Rebecca Hill, Director of Travesti, tells me that she wishes that she had “had a light-bulb moment, but it was more of a dawning realisation that there are these stories that are no longer noteworthy to women because they’re so common.” It made her wonder what would happen if she put the real-life experiences of everyday women, from being cat-called to being groped in a club, into the mouths of an ensemble of six male actors. Travesti, a verbatim play created from interviews with a number of women, is Hill’s exploration of this. “It’s very much just storytelling. It’s a normal person telling you about something that’s happened to them, and about what it is to be a woman in this world for them”.
She has explored subject matter that “people listen to and then shut down. You skim over it on your twitter feed and it becomes kind of white noise. It feels too big to be able to solve”. By making it into a piece of theatre, Hill hopes that it will be more accessible and make more of an impact. “It is a funny show and I hope that people will be able to laugh along with it so that when the more important things hit it does pull the rug out from under them a little bit”.
Creating a play with feminist messages and an all-male cast may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but Hill assures me that “that’s part of the point. We cast very conventionally attractive white males. It was a difficult choice to make, but I thought that it was important to recreate the kind of aesthetic that you tend to see in women’s magazines. The female models that you see are all tall, incredibly slim, with very similar features. It’s the same with our actors – we wanted to get that kind of boy band, ‘this is what a man is supposed to look like’ feel to Travesti.” This reinforces the idea that women are often expected to fit within a certain mould or act a certain way, but it also opens up the show to a new audience. In general, perhaps, people with feminist views will go to see feminist plays – we watch what we’re already interested in. But Dominic Attenborough, a member of the cast of six males, tells me that Travesti “is not a preachy play. No one’s standing on stage shouting or accusing people of being sexist”, with Hill adding, “we’re part of this society, and if we’re just women shouting at other women we’re not changing anything. We’re just preaching to the choir. But if it’s men on stage performing it and then you get to the end and wonder ‘well why the hell couldn’t women have played those roles?’ then that’s exactly the point.”
In its development stages, Travesti has already seemed to be accessible to a new audience, and Hill tells me that “there have been a surprising amount of men watching, and a lot of the audience’s laughter has been male.” She herself laughs as she recalls that “afterwards men wanted to talk for literally three hours with me about body hair, and the disparity surrounding that.” Attenborough’s also displaying his own altered perceptions after only one rehearsal. He tells me that “it’s really alarming to think that my friends who are female go through these things possibly on a daily basis. It’s giving people a voice. We want to do these people justice and not misrepresent them.”
Hill’s doing what she set out to do – making people discuss and wonder – accompanied only by a script that was formed from ordinary women’s stories, six actors, and six mirrors. “The mirrors seem to capture the essence of the play. It’s about reflection, in both senses of the word, and it seemed to be about these characters looking at themselves but also holding a mirror up to the audience. I did have an idea in the beginning to have washing machines”, Hill confesses, “because I wanted to get those stereotypically ‘feminine’ items in there, but I’ve managed to incorporate those in other ways.”
The voices that the actors are taking on are those of around ten women, interviewed by Hill. “We put a couple of ads online. We had a great deal of response. Some people contacted us who didn’t want to share their stories but just wanted to let us know that they really supported what we were doing”, Hill tells me, while others were ready to tell all. “I asked them very short questions and let them talk for ten minutes. It was a provocative question.” Even this interviewing process was a learning curve for Hill, as she reveals that “it was fascinating how many of the women answered things in exactly the same way with the same words.” Though the stories themselves were familiar, the women’s reactions to their experiences served to shock. “It makes you think – she’s talking about something really horrible but she’s laughing as she’s doing it. Laughing is such a natural defence mechanism.”
Travesti will be heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year and Hill recognises that it’s emerging at a good time – “it does feel like society’s in a really transitional period. It feels like something’s brewing, something’s going to change for the better.”
Travesti will be at the Edinburgh Fringe from 30 July to 25 August. For more information and tickets visit the EdFringe website.