Saturday, March 03, 2018

After the show: 50 Years Before The Frock

Publicity Shot Cornwall Park 10 days before opening.
It shows the staging I used for the show recreated outdoors.

I did my laundry this morning and as I hung the three red tops & three pairs of black trousers I wore on stage (one pair each night) I decided it was time to record my feelings and discoveries about the initial run of my one woman show 50 Years Before The Frock. Initially I called it "50 Years Before The Dress" but Frock worked better for me.

The show is about the 53 years between my first questioning of my gender identity and the first time I publicly performed comedy as myself, Julia.

The genesis of the show was two documents I did in 2017 for two different purposes reviewing / recording different aspects of my life history. The first was a timeline of my transgender awareness & transition I made for my counsellor at Auckland Sexual Health. While doing this I recalled an event I hadn't thought about for decades, the time as a four year old I first questioned my gender identity, this was the toy's tea party near the start of the show. The second was recording my pre-transition sexual & relationship history as part of researching for a two person comedy show that was unsuccessfully pitched to the NZ International Comedy festival. The blue and pink bins connecting metaphor came out of discussions with the other person. She used the term at one point and it stuck in my mind.

With this material there were quite a few funny stories and I had thoughts of turning what wasn't used in the two person show into a solo comedy show, but there was also a large amount of material that wasn't a good fit for comedy. I decided to pitch for doing this show at the Auckland Fringe Festival. At that stage I thought I would be able to write the show so it was funny and based on writing up some of the easier bits I thought that would work. The process has taught me a number of things. I'm recording them here largely for my own future reference, but maybe they will be useful for others.

First Learning: Understand what you will be doing

My initial plan was to do the show as comedy. I'm a comedian, it's how I understand performing spaces then I realised I needed to talk about people who have died and things that have made me angry. At this point I changed the pitch to say it wouldn't be comedy but would mostly be funny.  I did this because the first bits I wrote were funny, they were the easiest to write. As finally delivered it was more a personal memoir with funny bits. I wish I'd pitched it as such.

Second Learning: Write the hard bits first

When I started writing I intended the show to be funny. I wrote up some of the emotionally easier bits and based on that it looked like an achievable goal. With the easy 15 minutes out of the way I turned to some of the more challenging parts & discovered I shouldn't try to make them funny. The hardest were my involvement in the gay scene, not going to meet Pam when she visited Wellington and the death of my friend from AIDS. In retrospect if I'd started with them I would have known much sooner what I was dealing with. Perhaps that would have frightened me off doing the show but I hope I would have continued and it would have made my pitches and advertising more accurate.

Third Learning: Make multiple pitches.

I pitched 50 Years after the two person show had been rejected by the Comedy Festival. This put me under time pressure for registering for the Fringe. The festival is uncurated and works on a basis of "find a venue then register your show" I wrote a document outlining my plans for the show and sent it off to two venues. Verity George at Garnet Station got back to me in a very few hours and suggested we meet at the cafe that evening. We agreed I'd do my show there on a handshake. The other venue never responded. Had Verity not wanted my show, I would have been under even worse time pressure. In retrospect I should have started pitching my show earlier & to more venues.

Fourth Learning: Previews

Preview at Breaking Bounds.
Performing in a skirt as I normally do for comedy.
I realised later that as 90% of the show is pre-transition,
I should do it in trousers.
Once I had written the opening six or seven minutes I previewed it at three quite different open mic nights: Lucky Finns in Hamilton for a pub comedy night audience, Gong on K-Road for a more artistic crowd and Breaking Bounds, a queer and trans night. It went down well at all three. This meant that I understood that part of the show much better than the others.

I should have done previews of other segments, even if I had to give a brief prologue to place it in context.

Another mistake was that I didn't have my fliers done yet. They really must be done earlier in the development cycle.

The tee shirt I'm wearing has the show's website URL on it.  I'm not sure how useful that was. In retrospect one with the poster on it or even a QR code would have been better.

Fifth Learning: Get the visual images right.

One of the things I needed to give the Festival was a set of "Hero" images in various sizes and also to be used for posters and fliers.
Second collage design
As I was telling a story covering decades my initial thought was to do a collage of photos over various parts of my life. Under time pressure I came up with this design. The first cut was a bit rough and at the suggestion of the Festival people I cleaned it up a bit. The more I looked at it the less I liked it, aside from visual design issues, it started after most of the story I was going to tell. Eventually Tessa & I went out to find some nice natural light and backdrop. After looking at a few places we got to Cornwall Park and driving around we found a few suitable locations to do a fresh series of photos.
Cast tea break
Tessa took most of the photos on her cellphone, I may have taken one or two of the ones I wasn't in.

