In this production, I play Feste the fool (typecast) and, as the character says, “nothing that is so, is so”. This is a good thing to bear in mind where gender is concerned, as we can all get a bit stuck in our gender binaries (me included). This play opens with Viola deciding to disguise herself as a man. How she experiences life by wearing a man’s clothes gives her an incredible insight into both genders – an insight I myself recognise from first-hand experience. As part of our research for this role, us women dressed up as men and took part in a drag king workshop. Having lived as a man you would have thought this would have been easy for me, but it took me a long time to find some ‘maleness’ within me; it eventually appeared as a rather laddie bloke called Kev from the West Midlands who was rather keen on the ladies! As drag kings we all felt the freedom to be a bit louder and were more confident, and generally able to take up more space in the world.
Issues of gender are at the heart of this play. A girl dresses up as a boy; a woman falls in love with another woman in disguise; a girl dressed up as a boy falls in love with his master. The fools in Shakespeare are often the wisest person on the stage - they seem to have greater insight and understanding than most, a sort of universal wisdom. Casting Feste as a trans-woman gives her that first hand experience of gender swapping and universal wisdom in a world where gender appears to be quite fluid. Feste is known as the corrupter of words, but I think having Feste played by a woman and casting a trans woman also makes Feste a corrupter of gender. The script now has so many new meanings and I have found some very special crossovers with my story. I sing a song at the end of the show, and the first line is, “When that I was a little boy”. It made me cry in rehearsals as it really struck a chord.
When you move a character from one gender to another like Feste, they enter into the process of transitioning as I did 14 years ago, here in Manchester. Feste, like me, is on a journey. She has occasionally been mistakenly referred to as ‘he’ during rehearsals, as people did in my personal life for many years. She is loud, bold, clever and witty – not always something you see in female characters written so long ago. I relate to Feste, and like how the relationships she has now she’s a woman are like the relationships I have in my life as a woman: a fun and friendly kinship with other women, and a sisterly, then sometimes flirty, relationship with the men.
I went to watch the fantastic Children’s Shakespeare Festival at the Royal Exchange, and was invited to hand out certificates to the schools involved. As I watched their versions of TWELFTH NIGHT, I was struck by how fluid the children were with gender. They were so at ease with mixing up playing boys’ and girls’ parts. They were so free – the issues, that often we have as adults surrounding gender, seemed irrelevant to them. I think that’s why when I was introduced to the stage as Feste, none of the children were surprised to see a woman and were open and free to the proposition.
I returned to performing three years ago, and decided to step into the spotlight and make theatre work about being trans. I did this because I didn’t see my story onstage, I felt motivated politically and, let’s face it, I am a big show-off. I wanted to challenge the negative, often sad, narrative which is often seen when telling trans stories. So, I created an uplifting piece of theatre called BIG GIRL’S BLOUSE, a name my dad called me on a daily basis; I literally made a song and dance about being trans. I toured the show for two years up and down the country, did Q and As after each show, created an online campaign entitled #StandByYourTrans and wore my accompanying t-shirt at every opportunity, went on radio, appeared in the BBC2 comedy BOYS MEETS GIRL, hosted events, appeared in magazines, was in a gender musical, created cabaret pieces, took my clothes off and wrote songs with a trans jazz musician. Basically, I did everything I possibly could to make people see trans people in a new light...a positive light. I see being part of the Royal Exchange Theatre Company as another positive platform to be visible and have a voice.
As a trans performer, I feel more doors are open to me, which means I can open some more doors for others. Also, the power of theatre is that it’s live so lots of people get to be in the room with a trans person, which is often a first for many people. We only make up one per cent of the population, so the chances of getting to see us in the flesh is limited. I have just received three years’ funding from Arts Council England to form a trans theatre company called Trans Creative, whose mission it is to be trans-led, trans-positive and, of course, trans-creative.
Watch this space for my next show, YOU’VE CHANGED, premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year before touring nationally in the Autumn.
I believe that art can create social change and I love being part of that change. Once after one of my shows, a young trans person came out onstage to their mum – a live transition. As a trans person, you can be very isolated and performing helped me to meet so many amazing trans people, that I now feel part of this exciting community, and I now have a trans boyfriend to boot!
So here’s to you being open and free to all that this show brings you. And, please remember, “nothing that is so, is so”...
Kate O’Donnell is an award-winning transgender performer, activist, theatre and cabaret maker. She is the Artistic Director of Trans Creative. Kate creates entertaining, humorous, political performances, which celebrate theatricality and exude pride and strength in being a transgender woman.
Trans Creative has just received three years support from the Arts Council England Elevate fund. Their mission is to be trans-led, trans-positive and trans-creative, increasing positive representation and create authentic trans told stories.
To find out more about Kate or Trans Creative, please get in touch: