Travis Alabanza: 'I'm Chain Smoking My Way Through All This'

The theatre maker on their new show, Overflow, and "making staying inside as fun as possible" during lockdown.
Travis Alabanza speaks to HuffPost UK about their new show Overflow opening at the Bush Theatre
Travis Alabanza speaks to HuffPost UK about their new show Overflow opening at the Bush Theatre

In What Works For Me – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to celebrities about wellbeing and self-care.

The public bathroom, with all its potential for intimacy and heartache and filth, has become a microcosm for the conversation around trans people in the UK. It is also the subject matter – and setting – of Overflow, a new show by writer and theatre maker Travis Alabanza at the newly reopened Bush Theatre in London

In 2017, Alabanza themselves (the writer identifies as non-binary and use they/them pronouns) was subjected to discrimination when told not to use the female changing rooms in a high street clothing shop. Only a year earlier, a passer-by shouted transphobic abuse and hurled a burger at them – the prompt for Alabanza’s most famous show to date, Burgerz, which was, in their own words, “trying to work through that trauma, and figure out how to get over it.”

Overflow stars relative newcomer Reece Lyons, 21, as Rosie, a young trans woman trapped in a bathroom while the toilet floods. The bathroom is the symbol, Alabanza tells HuffPost UK, of “how venomous the conversation around public space can be.” Some trans people develop urinary tract infections because they are too fearful of using public toilets while out and about for fear of being physically or verbally attacked, says the playwright.

“Instead of the media consistency talking about us, I wanted to create a show where we’re talking for ourselves,” Alabanza reflects. “To look at what it means to kick people out of public space based on body parts and not identity – and how that creates a slippery slope for feminism.”

In 2017, Alabanza did a TEDx talk, Who is allowed to be a victim?, about violence, silence and public space in relation to transness. The issues are no less relevant in this pandemic year of lockdown, social distancing and isolation.

“After the first lockdown, I went outside for the first time and I was harrassed,” Alabanza says. “And it hit differently. We’re two metres apart but we can still break those rules just to cause harm.” Alabanza says they avoid using bathrooms in gendered public spaces because they “can’t be bothered for the debate to happen in real time about my body”. But the writer performer has a habit of sidelining themselves during interviews to paint a wider picture. What’s more important than how I feel as an individual is that the statistics are there to show how trans people have been treated nationally,” Alabanza says.

According to a recent report by the BBC, trans hate crimes have quadrupled over the past five years in the UK. At the same time, trans people have been the subject of endless public conversation. “We’re seeing in countless, countless debates, whether that be from inside the Labour party or whether that be from Liz Truss, our equalities minister, trans people always feel like the talking point.”

Overflow is the writer’s way of moving that conversation on.

Performer Reece Lyons
Performer Reece Lyons

Reece Lyons was cast from an open call for trans women and this is her first leading role. “We’re so excited to cast Reece because I feel so often, you know, trans people aren’t given the main part or the main stage to have a story,” says Alabanza. “Although this is about the negative side of being trans, there’s so much that’s positive about this story being on the stage as well.”

Not to mention a healthy dose of toilet humour. Bathrooms have a surprisingly jovial role in Alabanza’s pre-pandemic life. “So many funny things naturally happen in the bathroom [of queer venues], so it’d be silly for me not to get a toilet gag in there somewhere,” they say, admitting they miss clubbing – a lot.

Writing Overflow was “a great chance to explore all the hilarious times you have in club bathrooms, all the joy,” they say. “You wouldn’t find a gendered toilet in any of the clubs I go to,” Alabanza adds, citing east London establishments like the Dalston Superstore. In these spaces, they feel not only safe but free.

“We’re less worried about what we were assigned at birth and more worried about who’s got the right lip liner, who’s got a party favour.”

“Although this is about the negative side of being trans, there’s so much that's positive about this story being on the stage as well.”

- Travis Alabanza, theatre maker

It’s not only clubs Alabanza misses: they also lament the creative spark ignited by working in person with cast and crew in non-pandemic times. “I make theatre because I enjoy hanging out with people and having laughs – it’s hard to go from a Zoom production meeting to just being in your room on your own,” they say. “I’ve only met the team virtually online, I haven’t been able to even have a cigarette with Reece. I’m definitely missing emotionally some of the other aspects which I’ve realised are so important to making work.”

Lockdown life has been about “staying inside but making staying inside as fun as possible”. Alabanza is currently living in Bristol with a flatmate – they share a balcony for smoking. “We watch loads of movies or dress up, or do make up looks on each other. I’m definitely chain smoking my way through all this and watching loads of reality TV. Trying to eat good, enjoy meals.

“I’m very lucky in lots of ways in the position I’m in... It’s the greatest distraction game I’ve ever played. I’m not doing sourdoughs or anything like that.”

Having toured their award-winning production of Burgerz internationally for two years, the pandemic has been a sharp U-turn for Alabanza – but work has been relatively steady. In the early stages, they wrote a play for Paines Plough’s digital season. Another thing to emerge from lockdown is a newsletter – now they can’t tour, Alabanza calls it “a way of connecting to an international audience”.

It’s also a response to an unhealthy relationship with social media that was developing in lockdown.

“I noticed I was looking for something – I haven’t looked for something on social media for a long time but during lockdown I was looking for something and it didn’t feel good. I don’t know if it was affirmation: I was looking for instant gratification and this feels off, so let me find a different space to connect.”

Alabanza has an impressive 70,000 followers on Instagram – would they ever give them up? “I enjoy posting my selfies too much to get off it,” they say, “but I’ve reduced screen time. I’m trying to figure out which apps to knock it down.”

With some theatres back open, and the London run of Overflow this month, Alabanza may regain some of that real-time contact they find so helpful for creativity – maybe conversations over drinks in the socially-distanced bar or finally having that after-show cigarette with Reece to find out where the story of trans representation will go next.

Overflow sounds well-suited to TV – a story in something of the same vein as I May Destroy You, in the sense that it aims to be an authentic portrayal of what it’s like to go through trauma. “My first love is theatre, I feel really comfortable in theatre right now, but of course I always think about impact,” says Alabanza of TV’s reach, admitting that some of the bathroom scenes from Michaela Coel’s show were in their mind when writing Overflow.

“You can get in the homes of so many people and we haven’t had that in the UK yet for something around transness, and gender non-conforming characters. We’ve guest-spotted but we haven’t had our show. It’s definitely something I think about: I’ve got some ideas up my belt.”

But Alabanza feels no rush. Perhaps reality TV and chain smoking is, after all, coping mechanism enough right now. “I’m still 25,” they conclude. “What this time has taught me is just to enjoy the pace that I’m at.”

Overflow is at the Bush Theatre, London until January 16 2021.