Ahead of the UK premiere of Transgender Seeking… Pink Fringe had a natter with performer Sunny Drake about his work. Catch the show at The Basement on Thursday 24th October. Tickets available here.
How did you get into performance? What was the first piece you ever made?
Probably my first show was in kindergarten with my first crush when I was 5. Our show consisted of a wedding ceremony at lunchtime with costume rings made of grass and he spit a peach pit into my mouth as the ceremony/ performance finale (oh the romance!). I did high school theatre but unfortunately me and the Bard didn’t really get along that well (no disrespect intended – love ya work Shakespeare, just not for me). So in my twenties I began writing gritty poetry and doing movement based work, which became spoken word, which became more theatre-ish, then puppets started crashing my shows (and no matter what I do, they just won’t seem to leave the rehearsal room, so I always have to find a role for them), followed by an increasing weaving in highly integrated and inventive video, animation and media projections. My work slowly turned from gritty to absurd, as I found that humour let me explore serious topics without losing the audience to pits of despair along the way. After making a lot of shorter shows, my first full length solo show was called “Other-wise” and it was essentially how I came out to my family as transgendered. I intended on documenting the process of telling them and making that into a show, but instead the show became all about the increasingly ridiculous procrastinations from telling them, including making a theatre show about not telling them. My work is often autobiographically inspired – my life spills onto the stage and also my theatre work drastically impacts my life because of the high personal stakes of the work that I do.
What was the inspiration for Transgender Seeking…?
I made the first (much shorter) version about 5 years ago when I was heartbroken. I find heartbreak brings out the messiest sides in me. The sides I’m not always proud of. It’s so much easier to live my politics when everything is going well, but when the shit hits the fan, I find it more difficult to live my radical politics. The default ways of behaving (that have been shaped by the messed up systems I grew up in) ooze to the surface. And because I’m not proud of these things, I’ve often tried to hide them rather than being accountable for them. And I know that lots of other people do this too, so I wanted to make a show that spoke to this and called myself and others to both be compassionate for ourselves and support and challenge each other to keep growing and stepping it up.
You’re currently on tour with Transgender Seeking… in the USA, how’s it going?
I’m completely delighted with the responses of audiences! In each the places so far (Puerto Rico, New Orleans and Chicago) I’ve had invitations to return and present the work again. I also did a two week artist residency in Puerto Rico during which I worked further on the show alongside another 5 amazing talented artists all working on their own pieces and mutually supporting each other- I’m really happy with the way Transgender Seeking… deepened in that time. One thing that is surprising me, is that the show is getting really strong positive reactions not only from queer and trans communities (which I expected), but also non-queer, non-trans communities. That can be a difficult juggle – sometimes work which appeals to a broader audience waters down the queerness to appeal to mainstream tastes, but this show is uber-queer in content and form! Oh right, most people can relate internal insecurities, trying to pretend everything is ok on the outside and having trouble living up to their visions. Of course!
How do you approach making your work accessible, when it is so often has deeply personal themes?
In the process of making my shows, I engage with my community (and beyond) – for example with conversations, interviews, dinners, reading etc. This allows me to map out the topic I’m exploring – in what ways are other people’s experiences similar to mine? In what ways are their experiences different? I can then create work that tells my very specific story (well, a fictionalised, dramatised version of it) in a way that connects with the similarities of other people’s stories, and also acknowledges some of the differences. So for example, an audience member may not understand exactly how I experience my trans male body or what it’s like to date as a trans man, but they may have the experience of feeling insecure about their body or feeling like other’s don’t really treat them how they want to be treated. I find that as long as my specific story gets to the emotional truth, many people can relate to it even though the details of their stories are different.
Accessibility in terms of the political content is likewise really important to me – my work uses personal story to tackle big topics which are deeply political, but in ways that break down jargon and make social commentary more understandable and also way more fun. I also do a bunch of blog writing (check it out atwww.sunnydrake.com) using my own personal experience to talk about social change and politics. The titles of my blog articles are things like “Boy Tits in the Locker-room” and “My Boyfriend is a Lady”.
You run a number of LGBTIQ workshops, many of which revolve around performance work. What do you believe are the benefits of engaging in performance work for LGBTIQ individuals?
Many LGBTIQ people don’t get to see their stories represented in the mainstream. For instance in Australia, North America and the UK, books, movies, theatre and schooling systems are mostly strongly shaped by white class privileged able-bodied cisgendered (non-trans) male values and stories. And of the LGBTIQ content that is available, even much of that is strongly dominated by white middle class cisgendered gay men’s stories. When people don’t get to see themselves reflected in cultural content, conversations are stifled, expressions are limited and our social change movements are stunted. Oh yeah, and it’s just boring too. Growing up in Brisbane, Australia, I didn’t actually meet another person that I knew was trans until I was in my early twenties, followed by the second person in my late twenties. I spent my entire childhood without any role models or any evidence that I could even exist as a trans man. So, I feel very strongly about supporting LGBTIQ people – particularly those whose voices are under-represented even within queer communities, to create performances and other creative work which tells their own stories, carves out their existence and thereby transforms our communities and our world.
Brighton is well known for being a very liberal city with a high proportion of LGBTIQ residents; have you ever performed your work in more conservative cities or countries?
Yes! Quite a number of times and I was surprised by the positive responses that I’ve gotten, even if somewhat guarded at first. For example, I had the two (and only two) members of a high school Gay Straight Alliance, a group set up to advocate for LGBTIQ rights at the school, in a very homophobia conservative small rural town, write to me imploring me to come and perform at their school. After a three month negotiation process with the school principal (during which I had to edit my piece to take out the word “orgasm” and replace the word “boy tits” with “boy breasts”), I finally got approval to perform at the high school for several of their classes. The audience was dead quiet during the show. I was convinced I was going to get rotten tomatoes or rocks thrown at as soon as I stepped off the stage. We had a post show discussion which also started with 2 minutes of silence, then one brave student asked a question and the entire audience literally exploded with questions and conversation. The teacher said he’d never seen the student’s so animated. The discussion was very sophisticated, juicy and very positive – I was surprised by the nuances of what they’d understood and were engaging with. I also performed in a small town in upstate New York, and a straight farmer came up to me afterwards and said he’d never even heard of a transgender person but he was surprised to relate so strongly to the story because he had undergone constant worry about his family accepting different things about him too.
We’re really excited to present Transgender Seeking… in Brighton, what else are you up to whilst you’re in the UK?
Well, Brighton is the European premier of the show (go Brighton!), after which I’m doing 4 shows in London – at Birbeck College, Goldsmiths (presented by Gendered Intelligence), Bar Wotever and Duckies. Then shows in Berlin, Hamburg and possibly Barcelona and/or Dublin. I’ll also be presenting various workshops including Creating Autobiographical Performance, Feminist Masculinities and Personal Accountability in Relationships. This is my first tour to the UK/ Europe – I hope to start touring to the UK every year or so!