Who Are We?

Theatremakers and performers Travis Alabanza and Lucy Roslyn talk to Tom Wicker about challenging audiences and exploring identity in their shows Burgerz and Orlando

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Published 21 Jul 2019

As trans, non-binary and queer people seek greater visibility while facing discrimination, hostility or misunderstanding, two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe seek to show audiences the fluidity of 21st Century identity. Lucy Rosslyn’s Orlando finds resonance in the past, responding to Virginia Woolf’s seminal 1928 novel about someone who moves through time and genders. Meanwhile, Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz confronts today’s reality.

Queer artist, theatremaker and performer Alabanza was prompted to make the show after someone threw a burger at them—in broad daylight—while they were crossing Waterloo Bridge in April 2016, “and called me a tranny.” This came after Alabanza had experienced two months of different types of harassment. And no one else on the bridge that day did anything. “I was like, ‘this has to stop,’” says Alabanza.

Their first instinct was to seek out work that was talking about transphobic attacks, “but I couldn’t find one that was really encapsulating what I wanted to say.” Alabanza wasn’t interested in making something “that said ‘poor me’. In my ideal world, I wanted to make a show where there were 100 people in the theatre like there were on that bridge, and then turn them into people who would do something.”

Albanza also wanted to challenge “a kind of complacency” around trans narratives. “I think we get a bit too comfortable with identity-based work,” they say. While Alabanza is glad that ‘confessional’ shows exist, and do help some people, they wanted to dig deeper. They didn’t want to make “another solo show of X or Y identity, that’s going to tell a story from A-Z, talk about the first time I tried on a dress and how it feels to be me.” They wanted Burgerz to turn a spotlight on the audience.

Alabanza, who came up via the queer cabaret and club scene, loves work that “doesn’t pretend the audience isn’t in the room”. “Burgerz is the same.” And as someone who grew up on a council estate just outside Bristol, “I feel like a guest, sometimes, in theatre’s house,” Alabanza says. “Theatre comes with all these rules and expectations.” It’s important to them to use their platform (and their social media following) to open the doors to a more diverse crowd.

Alabanza wants Burgerz to be “a fucking good show, trans or not, but also one that says, ‘let’s move beyond this personal narrative and look at the wider implications here'.” And, they add, it’s “as much about race, as much about gender, as much about loneliness.” Alabanza dislikes the way “something happens when we bring marginalised artists into the room – they become that one identity we’ve chosen for them that day.”

Frustration with labels—from "male" or "female" to "straight" or "gay"—is also partly what motivated Lucy Roslyn to create Orlando with director Josh Roche. “It’s definitely not an adaptation,” she stresses, but she found the titular character of Virginia Woolf’s novel, who changes gender during a centuries-long life, “very inspiring.” Woolf’s Orlando is no less of an inspiration to the 21st century character Roslyn plays, who turns to Orlando’s example as she talks to the audience.

“A book can have a massive impact, if it catches you at the right moment,” says Roslyn. While Orlando might be more than 90 years old, Woolf is “so eloquent about that feeling of not knowing who you are – about that feeling you don’t necessarily fit in”. Roslyn’s character in her play “is a person who struggles with the labels and doesn’t feel comfortable with them. They seem quite binary.”

When dialogue about identity is more important than ever, Roslyn says that her Orlando “is not an assault on the audience”. She hopes that they see her character “as like a friend, as someone they know,” as they struggle with society’s expectations and explore who they are. “It’s an optimistic show,” says Roslyn. “The book is optimistic,” she says. “Orlando is always Orlando, whatever happens.”

Like much of British theatre, Edinburgh has often lagged behind in its telling of the stories of minorities and marginalised people other than gay, white men. Alabanza and Roslyn are aware of this. In differing ways, they are committed to expanding that lens – to questioning the orthodoxy of identity.