it feels like a different possibility where we actually listen to trans people.”

At first glance, OVERFLOW does not seem like it would automatically be placed in a world where black and trans communities have been imagining themselves thriving within utopias. The main character, Rosie, delivers her rousing monologue from a locked toilet cubicle after being chased by transphobic men. The cubicle becomes a safe haven. Even though in our reality toilets are the obsession of cisgender people, the battleground, the hill they die on, it becomes apparent that Travis’ first utopic inversion is creating a toilet that serves as a space of trans safety for over an hour.

If Travis’ wildly successful Burgerz was an appeal to cisgender audiences to step up as allies, OVERFLOW is the more mature (and maybe cynical) response of saving yourself in lieu of the tokenistic support doled out by cisgender people. In the wake of trans communities having to resort to public crowdfunders this summer to access gender-affirming surgery due to long NHS waiting lists; black communities having to pull down the statues of racists, because appealing to your oppressor in the guise of local councils or universities was not working (the UK PM even referred to it as a criminal act, leading to a group of police officers guarding Churchill’s statue during the Black Trans Lives Matter march over the summer); it is no wonder that OVERFLOW bubbled into existence.

“I’d love to write a show with everyone in all at once, like a Greek tragedy with trans women everywhere.”

— Travis Alabanza

It feels apt that the first reference to floods we get is when we are brought back to Rosie’s Catholic primary school experience. Just as floods signified the ending of a failed world and the beginning of a better one within The Bible, we are shown a self-made flood, a watery ‘fuck you’ to the world of The Guardian TERFs and spineless managers who uphold the cycle of acting on imagined fears by the public.  This flood washes away the paranoia and leaves us with a defiant Rosie, throwing wet hand towels at a blank wall, serving us ‘Goldsmiths Art student’-levels of recreating your world from whatever is to hand. This is a world where the names of people don’t matter because, as Rosie puts it, “names change”, but the “essence of the story” remains; we should be challenging ourselves to be our own advocates, to finally say goodbye to the people who say they want to help save us, but somehow can’t move past posting black squares or empty platitudes online as trans rights get rolled back by a flood of ‘sensible’ cis people ‘protecting the masses. This flood brings clarity, and ultimately it brings the freedom of knowing that we as trans people don’t need to play by anyone else’s rules. Just as Rosie lamented the transphobia still being thrown at her even though she could contour and afford laser hair removal, the audience, especially those of us under the trans umbrella, are shown that with the goalposts of how cisgender people try to make what it means to be trans digestible, moving every waking moment, there is absolutely no point playing their game. We need to play our own, decide for ourselves how to exist, and let the essence of who we are speak for us. We will not beg for crumbs of acceptance, we will shout at the top of our lungs, cause a scene (or an hour-long monologue as Travis did here) and demand the respect that we are entitled.

What was the most joyful thing to come out of the production of the play?

“The open call auditions were such a joyous thing for me! Trans feminine people from across the country, some who had never acted, some who were working in different fields. The audition tapes were hilarious! I’d love to write a show with everyone in all at once, like a Greek tragedy with trans women everywhere.”

If we’re going to imagine utopias, let’s push it even further so that the trans bodies we’re seeing on stage are as diverse as we are. This links to Travis’ idea for a potential next performance, hinted at during our interview, of a Greek chorus of all of the trans femmes who auditioned (over 50 in two days, take that casting directors who say trans people don’t exist) taking up a whole stage. Once the end of this pandemic makes work like that possible to stage, imagine what a performance filled with laughing, joyous trans femmes could do for the theatre world. It’s a utopia that feels within reach. 

Book tickets for OVERFLOW now and follow Travis here.

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