Review: Kate Bornstein’s On Men, Women and the Rest of Us at Manchester’s Queer Contact Festival

As part of this year’s Queer Contact Festival, I head to Manchester’s Contact Theatre to see transgender activist, performer and self-appointed ‘advocate for teens, freaks and other outlaws’ Kate Bornstein. The piece, ‘On Men, Women and the Rest of Us’, kicks off with thundering, almost militaristic music, and I wonder what I’ve let myself in for. But Kate unassumingly shuffles onto the stage; elegant, wise, softly spoken and a little bit naughty –  in other words, immediately loveable.

This piece was different from others I saw as part of the festival as rather than being a show in any clear-cut sense of the word, the evening felt more like a cosy evening in catching up with a friend, sharing anecdotes, personal trials and tribulations and putting the world to rights. Her work is described as spoken word but it lacks, for better or for worse, the characteristic lyrical modulations and urban punch usually associated with the genre. Bornstein’s style is closer to story-telling, a perhaps safer aesthetic through being less at risk of sounding artificial. Kate is sweet, sincere and candid, and totally at ease, sitting back on a chair as her audience gathers to listen to her tales.

Having been involved in activism and performance for more than a quarter of a century, Bornstein’s piece spans two generations, telling of a world that is finally showing signs of changing. She describes the misunderstanding and suspicion surrounding LGBTQ identities in her youth, experienced herself all too often as one of very few openly transsexual (now more commonly termed ‘transgender) individuals living in her area at the time. Even when the New York Times was set to publish one of her pieces, they harboured concerns about including the term ‘transgender movement’,  for fear it would equate to acknowledging that one actually existed. While there remains much to be done, we are finally seeing shifts into a time where the need for the respect, rights and representation of LGBTQ identities is being established as a baseline point on which we need to build.

The defining theme of Kate’s work has to be her the struggle to establish a definitive identity. Selecting ways to define herself from her ‘inventory of identities’, she attempts to navigate a world divided into male and female, despite falling somewhere in the middle. While this sometimes means choosing the path of least resistance and simply picking one, some areas of her life provide the possibility of multiple and shifting identities. Her mother – initially confused and upset by Kate’s coming out, sarcastically referring to Kate as ‘my son, the lesbian’ – ultimately gives Kate her most poignant acceptance. Morphine-addled and on her death bed, her mothers demands ‘Who are you?’, and, in response to Kate’s ‘proffered selection of whos.’ replies, ‘That’s good. I didn’t want to lose any of you, ever’.

It is perhaps this recognition of the possibility of multiple identities which has led Kate to interrogate the usefulness of notions of identity of any kind. After all, she says, the cells in our bodies are totally replaced every seven years with new ones, a conceptual shedding of one’s skin and identity. How can we claim to be any one thing despite physically having nothing in common with ourselves seven years ago? After spending thirty-seven years male and eight female, Bornstein has concluded that neither is really worth the trouble. Identities, as Kate sees them, are addictions: one of many manifestations of the ego which must be overcome if we are to feel truly peaceful.

As much as Bornstein essentially rejects over-identification with one gender or another, her work nonetheless powerfully critiques society-at-large’s expectations of those who do identify as women. Discussing her first foray into voice-coaching with a view to learning to speak like a woman, she describes how she was instructed to modulate her tone, be breathier, smile more (because ‘women always smile when they talk’) and add tagging questions after her assertions to convey self-doubt and humility. Rejecting this, she took a friend’s advice and listened to Laurie Anderson on repeat until she had a voice which felt right. Clearly, her mother’s experience of hearing male members of the family repeating, ‘Thank God I was not born a woman!’ impacted on the kind of woman Kate was going to be. Strong, funny and kind – Kate in turn is the perfect example of what any idol, male or female, should be.

As we leave the theatre, each member of the audiences receives a Get Out of Hell Free Card, which reads: ‘Do whatever you need or want to do in order to make life worth living. Love who and how you want to love. Just don’t be mean. Should you get sent to Hell for doing something that isn’t mean to someone, I’ll do your time in Hell for you, kiss kiss – Kate’. There’s no arguing with that. Kate, you’ve got yourself a deal.

