Travis Alabanza on their new show Burgerz and why we need to transform online activism into real life action
"I’m tired of people saying I’m ‘inspiring’ and retweeting an article I write, only to ignore me when I’m being harassed on the street."
Performer, writer and theatre maker Travis Alabanza is hitting Hackney Showrooms with Burgerz, a new piece of work that interrogates how we behave in public spaces. The name is specific and pertinent: two years ago, amidst the lunch-time crush on Waterloo Bridge, a member of the public shouted a transphobic slur at Travis before hurling his burger at them. As Travis stood there, reeling from what had just happened, they were struck by the fact that not a single person on that bridge stopped to so much as ask if they were okay. Fast forward two years (via a media storm that surrounded Travis when a Topshop employee refused them entry to the women’s changing rooms) and Travis has created a piece of work that seeks to address what happened to them. We caught up with them on a break from rehearsals to find out more…
Hi Travis! Okay, what’s Burgerz all about?
When I first started writing this piece two years ago I was primarily looking at my own emotions and my own trauma, stemming from the moment the burger was thrown at me on Waterloo Bridge. Now, two years on, after having had a really busy time work-wise, I’ve become a lot more interested in the audience. Now, the show is much less about me and my response and more about the lack of responses from the audience.
I’ve seen you talk in another interview about the difference between online activism and real life action. In creating a show like Burgerz you’re not only asking for a call to action but also taking action yourself — you’re putting yourself out there. How does that feel?
It’s so scary! I knew when I was making the show that I couldn’t keep saying the same things I’ve been saying over the last few years. As I level things up I want to take more risks. There are two real risks in the show: 1) I can’t cook, I’ve been an awful cook all my life, so I’m going to learn how to make a burger, and 2) I’m including the audience. I knew I needed to make a bold choice because I feel that two years on from the initial incident, things haven’t improved for trans people. If anything, arguably, it’s become more intense, so the show has to match that intensity. I’m tired of saying all of these things, people saying I’m ‘inspiring’ and retweeting an article, only for people then to not do anything when I’m harassed on the street.
Has the process of creating this work been cathartic for you, or is it ever a bit draining?
It’s a bit of both. There’s a lot of humour and fun in the show. And I’m excited for the element of the unknown. For me as an artist I can’t wait to see what happens. Having said that, when I do my next show after Burgerz, I don’t think I want to be talking about violence as objectively and clearly and have that as the foreground of my work. But for this one, I feel like: okay, I’ve been building up a body of work over the last few years around harassment and public space. If this is the last time I’m going to be doing that for a while, with this subject matter, let’s go out with some fireworks. I think that helps me to not feel drained by it — I’m ready to move on and talk about other things, but I know the world isn’t just yet, so I need to put on one last show.
I completely understand that — this is your grand finale, but it’s not that way for everyone.
When I first started talking about public space and trans people outside, I wasn’t seeing many other people having those conversations. Obviously now that conversation is very much happening but it’s not always going in the right direction. So for me with the show is that kind of moment - like, okay I’ve been talking about this for three or four years now, I’ve released a book, I’ve been doing the rounds. So often shows by marginalised people are put in theatre basements with one tech person. You make this beautiful work that isn’t given space, time, press, support. I wanted to see what I could do if I had all of those things.
We’re also going to The Royal Exchange in Manchester which’ll be really interesting because I was there this time last year when I was performing in Jubilee, and that’s when the Topshop stuff happened in the press. I’ll be there a year on from that really catalysing experience, so I’ll be thinking about how much — or how little — has changed in the year since then.
You mentioned that you’re working with audience interaction in Burgerz — who do you hope comes to see the show?
I’m excited to see people that are familiar with my work — I hope the queer trans community come through! — but with this piece I also really want people who aren’t really familiar with trans issues or who have only learned about it through the press to come and see what I’m doing. I really don’t want to just preach to the converted. I want the audience to be as mixed as that lunch time crowd on Waterloo Bridge.
There also seem to be some TERFs that are planning on coming to the show. At first I was really afraid but as time has gone on I welcome it. This is part of the work, and part of what I want to do.
Well, if the TERFs do come, I hope the audience members that are there to support you will take that moment to say what they need to say to those people.
Exactly. This show is testing out exactly what we’re talking about: will people take action, and what does it take for those people to take action? Even amongst the most well-meaning people, we have to take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves if we could do more.
There’s so much apathy isn’t there? I wonder if some of the people on that bridge passed you by because they prioritised their own busyness, their own getting from A to B. We’re so focused on the individual, particularly in the big cities, and we could really do a lot better with that if we started to work collectively.
Totally. After the burger incident I reflected a lot on how I was treating other people when I go outside. Am I smiling at people? Am I getting frustrated on the rush hour tube and tutting at them? What kind of energy am I bringing to these situations? I catch myself doing it daily, and I’m trying to take away some of that and be more intentional when I’m out in the world.
In all the work that you’ve made, do you try to project an identifiable message, or is your outlook a bit more fluid than that?
I think with the first pieces of work I made I was trying to present a strong message. But now I’m much more focused on asking questions. I don’t have all the answers. I’m interested in who is experiencing what, and what more we could do. I’m so much more aware now of how much I don’t know.
People are messy! Life is messy. Even gender is messy. To pretend that I have the answers is silly. Instead I want to say, okay we’re all a bit fucked up by gender so let’s ask why.