Michelle Read: ‘We’re very good at masking how we’re feeling’

Performer and playwright’s new work Bang! explores trans identity in a family setting

“Our family is our comfort zone, it’s where we can be ourselves. But even within that we might be hiding parts of ourselves or configuring, or figuring things out,” says playwright Michelle Read. “Nobody’s identity is in a vacuum, people are part of families, people are human. They’re living a human experience.”

Families can also be funny. And dramatic things often happen at parties. Read’s new play Bang!, in Dublin Theatre Festival next week, is described as “a drama-comedy with a big heart”. Set in the kitchen – that “slightly out-of-it space” – on the night of Marion and Adam’s 25th anniversary party, it descends into chaos as seismic events force the family to reassess things they hold true. Less a kitchen-sink drama than “a kitchen-island drama”, Read jokes. And joke she might, as the long-established performer, playwright and theatre-maker started in stand-up.

Beyond “these real things in the space, these cups and glasses and bottles, this detritus from the party and from the family’s life, accruing throughout”, is what lies beneath, elucidated by psychological gestures punctuating the action, “where the interior world snaps over for a moment” between scenes, allowing the audience in.

“Drama is a reflection of real life, but not a literal reflection. That’s what documentary does. Drama manipulates authentic ideas to try and reflect what’s going on. But how do you show what’s going on inside? We’re very good at masking how we’re feeling. That’s how we survive.”

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Among revelations rising to the surface is that daughter Kim is gay and father Adam is trans.

While consciousness of gender fluidity has gradually moved mainstream in recent years, Read actually started working on this a decade ago, initially sparked by a friendship with a trans woman and her wife. Later, moving to London for a master’s at Goldsmith’s, “a deep dive into theatre practice and dramaturgy”, led to character sketches, building further while Civic Theatre writer-in-residence, and with support from New Theatre and Fishamble, before coming up with a first draft.

Paradigm shift

In 2011, “it would have been very hard to get it produced”. Now, “there’s a lot of focus [on the subject], but not a lot of understanding. There’s very few plays. Drama takes you into personal territory. This isn’t an issues play, this is a play about a family. And if I’ve done my job right, these people seem like they’re real. There’s no soapbox. I’m not an activist, I’m a dramatist. How do people understand, deal with and move on from something that is real, that has existed in society for thousands of years. And that community of people is now more visible.” She talks about hoping for a paradigm shift coming with that increased visibility.

“Go back through history and there are different types of identity that were challenging at different times. I’m really interested in different women’s points of view and different women’s perspectives. As a writer, I’m always looking at the what-if. What if this was my experience?” She learned much from talking to trans women, and couples, about their experience. “This play has multiple voices. There are paradigm shifts in society. The shift around gay identity in Ireland over past years, it’s been a real tipping point and a real change. There’s an alcoholic character in the play, and again, I think there’s a shift around our attitude to alcoholism.”

She says, “This play is for a general audience, but also, we want the trans community to know about it, to know it’s about identity.”

Members of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni) have been involved through script development. Board member Denise Breen has been particularly generous, says Read. Her experience, and that of the many others Read has met, informed Adam/Anna.

Breen herself observes, after nearly two years involvement, sharing her life experience, reading various drafts, that “within the mechanisms of a play, it’s authentic. Obviously, it’s very condensed, because it’s happening on an evening. In reality those events portrayed would happen over months, if not years. For a play to tackle that subject, it has to have a beginning, middle and an end. By its nature, it condenses the story. Other than that, I think it’s pretty authentic, and genuine in the way it’s approaching the subject.

Multifaceted transition

“Michelle has taken on board suggestions and feedback from me and other people. It has been good. Transition takes many forms. It can be social transition, legal transition, medical transition. In real life, it’s multifaceted. The play addresses what it can within the timeframe. I can only speak from my experience; everyone’s different. Michelle would listen to me, to other people, and she would distil that down into the message she feels needs to be there.”

In very early workshops, Read recalls another friend’s feedback. “She said no, you’ve got this wrong. This isn’t the experience. And that was really positive. I had divided the role into male and female, with two actors. And she said, you’re not two people. And neither are you one person trapped inside another person. These are cliches around trying to understand. You are the one person. Your gender identity is incorrect.

“When you’re trying to create something dramatically, you’re talking to the people who are living it and trying to refine that experience, to dramatise it. That’s the skillset I bring. That’s the challenge for me as a writer, to try and do justice and find authenticity in it.

“Teni has always been really good at saying, you’re a playwright, we can’t tell you how to write a play. All we can do is offer advice on what’s authentic. It’s been really helpful.” She was pleased when, “after a workshop reading in August, Teni chair Sara Phillips said the script I’m hearing, it’s entertaining, it’s informative and it feels authentic. We have to keep working to that, because it’s one thing hearing a script read and it’s another thing seeing it up on the floor.”

Breen says she discussed what she calls “the pendulum effect” with Read. “When people first come out, they swing towards a, in the case of trans women, a kind of hyper-femininity, in case of trans men, hyper-masculinity. Because you haven’t had that socialisation growing up. That pendulum eventually swings back and settles into a place of normality. They’re difficult topics to talk about. Michelle spoke to my own wife Ciara to understand a partner’s perspective, and how relationships survive these events. I can see echoes of those conversations in there.”

Particular ‘resonances’

Bang! isn’t Denise Breen’s story, “and I don’t know of any trans person, either male or female, who would have come out in that fashion. Because it’s the mechanism of the play.”  She's looking forward to seeing it, and also “curious what The Irish Times is going to say about it”, she says, though she may not see this, since she has cancelled her subscription due to what she sees as “the homophobic and transphobic nature” of pieces published by the newspaper.

Read stresses “everybody is absolutely individual but I think for any group, there are resonances around particular things. And some of those resonances are around coming out, particularly as an older person” when you’ve had another identity for years . “People change. It is very difficult, but it’s mostly difficult, obviously, for the people who are closest to you. It doesn’t really impact anybody else.”

She comes back to family. The developments in the play are serious, but “they happen in a real family, and that family happens to be very loving and actually quite functional. That’s one of the reasons Anna has stayed in male presentation for so long, because she’s part of this team.” Things have changed, but “she’s part of this family and this family is good, and this family works”.