Performer, exhibit, excluded. Who’s on stage and whose stories are suppressed?

When we see performers on stage, what bodies are reflected in front of us – and what does that mean for the future of performance?

Transpose is an evening performance at the Barbican theatre, London, 6th & 9th December, curated by CN Lester and directed by Kate O’Donnell. The line-up is entirely trans and queer artists, and the performance will contain ‘‘poetry, music, video art and storytelling with a revelatory quality’ from a diverse line-up of artistsThis year it looks at how historically the stage has been a space of both expression and imprisonment for trans and queer people, will explore the way stage, theatre and performance have limited and expanded our realities, providing space for us to be ourselves and express our genders, sexualities, and desires, while also pathologising and controlling us.

The stage is often inaccessible to disabled performers. I mean that literally and metaphorically. Even in venues that offer wheelchair access to audiences, the stage is rarely accessible — especially in the smaller venues where younger and less experienced performers start out. How are you going to develop the experience and name that gets you to larger venues, when you can’t start at smaller ones? Even for performers who don’t require wheelchair access, long rehearsals, lots of stairs, and the commitment of time and energy required to build a performance history leaves disabled artists in the dust. We are not competing on an even playing field when compared to abled artists.

Similarly for trans and queer performers, the stage makes demands of us that our identities make it impossible for us to meet. I am often faced with either being squeezed into the box marked ‘women’ or thrown into that marked ‘men’ with no acknowledgement of my histories of womanhood, transition, and mixed identity. CN Lester has talked about how, as a genderqueer classical musician, they’ve experienced discrimination and exclusion from teachers, directors, and companies. Living outside the normal boundaries of gender and sexuality,

I would love to make a name for myself in London’s small poetry scene, but how am I meant to do that, when I can’t get to half of it? Either it isn’t wheelchair accessible or the time it takes to get there on public transport (most of the underground is inaccessible so the only option is buses) makes it impossible for me to do so.

This is why I’m so pleased to be able to announce that I’m part of the line-up for this year’s Transpose at the Barbican. I performed there last year as a last minute addition, but this year am on the programme from the beginning. Transpose is an evening performance by a line-up of trans and queer artists, and will be raising money for Bent Bars, which links LGBTQ people inside prisons with LGBTQ pen-pals outside prison. The curator, CN Lester, has contributed the curators fee towards this.

This month is disability history month, and the history of disabled people on the stage is primarily as freak show exhibits. One of the poems that I wrote and will read is about Charles Byrne, ‘The Irish Giant’, who was a ‘freak’, performing in Victorian London. He wished to be buried at sea after his death to prevent his skeleton becoming a museum exhibit, but John Hunter, a famous Victorian surgeon made no secret of his desire to obtain Charles’s bones.

Leave him, the star exhibit

The Hunter caught his prey.

The bones weren’t buried at sea.

Of course they weren’t. His

Desires held no water. His name was Charles,

And “bury my bones” at sea he begs

From behind the locked coffin of glass

Far from the ravenous waves

His bones remain part of the permanent collection at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, to this day.

Neither trans nor disabled people are given ownership of our bodies. The medical model of disability portrays disabled people as in need of curing, fixing, returning to abled status (or an approximation of that), regardless of the costs of such ‘treatment’. We are blamed for our inability to engage in society, our wheelchairs are posited as the problem, rather than the lack of ramps. I will be challenging that as a part of my performance:

…and no you don’t get to

Cast me as the angry cripple or the bitter cripple when it’s

You barring me from access you don’t get to ask me to

Be nicer about being deliberately banned

Transpose is an event where I will be able to stake my claim to a place on the stage as an openly trans, queer, crippled artist. I will be able to take all my identities and identifiers into the performance and explore them in writing and performance, and this is incredibly valuable to me. Where there are so few spaces I can actively participate in, being able to perform at Transpose is a gift.

I will read about crippled sex, the language we use around rape and sexual assault, the subjectivities of physical impairment, mental illness, and severe physical illness, the difficulties of maintaining friendships while sick and how it alters the way people engage with me, my life, and my story, what people mean when they say ‘get well soon’, and of course will finish on Charles Byrne.

Does this sound interesting? It should be. My poetry won’t make you comfortable, and it shouldn’t. I will challenge the audience to reflect on their contribution to the disabling of people with impairments, but I will also confide in it about the realities — good and bad — of having these impairments.

Standard tickets are £15, but people aged 25 and under can join ‘Young Barbican’ for free and get £5 tickets. Disabled people who have joined the ‘access membership’ scheme (also free) may also qualify for concessions, and groups of 10 or more get 20% off their tickets. Tickets can be bought from the Barbican website.

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