“So here’s my confession.
Two years ago, if you’d ask me what I thought of Catherine McGregor, you may well have received a lengthy and self-righteous ear-bashing about any number of issues – “she’s involved in the military, she didn’t support Safe Schools, she likes Tony Abbott, she did this, she said that, I heard that she blah blah blah …”
Two weeks ago I met Cate for the first time during her visit to the rehearsal room for Still Point Turning: the Catherine McGregor Story.
We greeted each other, shook hands, she showed us all some cricket moves, and I all but dissolved into tears of respect and gratitude.
This extreme character development can definitely be attributed in part to my evolution from “baby activist” to “adult human capable of engaging with nuance” but it has a lot more to do with the transformative experience of working on this play.
It has both corrected some of my misconceptions, and broadened my appreciation for diverse opinions within my own community.
It has also frequently reflected my own experiences back at me in ways that have surprised me.
As the Assistant Director on this show I’ve been in the unique and exciting position of straddling both the theatrical sphere and the political one.
My role in this production has included keeping track of script changes, developing elements of the show’s multimedia content, and helping to facilitate discussions on gender, identity, the complexities of trans life and politics, and representation.
But I’ve also had to do my own fair share of learning – and not just about cricket and warfare.
Because I have been so changed by this process, I wanted to use this opportunity to share some of the insights I’ve gained in getting to know Cate, and Priscilla, and in working with this wonderful team.
“Why use tables and chairs when we can have a unicorn?”: bringing fantasy to queer biography, and laughing with tragedy
That quote is something that was passed on to me by Still Point Turning’s director, Priscilla Jackman, who was quoting our designer Michael Scott Mitchell. In other words: “why be pragmatic, when you could dream something more?”
The creation of this script, and its rehearsal process, have employed a verbatim methodology. Almost every word in the show is taken directly from interviews with Cate, with small amounts taken from people in her life, the media, and (of course) a healthy smattering of Twitter.
In this sense the script has endeavoured to present an accurate and authentic representation of Cate McGregor’s life; in her words, from her heart, and in her image. The pursuit of truth is a unifying goal in most documentary theatre.
However, the show is by no means verbatim or documentary theatre in its style and execution.
Concerned as it is with the relationship between the past and present – how they influence each other, how we see our former selves, how we evaluate a life in all its highs and lows – it would be closer to the mark to call it something like a memory play.
Moments from the past play out equally in dreamlike wonder and nightmare-ish horror – not “verity” in the objective sense, perhaps, but speaking to a truth about the way we amplify memories of the significant moments of our lives.
For me this has been particularly inspiring in the context of queer storytelling. In a lot of queer and/or trans media representation tends towards a dogged pursuit of the cold (and often tragic) truth of an experience.
If you look just at cinema, a large number of the queer and trans films that have garnered acclaim in the past few decades have been based on true stories: The Danish Girl, The Imitation Game, Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, Boys Don’t Cry, Freeheld, I Am Michael.
This is all well and good, but can become restrictive when we consider that what this trend says is that there’s no room for young queer people to dream, to fantasise, to engage in escapism. We need these things because, like anyone, we rely on dream and fantasy to pull us through our struggles.
What has delighted me in this show’s process has been the constant elements of play and fantasy.
How can we bring these moments to life as vividly as possible?
How can we bring magic and joy to a story that, like many trans lives, has more than its fair share of suffering?
How can we inject humour and hope into a story that, in someone else’s hands, may have become a tragedy?
For me, one of the most powerful acts of reclamation in the face of trauma and oppression is to be able to laugh – not at, but with – your tragedy. There’s no bitterness to this show, none of the caustic sneering that is so easy to develop when you exist outside of society’s conventions. We laugh, because otherwise we’d cry, and we dream because otherwise we’d die.
“A generational thing”: Forbearance and intra-community tension
One of the unexpected lessons I’ve taken from this show is how, in general, but especially in LGBTQI communities, we need to stop burning our bridges with our cultural ancestors.
In queer and trans communities, and indeed many marginalised communities, we have little time for those among us whose opinions and politic we deem “outdated” or ill-informed.
Fighting misinformation, ignorance and hostility in our day to day lives, forced to explain ourselves and vouch for our own existence with every other person we meet, we become fighters, defensive, always ready to avert crisis and assert ourselves. And so when one of our own says something we don’t agree with, it’s often hard to stop ourselves from lashing out just as harshly.
And that gets dangerous when we forget that these people are not immune to those selfsame daily aggressions.
We wash our hands of Caitlyn Jenner when she confirms her Republicanism or says she thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman, call her a “traitor” and “embarrassment”, loudly proclaim that she might as well be cis for all she belongs in our spaces when she is still subject to hatred and sensationalism on a daily basis.
We decry RuPaul Charles without a second thought to how cultures and discourses change over time, without so much as a nod to the many contributions she’s made to queer culture and community.
Or we sit idly by while someone like Cate McGregor is torn to pieces by right wing media, not wading in to support her because she has differing opinions to us.
