Interview: Travis Alabanza

Travis Alabanza’s show Burgerz has been hugely successful since it started out at the Hackney Showroom in 2018. It’s now on tour, concluding at the Southbank Centre at the end of November, but more pressingly is currently showing at the Edinburgh Fringe for the next month. The show came from a moment in which someone threw a burger at Travis and shouted a transphobic slur, which sparked their obsession with burgers. This show declares itself as the climax of their obsession – ‘exploring how trans bodies survive and how, by them reclaiming an act of violence, we can address our own complicity.’ It was a joy to speak to Travis last week about this show and their work, read on to find out more. 

Interview by Amie Taylor.

AT: Can you share a little bit about you as an artist and how you came to be at the point you’re at now.

TA: I didn’t grow up with the arts around me, I grew up on a council estate in Bristol and none of my family had arts as a profession, we didn’t go to the theatre when I was younger; it wasn’t until I joined a youth theatre at 15, that I started to think performance might be my thing. But it never really worked, because my mum told me I wasn’t allowed to go to drama school, so I went to university and found the queer clubs, and the cabaret clubs and that was my way in to live art. I feel like arriving at theatre has been by chance. 

AT: What is it you’re setting out to do with your work?

TA: I guess when I make work, what I’m always aiming to do is create an action. I’m not really interested in myself making work which doesn’t force an audience to do something or change something. I’ve always been in to organising a community of activists around me, although I wouldn’t call myself an activist, I think if I’m putting art out in to the world, it has to create other activists in the world and make some kind of change. 

AT: Moving on to talk about Burgerz, is there an action you hope people will take away from seeing that show?

TA: Yes, I think there’s a really clear ask in Burgerz. Some work that I make isn’t super clear, on purpose, but I think Burgerz is a really clear ask and it’s basically talking about being a bystander and the complexities around letting violence happen, and putting the onus of violence less on to the person that experiences it, and not even really on the attacker, but on the people that witness it and do nothing. I want people to realise that they have to stand up when they see violence happen, but perhaps in a more nuanced way, because I think we all like to think we would stand up and do something, but time and time again we are seeing queer and trans people say that that’s not the case. And Burgerz is really interrogating why some people get stood up for and other people don’t. 

AT: Burgerz has been really successful, why do think it’s spoken so clearly to so many people?

TA: It’s funny when people say it’s a success, because I’m still completely nervous about it every single time. I think for a trans show to go from the Hackney Showroom, which is a beautiful, amazing venue, but definitely a queer safe space, to be going to the Southbank Centre, I think what it needed was to go beyond it’s queer and trans bubble. I don’t think every show I make will be for non queer and trans people, but for this show I knew that I wanted people that are hurting us to also see this show and also connect with it. And it came about at a time where we’ve obviously seen an complete rise in anti-trans rhetoric, BBC just released the stat that there’s an 80% rise in trans hate crime just from last year. So I think the show sits directly alongside the climate we’re currently in. So you have a show that presents an argument, and an argument you can’t really debate with. 

AT: How is it for you engaging with this content very, very regularly – and if you’re happy to share, how do you look after yourself in that process?

TA: I was really nervous when I made the show, because I was thinking ‘How is this going to feel in a year? Will I still want to tell it?’ I have a really amazing director, Sam, and he felt the show needed another element to keep it fresh every single time. For me the fact that Burgerz isn’t just about the trauma, but it becomes about the other person, really helps me, because I’m actually not going in to myself as heavily. A lot of the reviews say it’s really funny; when people come out and are crying and focussed on all of the violence, I say to them ‘But didn’t you have a laugh as well?’ And they often say ‘Yeah, I laughed for most of the show.’ And that helps me be in it; I see people laugh and smile and realise that I’m funny; a trans person of colour can often only be seen as an emblem of trauma, and being able to be seen as humorous and sassy and funny helps me get through it every time. 

AT: How are you feeling about heading to the Fringe?

TA: I am SO nervous. [They laugh]. I can’t even lie. I am shitting it. I’ve never done Edinburgh Fringe before.  I’ve been a guest spot in someone’s cabaret night before, but I’ve never been in a show for a whole month. Everyone tells horror stories about Fringe. I was feeling fine until people started talking about it as though it was some dark lagoon. I’m also nervous about having a show in the same place for 30 days.  But there are also so many incredible artists around me, so I’ll just focus on that, and I’ll get to see some amazing people’s work. And when I de-centre myself and think about the incredible trans artists that are going to be there, that makes me so excited. I’m really excited by Mika Johnson’s show, Pink Lemonade. And really looking forward to Emma Frankland’s Hearty too. 

Burgerz is showing at The Traverse Theatre throughout August – dates and times vary, so head to the Ed Fringe page for more information.

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© Elise Rose

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