Trans theatre: Meet Charles O’ Grady
By Cameron Colwell
Since I first witnessed his art on stage in February, I have been very keen for an interview with Charlie O’ Grady, writer of Kaleidoscope, a play I described in Grapeshot as being “at once an embittered polemic on society’s views of trans men and a tender, deeply felt drama about a young adult navigating his relationship with the world.”
With his next play, Telescope, which is the next part in a cycle set in the same fictional universe, opening next Thursday at Leichardt Town Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to interview the young playwright.
We began talking about where Kaleidoscope came from. Kaleidoscope was a one-man play set in the bedroom of Gabriel, a young gay man struggling to find the motivation to leave his apartment and face his numerous problems, which are relayed to the audience through anecdotes. Charles, after being approached by Finn Davis, Director of Sydney University Drama Society, was charged of the task of directing a one-man play. Charles’ goal, if he was to do something worth creating a one man play out of, was to write a character who didn’t fit the mould of transmasculine characters. This mould, I’m told, is skinny and flat.
“It’s like people think you’re pretty much a butch lesbian until you graduate into being a trans man.”
He criticises films like About Ray, which casts cisgender women and constructs them as looking like men. “They all look the same. I can’t access that, I’m shorter, I have hips and boobs. Actually, part of the effect of that representation was that it took me a long time to realise I was gay.”
I asked him about the power of representation of minorities and media, and he thinks part of his goal has to have diverse characters, to put characters on stage that trans people see and “That moment of representation…’You know, like, I see myself in that character.”
Charlie laughs at the idea of a ‘trans tipping point,’ while saying it’s good we have Laverne Cox and similar, and there has been some change, it makes it very easy for people to think trans advocacy is done. I wonder if I’m imagining that so many of public trans advocates are women, and Charlie agrees with the idea. He blames it on misogyny, saying that it’s easier to sensationalise prominent trans women… “While they’re all hard-working women who’ve gotten to the top, we fixate on them…We don’t understand why anyone would want to be a woman. It’s collateral misogyny, it’s objectification. You know, like with Laverne Cox, they’re all very conventionally attractive women.”
His next project to reach the stage, Telescope, started as an exercise in empathy to write a show about the parents of a trans kid who has moved out of home, both of them played by trans kids, and how those characters engage with that when the kid isn’t there. “I couldn’t do it without trans people in the roles, just because trans people are never seen on stage. I started writing it genderless, and we ended up with two different actors playing both roles, and changing it on different nights. So they have to memorise two sets of line, which is a monolithic task.”
“Initially it was to explore the effect of transness on the family unit, but it became more about the horrifying effects of the heteronormative script. The two parents clearly like each other, but they don’t really love each other. It’s the story, really, of a nuclear family undone, not by their trans son – they’re kind of undone because they can’t break out of the box. It’s essentially an hour and forty-five minutes of thrashing against the script. It focuses on the heteronormative, binary, compulsory monogamous script on a day-to-day basis. What happens if you start making dents in that?”
Noting that I thought at the centre of Kaleidoscope was a frustration, I asked what kind of emotions were at the heart of Telescope. We talked about Kaleidoscope a little longer, and Charles came to the idea that he feel like Telescope is a less forgiving show. “No-one gets a happy ending, it’s a very grim show – Spoilers. I would actually label it horror, not in the normal sense but in the immense discomfort of watching two people fall apart despite their best attempts not to, and watching what I imagine to be behind closed doors, stuff that’s transphobic.
The play, Charlie explains, is not based in his experience, except in the sense that it comes from thing he’s observed about people he’s close to. “There’s bits and pieces, there’s verbal tics, in the script. I love them. I love those little tics.”
When I ask him about his plans for the future, he tells me the Kaleidoscope Cycle is “Basically what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a shit-ton of plays with trans people in all the roles. I wanted to show that we’re unapologetically queer. That we are stridently, vocally, queer.”
On the morning of the interview, a mutual trans man friend had posted about yet another role for a trans character that requested a cisgender girl. “It keeps happening, we’re literally talking about shows with trans roles, and we keep coming across “women-only apply.” It happens at all levels – He mentions Elle Fanning again. “It’s ubiquitous.” Clearly, this is an issue that Charlie is, on the fringe theatre level, targeting with his trans-only rule.
To finish our interview, I asked if cis people could write and direct trans characters, an issue I’ve wondered about myself. “It depends on how instrumental non-cis people are to their process… I have seen it done well.” Charles and I agreed we wouldn’t drop names, but we discuss a recent show about trans people co-directed by a cis man and a cis-woman. There was a ‘trans consultant,’ but other than that, very little involvement from trans people.
“It’s been done badly so many times. I’m distrustful of people doing that. I don’t trust cis directors directing trans characters… But like if you’re a cis writer/director telling a story, it’s about interrogating why you want to have trans characters and what you can add. You have to really kind of question your motives. The main thing is that in anything, any queer/trans text, you need queer voices and queer people in the process. Whether that means that queer people are in charge of everything, which is not always possible, you do need queer people at every single step because it’s something you need to do right.
“Regardless of what you’re doing, writing should never be a solitary activity. You have directors who don’t use other people, which is really counter-productive. It’s not just about you, it’s never just about you.”
“You are asking people to pay. So the product has to consider them and what they want and what they should be seeing.”
Telescope will be running between the 12th and 21st of May, as part of Sight and Sound Arts 2016. Tickets can be purchased at the Montague Theatre Basement website, and cost $20 for an adult ticket and $15 for a concession ticket.