Theatre

Travis Alabanza: 'If I can make an audience laugh then I can make them think'

Travis Alabanza uses art and humour to make a serious point. With two shows on the London stage, they're here to remind us that people are complex and we should all be free to follow our urges

Travis Alabanza

Travis Alabanza. Image: supplied

It’s 10 in the morning and Travis Alabanza is already a little distracted when I call. The virtual queue they’re currently waiting in, alongside 400,000 other Beyoncé fans similarly perspiring for Renaissance tickets, doesn’t seem to be moving. Or is it? It’s hard to tell. “She doesn’t give us any warning, does she?” the writer, performer and theatre maker jokes as they leave the room they’re currently in for somewhere less frantic. Should I try them a little later? Oh no, comes the reply – their boyfriend is in pole position next door. “I said to him, ‘Look, identity politics has gone so far that the only way you can be a good ally is by getting me these tickets.’”

This off-the-cuff phone exchange may seem like an incidental aside, but it goes some way to illustrate Alabanza’s inimitable appeal – both onstage and off it. Alongside the humour and the quick wit, there is always a further point to make, a deeper layer to excavate. Whether it’s sending tip buckets around the main auditorium of the Royal Court Theatre to draw attention to low wages in the arts, or wearing a fascinator headpiece made up of plastic cheeseburgers to emblematise a play exploring transphobia, Alabanza’s art isn’t here to toe the line. It’s here to make us laugh, to make us think. And once it’s done that, it’s here to galvanise.

“For me, culture has always been the way to communicate to people,” Alabanza says as we discuss how their writing (their memoir about life beyond the binary, None of the Above, was published last year) and theatre making (Overflow, for instance, a play produced in 2020 that tackled trans safety within the setting of a public toilet) has enabled them to explore gender, race and class in uniquely cerebral ways.

“If I can make an audience laugh, if I can make them cheer and whoop, then I can make them think,” the Bristol-raised author says. “Growing up, the only time I got to see ideas was if it permeated into mainstream culture. I didn’t follow the news, we didn’t have newspapers around the house.” Home, for Alabanza, was a red-brick council house in a neglected suburb of Bristol – a world away from the privilege and entitlement of West London’s Sloane Square, where Alabanza’s latest play has just embarked on a month-long run at the aforementioned Royal Court Theatre.

Alabanza doesn’t have much time for those who claim they’ve “ascended” from one art form to another. “I’ve always found that uncomfortable,” they say – and it’s a big reason they created Sound of the Underground, billed as “part-play, part-raucous cabaret, part-workers’ manifesto, join eight underground drag icons as they spill the tea, free the nipple and fight the shadowy forces that threaten their livelihoods.”

In the five years that Alabanza has been “away” from the queer club scene (they sold out their first show at the iconic LGBT+ bar and drag venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2013 – in their late teens), the dialogue surrounding drag has changed significantly. Which is where their tongue-in-cheek plot to kill RuPaul steps in, asking serious questions about the price that’s paid by a community when an art form is commodified for a mainstream audience. Before reality television such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, the stars of the show used to be longstanding local performers.

“Now you can go on a TV show for 10 minutes and your booking fee will be ten times the amount of the person next to you,” Alabanza says. “It sounds like it’s all, ‘Oh you’re just jealous of a TV show,’ but what it’s done is create this really weird energy in an art form where people have started treating it like a business.”

Some have felt more vulnerable to this critique than others, Alabanza acknowledges – although they’re keen to point out that this conclusion was only drawn after they interviewed the eight drag artists who perform in the show. “Every single one of them said, post drag becoming popular, that their job has become harder. And I find it interesting in this time of great unionising: what does that mean for drag artists? Who has the most money in this industry? Where’s it coming from – and who’s got the power?”

The theme of autonomy and control, the question of who’s got the power – and most importantly why – isn’t exactly a new one for Alabanza. In 2016, a burger was thrown at them by a stranger shouting transphobic abuse as they were crossing Waterloo Bridge. A year later, they began to write about it, a creative decision that culminated in a landmark show called Burgerz – “exploring how trans bodies survive and how, by reclaiming an act of violence, we can address our own complicity”. Burgerz is set to return for a final farewell tour at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre next month.

Two major London stages in a little over two months is no mean feat – neither does it come without a perceptible shift in audienceship as larger, more mainstream theatres open their doors. It’s not about changing minds, Alabanza says, it’s about opening people up to something else. I’m reminded of a memorable line from their memoir, None of the Above: “The gender binary forces us to lose our imagination.” How much are they reaching out to those who don’t already know this? When they’re “at their best”, they answer, they’re trying to reach both at the same time. “Trans people are getting one joke and cis people are getting another. It happened with Overflow: trans people left feeling really excited and riotous, and cis people left feeling really sad.”

Alabanza likes to occupy this liminal space, never shying away from the contradictions because they’re there to remind us that we are all multifaceted individuals – and that nothing is ever that clear-cut. Only the other day, for instance, Alabanza got a text from a friend. “They said, ‘we brought your book on holiday, and now my husband is wearing nail varnish, what have you done?’” Joking aside, this playful anecdote illustrates their point pretty succinctly.

“So many people want to try things, but they’re scared of what that means. Actually, we should follow our urges. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s a cross dresser, but it does mean that everyone wants to explore stuff more than they allow themselves to.” Their answer to that text? A witty one-liner, of course. “There you go,” Alabanza laughs, “it’s spreading.”

Sound of the Underground runs at London’s Royal Court Theatre until February 25

Burgerz is at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall from March 8-12

Kat Lister is a freelance writer and author

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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