What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Is gender innate or is it nurtured?
Kit Redstone writes, directs and stars in Testosterone, which tackles these age-old questions from a rather rare position – he transitioned from female to male in his early thirties.
Having experienced adult life on both sides of the gender fence, he has seen the differences there are in how he is treated by society – what he gains and what he loses by becoming a man.
However, his biggest challenge comes when he enters a male gym changing room for the first time and is confronted by masculinity in all its forms – the good, the bad and the ugly.
And this is where the acclaimed company, Rhum and Clay's darkly comic show starts.
'It’s autobiographical up to a point,' says Kit, 'but then there’s a lot of creative licence. No-one wants to read my diaries, that would just be really boring,' he laughs.
'It does use stories from my life, but it also uses fantasies and dreams and memories that are distorted. It’s all based around these three minutes that are my first entrance into a men’s changing room and a traumatic moment over a towel. Then everything else shoots off into a fantasy, then returns to this naturalistic three minutes. So it’s quite a strange play. In a way, it is autobiographical but it’s also got this magic realism and playfulness.
'But in saying that, it actually feels very liberating to tell my story to people. For me theatre is very much about a conversation between you the performer and the audience. So in all my work, I always want to foster this intimacy with storytelling and how we relate to each other. Even if the audience isn’t speaking, they’re sort of implicit in the show, in a way, as spectators.'
This is the first time the performer has directly mined his own life for a show.
I never intended to write a show about this, it just ended up this way and it was a surprise to us all. Me and the guys at Rhum and Clay just wanted to make a show about masculinity and it took its course.
'Before I transitioned I still had my own theatre company, so I was creating work for that, but nothing autobiographical, this was the first thing I had done that used this material. I don’t really think of myself as an actor, I perform in my own work and that’s about it!
'I was working an actor before I transitioned, but I found that very challenging because I didn’t really feel like a woman and didn’t understand how to portray a woman realistically.'
And as he acknowledges, there are few acting opportunities for trans people, 'and even when when there are, they tend to be played by cis-gendered actors.'
But Kit doesn't consider himself a role-model for the trans community.
'I just do what I do. I was very keen to make a show that wasn’t really to be about trans gender, but happened to have a trans protagonist –it was more about identity and masculinity in general.
'So far I think there have been a lot of trans narratives about the struggles of being trapped. Of course they are worthy and need to be told, but I want to go beyond that, so that we have trans people being flawed anti-heroes, or just being there and the focus of them as performers isn’t about them being trans, they’re just in it as performers.'
Perversely, since transitioning, Kit has gone for trans roles in others' work and had an unexpected response.
'I’ve had a few things come up where they’re looking for a trans man, and I’ve gone to these auditions and they’ve been sort of shocked – they’ve said can you look a bit more trans? Or can you sound a bit more feminine? And I’m like, that’s not how it works mate!
'There’s still a long way to go in respect of the industry understanding what trans people are.'
The show won the best theatre show award at the Pleasance 2017 and was nominated for the Peter Brook Empty Space Award 2017. What does that mean to the company?
'It felt really great that our work was being recognised. A lot of it comes down to the fact that the piece is very different to what people might expect from a narrative about these sort of issues –it is a really joyous comedy. It has some dark moments, but it’s irreverent, and it allows the audience to laugh at the absurdities of stuff. And I think when the show’s been celebrated, when it’s won awards or been shortlisted, it’s because of that – it’s because it’s refreshingly irreverent.'
One thing Kit has been discovering is the fragility of the male ego.
'Completely – and also how easy it is to aspire to be a kind of impossible man – to have this idea of masculinity that’s so far removed from reality that it’s impossible to attain – and the tragedy that all men carry around that.'
And what kind of response has the show had from cis guys?
'As far as I can tell, really good. I think a lot of it is because they’re not being preached at, or told, "Men are bad", they’re seeing it through the lens of a flawed trans man.
'As the protagonist, I am going through and making all the mistakes that all men make – idolising the wrong people, aping the wrong behaviour, doing all of these things.'
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Thursday, May 10