Travis Alabanza on transness, race, and taking up space.
Travis Alabanza is a ground-breaking performer and writer. They rose to fame with their hit show Burgerz, which explores their own experiences of transphobia, using comedy to look at how trans bodies are policed and survive.
Their next project, taking over the Bush Theatre in Sherperd’s Bush from 8-22 Dec, Overflow, is set in a flooded toilet cubicle and uses Travis’ signature humour and wit to explore who is allowed in and out of women’s bathrooms. In a wide-ranging interview, they talk about the process of creating their new play, the experience of being black and trans in the arts, tips for the industry, and their hopes for 2021.
Your hit show Burgerz was an intensely personal portrayal of being trans in the UK, and played to sold-out crowds across the country. What made you want to follow it up with Overflow?
‘What Burgerz’ success proves is that people want to hear trans stories, and that our stories can sell out. But I didn’t think that I would be doing a show about transness for quite a while after that. Although I loved Burgerz, it was exhausting. The show was on during a time when there was an increase in transphobic attention and press, even continuing throughout a pandemic which was having such huge global impacts.
This play couldn’t wait until the pandemic was over because trans people were being targeted.
‘That was the last straw for me. It was clear that this play couldn’t wait until the pandemic was over because trans people were being targeted, despite all that we were going through. I wanted to take up space and speak out against all the negativity, using comedy and humour. What’s great about Overflow is that I’m not actually in it – I’ve written the show but it casts Reece Lyons as a lead. I think it’s wonderful that we can have an actor, who happens to be trans, on the mainstage at the Bush.’
Overflow is set in a women’s bathroom cubicle – it’s a space that so often plays host to transphobic media narratives. What made you choose this setting for the show?
‘It’s a space that contention is built around which is why I wanted to focus on it. I wanted to take this debate on a public space, and find a different way to talk about it. But the show is not just about the debate – it’s about the character, Rosie, about her life growing up in bathrooms – the audience experiences her in joy, youthfulness and playfulness. I think it’s important that there is a visual of another experience of being trans, separate from the media narrative.’
This year has been a tumultuous one – with many LGBT+ people facing isolation at home, often forced to live in unaccepting environments. How did this context shape your writing?
‘It has been quite hard. Like many of us, my accommodation had to change quite rapidly during Covid. But in usual times I'm not one of those writers that hides themselves away - I need to socialise, I need to see my favourite drag performers, and go to the pub, it’s where I draw my inspiration. So, writing this without that contact was a challenge. It does really affect your mood and energy and your ability to get inspiration from elsewhere.
The resilience of our community has been an enormous inspiration.
‘But among the challenges, we’ve also witnessed the resilience of our community and that has been an enormous inspiration. Whether that’s through House Party, or with what Kate O’Donnell has done with trans creators online, people are making the best out of a bad situation. So, when I felt like I couldn’t write, I would just look online and realise that if they can do all that, I can write this play.’
Many trans and queer individuals face challenges being accepted within and without their community. But people of colour often face added pressures. How has your experience affected your writing and work?
‘There’s no blueprint for people of colour in the arts, we face multiple axis of oppression. When I was making Burgerz, I used to get feedback that I didn’t represent the ‘true’ trans experience - with white LGBT people loving certain parts of the show, and then being challenging to the parts that were about race. At first I used to find that really isolating, but I also think it’s quite freeing, because it does mean that we can make our own rules.
There’s no blueprint for people of colour in the arts, we face multiple axis of oppression.
‘If you look at the statistics on black trans people in teaching, in drama schools, in casting shows – we’re not there. There are always exceptions to the rule, but it is harder for us. We need to rally behind black trans artists because it has taken more for them to get to that point. Hopefully, we can get more programmes for just us, just trans people of colour, because we’ve got to build alternative routes into the industry.’
For aspiring trans and queer writers and performers, are there any tips that you have for getting into the industry – and what d’you think are the main challenges trans and queer performers face?
‘Our industry is awful at letting in new people. When I started it felt like ‘an old boys club’, and the industry is still not giving people from marginalised groups the autonomy to make choices for themselves. But I will say that it is changing so much. The fact that when I was doing Edinburgh Fringe, there were three different trans artist with sold out shows – that’s just something that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.
‘My main advice would be to put yourself out there. Send emails to artists you like and ask them for tips, ask them for a Skype date, or to read some of your work. Take risks because, nine times out of ten, people will make time. If we all start supporting each other then we can break down barriers.’
As we come to the end of 2020 a year which has highlighted many of the economic, social and racial inequalities that sadly exist across society - what are your hopes for 2021?
‘One of the positives of this year is that we’ve seen an increase in our connection to each other and have focused on supporting our immediate community – away from the big moments. So, when we inevitably face challenges to our rights, I hope that communal solidarity continues.’
Overflow runs from 8 - 22 December at the Bush Theatre. A Post Show Q&A with the cast and creatives behind the play will be held on 10 December and is free to ticket holders on the night. The production will be performed with government guidelines and social distancing measures in place.
£10 tickets available for young people, students and those living and working in Shepherd’s Bush.
A digital release will also be announced at later date.
Tickets are available to purchase on the theatre’s website.