Drawing from their debut book of poetry, Travis Alabanza gives a performance based around their experience of being a trans person in public. They tell us more

There is a big emphasis on public spaces in your show. Did writing these poems help you to process the experience of feeling alien in public?

It was definitely a survival technique. When I was writing the work, I was thinking about how to cope with what was going on outside, how to make sense of it. When I wrote these pieces on my phone I didn’t ever think I would publish them. I thought I’d keep it to myself. It wasn’t until I had a chicken bone thrown at me in broad daylight, which was the last straw, that I offloaded to a friend of mine. They said ‘the same thing happened to me, I’m really struggling with being outside’. I realised it wasn’t just me. That’s why I decided to put it out in public.

Do you draw on other trans people’s accounts, too?

In the show, yes, in the book no. In the show there are lots of recordings of trans voices, including the four trans people I live with.

When you are being discriminated against in public, is it hard not to see yourself through the eyes of those who are discriminating?

Yeah, I think you naturally want to rationalise what is happening to you. I talk a lot in the show about how I think a lot of this harassment comes from different angles. We’re stared at by children, even. Just now, a kid pointed and laughed at me and their mum looked away and didn’t say anything to me. A lot of harassment comes from insecurity and jealousy. I think when people see a trans person in public they see a sense of freedom that most people have lost. When we’re younger we play with gender in lots of different ways and then we grow up and have to abide by certain rules. For me, the show isn’t about saying “woe is me”, it’s about shifting the power dynamic and saying trans people are the lucky ones.

From everyday incidents to society’s systemic intolerance – how do you pack all that into a relatively short show?

Well, you just don’t give the audience time to warm up. The performance is heavy. I’m bored of seeing work that treats the audience as though they need their hands held. When I first started making work, I was concerned about how the audience would respond. This is my third or fourth year of doing shows, and now my concern is more that we have an urgent issue of violence against trans people. There is no time to hold people’s hands.

Why did you have those initial doubts about what the audience would think?

Just age, I think, and confidence. Touring for years now has taught me to take more risks. There was a snapping point, too, when I realised that this issue is so urgent that my response needs to be urgent too.

How do you harness that anger in a controlled way in a performance?

It’s about recognising other emotions too. There is intense joy in there too. I have to think about when I have to use those emotions. That forces you to create that balance. I don’t want every audience member to be feeling the same thing at the same time. The show is deliberately crafted in a way that trans people will have a different experience than a cis gender person. I definitely care about trans people coming to my show, because I want us to feel heard.

You mentioned the word survival earlier. Is it difficult not to feel constantly on your guard in public?

Yeah. I definitely think trans people have instinctive methods of survival and sometimes going outside can feel like an extreme battle. We don’t choose that battle, but we know how the rules of it work. We’re seeing transphobic hate crime go up and up. It’s hard not to feel like it’s a survival game when you see so much vitriol towards the trans community.

Does that anxiety permeate every aspect of your life?

This stuff doesn’t stop outside. There are high rates of mental health problems and suicide in trans people, and that correlates to how we are treated outside.

Do you consider yourself an artist above anything else?

Mainly I’m a performer, I always start with that. I came through the queer cabaret scene and landed in a more theatre-based world.

You were an artist in residence at Tate. What did that consist of?

I worked with the schools and learning programme, which meant that I ran workshops for young kids, to try and encourage them to use the gallery. Last year I performed at the closing of the Queer British Art exhibition. It meant I could use their resources to create more work, too.

You give a lot of talks at universities, too. Is this a rewarding part of the job?

It’s part of the job I didn’t expect. It’s rewarding because I know what it was like to be at university and not feel like you’re seen. I dropped out of university, so it’s weird to go and give a talk at Oxford, for example. I have to remind myself to be myself in those spaces. I was at King’s studying philosophy and religion. I was always trying to do art, anyway, so I thought I’d take a year off and give it a go. Then I got the residency at Tate and never went back to university. I took a risk and it’s paying off. Don’t ask my mum about it, though.

Travis Alabanza: Before I Step Outside (You Love Me), Brighthelm Centre, Saturday, May 12, 7.30pm, brightfest.org