The first was of the tea party with a stone block structure in the background. I like this photo but once again was only representational of a very small part of the story. My storage bin and handbag in the background are concealing that this is taken on top of the public toilet in the park. There's a toilet sign behind them.
Ollie across two bins.
Here's a fun shot from later in the afternoon showing the bins. As the bins are the central connecting metaphor of the show it fitted, but it was hardly a "Hero" shot.

None of these are really right and I was becoming increasingly aware that the frock itself needed to be the hero of the image so we started taking photos involving the frock in a number of settings.

The first attempt was a simple shot of the dress without me in the photo,
The frock in Cornwall park
but a frock on its own did not tell enough of a story, so I added other characters.
Hesketh tries out the frock
This is a busy shot. I like Hesketh, but putting him in the frock was a stylistic mistake. Some days later I came to see that it had to be this photo of me with the frock and our poster image was born. Sorry Heskie.

One change I would make is to add a QR code for the website into the image.

Poster / flier image.
From the photo shoot in Cornwall Park

Sixth Learning: Get the videos right.

Unused promotional video in Cornwall Park.
It shows the staging I used for the show recreated outdoors.
Short videos (under 30 seconds) are supposed to be a great promotional tool. While we were doing the photo shoot in Cornwall park we also recorded a couple of brief promotional videos. Unfortunately the wind on the microphone made the sound effectively unusable.

The other mistake we made was that to use the video as the cover photo on Facebook it needs to be landscape. Doh!

Another time I'll record the videos inside with good lighting in both portrait and landscape.

Seventh Learning: I can't act.

When performing as a comedian I don't memorise my jokes word-for-word, I know their structure, but I change the exact words. It helps keep it fresh for me & convince the audience that it really is a conversation. I've helped people in plays learn their lines enough times that I didn't think I could just memorise someone else's words and deliver them convincingly. I did think I could do it with my own words. I had a script I'd written and learned but every time I rehearsed the more fake it sounded to me.

In a bold move, three hours before the first show I tore up the script and wrote a set of bullet points. I performed to them, after the first show I significantly revised that list with minor tweaks after the the second. Obviously some of the script ended up being used but I was now free to use my own words of the moment to keep it fresh. On the one night I did wander off track a bit.

Eighth Learning: Trust myself

When talking about coming out at work I told a couple of anecdotes involving two former co-workers, one that accelerated my coming out when a coworker noticed my ears were pierced and the other about how I was suddenly seen as less technically able just because my buttons were on the other side. On the final night they were both in the audience (I'd had dinner with them at the venue so I knew they had arrived). I debated if I should delete these anecdotes but decided they were important enough to the story to leave in. Neither of them were offended, and it was quite funny that after the show one of them was discussing it with Tessa when an other audience member looked surprised & asked her if she was the earring lady. Smiles all round.

A transgender friend of mine tells a little joke about the difference between transvestite (TV) & transgender TG that when they come home a TV will put on a bra while a TG tears the uncomfortable thing off and throws it away in disgust. I decided to tell that joke and on the 2nd night I was wearing a strapless bra so decided slightly before hand to actually do it. Went down a treat so I repeated on the 3rd night.

It's not all positive, I have a not-at-all-nice joke about the medical establishment's attitude to intersex people in the 1960s & 70s. I'd never perform it on stage in a comedy context, but for some unknown reason I suddenly inserted it into the first night. I knew before doing it that it was a mistake but I did it anyway.  Never again.

Ninth Learning: Audience feedback can catch you unprepared

Apparently I'm very brave discussing this stuff. I don't see it that way. It was part of my life, it happened and it contributed to who I am now. Additionally, if I just told the good stuff it would be a very boring show and I have to stay awake on stage for the full hour.

I was expecting questions about  a couple of taboo subjects, my genitalia and birth name. I have pre-prepared answers explaining why I won't answer those questions, luckily I didn't need to use them.

Although I do discuss relationships from 1998 and earlier, I don't talk about more recent ones other than acknowledging Tessa, my wife, but don't talk about the 11 years we were together before I came out to her.  I would regard that as a privacy issue unless I carefully cleared what I was going to say. I wasn't expecting to get challenged on this decision yet I was.

Finally I got asked how I chose the name Julia. I wasn't expecting it but the story's simple enough and harmless enough to tell. The trouble it's also pretty mundane so I wouldn't bother telling it on stage. The moment you start to transition people want to know what your new name is, so it was a bit of a rush job.


I definitely made some mistakes. Most of them were minor but not actually knowing at the start what the show was going to be and  being very late with promotion, especially not having an acceptable hero image until almost the end were killers.

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