Dirty Work: It’s Not You, It’s Them.

The Theatre Commissioner, clad in New Balances, asks to meet you in a gentrified coffee shop in Deptford and says the word diversity.

The Gallery Curator for live events, who has come barefoot to your meeting to show that they are relatable, is about to say the word inspiring.

The Artistic director of a performance building, who has mistaken you for the other Black queer artist they commissioned last year, exclaims the word transformative.

For a long time in my emerging practice, before putting on the show I always wanted to, these were the words I’d hear most often from the performance world about the kind of thing they were now looking for. The last five years have seen more mainstream institutions suddenly deciding that programming “diverse” work brings in a “diverse” audience and therefore diversifies their income stream. To them, it is a business choice. We, the artists, have brought them money and relevance, financial and social capital. On the surface, we should be celebrating that, in the the last five years, the UK performance world has seen an increase in work made by artists who are not straight/cisgender/white. Queer takeovers of museums, touring works of Black reimaginings of British classics – although this work has always existed –there’s no denying there has been a certain boom around our sub-cultures. Yet I wonder if under the surface of what seems like a changing landscape or shifting in power, the same structures are still in place underneath. I started to wonder: under what conditions are they happy for us to exist, and, if I change the way my work is presented, will the gallery curator of live events still want to have a barefoot meeting with me? If the work became less about my identity, my problems, my overcoming, my personal growth – but instead about theirs, I found that the work then became tainted, harder to touch, a bit dirty.

Dirty work asks the artist to turn the gaze back on the establishment. Dirty work does not require me to change but rather for you to. Dirty work does not focus on my personal overcoming of obstacles, but rather your need to shift structures. Dirty work makes racism not my individual experience, but rather your collective action. Dirty work does not require my trauma but could in fact be briefly traumatic for you. Dirty work pushes you but maybe does not push me as much. Dirty work does not require me to be likeable for it to be seen. Dirty work is less about how I learned to love myself, and more about when you learned how to hate me. Dirty work does not care about whether I love myself or not. Dirty work does not focus on whether I am ok with being trans, but focuses on how you came to not be ok with it. Dirty work may cause you more discomfort than it does me. Dirty work may leave you more exhausted than me. Dirty work sees you as the other character in the room, not just me. Dirty work is not just focussed on the I; it has everything to do with you.

Burgerz recently finished a UK and European tour, and would have been on an international tour right now. At the last show in London, a sold-out showing at Southbank centre, sitting in the third row were three artistic directors of three buildings who rejected the show in 2017. One had said the work was too “uncertain for them right now”, the other had said “the script felt isolating” and the other mentioned “I felt it could polarise the audience”. All of this could be valid feedback. All of this also could be a fear of what happens when I begin to make dirty work: Work without clear cuts, work that is not always right, work that has the risk not just placed on me. What I mean to say is that often they are comfortable when the work can be challenging, transformative, and thought provoking – but only if the challenges and transformation and thought is subjected to the artist. The spotlight must remain solely fixed where they can see it, never on themselves.

I want to make more work they consider dirty. I am guilty of sanitising more things than just my hands. It is so easy to fall into the pressures of demand and supply. Yet I have to try and remember that often when things are seen as dirty it is because they hold a powerful truth. I need to remember: if it feels dirty to them, it may be the cleanest thing I could have possibly produced.

Travis Alabanza is a performer, writer and theatre maker based in the UK. In 2019 they performed their smash-hit solo show, Burgerz, at London’s Southbank Centre.