One of the biggest interview clichés is someone describing their life experiences as “a journey”. However, if anyone has earned the right to use the dreaded “J” word then it’s performer Kate O’Donnell.
She grew up as a boy in Coventry, became a drag artist and finally transitioned in 2003. Over the past couple of years, O’Donnell has been telling her story to audiences up and down the country in her show Big Girl’s Blouse.
With trans performers currently playing major roles on TV including in BBC2 sitcom Boy Meets Girl and Eastenders, the trans community is more visible than ever before. So who better to talk to then O’Donnell?
Initially, I wonder what prompted O’Donnell to recount her story on stage. ‘I only know how to write about me,” she says. “My performance route has had lots of twists and turns but one pivotal job was with Playback Theatre in Manchester. People in the audience told their stories then we as a company acted them out. Everyone has a story in them. I transitioned, got sober and was playing back a lot of other peoples stories until it got to the point that I felt it was time to stand up and tell my own.
“When you make the work yourself, there’s an extra vulnerability as a performer and I was a bit anxious at first because back when I transitioned there was a real lack of queer trans work about. It was almost encouraged to live in stealth and not tell your story or reveal your past. I didn’t think there was a market out there for a show about going to an all-boys school knowing you’re a girl and being transgender.
“The first piece I wrote was about feeling more comfortable sharing my story and how it was a privilege to have a platform to tell it. I was really outraged about the homophobia and transphobia in Russia a few years ago and I thought ‘hang on, I’m really lucky, I have a voice and can get on stage and talk about my story’ so I literally revealed 35 years of coming out during my show.”
Back in the 1990s you couldn’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe or any other arts festival without coming across an actor detailing his ‘coming out’ experience, but there was nothing similar portraying the trans experience. O’Donnell has her own thoughts on why trans work has finally hit the mainstream.
“After being very underground until recently, it’s still quite a new phenomena in terms of the visibility and people’s awareness of it. The internet has played a massive part because things gather pace really fast online. Also, having people like Laverne Cox and Bethany Black in high profile, edgy dramas gives us some credibilty we haven’t had before – previously we were just a sensationalist headline. Boy Meets Girl is definitely a step forwards due to the fact that a trans character is being played by a trans performer, which for the BBC is pretty groundbreaking.
“I’ve just done an episode for the new series. There’s suddenly a lot of interest in trans performers so I’ve also gone for a lot of other television parts which is great, although there’s a way to go in television as it’s a slow moving vehicle and a bit safe. The thing I like about theatre is that I’m very free. Nobody edits my work so what I decide to write ends up on stage. I’m really proud of the episode I did though because there were ten transgender people in the scene and it’s really great to get to know more people in the community.”
With more interesting work now being offered, does O’Donnell think the day will come when a trans performer will get a part where their sexuality is irrelevant?
She says: “That will happen and they will be better written, more interesting parts too. At the moment it’s very much the same narrative – unlucky in love, sad, tragic lives or suicidal like The Danish Girl. Most trans people I know have had a difficult time of course but it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve done two interviews recently where I knew they wanted that type of sad story and it’s like you’re not allowed to be happy and trans because it doesn’t sell papers or put bums on seats.”
Positive news about the LGBT community has never been more important. Gay hate crimes across the world have made grim headlines in 2016, from the Florida massacre to the murder of gay student William Lound in Salford. O’Donnell feels it has become an increasingly worrying time for the community.
“It’s something I brace myself for all the time. It’s about visibility – when you become more so you also become more vulnerable. Sometimes that level of violence means that we’ve gathered a bit of pace so people who are against us feel compelled to take some sort of action. We’re probably never truly safe and there will always been someone who wants us dead. I’m very political about it all and I’ll go on marches but I don’t dwell on it because you couldn’t live with that on a day to day basis. I’ve been vigilant since I was little. I’ve been attacked, verbally abused, threatened and felt very vulnerable. You get wise to it and it was one of the reasons I moved to a city with an LGBT community.
“The refusal in America to acknowledge the Florida attack as a homophonic hate crime and the way they minimised it so much was so bad that I was really glad to be able to go into the village [in Manchester] and holds hands at the vigil we held because I felt completely dismissed.”
Recently, President Obama stated that that trans children in school should be able to go to whichever toilet they want. Given her own experiences in a boy’s school, did this strike a chord with O’Donnell?
“Obama was brilliant and it was a very positive view that he aired. It’s ridiculously phobic not to let a trans kid go to the toilet they want. In the past, America didn’t let black people go to the same loos and if that happened again now there would be quite rightly be outrage. Yet trans kids are still treated as second class. Taking away your human rights like that can’t carry on. It’s not illegal to go to the wrong toilet anyway. And it’s really inconsistent in schools in different UK regions and a bit of a lottery. Where you’re born changes your experience of who you are. I believe art can cause social change. I’ve deliberately toured to places off the beaten track where there hasn’t been much in the way of a trans community or an LGBT presence.”
She adds: “My hashtag is #standbyyourtrans and for that to happen people have to know about it so I always have a Q&A after the show so people can ask questions, get them out of the way and move on. I like to sort of re-brand how people think of us. All they’ve probably seen or read before is negative which is why I made my show really accessible and good fun with lots of singing and beautiful costume changes. It seduces the audience into hearing my story in the most palatable way. I had eight to 80-year-olds in the audience laughing and crying and we all bobbed along on my journey together. All I wanted to achieve was that they left with a different version of what transgender is.”
One trans character who struck a particular chord with O’Donnell was Coronation Street favourite Hayley Cropper (RIP). She has even created a piece built around her love of the anorak-wearing knicker-stitcher.
“I’ve just done a show called Hayley & Me following this trans character’s 16 years on the Street. I made up a song about her anorak for the show and ended up re-working it into a jazz number with a Brazilian transgender pianist in Brighton. I just wanted to celebrate that character and then let her go. I relate her story to mine and we strike up a dialogue. I pick someone out of the audience to recite her lines though in my fantasy Julie Hesmondhalgh would be doing it. She’s an amazing supporter having committed to that trans character’s journey for such a long time.
“I’ve also just made a short autobiographical film called Mum about my current relationship with my family. I turned 50 a year ago and just decided to say ‘yes’ to things more. When these opportunities arrive it’s about riding the wave. A friend said to me the other day it would be hard to recall the last time I had a boring day.”
Nevertheless, so much going on, there’s still time for other projects.
“We’ve secured funding to do research and development on making a new show which is fantastic,” O’Donnell explains. “It’s going to be called You’ve Changed and I’m bringing the Brazilian pianist on board so there will be more music and hopefully some dance in there too. It compares my change from when I transitioned 13 years ago to how the world has changed towards trans people during the same period of time, so it’s ‘I’ve changed but you’ve changed too’.
“Though the generational trans experience is very inspirational, older trans people had a very rough deal. I want to question and look at what it’s that like for the community to have become more popular. We’re suddenly being invited to a party we weren’t allowed in before.”
Main image by Lee Baxter
Full details of all Kate O’Donnell’s shows can be found at www.kateodonnellpresents.com