ugh gender

(From the program note for Theatre21’s production of Kaleidoscope, the first run of a show which will hopefully run many, many times more.)

It was October last year when Finn Davis texted me out of the blue to ask: “who’s your favourite actor in SUDS?” Fearing a trap I asked why, to which he replied, “you’re going to write a one person show, I’m going to direct it, and we need someone to act in it!” When, a few weeks later, we met to discuss, and I tentatively slid the idea of “something about gender, I guess…?” across the table to him, the mental image I had was something incredibly small, a blip in the theatre machine.

I never expected something like this.

Lately I’ve been asking a lot of questions–of myself, of other people–about what it means to make ‘queer theatre’. There seem to be so many ideas about how to do it, from protest to celebration, from violent overhaul to gentle handholding through the thickets of political correctness. All of them, it seems, assert themselves to be the “right” way. However, through working on this show I’ve come to learn that what makes queer theatre what it is, is the courage to say: “this is who I am. I’m not going away.”

Kaleidoscope is a shoddily assembled patchwork, roughly stitched together from too many different fabrics. It is a series of extraordinary moments which make up an ordinary life–a cluster of jagged stories which come together to make a picture. It’s irreverant, it’s otherworldly, it’s angry. It’s forgiving. It’s a fractured picture, and one which may not always make sense, but it is a vibrant picture. In the face of great pain and struggle we lead shimmering, beautiful, happy lives.

At the heart of it, I wrote this show because I wanted to see trans people on stages or screens who looked and acted like me. And there is a lot of me in Gabriel, but he is very much his own person–throughout this rehearsal process, I have found that I have disagreed, or come to agree with, a number of his ideas. Every trans experience is different (the disagreements Harry and I have had about how we relate to the script alone are proof of that). This play does not attempt to speak for all experiences. This play is one, everyday, nuanced experience–but, of course, one which shares some broader commonalities with other experiences of dysphoria. I encourage you all to use this the beginning, and not the end, of your journey to learn what you can about gender identity. The exhibition run in conjunction with this show contains a handful more trans stories, and we have included a number of links in this program to further this learning.

I must thank everyone who read this script in some stage of its completion, as well as those others whose encouragement and support were essential to me on levels both professional and personal. Thank you to Finn Davis, whose determination to never impose on a story that wasn’t his own has made for a tremendous working relationship. The fact that you never saw this show as a question is testament to your ridiculous and humbling faith in me–this show would not be without you. Thank you, most importantly, to Harry Winsome, who has not only so fantastically brought Gabriel to life before my very eyes, but who has become one of my closest friends. That I can share this experience with someone who truly understands its meaning and gravity is a blessing.

Kaleidoscope is about a lot of things. It’s about gender dysphoria, and the experience of one trans life. It’s a story about mental health. It’s a story about being gay, about being in love, about growing up, it’s about trying to work out where you are. It’s a story that asks: “what is Normal?” Having asked myself that so many times, I am relieved to realise that there is no Normal. That, among many things, is what Gabe has taught me. I hope it’s something he can teach you, too.

-Charlie O’Grady