After the success of last year’s production Affection, Outbox Theatre returns with And The Rest of Me Floats, a show about the messy business of gender. Samuel Sims talks to trans performers Emily Joh Miller and Elijah W Harris about their involvement:

Outbox Theatre’s Affection, a show about HIV and intimacy, was met with heavy praise last year mainly because of its honest storytelling and sharp veering away from stereotypes. The company’s latest show, And The Rest Of Me Floats, carries on in the same vein, only this time the focus is on gender, a term (an idea, a state?) that is thrown around so much and so publicly that it has even appeared on Good Morning Britain. Apparently Piers Morgan knows all there is to on the matter so shall we just stop here? Let’s not.

Gender is complex – when it comes to its narrative, there’s a fair amount of appropriation occurring, subsequently resulting in the same old stories told. As a member of the LGBTQIA community, I want to be represented more truthfully and a good start is on TV, film and theatre.

Emily Joh Miller (image courtesy of FG Studios)

But who should tell whose story?

I’ve met so many cis theatre professionals looking to tell trans stories because we’re ‘in’ right now, and who consider themselves experts because they’re gay or have a trans friendEmily Joh Miller ventures. “The cast were given a lot of scope in deciding what they wanted the show to be and what tropes they wanted to avoid”.

As well as performing in And The Rest of Me Floats, Miller and Elijah W Harris also had a hand in collaborating and helping devise this latest piece in Outbox Theatre‘s repertoire, a move that sees the project as “empowering rather than exploitative”.

It’s obvious really. It’s not enough to be a part of this ‘community’ in order to tell each other’s stories – to be marginalised and have your seemingly non-conformist identity questioned doesn’t mean you understand everything about others’ hardships. Each individual’s experience, no matter how apparently shared they are, are their own. “There is no one defining queer/ trans narrative”, Miller sums up.

Elijah W Harris (image courtesy of FG Studios)

Outbox Theatre comprises all LGBTQIA performers, with some coming on board for individual projects and others staying on for more, as in Harris’s case (who was also in Affection). The company focus on forgotten and unheard stories, ones that don’t necessarily end in misery or death. Miller is enthusiastic:

“[Outbox] understands the need to tackle these huge themes and ideas in a way no one else dares to”.

Empowering rather than exploitative

Is the world really shifting in its perception of what lies ‘beneath’, of what veers away from the mainstream? Or are many of us complacent, those for whom sexuality isn’t an issue or who see gender as fluid, a way to learn more about ourselves and others?

There is stubbornness,” Harris offers. “There is a consensus that things are ‘equal enough’ when compared to how equal gender/ race/ disability are now than they were 50 years ago. SO WHAT! It’s still not good enough!

Tamir Amar Pettet (image courtesy of FG Studios)

Complacency may be a reality but so is the rise in activism.

As crappy and destructive as social media can be, it is undeniable how much of a force it has been in bringing awareness of otherwise marginalised voices to the public sphere. But social media also convinces us that a sufficient amount of people are out there fighting when really, there can never be enough. Harris adds:

We need more groups like Sisters Uncut, gal-dem and Queer Picnic, all of whom are stirring shit up and making those changes happen”.

Everyone just wants to see themselves represented

There is still this idea that all LGBTQIA people are counted as one and the same, that one step towards equality for some of us means just that for all. This is especially notable within, not just those looking in (and observing us in our cages), as Miller explains:

Certain sections of the queer community seem content to pull up the drawbridge now gay people can marry rather than take on issues facing the community, such as increased risk of poverty/ homelessness/ drug addiction; intra-community racism and trans-phobia; inadequate protection from hate crimes and so many others”.

Josh Enright (image courtesy of FG Studios)

What about bisexuality? Intersexuality? Asexuality?

It feels as though LGBTQIA stories are currently told for the benefit of a cis-heterosexual audience, as apparently they make up most of the population. We are shown to struggle with our identity, face being ostracised when coming out both from family/ friends and society. Even if the supposed gender binaries give us some leeway, our behaviour must never deter from that. Are trans stories simply about transitioning and the ‘before and afters’? Is it better to have no known mainstream narrative than for it to be completely fucked up? Miller elaborates:

The queer stories with the biggest platforms are the ones that don’t challenge assumptions: either they’re sob stories to make cis-het audiences feel better about themselves, or romanticised escapism that don’t respect the political realities. People are scared to hear these stories because (perhaps understandably) they don’t want to be confronted with the fact that they’re complicit in our continued oppression.

Certain sections of the queer community seem content to pull up the drawbridge

Though not always the case, TV is perhaps now one of the most exciting mediums we have in acknowledging and working towards strong and truer representation, particularly for trans people. Laverne Cox is not only on a huge and popular show, Orange Is The New Black, but has been allowed to play an actual trans person with an actual past and with the added bonus of not representing the white and middle class. Hallelujah.

But with companies like Outbox Theatre in the theatre sector, we can always rely on important themes to be discussed openly. Right? A show such as Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam magnificently draws attention to not only a trans narrative but that of queer women. One of the stars of this show, Anna Martine Freeman, also recently announced workshops that explore non-binary casting in theatre and the wider arts. Yet other productions still feel like they’re delivered for and via a cis-heterosexual audience. How can this be changed?

It’s endlessly frustrating. Everyone just wants to see themselves represented,” Harris ponders.

Tamir Amar Pettet (image courtesy of FG Studios)

What about trans actors not getting the chance to play themselves? Actors such as Hilary Swank, though turning in a stellar performance in Boys Don’t Cry is not trans. I wonder what Miller’s take on this matter is:

The prevalence of cis actors in trans roles hammers this home and turns trans identity into a costume; in my opinion there is no reason for a cis person to ever be cast in a trans role. If you’re creating a (trans) story that doesn’t allow space for trans people to tell it, then your story isn’t fit for purpose.

The queer stories with the biggest platforms are the ones that don’t challenge assumptions

Outbox Theatre are doing some exquisite and dare I say it, inspiring work. But it shouldn’t feel like that. Theirs should be stories about real people, told from their point of view and left at that. Unfortunately we are, despite what many believe, very far from equality for all human beings. Will it ever happen? Perhaps. But it will take some time, plenty of activism (over a picnic) and more work like And The Rest of Me Floats. But we’ll get there. I can feel it in my sparkly, pink bones.

To read more about And The Rest Of Me Floats, which plays The Rose Lipman Building, London until 23 September 2017, follow the company on Twitter (@Outbox_Theatre) or visit the website – www.outboxtheatre.com