Stand up and do something
Activist and performer Travis Alabanza brings their new show Burgerz to London and Manchester.
One day, Alabanza had a burger thrown at them whilst walking over a busy London Bridge in broad daylight. Nobody did anything. It’s that experience that has been the starting point for Burgerz.
Ahead of opening night, I caught up with Alabanza for a behind-the-scenes look at what audiences can expect from Burgerz.
When did you decide to take the burger assault and translate that into a piece of theatre?
I don’t think it was a clear moment, more that the burger being thrown was a breaking point. It was saying - How can this continue? How are we allowing this to happen?
I knew that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this type of violence, so I dedicated a lot of my work over the past two years to examining and archiving trans experience in public space. Burgerz feels like a culmination of those two years. It feels like the tipping point of it.
You’ve talked about your experiences of harassment and abuse. Non-conforming people are frequently targeted with abuse in all its forms - why do you think that people seem to be so threatened by someone who is non-conforming? What threat to non-conforming people pose?
I think so many of us, trans , gender non-conforming, or not - experience surveillance outside. I think it’s about what the world deems as acceptable, normal, in order - and then those that break that are punished for that deviance.
Alok Vaid Menon says we often “punish the things we are afraid of” and I see this so much with how the world reacts to gender non-conformity. We celebrate it in clubs, in fashion, on runways, but when we try to live our daily lives - we’re afraid of it. I could be going to get some milk, not trying to make anything a debate, just trying to get some milk - and the whole shop will stop and point and laugh. It’s sometimes said that we’re “asking for attention” but I feel like it’s not about that. The world brings us that attention, and often we just want to go on with our day.
Is the objective of Burgerz to educate people about the trans experience? Are you changing hearts and minds, or are you just holding a mirror up to share the trans experience with the audience?
Can it be both? Or more? I’m not good with one or the other! I think my goal in art when I’m making it never stems from education first, I’ve found that doesn’t work for me. That always equals a show that loses my heart and my fear and my risks.
This show, to be honest, was mainly made to cleanse something in me, and then to get people to wake up. If education is a bi-product of that, then great. But I think to have that in the centre of the work is not what the aim is. So often, marginilised artists are expected to teach or to inspire, and I think this show is more about saying - here I am, this is what happens to me, I’m angry, I need us to wake up.
We don’t seem to be making much progress on “not harming” let alone supporting trans people to be who they are. It’s not hard to find evidence that suggests that things are possibly getting worse for trans people. Not just through anti-trans interventions such as bathrooms bills and military bans in the US, but even within the LGBTQ community it seems surprising that there’s debate about how different fragments of that community feel about the trans experience. Are you hopeful that things are getting better for trans people, or is there a sense of frustration that words aren’t being matched with actions?
I think in some ways things are improving a lot. We’re seeing a lot more trans people in public life. Incredible writers like Juno Dawson and Juno Roche and Kuchenga being celebrated for their craft, aside from their transness. But I also think we can’t confuse visibility for actual change.
Harassment is increasing, we are seeing a rise in transphobic hate, and murder of trans people - particularly trans folk of colour. It feels often to exist on multiple axes of transness and race means it doesn’t feel like a lot of this progress is getting to our communities. It’s right to focus on action, and I hope that’s what this show does.
What was your creative process for bringing this show to the stage?
It’s been a few years in the making. But so much has changed for both me and the world in those two years. I first did a scratch at Hackney Showroom studio two years ago. The Hackney Showroom team saw promise in the work and have helped me develop it, and to also find wider support from amazing places like AndWhat, Oval, and Royal Exchange.
In the last two years, with my other solo work and first poetry book, I’ve toured the world, been in other people’s shows - Scottee: Putting words in your Mouth. Chris Goode: Jubilee - so I feel like I’ve really developed a better understanding than I had of what it means to make work, what I look for in my work, and the risks I like to take.
The last two years of just working and surviving in the arts has definitely shaped this creative process. But I feel so lucky to be in the room now with incredible artists like movement director Nando Messias, and sound designer Xana to help bring this world to life.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Burgerz?
I hope they feel like they need to stand up and do something.