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Travis Alabanza on Sound of the Underground: ‘Who can make a show about money fun? Only drag performers’

Travis Alabanza  (Niall McDiarmid)
Travis Alabanza (Niall McDiarmid)

Travis Alabanza is taking over: this month, the writer and performer leads a group of London’s underground cabaret legends as they go above ground – all the way to the main stage of the Royal Court theatre.

Sound of the Underground starts with a siege; the conceit being that the club kids have taken the Sloane Square audience hostage – in order to force them to watch their kind of a play.

And who better to mount this coup than Alabanza: the trans non-binary artist has straddled both the queer club scene and the theatre world since starting to perform as a teenager. They were also recently named among the Evening Standard’s stage and screen stars to watch in 2023.

They cut their teeth at cabaret nights, from slots at The Cocoa Butter Club (for performers of colour) in Dalston to hosting Bar Wotever at the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern. But they’ve also written acclaimed plays exploring trans experiences in Burgerz and Overflow, toured with Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, and published a thoughtful memoir, None of the Above. All by the age of 27.

While a lot of their work has been autobiographical, Sound of the Underground is something of a departure for Alabanza, which has been made with director Debbie Hannan and inspired by their cast.

Clockwise from top left, Ms Sharon Le Grand, Sue Gives A F*ck, Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird, Lilly SnatchDragon, Wet Mess, Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot, Rhys Hollis as Rhys’s Pieces, CHIYO (Faith Aylward)
Clockwise from top left, Ms Sharon Le Grand, Sue Gives A F*ck, Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird, Lilly SnatchDragon, Wet Mess, Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot, Rhys Hollis as Rhys’s Pieces, CHIYO (Faith Aylward)

They auditioned more than 600 performers, and while the final nine includes people Alabanza knew – they performed in a Destiny’s Child tribute act with drag queen Rhys’s Pieces, for instance – others such as Wet Mess were new to them. The aim was to get a truly diverse cast, in age, ability, and experience, as well as identity – and then explore what they wanted to use the show to talk about.

And that has turned out to be: Money. Pay, workers’ rights, the cost-of-living crisis. In this winter of discontent, even cabaret performers want to go on strike.

“Who can make a show about money fun? Really only drag performers,” Alabanza says, smiling behind a large pair of glasses and a cosy knit on a zoom call. “The show turned into an examination of working conditions in general, but using cabaret performers as the example.”

And Sound of the Underground should prove that picket lines can be fabulous: expect a workers’ manifesto served with grit and glamour, drag fierceness, nudity, audience interaction, and ad-libbing humour.

“In a club, you measure how well a show is doing by how any people stay in a room and don’t go for a cigarette break,” Alabanza says, adding that the cast bring that energy to the Court. “When I’ve worked with actors, it’s often about doing less; this is a group of people who don’t know the words ‘do less’.”

Travis Alabanza in a publicity shot for BURGERZ ahead of its run at the Hackney Showroom in 2018
Travis Alabanza in a publicity shot for BURGERZ ahead of its run at the Hackney Showroom in 2018

Alabanza, now based in Bristol, where they grew up, has stepped back from performing at nightclubs. But they still love the scene and are worried about the effect that recession and funding cuts in one direction, and the commercialisation of drag in the other, are having on it. The success of Ru Paul’s Drag Race is having a huge impact: cabaret has “shifted from a communal space to one of competition,” Alabanza says.

“When I was working in the club scene, drag was next to performance art next to the freak show next to the pole dancer. But now there’s a divide of who can go on a TV show, and who can’t. So then you create a pay divide…”

Yet they understand the urge to follow the money – especially when there is so little elsewhere. “When you combine [the commercialisation of drag] with Tories cutting the arts, with venues closing, with housing prices rising… you get an interesting effect on a scene. It has changed, and I personally don’t think for the better.”

The pinch is being felt in theatre too, of course. When Alabanza started out, it seemed a well-paid gig compared to drag; now, some of the artists in their play are taking a pay cut to appear. Meanwhile, Alabanza’s theatremaker friends are considering whether they can afford to stay in the industry.

“It’s easy to point fingers at the institutions, but then you see everyone at the institutions are stretched,” they say. “Even those places are struggling financially. As an artist, you go, when do you get to the point where you’re just creating?”

Alabanza, who grew up on a council estate, worries that theatre is shutting out other working-class voices. If they were starting out now, they might not be able to consider a career in the arts. “It’s definitely getting worse,” they say, and insist on the importance of creating paid shadowing and assisting opportunities for working-class creatives. “Otherwise we’re just going to be left with the same people saying the same stuff. And that’s not exciting for anyone.”

One thing they are excited about, however, is getting to talk about all of this stuff, on a main stage. Much of Alabanza’s work has been about their gender identity – it’s been “refreshing” to make work about class, labour, and money class instead. “I also think I had a little bit to prove – that I could be funny about other things!” they say.

But the so-called ‘trans debate’ has become so toxic in Britain that it is perhaps no wonder Alabanza has felt the need to amplify real trans experiences and perspectives. Burgerz was about a transphobic attack they experienced; Overflow was based on interviews with seven trans friends about their feelings towards bathrooms.

Setting it in a bathroom was “for impact”, they readily admit. “That’s not how I always want to write. But to have that chance to put a transwoman centre stage, in a bathroom… it forced the press to talk about us, via the art, and therefore there was a positive exploration of that topic [in the newspapers].”

Overflow at the Bush Theatre starring Reece Lyons (Sharron Wallace)
Overflow at the Bush Theatre starring Reece Lyons (Sharron Wallace)

The press is one of the main reasons that they face such consistent hostility for being trans, Alabanza believes. “I’ve been visibly gender non-conforming since 14, and my gran has never really cared. It wasn’t until the press really hammering down around the Gender Recognition Act reform [in 2018] that she suddenly started asking what bathroom I used? That was sad – but it also told me that it’s working for them.”

They also find the current divides within feminism particularly disheartening. “We’re in a space where trans people are positioned as being against feminists,” they say. But Alabanza is hoping, now, to encourage solidarity among all marginalised genders by focusing on provable and practical inequalities and injustices, rather than labels.

“The best way for me to talk about [trans rights] is to talk about material conditions – that’s how I learned about feminism, my mum talking about material conditions for women.” Rather than go into the nuances of their gender identity, Alabanza wants to raise awareness of the long waits people face to access gender identity clinics on the NHS, or how trans people can’t go to the shops without being harassed.

Not that they want to be considered an activist: although they’ve often been positioned in their career as a trans spokesperson, they’d rather speak through their work. And, as they’re discovering in Sound of the Underground, they’ve got plenty to say beyond trans issues.

Despite the show having a gender non-conforming, majority trans cast, Alabanza was keen the promotion did not emphasise that fact. Because in this case, the show is not explicitly about gender or transphobia – it just happens to be trans and non-binary folks taking the spotlight. And for Alabanza, that’s still thrilling to see: “What is great is that you’ll just see the joy we get when there are more of us.”

Sound of the Underground is at the Royal Court from January 19 to February 25; royalcourtheatre.com