The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Transgender drama: Pronoun
To be clear at the outset, this was the production of a youth theatre group, not a highly resourced team of experienced, professional career actors – although some of the performances left a powerful impression, and the show as a whole achieved some remarkable moments. Pronoun, written by Evan Placey, follows the transition of a transgender teenager who identifies as male. Unlike many of the one-person transgender shows in the Festival that are more personal reflection, if not autobiographical, in Pronoun an approx. 10-person cast allows us to see the impact of transitioning on close friends and family members, as well as on a distraught former boyfriend. Standout moments include the distress of the protagonist's sister, who, clutching photographs of past family holidays, pleads that all their happy memories together can't just disappear or the sibling's smile be dismissed as fake as if the happiness never happened – the sister's own joyful memories suddenly consigned to nothingness. Similarly, a moving meditation by the parents at the end mourns the loss of their daughter, and how no pronoun or any word at all exists to convey the grief they feel. A tenser scene involves the protagonist Dean, aggressively pushing his former, still-in-love ex-boyfriend in the boy's toilets, daring the ex-boyfriend to take a swing and prove the ex- doesn't regard him as a girl anymore. On a lighter note is the surreal five-person unit who appear at various points as the school board, anxious to convey sympathy and demonstrate trans-friendly policies before the OFSTED inspection in a few months' time.
By utilizing the acting of a youth group to enact such scenes, the production has both pros and cons, with voice projection especially affecting particular scenes. However, the cast size and the actors' youth also allows the production to reach places other one-person, professional trans shows cannot go, not least in conveying the multi-faceted impact of a teenager coming out as trans. Overall, this was a production that brought a genuinely different quality to trans-based theatre. It left the audience to depart with the fruits of the kind of transgender theatre we need more of, with some memorable performances as well as poignant moments and complex talking points.
Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series – Trans Writes (Edinburgh Book Festival)
A curious event at the EdBookFest, devoted to trans writers but without a single trans person as chair or on the four-person panel, the latter taking it in turns to read the work of a trans artist. Don't get me wrong, ally-ship is important and I don't doubt the sincerity and support of the established professional writers who took it in turns to read a passage from a trans-written text. But seriously, a trans-based event without trans people? Given the set-up, perhaps wisely, no discussion followed, but having raced across town for this event, the effect also seemed abrupt and a missed opportunity for a deeper exploration of the plight of trans people where the oppression can be truly horrific.
Which isn't to say I didn't come away with anything. Of the four featured trans writers whose work was read, CeCe McDonald, Imogen Binnie, Gwen Benaway and Calvin Gimplevich, I hadn't heard of the latter two and now look forward to reading their work. And for the uninitiated, the life and work of CeCe McDonald deserves careful attention, her documentary Free Cece!, while currently available only to institutional purchase, is a thought-provoking glimpse of the intersectional impact of transphobia and racism on the lives of trans women of colour in the Global North. For those wishing to explore this area further, I recommend the outstanding anthology Trapdoor (2017).
Pass (radio show) – Kate O'Donnell
A live studio show performed for the coming broadcast, 13 October, on Radio 3, Pass is an engaging and likeable drama based on true events in the life of trans woman and artist Kate O'Donnell. Its premise detonates conventional coming-out narratives by having the protagonist's mother announce simultaneously that she's leaving the father; an opportunity ensues for mother-daughter bonding in exceptional circumstances. Pass is wittily written and the performances of both Kate and Sue Jenkins as the mother deliver laughs and poignancy. At the end of the studio recording, the audience pleaded for Kate to turn the single episode into a serial. I hope she does.
(Pronoun continues its run until Saturday 24 August 2019).