Award-winning transgender artist Kate O’Donnell challenges the idea that genitals equal gender in a brand new show about the ups and downs of transitioning. In the follow up to hit show Big Girl’s Blouse, Kate shines a light on the ins and outs and ups and downs of transitioning. Through song, dance, hard-won wisdom and hilarity You’ve Changed looks at the so-called ‘trans tipping point’ and asks if the world is changing fast enough, or whether we are still stuck in the dark ages as far as gender is concerned.
What is exciting you most about bringing your latest show to Edinburgh?
We’e just had a meeting today and we’ve realised, it’s kind of where everybody is. It’s a hot bed of artistic activity. And when you tour shows, like we do, it’s quite nice to just set it up and have people come to us. We’ve spent years touring shows round the country, so it’s nice we get to sit still and the countries coming to us, it’ll be quite a unique experience for us. Though we are definitely looking forward to our national tour this Autumn too!
In the 14 years since you transitioned what have been the most noticeable differences in trans visibility?
I think this whole idea of losing shame in the community and not hiding. I refer to that quite a lot during the show, living in stealth vs not living in stealth. Even 3 or 4 years ago, I was quite worried about putting on a transgender show. I was worried there wouldn’t be audiences interested in coming to see it. And now the dialogue is so much more relaxed about how people talk about being trans. That idea of things being hidden and saying it under your breath seems to be shifting. Especially with my work its really disappeared. I go in there with that on the front, “Trans Creative”. You don’t have to dig so deep now to get to our identity.
Despite any progress that has been made, do you believe there is still a fixed, cut and dry attitudes towards gender binary in public consciousness?
I think it applies to everybody, not just trans people. I think what’s happened is that trans people and the growing visibility of the community, we’ve reignited some debates and arguments, and lots of different sides of the gender discussion, and I think we’ve all started to question it again. I think a lot of people feel stuck in their binaries, but when you’re transgender you really do – you’re almost pushed into that binary. If you want to transition to be a woman, then you have to go over thee and be “like a woman” and look “like a woman” and sound like “a woman”, but what is that? It doesn’t actually exist in real life, it’s all made up, it was made up in the 1950’s to sell things. I think that trans people are here to free everybody up, and I think that hasn’t been tapped into enough yet. Binaries are not fixed, and I’m certainly experiencing that. For example, when I got my hair cut short- I was always growing long to look “like a woman” for years, and then as soon as I got it cut short, I felt more me. In the show I talk about working so hard to reach the other end of this binary and getting there and realising some of the things that come with that, and how I realised that wasn’t my goal at all.
Your work is uplifting and playful but explores important themes; why do you feel using humour, music and positivity conveys your messages more effectively?
I think, and not to contradict what I’ve just said, but even though there’s more visibility and people kind of listening more, I feel like you need to engage people. There are lots of people for whom those gender conversations might still be out of their realm, so you find ways to bring them in. Reel them in and then hit them with the message. I’m a very theatrical person, so last time I worked a lot with singing, collaborating with LGBT choirs across the country on my tour. This time, I wanted to work with dance, which is part of my background, I trained as a dancer in my youth, and am reigniting that in my 50’s, which is kind of a ridiculous thing to do! It’s exploring what you’ve got and how you tell stories. Creative ways to tell stories, that’s what I play with and definitely utilise a lot in this show.
From people like yourself, and Nadia Almeida in the UK to the divisive Caitlin Jenner, what power do you believe trans men and women in the public eye hold? Who are some of your LGBT + heroes?
I think if we take hold of our stories, that’s our power. Not to let everybody else have say over our stories, and tell our stories and be proud of our stories, I think the less chance there is for other people to take them over and do what they often do with them. In terms of LGBT heroes, I’m always really impressed with people who have a real bit of grace about their journey and a real peace with how they’re doing things. Recently I’ve worked with Jo Clifford and she has a real honesty about how she works (she has a show on the Traverse called Eve). We worked together for SPARK festival, (a brand new trans arts festival Trans Creative ran alongside the Sparkle Weekend in July) and I love her work. She’s very honest about being a woman, a Dad and a Grandma all at once and I love that. For me, my heroes are more like people who just get on with it who maybe don’t have the easiest ride. I feel sometimes the showbiz trans people are all a bit of a bubble where we can get away with things more than other people. Ive met people who have literally transitioned on building sites and run construction companies. I find those people really exciting and inspiring.
Has performance, onstage and drag throughout your career shaped or developed your identity?
I imagine it has, I think from when I was little. I used theatre and performance and it did shape me, as it gave me space to explore my identity and my gender by being on stage. I went to an all-boys school and was gifted with playing all the girls parts. It’s quite nice to revisit it, and it’s really interesting performing, because though I am quite loud and cheeky in real life, it’s real different on stage. You have a different persona because you’re performing your stories and this show in particular, I’m not always looking for the laughs, so that’s been challenging, as it’s stepping out of my usual comfort zone. Some of that’s from having done Shakespeare this year (Kate recently made casting history as the first trans woman to play Feste on the main stage in Jo Davies acclaimed Twelfth Night at The Royal Exchange), and getting used to being on stage without people laughing their heads of at you all the time. Although I played the fool, they weren’t necessarily the one looking for the jokes. I think it’s definitely mixed in- there’s a reason why I’m on stage, and I think it has helped me explore some of my gender journey, I feel more confident from having done it.
You’ve been celebrated for your contribution to making your city of Manchester safer and more progressive; as we approach Glasgow Pride, what can people do to celebrate and protect the rights of our trans brother and sisters?
It was the Be Proud Award and it was worded as being awarded to me for “making my community happier and safer” which was the biggest honour. I think for me, there are the two sides which I think are interesting – one is about getting people to feel more confident and positive. We run a trans theatre company and one of our aims is to be trans positive, and to actively look for the positive stories. There are lots of people having difficult times, but sometimes people need to see the positive stories, which don’t generally get a lot of air time. For lots of people transitioning is really positive, but it doesn’t often get highlighted. It might be difficult, but it’s actually the best thing. And I think the safer side is really quite different, but it’s about connecting more with communities like police, allies and other people in the community and making people feel safer in a more practical way. I think its having the right personality to go in and talk to cis people about what trans people need so they feel comfortable and happy. We’re calling it “transing up Manchester) and we hope that, and it should feel safe for trans people. It seems ridiculous that it’s not, how it wasn’t safe for black people walking around America in the 50’s – that now seems really unnerving and odd. I think it’s a shame that we have to keep talking about safety. We definitely do, but I don’t like to over dwell on it. Let’s hold our heads up – let’s face the music and dance why don’t we?
You can see Kate O’Donnell in You’ve Changed at the Summerhall from 5 – 26 August. You can get tickets here.