A look at the trans shows of this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe
- Rebecca Monks
- 12 July 2017
Adam, Eve, You've Changed and Testosterone explore the complexity of gender
Genitals do not equal gender. Boys are not always born with penises and girls do not always have vaginas, just as life is not black and white, pink and blue, gay and straight. The notion of gender is far more complex, and speaks to questions of identity, representation and individuality.
This important message is powerfully present within this year's Fringe. The Traverse has programmed a National Theatre of Scotland double bill of Adam and Eve, which offer authentic insights into the life of a trans person. Adam follows a man born into a girl's body in Egypt, and features a 200-strong digital trans choir from around the world while Jo Clifford performs Eve, an exploration of one woman's journey from 1950s boyhood to present day.
Trans Creative, the UK's first transgender-led theatre company, has You've Changed at Summerhall, an autobiographical multi-arts performance which reflects artistic director Kate O'Donnell's own experiences. And at the Pleasance, Rhum and Clay's Testosterone is set in a male changing-room, exploring the idea of masculinity through Kit, a trans man, who finds himself in an all-male environment for the first time.
Speaking to the creators of these works, there's one overriding commonality: trans narratives must be told by trans people. 'I'm happy to speak on behalf of Trans Creative, but I'm a cisgendered person and Kate is an award-winning transgender artist and activist,' says the company's Megan Griffith. 'We feel it's only right that she does all the press and that trans stories are told by trans people themselves.'
This isn't some rigid company policy, it's a matter of principle that speaks to the company's overall aim in presenting their work: 'to increase the positive representation of trans people in the arts, by engaging people in art advocacy and education, as well as engaging more trans people in the arts themselves.'
This approach is shared by Rhum and Clay. Artistic director Julian Spooner worked closely with Kit, a trans male and theatre-maker. 'When you're making theatre like this, on a basic level there's a duty of care you have to the performer,' says Spooner. 'You're bringing someone into the rehearsal room who's telling their own story and you have to respect that. Kit is in no way a vulnerable person, but nonetheless it's quite a vulnerable experience for anyone to talk about their past especially when you're talking about gender.'
Telling a story that's true to the individual was something Cora Bissett also encountered when directing Adam. The idea for the show came to her around four years ago, when she saw a trans man named Adam talk about his experiences at a Citizens outreach event.
'He shared this incredible story of how he had been born biologically female. He had always known inside that he was male but had absolutely no reference point for that. He had to leave Egypt. He had to flee for his life and through a series of bizarre circumstances ended up in a Glasgow flat. The passion and the raw honesty of the way he told his story just moved me incredibly.' Once Bissett approached Adam, he was involved every step of the way, and after initially rejecting the idea, he decided to play himself. 'I hope this play opens up the trans experience for people, but there isn't one definitive experience,' she says. 'Adam's journey is one story, but that's not the exact same as another person who's transitioning.'
In Testosterone, Kit's story, too, is unique to him, and should not be taken as an all-encompassing representation. 'Everybody's experience and story is different,' Spooner says. 'We're just telling his. Kit was very clear that he wanted to create a representation of a trans person who isn't just a victim.'
This is also important in Trans Creative's You've Changed. 'The narrative is always "born in the wrong body" or "depressed" or "sex workers",' Griffith says. 'And they often end up abused or dead. It's our whole goal to create positive and authentic trans representation, and seeing change as a positive thing.' Spooner also hopes that Testosterone will speak to positivity. 'We felt a lot of trans representation in media, film and theatre is from the position of being a victim, which is not uncommon. Kit was very adamant that he wanted to portray a trans character, not as a victim but as a rounded person, with flaws of his own.'
These productions are essential to continuing the trans narrative. As Bissett says, 'right now it feels like there's an awakening to the fact that being transgender is a real thing and it's not a tiny minority. There are a lot of people in our world who feel like that and we have to get on board with it and understand that. Fifty years ago, people had to go "oh, homosexuality is real": to negate that or debate it in any way right now would just seem utterly ludicrous to anyone of a sound mind. We're on a much earlier journey with understanding what a trans person is, and I hope this play goes some way to helping an audience really get that.'