After someone threw a burger at them and shouted a transphobic slur, Travis Alabanza became obsessed with burgers, an obsession that climaxed with their critically acclaimed show Burgerz. It explored how trans bodies survive and how, by them reclaiming an act of violence, we can address our own complicity. Two years on from its premiere, Alabanza has penned In Tandem – part of Paines Plough’s digital series, The Place I Call Home. Sam Bennett caught up with the playwright and poet, who spoke about the effect lockdown has had on their work as well as life in general – doing so from the comfort of their bed.
Is 10 am early for you?
It’s not but I’ve been working a lot more recently after a quieter summer and have been taking Thursdays to stay in bed all morning.
Ten has become early for me, as of this year. Working from home with a more chilled morning means ten has become the new eight… We’re still in challenging times, what tier are you in?
What tier in my mental state or where I am in the UK? My mental state tier is everchanging but I’m in Bristol which is the lower tier. I’ve never been good at listening to the government if I’m honest, so I’ve not really changed the precautions I’ve taken throughout lockdown to now – I feel more comfortable going with that.
With current and varying restrictions and differing degrees of lockdown, I’m sensing less dancing, less clapping and a bit less spirit than during the national lockdown.
Yeah, I definitely agree. You’re not finding your cheeriness in the same way you did in national lockdown; you have to find it in more personal ways now. With these restrictions and the way in which the Tory government winds down on people that aren’t the upper per cent, it takes time to feel its effect. In England it’s a blessing and a curse how tradition can often be used to bring joy but also to mask something a bit darker underneath. The clapping was such a quintessentially British thing to do every Thursday, but what it’s hiding is a completely stressed out, underfunded NHS service.
One of the devastating effects of COVID has been on the nightlife industry, putting queer spaces even more at risk of closure than they were already. You’ve done a Radio 4 documentary (Going to the Gay Bar) about such venues, how saddening has it been to watch them suffer this year and where is there hope?
I didn’t start in a theatre training course, I started in clubs and queer bars. And doing the documentary with Radio 4, I learnt that pre-pandemic, LGBT spaces were in a complicated and uncertain place. But this year I’ve felt so uncreative, and I’ve just turned to my Instagram and seen all these club kids that did not stop. There was this ‘Well there’s nothing else to do but make’ attitude. Whether it was for their own creativity, their income or because it’s just what they do, I think it’s so inspiring. It’s sad to see the effect on all these places, part of our history, like the RVT. When I look around the arts, there are so many ways to feel a bit depleted, but I always go to the cabaret and queer art performers to feel hope because they just have it in bucket-loads.
With regards your own creativity, I’ll move on to In Tandem, your new play…
It’s so funny hearing the word ‘new’ because I wrote it back in national lockdown which feels like 7 million years ago because of the way time has been moving. It’s definitely a lockdown play, that’s what I’ll get out of the way first. This came to me from Charlotte Bennett and Katie Posner at Paines Plough during lockdown and I was like, ‘I’m not going to hide from having to write about it.’ It’s really important to think about what it is I want to archive about this moment because I don’t think I will write about a lockdown again. I wanted to archive keeping a relationship going via Zoom, and what that looks like. I was thinking loads about my mum at the time and so decided to write a three-part play about a mum and her daughter trying to keep in touch over Zoom, and just looking at how much of the rest of the world was creeping into their almost normal conversations.
What aspects of the rest of the world in particular, tend to creep in?
The piece was written during the Black Lives Matter movement. You’ll see there’s a tiredness coming through in the piece. The characters – the mother and the daughter – try and talk about their day, about doing a Zumba class, and they keep on coming up against the exhaustion, whether that’s the mum feeling tiredness about racism at work or black people experiencing COVID deaths at higher rates, or the daughter feeling anxious about a comment made. I try to really channel that fatigue into the work. I was trying to write this joyful togetherness of these people but, no matter what, what was seeping through was this hint to something else.
The work is a collaboration with Magdalena Zarębska-Wegrzyn.
Our plays are two separate plays but shown together – it was really fun. Prior to lockdown I was performing solo and it’s been nice having this space away from touring for the first time in three years; Burgerz was on tour for two years and before that I was in Jubilee – I’ve been on stage for about three and a half years non-stop now. This year I’ve had time to develop other strands of my work, so a lot of collaborations are going to be coming out and Magda was great. For me this is kind of the first thing I’ve written after being like ‘I’m not going to be creative during this time’ and so it’s really helpful to have a collaboration because someone else is there to guide you and talk back your ideas to you – and the fact we don’t share the same first language makes it even more fun.
Has Burgerz achieved what you wanted it to?
It’s so hard to measure achievement. What I will say is that when I first made Burgerz in 2018 for Hackney Showroom, I thought that was the only time I’d get to do the show; that after three weeks, that was it, I didn’t think I’d be performing it in Brazil the day lockdown was called in the UK – two years on. My goal didn’t really change, my goal was to have fun. The secondary goal was for people to come and realise that there is a deeper conversation around transness and for people to go away talking about it. During the Edinburgh run a year later, seeing audience members who weren’t my usual crowd, I knew the show had the power to shift conversation and that was really exciting for me. Who knows how to measure impact? I’m not sure. But I am really proud of that show. Over the last few years, I haven’t been able to be proud of it because I’ve just been working. During this time out, I was like, ‘You know what? F*ck, I’m really proud.’ I can say that now, I’m really proud of doing that show. It was protested, it had anti-trans people comment on it online from the very beginning, it had people heckle, and it continued to sell out and hopefully bring new ideas to audience members. So many people – when I was talking about Burgerz before it was made – were like, ‘that sounds really niche’ or ‘that sounds like it might be too specific’. I hope it showed you can be specific and universal at the same time.
So, people bought tickets in order to shout things at you?
I know! I said, ‘Honey, I still get the royalties.’ I will never forget Edinburgh when we had a standing ovation and someone was trying to heckle through the standing ovation. I was like, ‘Baby, you’re still standing!’ If you search the show on Mumsnet or whatever there are all these people lying about what happens in the show, making fun of how I look, really childish things. There’s a difference between that and a bad review – bad reviews I can take. It was a real eyeopener – like, ‘ok, sh*t, if you want to be political and trans in the UK right now, this is what will happen.’I kind of knew that going in. I said to Sam Curtis Lindsay, my director, ‘I’m just warning you, I think this show, combined with the current political moment around trans people, combined with a bit of a social media following, might cause some sh*t.’ I was ready for it. F*ck it. I learnt how to be political at a very young age. I walked out of my room at 14 years old, black, in a council estate, with a crop-top and makeup on. I knew very quickly that something happens when you do that.
What else is on your agenda?
More days in bed until 11! And definitely on my agenda – and I’m not just saying this – is watching all the other stuff at Paines Plough, I’m really excited by the season, I love that they’re being so experimental with how they’re showing their work. I’m so glad to see so many artists pushing form – I’m excited to watch Paula Varjack’s show this week. And I’ve got some shows coming out that I can't talk about yet – I’m enjoying writing and taking my time with it.
27, 28, 29 October, 9 am and 6 pm