Queer Contact Festival
Contact Theatre, Manchester

Also featured here: http://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/review-kate-bornsteins-men-women-rest-us-manchesters-queer-contact-festival/

 

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Review: Laurie Brown’s The Daily Grind at Manchester’s Queer Contact Festival

In The Daily Grind, Laurie Brown takes us through an exploration of his sexual development, a gradual process, marked and shaped by discoveries – his mum’s karma sutra book at age ten, coming out in his teens, group sex at age twenty – until Grindr comes along in his late twenties and overturns his sexual landscape.

In the piece we see the use of a combination of techniques to convey the whirlwind rush of this sexual revolution. A hyper-charged, Candy Crush-infused world of high-speed communication and technology is displayed through projections to a screen above Brown’s head. A second after uploading his profile picture, taken in the gym and showing off a practised half-pout, half-growl, a deluge of testosterone and biceps fills his inbox. He plays what is presumably recordings he has made of himself before and after Grindr dates, a kind of audio diary taking us through his encounters, or, put so aptly in the title, his daily grind. Weighted heavily on the use of these different forms of media, I initially felt a detachment from Laurie which I thought let the piece down. However, as it was sustained throughout much of the piece it is perhaps more likely that this reliance on technological media for communication was deliberately enforcing the piece’s narrative of communication and connection, without the need for emotion.

There is a certain ambiguity as to how Brown leads the audience to view his increasingly Grindr-centred lifestyle. The use of audience participation lent the piece’s early stages an air of joviality and excitement, conveying the giddy hedonism of Grindr culture. But with the notches on the bedpost stacking up and encounters becoming more intense, nerves and euphoria giving way to a certain weariness, I wondered if the piece was becoming a critique of the propensity for things to get out of hand. Encountering drugs, violence, adultery, we, and I think Laurie too, are unsure where to stand in relation to this app revolution that has made sex on demand more available and acceptable than ever. But as phone screens light up, scattered like stars across the floor of a darkened stage, a voiceover tones in to describe the magic of a world which exists only for an hour in the confines of one bedroom, the joyous insanity of a thriving, ultra-connected ‘network of fucking’. These observations accumulate to comprise a nuanced and very intimate take on twenty-first century life as a young homosexual male.

Queer Contact Festival
Contact Theatre, Manchester

Also featured here: http://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/review-2/

 

Eilidh MacAskill’s STUD at Queer Contact Festival

Eilidh MacAskill’s STUD is hilarious. If I’d been told before seeing it that a piece comprised largely of obscure horses metaphors and penis innuendos could be so brilliantly clever and insightful I probably would have been skeptical, but alas, skepticism out the window, I’ve seen it and I’m 100% won over. It sounds odd, and it is totally, totally mad, but there’s something masterful in creating something so completely off-the-wall and yet somehow so accessible that it has pretty much the whole audience rolling around with laughter.

MacAskill as a performer holds nothing back, quite literally. When the blurb mentioned her undeniable femininity, needless to say I didn’t see the arseless chaps coming. MacAskill appears in full cowboy attire, made ridiculous by the chaps framing her exposed buttocks. The lights bare down unrelentingly on the audience, ourselves exposed as she slowly and deliberately climbs the stairs in silence, chomping on a presumably phallic carrot – fantastically uncomfortable for the audience. And MacAskill totally owns it, her sense of timing impeccable as she unapologetically revels in prolonging and intensifying the palpable awkwardness before launching into her first sketch.

MacAskill rejects dualistic notions of gender by mischievously poking fun at stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. She skilfully throws light on the utterly absurd but nevertheless very prevalent notion that one’s genitals can inherently determine one’s personality. In the space she constructs men are smug intellectuals, beard-strokers and self-professed DIY extraordinaires, and girls nurse toy babies and love ponies. Sound familiar? Sure, but in MacAskill’s world, it is the arbitrary nature of these distinctions which underpin the sketches and give way to their hilarity.

Queer Contact Festival
Contact Theatre, Manchester

Also featured here: http://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/37088/