I’m not saying that any of the above opinions are necessarily valid or correct, nor that I agree with them. But I do think we can stand to have a little more generosity when our queer and trans forbears say things that make us wince.
The problem is that queer and trans communities are not, cannot be, and should not be communities with homogenous views. The problem is that the people within queer and trans communities who we shun are often people of older generations, who went through the wringer of oppression before we did – often before we were born.
We forget, though, that many of these people are still in the trenches with us, fighting to be seen as equals same as us.
They’re people like Cate McGregor, Caitlyn Jenner, Kate Bornstein, RuPaul – people who have made their contributions and thrashed against the system.
They’re the incredibly brave trans women of colour who were instrumental in the Stonewall riots, or the gay and lesbian trailblazers who were arrested at the first Mardi Gras in ‘78.
They’re people who have experiences we can stand to learn from, or gain perspective from – and they’re people who, regardless political and discursive disagreements, we owe it to, because they fought the battles that have allowed us to fight these ones.
“Not your poster girl”: Responsibility and individuality
The truth is, it really matters that this is Cate McGregor’s story and not A Trans Story™.
In the play, Cate McGregor says, “if people know I’m trans, fantastic … but I’m not going to be a poster girl just because people want me to be.” And that points to a very real problem in the way we regard minorities and their stories.
There’s certain unfair expectations we put on any public figure who belongs to a marginalised group – we demand that they exemplify the most au courant ideals and goals of that group, that they are politically engaged but not angry, that they challenge the status quo, but not too much, and – sometimes worst of all – that they are emotionally available, all the time, to be and perform their identity for our own benefit or comfort.
The same goes for minority storytelling – which is something I’ve already spoken about at length for Audrey.
And hell, I’m the first to admit that I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking in the past and, as I’ve already confessed, I’m guilty of this kind of thinking about Cate herself once upon a time (though I’m endlessly relieved I’ve never taken that anger to social media, as I suspect I’d really be eating it now if I had).
And so we come to the inherent paradox of minority storytelling.
What audiences want is oppressed people telling stories from their own lived experience. But they also want stories that reflect the dominant views and political goals of the oppressed group being represented by the individual. We don’t give public figures a choice before we declare them a spokesperson for their identity. We don’t even wait for someone to identify as political before we politicise their entire existence.
It matters that this is Cate’s story, because it matters that Cate’s life is not defined in its whole by her trans status. She is a writer, and a cricketer, and a fighter. She’s worked in politics, journalism, the military, and at the David Jones perfume counter (to name just a few).
She’s a Clint Eastwood buff, and can recite whole sections of Henry V. She is outspoken, and funny, and – for me – as fascinating for the ways in which we differ as the ways we are the same.
If this were just a Trans Story™ (anodyne, stripped of complexity, pre-packaged to be the most palatable form of transgender identity we think people can handle) then we would lose everything that makes the trans bit worth telling. No identity exists in a vacuum, and no person should be reduced to the label with which they identify.
It’s wrong to expect any story about a trans person to act as a shorthand for every trans experience, and it’s reductive to operate under the assumption that minority stories should be held to such absurd standards of respectability politics.
We should embrace nuance, and complexity, and the murky questions that arise when we delve beyond the surface of identity politics. That’s where change happens, but it’s also where the fun is.
“A story about survival”
When I saw Priscilla’s Rough Draft workshop of what was then called Something for Cate in 2016, I could never have imagined the impact this production would one day have on me. I was a very different person then – a harder, colder person, quick to cynicism about any media claiming to represent trans and gender diverse identities.
I was terrified by the ways I myself might be perceived to “break rank”, and fall short of the expectations placed on trans people.
I was lost, and I was in such pain, and anguish, and felt such loneliness. And I’m endlessly grateful for every person and experience since then that has helped shape who I am today, because it’s those moments that have allowed me to survive.
On Wednesday morning, Cate visited the rehearsal room one last time to wish us well as we enter the final stages of this process. She spoke to the fact that, in her mind, the show has already succeeded. “I grew up in small town Queensland, and now my name’s on the back of buses all over Sydney”, she said.
That her story will be seen by people who will find hope and support in it – that a major Arts company is staging a work about people like Cate – people like me – people who, for the longest time, were depicted as subhuman – means that, in her words “we’ve already won”.
“My story is about survival,” Cate told us. It’s about a journey of learning and loving and living that has not yet ended. It’s about getting hit, and coming back for that to strive again. It’s about the choice to keep going, despite the burden of constant suffering, because to be able to live comfortably and authentically as yourself is worth any struggle.
I’ve relieved some of my darkest hours and most world-shifting moments in this room, and I’ve been reminded of the strength it takes to survive.
I can think of nothing I would want more to show myself two years ago, and I know this production will be that same kind of beacon to those who need it now.
Charles O’Grady is the Assistant Director on Still Point Turning: the Catherine McGregor Story by Priscilla Jackman, which recounts the life of cricket commentator, military strategist, and trans woman Cate McGregor.