Travis Alabanza is an emerging queer voice whose performance art, theatre, poetry, and LGBTQ activism is internationally recognized. Before their groundbreaking show Burgerz premieres in London, we spoke to them about how Burgerz came to be made, turning trauma into art, and how you should be asking them about their perfect date.
How do you describe yourself and your work to those who aren’t familiar with you?
I’m a performance artist and a writer. I grew up with no access to the arts so I have quite a cross form way of working, as at one point I just was needing to find any way to get my words and ideas out there. My work talks a lot about “the other,” being an outsider, being neither male or female, not fitting into binaries. My first poetry book was released last year called Before I Step Outside (You Love Me) and it’s a pretty good introduction to my work. My work has colour, boldness, and a desire to wake people up.
What’s the story behind Burgerz?
I’m so excited to have my first theatre show open at this scale, in this moment. It feels exciting because theatre in the UK has a real history — and present — of often leaving behind people like me. Burgerz was first conceived on an iPhone 5 almost two years ago when someone threw a burger at me in broad daylight. No one did anything. I was angry. For a long time the show was led by that moment, yet now, two years on, it feels like Burgerz is asking a different question. Quite plainly: Can I make this burger? I’m a terrible cook — and a bit behind that: Will anyone help me make this burger? The show is about complicity, taking a pledge, and asking us to be better to each other.
So often as trans people we have to turn our trauma into something else as a method of survival. Do you find that to be true?
Ahhh I’m so glad you mentioned this!! A line in my show is “We have to bring in lights, set up a stage, bring in a costume, and perform our pain for you to believe us.” Burgerz was conceived by something traumatic, but the show is definitely not a cycle for people to come and watch my trauma. I understand that work. I’ve made that work. I feel my work for the last three years has been a lot about my direct trauma, but having toured so much with that, and performing a lot of that — I started to ask “What more could I do?” I feel so much more comfortable with audiences now, and with that comfort comes a desire — and more knowledge — in how I want to make them uncomfortable. What does it mean for us to see trans people and other marginalized bodies as dominant on stage? Will audiences still watch us? For me, although this show is inescapable from the trauma it is born from — it is definitely trying to redirect that pain into an action. Maybe this show really isn’t about me, but has everything to do with you.
There’s also a very real tension between having to uphold an ideal as a public person that everything is always OK when it often isn’t. How do you find that balance?
I’m lucky to have really great and intimate friendships where I can be open about who I am, how I am feeling, and when I am not OK. I am messy. I make mistakes. I hurt. I cry. And all the other things. And I’m really hoping we get to a place where we do not expect perfection from people — particularly those marginalized — to care for them. I really strive to be able to say “I’m not OK, of course I’m not — have you seen this world?” And for that to be OK. Some days, it’s harder to be honest, but I think working and fighting towards a politic with honesty and imperfection within it is much more exciting to me. I switch off from online and my phone when I’m on weekends a lot of the time, or go on much less. I remind myself making mistakes is part of processes. And I hang out with people who remind me of humanity.
You mentioned in your Dazed interview with Shon Faye that you think this moment of interest in trans identity will fade soon. Do you see any strategies or plays to get people to care about us beyond this zeitgeist of hyper-visibility? In what ways?
I am hoping hyper-visibility fades. It is not sustainable, it often doesn’t equal real progress, and it really means we forget about what trans liberation could look like. I think it’s about caring about the boring trans people, the trans people that won’t be on a magazine, or do not want to be in a film, or don’t want to post on social media. It’s about taking the visibility as a reminder to go away and research and learn about local trans activists doing the work, trans organizations that require your support, your trans friends in your phonebook who might be needing a text or a check-in. I think about Action For Trans Health in the UK doing incredible work, Bent Bars prison pal service, or activists such as Nim Ralph and Gendered Intelligence, who have existed and will continue to exist beyond moments of hyper-visibility. How can we direct our time and energy into these places, too? I think maybe it’s also about redistributing resources — can we gain access to resources through the increased visibility and then place them back into our communities, with our communities in control? Often this type of visibility comes with sharp parameters, conditions we must follow — and it always reminds me that visibility is not the goal, or the destination, or the key to being free.
Where do you see yourself and your work going in the next few years?
I hope on a little vacation next! [Laughs] But in all seriousness, I’m looking forward to the collaborations I have in the pipeline. Working away from solo work for a while and collaborating with other trans and black folk. Burgerz will — fingers crossed — do some touring, and I hope to just continue to have space and commissions and people and places that put trust in me to experiment and find new ways to bring my work into spaces.
I’m excited as in February I have an exhibition collaboration with Denny Kaulbach opening at the Free Word Centre in London, so I’m looking forward to a chance to create physical work out of performance for a while.
What do you foresee for the future?
Hopefully a future with less assumptions being made. In the immediate future, I see another Solange album in the cards — positive thinking.
In the US, obviously we’re dealing with our own dangerous issues of trans people being pushed even further to the margins of society and we’ve seen the same kind of extremism growing in the UK. What’s that experience been like for you and the community, and are there ways the global community can better support one another?
It’s been difficult both personally and watching as a community. Unfortunately, my face was central to one of the big anti-trans media campaigns when I ended up in national news for being kicked out of a changing room. It was personally a really hard time to suddenly to see what felt like the weight of transphobic press attention and to be the subject. Articles misgendering me, calling me a danger to children and women — it was rough. That was almost a year ago, and it seems like the media hasn’t stopped since. Watching my friends I do and do not know be victim to this vitriol, and the material effects it has on our mental health is really challenging. I’ve never experienced anything like this.
I think what we need is to keep speaking about it, demanding action, loving our friends even harder, and for cisgender folk to not pretend it isn’t happening. Let us switch off from the news, whilst you shout and defend us in it. I think and hope we can build more awareness of the struggles globally, and that then we can continue to build a solidarity that isn’t just local, but global. It’s about listening to different perspectives, understanding we may share an identities name but not experience — and therefore listening to how others are wanting support.
What are you never asked that you wish you were asked/able to talk more about?
At the moment, all I can think about is dating. It’s so weird? Like, I just want to be asked more about my perfect date idea, and then for someone to take me on my perfect date. I always get asked all the harsh, serious, intense questions, but sometimes your girl-boy just wants someone to ask the real important questions: Arcade or movies?
What are you most looking forward to?
The next episode of The Good Place.
Burgerz opens at Hackney Showroom in London on the 23rd of October Until the 3rd of November. With shows also in Manchester and Liverpool. Tickets are available now.