A "certain type of experience" with Travis Alabanza
Travis Alabanza is a London based performance artist, theatre maker, writer & general shit talker. Such is the claim of Travis Alabanza’s facebook page, but having met and interviewed them I can safely say if it really is shit they are talking then it is the good kind.
Travis was “always a drama queen” at school but didn’t get started as a performance artist until the age of 15, and it was poetry that beckoned them in. “I lived in Bristol, and couldn’t afford to go to the Old Vic even though they wanted me to. At the end of the road where I lived there was an open mic poetry night every Saturday so I just went along.” What kind of an event was it? “The average age was over 60, I was quite nervous and drunk and because I realised I didn’t fit the normal profile of poet or performer I did material that was about shock for the sake of shock. The first poem I ever performed there was about giving a blow-job, and after I had done it I was quite scared about what kind of reaction I was going to get, but in fact they were all really positive about me. It made me realise that poetry was something I could really do and it was also accessible as it didn’t cost anything to be involved.”
We talked about the idea of Travis’ “platform” in poetry. Travis identifies as black, trans, queer and gender non-conforming, and I was curious to learn just how strongly these elements of their personal life defined their work and performance. “I realised that a lot of people are searching for the words to say things they haven’t heard before, so I am comfortable that I have this platform. I walk around dressed like this so of course my experiences influence my work, but I have found that there is a certain expectation of me to perform in a certain style. There have been occasions where I have performed a set of poetry which doesn’t reference any of these things and the booker has been quite disappointed as they just assumed that with me they were going to get a certain experience.”
But things are changing? “Three years ago I was always the only black, queer performer at an event. That is just not the case anymore. If I was starting out now I would probably have to work much harder as there are so many of us! But the more people of colour and queer and trans people that are performing does mean that I don’t feel like I am the one having to be the ‘representative’ all the time. We still have some way to go for change of course, I often get asked to appear at event X but asked if I could tone down my material or leave out certain things, and that is a kind of difficulty that I think is experienced less by more traditional artists.”
I asked Travis why they felt minorities were so under-represented in British poetry. “I think it is to do with who is producing shows and the people who run events. They are the ones who get to decide what faces we see and what voices we hear. It is so encouraging to see young black producers getting more prominence for example. And we have seen that when you diversify an event it definitely doesn’t turn middle-class white people away, it just enriches everybody and everyone is better for it. I would love to see more people of colour in high up positions.”
Travis' first poetry publication was Black and Gay in the UK Anthology in 2015. Their subsequent theatre show Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid toured the UK, and their work has been featured prominently in places like the V&A, Late at the Tate and Hamburg International Feminist Festival. Earlier this year they starred alongside Toyah Wilcox at the Lyric Hammersmith in an adaptation of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. What’s next? “My solo theatre show Burgerz comes out in October, so I am scared/nervous/excited about that.” That’s at the Hackney Showroom with previews at The Royal Exchange Manchester, and they are also hoping to publish a new book next year and have a host of other projects in the pipeline.
If you get a chance to see Travis Alabanza perform I would heartily recommend you go. They may be a cultural representative and you may well receive a certain kind of experience, but I have heard their poetry and seen their performance and it is primarily just really good work.