The Fringe has stopped flirting with transgender, staging a raft of shows determined to challenge our notions of identity, writes Susan Mansfield
THE Fringe holds up a mirror to life. Issues and concerns being explored in the collective consciousness have ways of surfacing in its vast current. So, perhaps, it should come as no surprise this year that the transgender presence on the Fringe is stronger and more visible than ever.
This mirrors a much greater visibility in the wider world. Earlier this year, athlete Bruce Jenner – now Caitlyn Jenner – became one of American’s most high-profile transitions and was photographed in lingerie by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vanity Fair. Last year, Laverne Cox, who won an Emmy for her role in Orange Is The New Black, became the first openly trans person on the cover of Time.
Paul Lucas, New York producer-turned-writer whose verbatim show Trans Scripts is in a prime-time afternoon slot at the Pleasance, believes that high-profile trans people help spread understanding, but there is much work still to do. “I think it’s improving in leaps and bounds. Laverne Cox is gorgeous, Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair is gorgeous. Do they represent the typical transgender female experience? No, not at all. I wanted to offer audience members a glimpse into the lives of not-famous people, who didn’t have access to expensive surgery.”
Trans Scripts, which follows the model of successful Fringe shows such as The Exonerated, and last year’s Coming Out, is based on interviews with 75 trans women around the world. The six performers include New York trans performer and activist Calpernia Addams, and Rebecca Root, who will star in the BBC’s first transgender sitcom, Boy Meets Girl, scheduled to air later this year. Lucas says he wants to keep the audience guessing about whether or not the performers are telling their own stories, and whether or not they are all trans.
Giving voice to a multiplicity of narratives is crucial. “It’s particularly important for transgender people, because for a long time, people felt they had to tell the same story. Between the 1950s and the 1980, unless you told a very specific story, you would not be diagnosed as gender dysphoric or have access to hormones or surgery or analysis. This is about expanding the narrative, and accommodating as many voices as possible.
“There is no one transgender narrative,” says Lucas. “My characters ideally will stand on stage and argue with one another. One character will state that, unless you have so-called bottom surgery, you are not a woman. Another character will say, ‘What difference does it make what’s going on beneath my skirt?’”
On the Fringe this year, a spectrum of shows in a range of styles examine aspects of the trans experience, from a revival of Hedwig And The Angry Inch (at Greenside), to TRANSformer, a performance of Lou Reed’s cult album by alt-drag icon Jonny Woo (at the Voodoo Rooms). Stand-up comic Will Franken, who transitioned this year, will perform her first Fringe gigs as Sarah (The Stand), and trans stories are part of a range of plays, including Swallow, by Stef Smith, which headlines the Traverse programme.
Jo Clifford, who is at Summerhall in her own one-woman play, The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven, is convinced things have come a long way. When the play, in which Clifford, a transgender woman, plays Jesus, premiered at Glasgay in 2009, it was greeted by tabloid vitriol, box office staff were threatened and a police officer had to be stationed in the theatre on opening night. “The Archbishop of Glasgow said it was hard to imagine a greater affront to the Christian faith than me,” Clifford says. “In a way, the play is a very traditional work of devotion, which makes it all the more ironic that all these Christians went apeshit about it. If only they’d read it.”
She says the experience left her “incredibly vulnerable”, and she came in for further a backlash when she was awarded a small amount of money by Creative Scotland to turn the play into a book, with questions asked in the Scottish Parliament about the misuse of public money. Now, the show has been selected for the Made in Scotland showcase,“a real vindication” for Clifford. “When I was first transitioning, I used to get abuse shouted at me all the time,” she says. “Society has really moved on. I still feel amazed by the fact that I can live openly as a trans woman and function professionally as a writer.”
Clifford has been celebrated as a playwright for more than 30 years (she won a Fringe First for Losing Venice in 1985), but only began acting after her transition. “Performance was out of the question for me, all the time I lived as a man. I loved acting at school – I would get all the girls’ parts – and I think, looking back, I had found my vocation. When I wrote a play, I was performing it in my head, that’s how I knew if a line worked. It was like a stream that had been forced underground, and as I came out as a trans woman, that stream, that energy, was able to come to the surface. It’s extraordinary to me, and very wonderful, to suddenly discover, in my sixties, this thing I thought was lost for ever.”
Like many transgender people, Clifford believes the subject of gender itself is ripe for an overhaul. “I think there are more than two genders. It doesn’t take much research to understand that many societies in the world recognise that fact, ours is the exception. I think I’m a bissu [a fifth gender recognised by the Bugi people of Indonesia], but you can’t have it on your passport. One’s got to live in a world that doesn’t quite admit you exist.”
As well as transgender stories, this year’s Fringe has numerous shows exploring the complexity and fluidity of gender, such as Boys Who Like To Play With Dolls at Dance Base, Ursula Invents Old Women at C Nova and Donald Does Dusty at Summerhall, the Fringe debut of Diane Torr, who began performing as a pioneering female-to-male drag artist in New York in 1981.
Donald Does Dusty pays tribute both to Torr’s late brother Donald, and to Dusty Springfield, whom Donald loved to impersonate, and who was stigmatised when she became the first pop star in the UK to come out in 1970. As a gay teenager in Aberdeen, Donald made his younger sister act as “audience, judge and jury” on his Dusty performances.
“He would get dressed in my mother’s evening clothes, her diamante earrings and high heels. I would watch him sashaying across the floor of the bedroom, and would have to award points on how well he did Dusty Springfield. After the eighth rendition of Wishin And Hopin I was sick of it, and I was always scared we’d get caught. But I think Donald had reached the conclusion that the normal rules didn’t apply to him, he just did whatever he wanted, and he got away with it, because he was very funny and charming and always had an answer.”
She credits Donald, who went on to become a dancer and actor before he died in 1992, with the inspiration for much of her performance work. “I think what I learned from him was not just to question authority but to ignore it altogether. We always said we would do a performance where I played him and he played me, but it never happened. The show is my story too, I play myself, myself as my brother, my brother doing Dusty, and I play Dusty as well.”
She says that discussion about gender is always pertinent. “It’s an idea that’s always current. Every generation asks those questions when they hit puberty: ‘Who am I?’ ‘How am I? Trans people are at the forefront of the gender debate. They deserve to be included and supported and accepted and acknowledged. I’d like to live in a society which is open to the choices that other people make.”
Trans Scripts, Pleasance Courtyard, until 31 August, 3pm / listings
The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven, Summerhall, dates and times vary / listings
Donald Does Dusty, Summerhall, 17-30 August (not 25), 7.35pm / listings
Published in Scotland on Sunday on 9 August 2015
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