Outbox Theatre is a relatively young company that focuses on different aspects of what defines LGBTQ life, culture and community, such as bodies, intimacy, HIV and the fears and thrills of discovering sex and sustaining sexuality across the decades. Their latest production And the Rest of Me Floats is a journey into the emotional life of gender non-conforming people. Working with performers from across the trans*, non-binary, lesbian and gay communities, Outbox Theatre examines the ways in which gender is questioned, categorised, and policed (often violently so).
Artist Orlando Myxx interviews Ben Buratta, Artistic Director of Outbox Theatre, following the London premier of And the Rest of Me Floats.
Firstly, could you give us a brief history of when and how the company came together?
I founded Outbox in 2010. Using spaces provided by Central School of Speech and Drama the first production Same Sex Attraction looked at Professor Michael King’s 2009 report in which he uncovers that one in six UK health professionals have assisted at least one client to reduce their gay or lesbian feelings.
Is there a main idea behind it and if so, where did it arise from?
The idea of the company was to give actors from the LGBTQ community the chance to not only play roles they could identify with personally but also to show audiences a range of characters and scenarios that are not chained to their sexual orientation or circumstances. Usually a play will contain one gay character that will most likely be portrayed by a straight actor. A lot of people were fed up with this being accepted in the industry as the norm and Outbox strives to create productions that employ a wide spectrum of exciting actors and characters.
How many actors are part of it? What’s their background and how did they join the company?
The shows are cast on a show by show basis depending on what topic we are looking at. And the Rest of Me Floats, which examines the topic of gender, saw an exciting new cast drawing upon their own stories. We searched for actors who identify as transgender and non binary. We also have some performers who grew up feeling confused about their gender in regards to their sexuality. We always search for brave, open and individual performers willing to push boundaries.
What is the target audience of Outbox? Is engaging with the community a key part of the Company’s identity and what forms does this engagement take? Is it just for the LGBTQ+ community?
It’s for everyone. Of course we have an LGBTQ following but the idea behind the shows is to make them relatable to anyone. We have big bold stories often injected with a lot of humour that makes Outbox shows a great night out for anyone, inside or outside the community. We tackle issues that are inspired by the performers involved but these do not always apply solely to LGBTQ people. I think that it is really important to continue to eradicate the borders and break down the idea that we are separate. We also, of course, engage with performers within the LGBTQ community. We always strive to invite groups, charities, societies and anyone linked to our subject matter or our views as a company. In addition, we have an outreach programme in which we send our performers/facilitators to local youth groups or trusts around the country to provide workshops.
Let’s talk about your last production And the Rest of Me Floats. Why did you decide to focus on gender? During a time where there is a lot of visibility on this topic, what was the specific perspective that Outbox theatre wanted to tackle?
The idea came from a conversation I had in the pub with performer Yasmin Zadeh about her experiences as a child. It got me thinking about gender and identity and how people can be policed and often violently so. I began to think about my experiences growing up, when I was forbidden from applying my mother’s make up when I was 8. I thought about creating a cast that could share similar moments of confusion or freedom and create a piece that deconstructed gender head on.
The show doesn’t have an ordinary plot. I felt that it is trying to give a kind of ‘group picture’ of young people feeling uncomfortable with binary norms, capturing the struggles of finding their own way. There is a sense that the focus is more on a set of common feelings, emotions and internal troubles through the telling of many different stories rather than on one story pretending to be representative of all experiences.
That’s exactly it. We knew we couldn’t tell everyone’s story. What we had in the room was an incredible range of experiences whether these are about childhood, generational relationships or religion. The idea was to put it all out there, in an engaging way, and let people walk away with their own interpretation.
The style is also more performative than theatrical in the sense that it attempts to express and evoke an emotional impact on the audience more than a definitive narrative. Was this your intention? Is this the style of the company or was that just for this specific show?
This show was a small departure from previous productions. We focused a lot more on movement and had the fantastic Coral Messam creating some great sequences that captured emotion in ways that text could not in some situations. I never wanted the performers to act their stories as they didn’t need to. We dealt a lot with truth and lived experiences so my job was to frame these as beautifully and sensitively as possible so the audience could really see them.
What was the process that led to the creation of And the Rest of Me Floats? Was there a collaborative approach between actors, scriptwriter and director? Are there biographical references to the actors’ stories? If this is the case, what did it mean for them to tell their own story?
The process was a huge collaboration. The room operates in a way that anyone can speak and share their opinion – whether that is a lighting designer or actor or sound designer we are all in it together. In the first few days we, as a team, wrote on big pieces of paper ‘what we wanted the show to be’, ‘what we don’t want the show to be’ and some other things. We spent a lot of time generating material even down to the week before we opened the show because I felt it was important to keep searching, sharing and offering. The show really belongs to everyone. Of course I wrote some scenes inspired by an improvisation or a story someone had shared, but the subjects came down to what we agreed to make in the first week.
Throughout the show there’s a question that comes up frequently: ‘Can you see me?’. I think it’s a good question, because gender is very personal, intimate and social at the same time, but not private (as sexuality is, for example), so it needs to be recognised externally. I think that this question offers this idea that misgendering someone is equivalent to being unable to see who that person truly is because gender is also at the foundation of one’s identity. How did you decide to make this the key question?
It started to come up a lot in discussion. It also felt very violent when people were choosing not to see someone the way they wanted to be seen. Sometimes people can’t be seen or their identity is invisible. The idea behind ‘Can you see me?’ is based on the matter of acceptance and that is why it is so powerful.
The play also shows naked transgender bodies. Did you intend this as a provocation, or did you want to demystify some of the prejudice associated with these bodies?
This all came about very organically. When we started the movement all the performers felt comfortable with each other and themselves to reveal what they wanted. I think it is important for audiences to see this but not at the expense of the performer. I was very lucky to have such a brave team who genuinely wanted people to see them and I was fully supportive of that. I think it goes with the bold message of the show that really just puts everything out there and says ‘here it is, what do you think?’
What feedback did you receive from the audience after a two-week show in London?
The reaction was great! We had many audience members approaching cast members to thank them for seeing a production that represented them. There was always a fantastic energy after the show and it was so nice to see the performers grow and celebrate themselves. We also had some really great reviews that seemed to really highlight what we set out to achieve.
What are your plans for the future? Where are you bringing the show next? Have you already decided what your next production will be about?
We are heading to Birmingham Rep with And the Rest of Me Floats on the 13th and 14th November as part of SHOUT festival. After that we have a few things in the works but of course the main objective is to continue to create fierce and engaging work.